EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Every August, scientists gather in Stockholm to participate in World Water Week and discuss the various issues related to water.

Water is as necessary to life as breath. This year in the United States, the lack of rain has resulted in drought conditions throughout the Corn Belt that, combined with excessive heat, will drastically reduce the U.S. corn harvest. According to Lester Brown, the drop could be roughly 100 million tons or 30 percent of the expected harvest.

In some parts of the Midwest, homeowners are turning on their taps and getting nothing but air as the water tables have so precipitously dropped. More intense droughts and heat waves are likely as the Earth’s temperature rises.

With regard to agricultural water use, Lester Brown has long been talking about the need for a major push to raise the level of water productivity. Two decades ago, he said that a shortage of water was the most underreported threat to civilization.

Here is some of what he writes on the subject (from Chapter 2 of World on the Edge)

The global water deficit is a product of the tripling of water demand over the last half-century coupled with the worldwide spread of powerful diesel and electrically driven pumps. Only since the advent of these pumps have farmers had the pumping capacity to pull water out of aquifers faster than it is replaced by precipitation.

As the world demand for food has soared, millions of farmers have drilled irrigation wells to expand their harvests. In the absence of government controls, far too many wells have been drilled. As a result, water tables are falling and wells are going dry in some 20 countries, including China, India, and the United States—the three countries that together produce half the world’s grain.

The overpumping of aquifers for irrigation temporarily inflates food production, creating a food production bubble, one that bursts when the aquifer is depleted. Since 40 percent of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land, the potential shrinkage of the supply of irrigation water is of great concern. Among the big three grain producers, roughly a fifth of the U.S. grain harvest comes from irrigated land. For India, the figure is three fifths and for China, roughly four fifths. …

There are two rather scary dimensions of the emerging worldwide shortage of irrigation water. One is that water tables are falling in many countries at the same time. The other is that once rising water demand climbs above the recharge rate of an aquifer, the excess of demand over sustainable yield widens with each passing year. This means that the drop in the water table as a result of overpumping is also greater each year. Since growth in the demand for water is typically exponential, largely a function of population growth, the decline of the aquifer is also exponential. What starts as a barely noticeable annual drop in the water table can become a rapid fall.

Lester believes we may have already reached “peak water,” a concept similar to peak oil. To punctuate his words, earlier this month, a report was released showing that the world’s groundwater is being depleted faster than it can be replenished. See also.

You can find more information about what the Institute has to say on this subject in Lester’s forthcoming book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, which you can pre-order today.

Other articles of interest.


Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 08/29 at 09:00 AM

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

We’ve had our own Olympic training happening here at the Institute over the past seven months. We’ve been doing the program vault, the training stretch, the program toss, the program install, the question put, the data marathon, etc.The victory lap!

This past week has been the relay run as we’ve carried the torch from one programmer to another until the EPI team carried it across the finish line.

And the winners are EPI’s new mobile website and a sparkling new shopping cart!  ... Take them out for a spin!

Medals go to the teams at Provoc, Sentrien, and our own intrepid crew of Millicent Johnson, Julianne Simpson, and Kristina Taylor (who passed the torch to Julianne early this year).

This victory comes at an especially exciting time as we are now accepting pre-orders for Lester Brown’s new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity—a huge EPI team effort.

Now on to the next challenge!


Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 07/26 at 12:00 PM

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

FISH TANK: A Fable For Our Times (125 pages) by Scott Bischke is a creative and entertaining story for all ages. It is an innovative take on a very real and serious problem, climate change. The book takes place in Professor Brown’s aquarium where an assorted group of sea creatures are left for a year while he is on sabbatical and the person responsible for caring for them shirks his duty. Faced with finite resources and looming scarcity, the creatures must make tough decisions for their survival.

Fish Tank neatly symbolizes current human attitudes on climate change and global degradation, including greed vs. altruism. There are the scientists who try to educate the others on what will happen if they continue with business as usual, the selfish taking more than their share, and the skeptical who confuse the truth. The story illustrates the importance of getting involved, becoming a part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.  Whether you are interested in environment awareness or not, Fish Tank is a quick and original read that everyone can enjoy.

THE END OF GROWTH: Adapting to our New Economic Reality is by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. Economists insist that recovery is at hand, yet unemployment remains high, real estate values continue to sink, and governments stagger under record deficits. In The End of Growth,  Heinberg says that humanity has reached a fundamental turning point in its economic history: the expansionary trajectory of industrial civilization is colliding with non-negotiable natural limits.

Heinberg goes to the heart of the ongoing financial crisis, explaining how and why it occurred, and what we must do to avert the worst potential outcomes. Written in an engaging, highly readable style, The End of Growth describes what policy makers, communities, and families can do to build a new economy that operates within Earth's budget of energy and resources. We can thrive during the transition if we set goals that promote human and environmental well-being, rather than continuing to pursue the now-unattainable prize of ever-expanding GDP. 

Since its publication in August 2011, economic conditions around the world have reinforced the ideas presented in The End of Growth. The e-version of Heinberg’s best-selling novel was updated in June with more than twenty additional pages that take a look at what is happening right now in Europe, China, the United States, and elsewhere.



Julianne Simpson

Posted by julianne on 07/17 at 08:00 AM

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

We are always thrilled to hear how our work at Earth Policy Institute is making a difference in communities around the world.

A few weeks ago we were pleased to receive an email form Gary Curtis, President of the Guemes Island Environmental Trust (GIET) in Anacortes Washington. He told us that after watching the documentary Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization on PBS a group of people there brainstormed about how to get younger folks in their community to watch it too.

They came up with the idea of an essay contest for high school students. The topic was, “What is the biggest threat to humans from climate change and how will you engage your friends to turn it around?”  Contestants were required to respond to the documentary. First prize was $1,500, second prize $1,000 and third prize $500.  Local schools and other organizations were contacted to generate interest.

Below are excerpts from the top two essays, including something about each author.

“I know from my studies that the effects of climate change, while not entirely certain, are dire.  More importantly, I know that it’s up to humans now to band together and do everything we can to protect the environment from further changes.  While it won’t be easy, I believe that humans are capable of things beyond that which is expected.”
- Kyle Mitchell is a senior at Mount Vernon High School and an active member in the school's choirs and cross country team. He hopes to continue a life full of learning, and is planning to major in Environmental Science with a possible minor in music at Pacific Lutheran University.

“Lester Brown, the environmental advocate great on the film, is doing all that he can to advocate to high-up officials the need to change. But he can't reach everyone. It is up to everyday people, everyday leaders in counties, cities, and homes to truly make the difference needed. The responsibility to change doesn't lie in the government. It lies with each and every person on this planet Earth.” 
--Michael Giles lives in Mount Vernon with his parents, younger brother, and the family dogs. A freshman at Mount Vernon High School, he is involved in the orchestra and choir.

Awards were presented at the Anacortes Library on May 25, 2012, and the winning essays were sent to local newspapers and appropriate state and federal government officials.

As Lester says, “Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.”  Our thanks to the Anacortes community, which has become a part of the solution.


Julianne Simpson

Posted by julianne on 07/03 at 08:00 AM

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A group of 22 scientists recently published their findings in Nature (486 June 07) revealing that we are approaching a “state shift” in Earth’s biosphere. That’s a gentle way of saying that we’re headed for trouble. We are pressing against, likely have even pressed past, the limits of what our planet can sustain. (Watch a video clip in this article by David Robert of Grist in which the lead author Anthony Barnosky of the University of California at Berkeley summarizes the study´s results.)

This month from June 20-22, the United Nations is holding the Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It has been dubbed Rio+20 because it is taking place 20 years after the first Earth Summit was held there in 1992. I remember that Summit 20 years ago and all of the optimism we had for what would come out of it—and the disappointment afterwards.

We and the planet need Rio+20 to result in positive, unified goals for heading us onto a sustainable path. But if this does not happen, we can still work for positive, concrete actions in order to avoid the environmental tipping point that Barnosky and his colleagues, and so many others, have warned us about.

A global online mobilization took place on Twitter yesterday to grab the attention of the world leaders gathered in Rio who still remain divided over proposals to phase out the provision of public funds to carbon dioxide polluters. The campaign, supported by Stephen Fry, Robert Redford, actor Mark Ruffalo, politicians and environmentalists, took the hash tag #endfossilfuelsubsidies up to number one in the ranking of trending topics in the United States and number two globally. Of this event, Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote today: "But most importantly, the message was spread by all of you -- and now it's too big to ignore. The simple call to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies is cutting through the noise at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil. Already, we're getting reports that the issue now sits squarely at the center of the world's agenda. We don't yet know how it's all going to turn out, but it's safe to say that the TwitterStorm made a positive outcome in Rio a bit more likely."

At Earth Policy Institute, we have developed Plan B as a way to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. It requires stabilizing population, reducing carbon emissions, stabilizing population, and restoring the economy’s soils, aquifers, forests, and other natural support systems. These are ambitious goals, but they can be done using the technologies currently available.

For instance, despite a lack of unity, some countries have taken positive steps toward this goal. Scotland has committed to getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Germany, which gets much less sunlight than the United States, recently covered nearly half of its midday energy needs by producing 22 gigawatts of electricity from solar power, a world record in solar power generation. In addition, four states in Germany routinely get 40 to 60 percent of their electricity from wind. For Denmark, it is 25 percent. Two U.S. states, Iowa and South Dakota, now get 20 percent of their electricity from wind farms.

In the United States, a powerful climate movement has emerged opposing the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

And there are many other steps being taken. But it does require getting involved. As we say here at the Institute, pick an issue and get to work on it. Perhaps it is getting a world-class recycling center operating in your community. Or it might be writing and talking to political leaders about the need for a carbon tax. Our People in Action page gives some examples of what people have done. 

Yours for positive action,

Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 06/19 at 08:00 AM

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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

John and Blondeen GravelySaturday, Lester and I attended the funeral for Blondeen and John Gravely. It was an especially sad time for Lester as he and Blondeen had begun working together when he was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1960s. Fresh from graduating valedictorian of her high school, Blondeen moved to Washington and began doing clerical work for the USDA.When Lester was brought into Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman’s staff, he needed administrative support and Blondeen was transferred to him. They hit it off from the start. Her quick mind and cheerful, upbeat nature, along with her secretarial skills made her a perfect assistant for Lester. She had a flair for clothing, sewing all of her clothes, which often evoked admiration from others.

When Lester moved to head the International Development Agency, he brought Blondeen along to support the Deputy Administrator, Lyle Schertz. Lester and Blondeen were the youngest people in the Agency!

A year after helping James Grant found the Overseas Development Council (ODC) in 1969, Lester convinced Blondeen to join them.

Blondeen’s typing skills (non-correcting typewriters!!) were legendary. She typed so fast and accurately that people would gather around her desk just to watch her! And with the books Lester produced while at the ODC, her fingers were kept very busy. The two were a terrific team.

So it was natural for him to bring Blondeen along when he founded Worldwatch Institute in 1974. Along with Lester and Erik Eckholm, Blondeen was one of the Institute’s three incorporators. While Lester was finishing up his commitments at the Overseas Development Council, Blondeen did all of the administrative work to get the new Institute up and running. She was a central figure in both the creation and evolution of the Institute, initially as administrative officer and assistant treasurer and, later, as vice president for administration and treasurer.  That she simultaneously held two key offices in the Institute was itself a tribute to her capacities and to her contribution.Blondeen's Farewell 1996

Blondeen loved to travel and in the early years of Worldwatch accompanied Lester on a few of his trips, especially to Ethiopia, where they took time to sightsee and hike in the mountains.

Although she took early retirement due to a disability in 1996, we kept in touch, regularly inviting her and her husband John to special events and celebrations. At our last lunch together, Blondeen and Lester talked about the two books he was working on, one of which is his autobiography. They laughed over many shared memories.

So it was a very sad day when we learned that John and Blondeen were in a horrific car accident. John died instantly and Blondeen followed shortly thereafter.

As Lester noted in his testimony for Blondeen on Saturday, she was an important part of his life for 32 years and will remain so.


Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 06/06 at 08:00 AM

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

J. Matthew Roney - Master of ScienceMatt receiving his degreeOur hearty congratulations to Research Associate J. Matthew Roney who just received his Master of Science degree from Johns Hopkins University in the field of environmental sciences and policy with a focus on Chesapeake Bay conservation and management.

Matt kept up a steady stream of evening (and sometimes Saturday) classes over the last few years while maintaining his more than full time work at Earth Policy writing Plan B Updates, Eco-Economy Indicators, and Data Highlights on topics such as Japan’s energy future, renewable energy, and nuclear power. He also answered questions by reporters, gave interviews, spoke with groups about EPI’s research, and gathered data for and gave feedback on Lester’s books, articles.

Be on the lookout; Matt is just getting started!


Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 05/30 at 12:00 PM

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Harvard University recently held its third annual Green Carpet Awards.

The annual event celebrates Harvard staff, faculty, and students who have made significant contributions to on-campus sustainability initiatives. In an unusual move, students voted to give an award to an alumnus and selected Lester Brown for the first-ever Alumni Environmental Sustainability Award.

Lester Brown receiving Alumni Environmental Sustainability AwardReceiving the award

Lester speaking to students and facultySpeaking to students and faculty at lunch.

Watch the video of the entire event. (BTW, the emcee Peter Davis is a hoot!)

Articles on the event:
     Harvard Gazette 
     The Crimson
     Harvard Kennedy School

Many thanks to Harvard for their exciting green campus initiative!

Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 05/08 at 09:00 AM

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Bill McKibben’s 350.org has launched Connect the Dots Day. Scheduled for May 5 this global initiative is to draw attention to the fact that people all over the world recognize that climate change is happening (see poll results in New York Times article) and it is creating unpredictable weather events. Connect the Dots

McKibben is asking everyone to get involved with an event of some kind: a presentation, a protest, a community project, pictures, or another idea. Once compiled, they will deliver the message to politicians and media the world over.

i MatteriMatter
Another initiative regarding climate change has been undertaken by iMatter. Five youths have taken the bold step of suing the federal government for failing to protect the atmosphere. They held rallies throughout the United States on Earth Day, March 22, 2012. And on May 11 in Washington, DC, the lawsuit is being heard. The basic premise is that the atmosphere is a public trust for all generations and the government has a legal responsibility to protect it. The lawsuits would also require the government to put into place plans to reduce carbon emissions by at least 6 percent per year.

In 2008, Lester Brown wrote about the need to connect the dots in his book Plan B 3.0 in relation to water and food.

"The link between water and food is strong. We each drink on average nearly 4 liters of water per day in one form or another, while the water required to produce our daily food totals at least 2,000 liters—500 times as much. This helps explain why 70 percent of all water use is for irrigation. Another 20 percent is used by industry, and 10 percent goes for residential purposes. With the demand for water growing in all three categories, competition among sectors is intensifying, with agriculture almost always losing. While most people recognize that the world is facing a future of water shortages, not everyone has connected the dots to see that this also means a future of food shortages."

Connecting the dots so that other people can see the connections between has been his life work. This is his interdisciplinary or systemic way of thinking. Connecting the dots is more than food and water. It is also carbon emissions and climate change, population growth and declining natural resources, food scarcity and failing states. And to resolve these and more global issues, we need to take action.

“One of the questions I hear most frequently is, What can I do? People often expect me to suggest lifestyle changes, such as recycling newspapers or changing light bulbs. These are essential, but they are not nearly enough. Restructuring the global economy means becoming politically active, working for the needed changes, as the grassroots campaign against coal-fired power plants is doing. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.” –Lester R. Brown 


Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 04/23 at 09:00 AM

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

From time to time, we come across great books that we feel need to be shared. Take a look at these if you are lacking summer reads for vacation or need inspiration.

Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins & Rocky Mountain InstituteReinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era by Amory B. Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute

Oil and coal have built our civilization, created our wealth, and enriched the lives of billions. Yet their rising costs to our security, economy, health, and environment are eroding and starting to outweigh their benefits. The tipping point where alternatives work better and compete on cost is not decades in the future: it is here and now. And that tipping point has become the fulcrum of economic transformation.

Reinventing Fire offers market-based actionable solutions integrating transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity. Built on Rocky Mountain Institute’s http://rmi.org 30 years of research and collaboration in all four sectors, Reinventing Fire maps pathways for running a 158%-bigger U.S. economy in 2050 but needing no oil, no coal, no nuclear energy, one-third less natural gas, and no new inventions. This would cost $5 trillion less than business-as-usual—in addition to the value of avoiding fossil fuels’ huge but uncounted external costs. 

Due Diligence by David RoodmanDue Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance by David Roodman 

The idea that small loans can help poor families build businesses and exit poverty has blossomed into a global movement. The concept has captured the public imagination, drawn in billions of dollars, reached millions of customers, and garnered a Nobel Prize. Radical in its suggestion that the poor are creditworthy and conservative in its insistence on individual accountability, the idea has expanded beyond credit into savings, insurance, and money transfers, earning the name microfinance. But is it the boon so many think it is?

Readers of David Roodman's openbook blog http://blogs.cgdev.org/open_book/  will immediately recognize his thorough, straightforward, and trenchant analysis. Due Diligence, written entirely in public with input from readers, probes the truth about microfinance to guide governments, foundations, investors, and private citizens who support financial services for poor people. In particular, it explains the need to deemphasize microcredit in favor of other financial services for the poor.

The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey Sachs The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs

In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, Sachs offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity.

As he has done in dozens of countries around the world in the midst of economic crises, Sachs turns his unique diagnostic skills to what ails the American economy. He finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. 

By taking a broad, holistic approach—looking at domestic politics, geopolitics, social psychology, and the natural environment as well—Sachs reveals the larger fissures underlying our country’s current crisis. He shows how Washington has consistently failed to address America’s economic needs. He describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. 

Finally, Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around, one that will restore America to its great promise. 

Happy reading!

Reah Janise Kauffman

Note: Much of these descriptions come from the publishers’ book blurbs.




Posted by Reah Janise on 04/17 at 09:00 AM


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