Monday, December 06, 2010
In December, we take time to reflect on the year soon to pass. In this and a subsequent blog, I’d like to give you a sense of what we’ve accomplished this year.
Since its inception, Earth Policy Institute has worked to provide a roadmap—Plan B—for saving civilization. We continue to refine Plan B and to support it with the latest scientific data. Human behavior changes either in response to new information or new experience. We disseminate new information through various publications to guide the process of change. Our goal is to generate visibility and to build public support for global action to stabilize climate, stabilize population, and rebuild the economy’s natural support systems.
The Research Agenda
For about half of the year, our research team was consumed with the questions of how much time we have left before our global civilization unravels and how we save civilization. These questions led to a massive research effort fueling a new book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse by Lester Brown, which went to our publishers in late October for release in early January 2011.
The team also maintained a flow of Plan B Updates, Eco-Economy Indicators, Book Bytes, and Data Highlights. Two of the Plan B Updates were released at press teleconferences. The first, released in January, was on how the U.S. car fleet shrank by four million vehicles in 2009. Could America’s love affair with the automobile be coming to an end? Lester noted several reasons for this decline, including market saturation, ongoing urbanization, economic uncertainty, oil insecurity, the prospect of higher gasoline prices, the rising costs of traffic congestion, mounting concerns about climate change, and the declining interest in cars among young people who have grown up in cities. We were the first to note this shift, which led to a large number of global media reports.
The second Update was looking at how out of sync the natural world has become due to climate change. Janet Larsen noted that with climate change springtime is arriving earlier and altering the timing of key life-cycle events. Because species are adjusting at different rates, this is disrupting the dance that connects predator and prey, butterfly and blossom, fish and phytoplankton, and the entire web of life.
We responded to the Russian heat wave and fires with an Update in early August entitled “Rising Temperatures Raise Food Prices: Heat, Drought, and a Failed Harvest in Russia.” About 30 reporters were on the teleconference call, generating extensive media coverage including Time, OneWorld, The San Francisco Chronicle, Climate Progress, The Energy Bulletin, TreeHugger, The Moscow Times, Politico, Voice of America, and UPI. It also led to an AP feature in October on the global food situation.
Our research team also released Eco-Economy Indicators on global temperature (the past decade was the hottest on record, wind power (a record year for cumulative installed wind power capacity, and carbon emissions (an overall drop, even though emissions in China grew by nearly 9 percent.
The seven Data Highlights released thus far in 2010 sometimes garnered more press coverage than an Update or Indicator. For instance, the data highlight released on January 21, “U.S. Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars While Hunger is on the Rise,” was reported on in over 75 online news sources. These highlights draw attention to the wealth of data available on the Institute’s website. Along this line, the team updated the popular PowerPoint Plan B presentation with Plan B 4.0 data and information.
The research team also released 26 Book Bytes gleaned from Plan B 4.0. These return considerable feedback and comments from readers and are reposted on websites as well as reprinted in magazines.
We are now prioritizing our research for 2011. You can help us keep this flow of important research moving with a tax-deductible donation.
Meanwhile, stay tuned!
Reah Janise Kauffman
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Tom Weis, Ride for Renewables, has been cycling from Colorado to Washington to promote a 100% U.S. renewable electricity grid by 2020. Tom met Lester Brown a few years ago in Colorado and has been a big fan of Lester’s work Plan B ever since.
He’s taken the Plan B message of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 along with Bill McKibben’s call of 350 ppm and pulled them into his call for a 100 percent renewable energy grid.
He has been pedaling a “rocket trike.” This human-powered recumbent tricycle is wrapped in an aerodynamic body. He said he chose this particular trike “because it represents to me the creative potential of humans to do things differently. And it’s fun.”
He’s getting great print and television coverage. At each stop he calls on people to sign his petition calling for 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.
In talking with him recently, he said that everyone he has met on the trip agrees with his goal—from farmers in small towns to the members of Chambers of Commerce—and about needing to ramp up renewable energy now. (Read his blog.)
They are worried about our future—and that of their children—and they are ready for a bold message. Perhaps we are ready for Plan B!
Reah Janise Kauffman
P.S. Check out this YouTube interview Tom did with Lester.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Yesterday we hosted a brown bag lunch with Jonathan Watts, author of When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save the World—or Destroy It.
Jonathan has been living in China since 2003 and in his job as the Asian reporter for the Guardian has traveled from mountain paradises to industrial wastelands, visiting tiger farms, melting glaciers, cancer villages, science parks, coal mines, and eco-cities. What he details in his book is an environment in crisis. His interviews with high-ranking officials and ordinary individuals puts a face on this country that has become a global economic powerhouse and a massive emitter of carbon dioxide.
His experiences and insights into the jumps China has made and is making economically and environmentally—the good and the devastating—underpin the information in this highly readable and eye-opening book. What it comes down to is something Lester Brown wrote about in his 1995 book Who Will Feed China? When you multiply anything by a billion it is a lot.
Lester’s book analyzed the effect of China coming into the world grain market in a huge way—and how China could easily purchase most of the world’s exportable supplies of grain, leaving other grain-importing countries scrambling.
Lester’s analysis is now coming true. On November 4, it was reported that food prices were going up. The main reason? The demand for meat in China is driving up prices for grain, which in turn leads to higher prices for all of the products related to grain: chicken, steak, bread, pasta, even eggs. (See articles in the Wall Street Journal and China Daily.)
Lester has continued to follow the developments in China. See Plan B Updates Learning from China: Why the Western Economic Model Will Not Work for the World and China Replacing the United States as World's Leading Consumer. He has also written about China’s massive renewable energy projects, including the seven wind mega-complexes being created in six provinces that will have a combined generating capacity of nearly 130 gigawatts—the equivalent of China building a new coal plant every week for two and a half years.
What Lester and Jonathan agree on is that is all comes back to the question of what kind of a world we want to leave for future generations and what we are prepared to do to make it possible.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Over the past six months Lester Brown and our amazing research team has been working on a new book. Now that we have put it into the hands of our publishers, we can tell you about it.
World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse will be released in January 2011. If you pre-order your copy today, you can get it in December.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 1, On the Edge:
The media described the 2010 heat wave in Russia and the flooding in Pakistan as natural disasters. But were they? Climate scientists have been saying for some time that rising temperatures would bring more extreme climate events. Ecologists have warned that as human pressures on ecosystems mount and as forests and grasslands are destroyed, flooding will be more severe.
The signs that our civilization is in trouble are multiplying. During most of the 6,000 years since civilization began we lived on the sustainable yield of the earth’s natural systems. But in recent decades humanity has overshot the level that those systems can sustain.
We are liquidating the earth’s natural assets to fuel our consumption. Half of us live in countries where water tables are falling and wells are going dry. Soil erosion exceeds soil formation on one third of the world’s cropland, draining the land of its fertility. The world’s ever-growing herds of cattle, sheep, and goats are converting vast stretches of grassland to desert. Forests are shrinking by 13 million acres per year as we clear land for agriculture and cut trees for lumber and paper. Four fifths of oceanic fisheries are being fished at capacity or overfished and headed for collapse. In system after system, demand is overshooting supply.
Meanwhile, with our massive burning of fossil fuels, we are overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide (CO2), pushing the earth’s temperature ever higher. This in turn generates more frequent and more extreme climatic events, including crop-withering heat waves, more intense droughts, more severe floods, and more destructive storms.
The earth’s rising temperature is also melting polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers. If the Greenland ice sheet, which is melting at an accelerating rate, were to melt entirely, it would inundate the rice-growing river deltas of Asia and many of the world’s coastal cities. It is the ice melt from the mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau that helps sustain the dry-season flow of the major rivers in India and China—the Ganges, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers— and the irrigation systems that depend on them.
We are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency. Can we think systemically and fashion policies accordingly? Can we move fast enough to avoid economic decline and collapse? Can we change direction before we go over the edge?
That’s what World on the Edge is all about. We’ve posted the Table of Contents and Chapter 1 online so you can get a preview of the book.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
In 1972, Lester Brown, then a Senior Fellow with the Overseas Development Council, a private, nonprofit organization he’d helped found, penned the first book ever published on globalization—before the term was even coined.
We recently unearthed a 30-minute television discussion Lester gave shortly after the book was published. This black-and-white film might seem dated, but just listen to the subjects discussed. A world without borders is one “which recognizes the common destiny of all mankind.”
The following is an excerpt from the book—as true today as it was then:
The nation-state with its sacred borders brings with it a concept of territorial discrimination which is increasingly in conflict with both the emerging social values of modern man and the circumstances in which he finds himself. It says, for instance, that we can institutionalize the transfer of resources from rich to poor within national societies, but not among societies. The poor on the other side of a national border are somehow less needful or less deserving than those inside the border. If we consider ourselves as members of a human family, can we continue to justify territorial discrimination any more than religious or racial discrimination?
The dimensions of the problems confronting late twentieth century man are unique in their scale. Man has always experienced catastrophes—famines, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions—but they were local and temporary. Over time, more and more crises have become global in character. Only in this century have wars been world wars; only in recent decades, with such scientific “breakthroughs” as the detonation of the atomic bomb, has man acquired the capacity to threaten the entire species.
We live in an age when problems are increasingly worldwide—the world food problem, threat of world inflation, world population problem, world environmental crisis, world monetary crisis, world drug problem, and so forth. Few, if any, of mankind’s more pressing problems have purely national solutions. They can be solved only through multinational or global cooperation. No country can protect the value of its currency or the health of its people without the extensive cooperation of other countries. Even our daily weather can be influenced by man’s activities elsewhere in the world. The earth’s ecosystem will continue to support human life only if countries can cooperate to eventually limit the discharge of waste materials.
As rapid population growth in much of the world continues, mankind’s backlog of unsolved problems is growing. Questions of global poverty, rising numbers of unemployed and massive rural-urban migration in the poor countries, and a global ecosystem showing signs of acute stress, emerge before our expanded consciousness. Each promises to worsen in the years immediately ahead.
Given the scale and complexity of these problems, the remainder of the twentieth century will at best be a traumatic period for mankind, even with a frontal attack on the principal threats to human well-being. At worst it will be catastrophic. At issue is whether we can grasp the nature and dimensions of the emerging threats to our well-being, whether we can create an integrated global economy and a workable world order, and whether we can reorder global priorities so that the quality of life will improve rather than deteriorate.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
What a busy time. Two weeks ago Lester Brown traveled to Montreal to give presentations at the World Energy Congress, where he also participated in CNBC's "Energy Opportunities" program before flying to Zurich to speak at the Swiss Management Association's Forum. His message: we must shift to renewable energy.
This week finds him traveling again. In Mexico City, he is giving a lecture at the prestigious Miguel Aleman Foundation to nearly 1,000 people. The foundation was named for Miguel Aleman Valdez, one of Mexico’s more dynamic presidents. The presentation, happening tonight, will be broadcast live on Mexico’s Channel 34 and streamed on the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico’s website.
Tomorrow he flies to Bogota, Colombia, where he will launch the Spanish edition of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. The translator and publisher is CEID Colombia, an educational consultancy organization on environment and sustainable development. Gilberto Rincon had heard Lester speak at a conference in Ottawa, Canada, and had gotten a copy of Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. The book fit in so well with his organization’s goals that he asked if they could publish a Spanish edition.
Since that edition, CEID Colombia also published Plan B 3.0 and now Plan B 4.0. Even before the book was off the press, Giuseppe LaManna ordered 300 copies, which he will distribute to people attending his presentations on global warming. LaManna advocates cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 and scaling emissions down to 350 ppm (parts per million).
CEID has arranged a number of television interviews for Lester in addition to holding the III International Congress on the Environment, where the Spanish edition will be officially launched.
But the busy-ness will not stop when Lester returns because on Sunday, October 10 (10/10/10) he will participate in a rally in Washington, DC. This “Get to Work” rally, sponsored by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, is part of 350.org’s Global Work Party. The rally is part of 350.org’s campaign to push cutting carbon dioxide emissions back to 350 ppm, which is considered the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Currently we’re at 388 ppm, which will accelerate the pace at which the globe is warming. The Global Work Party is designed to be a day to celebrate clean energy solutions.
Lester will be joined at the podium by Dr. James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, Joe Romm of Climate Progress, and a number of others. They will be calling on President Obama to get to work on leading a national and global policy push toward 350 ppm.
Earth Policy Institute’s global plan to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 is one of the ways to make this happen.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Lester Brown’s first book was entitled Man, Land, and Food. Published in 1963, it started off as a suggestion from his branch chief, Quentin West, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At the time, they were in the Asia branch of the Economic Research Service. West asked Lester to put together agricultural supply and demand projections for Asia to the end of the century.
Lester was always interested in the big picture, and he realized that unless you know the relative supply and demand relationships in the rest of the world, you wouldn’t know if commodities would flow into or out of the region. To obtain correct projections, he would need to include data for the world. Thus the projections would necessarily have to be world supply and demand projections. Unfortunately because he worked for the Asia branch by rights that was all he was allowed to cover. The USDA was a bureaucracy and everyone had a specialty.
After a few weeks of back and forth discussion on these points, West said he would provide cover for Lester to do the global projections. For the next six months that is what he did while continuing to do his work as a regional economist.
By the end of 1962 he finished the study, and entitled it Man, Land, and Food: Looking Ahead at World Food Needs. He’d also included a population dimension. The trick now was to get it published. In entered the bureaucracy. The regional director said he couldn’t send it for publication because the other branches—Latin America, Europe, Africa, etc.—didn’t know the study existed and since Lester was doing their projections, they wouldn’t agree to it. (Turf wars!)
But the regional director knew it was a good study. So when he went on vacation a couple months later, he appointed West as acting regional director, letting him know that if he wanted to send the study for publication, it would be his call. And that’s what West did. The cat, in essence, was out of the bag and conflict came in its wake, but it didn’t stop the presses.
However, despite the fact that the book was getting printed, Lester knew it could still get deep-sixed, because it dealt with population and at the time the U.S. government did not touch population issues. He needed a strategy to keep it from being buried, so he turned to the media. Getting a good article published about the report would keep it alive.
So, before the book was off the press, Lester contacted the U.S. News and World Report, thinking the magazine might be a good fit because it frequently used graphics and data in its articles. He met with one of their agricultural reporters and went over a copy of the study, even giving a precious copy to the reporter. In the age before the copy machine or PDFs, it was a carbon copy. However, the reporter didn’t seem too engaged with the ideas.
To Lester’s surprise, a couple weeks later the reporter came back with his senior editor. They called the book a pioneering work, the first time anyone had tried to project world agriculture—land, water, food, fertilizer, and population—to the end of the century. This all happened in September/October of 1963. The article was slated for release in the last issue of November 1963.
And here history intervened. As many may remember, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The media focused their attention on the assassination, the appointment of the Warren Commission, Vice President Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as President, which Cabinet members would stay, which would leave, policy changes, etc. And the article on Lester’s book seemed to have been forgotten.
When Christmas came along, Lester, his wife Shirley Ann, and their three-year-old son Brian, went as they always did to his in-law’s Wyoming ranch. They took the train. A week later, Lester returned to work while his wife and son stayed in Wyoming for another week. At the newsstand in the Cheyenne train station he picked up the January 6, 1964 issue of U.S. News & World Report. It carried two cover stories. One was on the great train robbery in London where $14 million had been stolen. The second was “The Changing Food World Prospect,” the four-page article on Lester’s book. The article made news around the world.
And suddenly a rather obscure economic analyst came to the attention of the Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman. Freeman and his staff wondered who this Lester Brown was and who’d authorized the study. As Lester said, “It was never budgeted for. After I finished it, it existed, but it didn’t exist, because it was never on any schedule or any plan of work. It was sort of in between worlds. I was entirely outside the realm of being a proper bureaucrat, doing an unauthorized study at the global level, when my responsibility was only in Asia.”
The end result was that Secretary Freeman appointed him as his Foreign Policy Advisor, which eventually became an appointment as Administrator of the International Agricultural Development Service. Lester had always had the goal of understanding world agriculture and all that went with it. Man, Land, and Food was one of the first major manifestations of this.
And as his latest book attests, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, he is still looking at the big picture.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
We sometimes get comments from readers wondering how we are able to stay optimistic about the the world implementing Plan B. While it does sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task against partisan politics and the fossil-fuel industries, there are glimmers of hope.
Beyond Zero Emissions based in Australia was established to reduce our levels of atmospheric greenhouse emissions NOW. Their core goal is to facilitate the implementation of the social changes and technologies that will reduce the impacts of climate change and give our society and global ecosystems a chance of surviving into the future. They have developed a plan to make Australia fully renewable by 2020. The plan was covered by the Sydney Morning Herald.
Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin in Ohio have launched the “Oberlin Project,” a working model of sustainability that integrates economic revitalization, greenbuilding, education, agriculture, forestry, public policy, renewable energy, and finance into an integrated system. The four main goals are to:
(1) develop a 13-acre block in the center of the city as a “Green Arts District” beyond the LEED Platinum level for neighborhood development and use that development to catalyze a prosperous city-wide economy;
(2) develop a post-carbon energy system for both the city and the College based on efficiency and renewable energy;
(3) develop a 20,000 acre greenbelt around the city to revive local agriculture and forestry; and
(4) create the most exciting educational experiment in the U.S. by using the entire effort as an educational laboratory for all students in the Oberlin area.
Oberlin is transforming into a vibrant downtown, a resilient economy powered by efficiency and renewable energy, a model of integrated sustainable development, an exciting educational laboratory, and a catalyst for change throughout the upper Mid-West.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Shanghai has launched a Low Carbon City initiative, catalyzing various stakeholders to improve energy efficiency (industry, construction, and transportation) as well as develop renewable energy features that work within the city.
Scholars in China have developed Plan C, based on Lester Brown’s pioneering work in Plan B, which is intended to bring China into the 21st century, enhancing social and economic development, but not at the expense of the environment.
We are also energized by people committed to on-the-ground action. For instance, 350.org has launched "A Day to Celebrate Climate Solutions." Over a thousand groups have registered their plans to hold a Work Party on October 10, 2010. Many will pressure leaders to pass strong climate change policies that promote clean energy and reduce emissions. Anyone can register a Work Party in their community. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org was recently on the David Leterman show.
Yet another activity that gives us hope is the near-moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in the United States. As of the end of 2009, this movement, begun by activists and helped by the Sierra Club, has resulted in the derailment of 109 of 151 proposed plants. Protest is effective. To read about this inspiring movement see Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal by Ted Nace. We weighed in on the movement in two Plan B Updates, one by Lester Brown and the other by Jonathan Dorn.
Because of initiatives such as these, which are a tiny fraction of what is happening, we remain optimistic that eventually we can turn things around. Yes, the environmental movement has taken some big hits recently on climate change, but progress is being made. We all need to do our part. For examples of what you can do to promote a Plan B world go to our What You Can Do page.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Monday, August 23, 2010
Just a few days ago we passed a sad marker for Earth. According to Global Footprint Network calculations, humanity reached Earth Overshoot Day: the day of the year when human demand on the biosphere exceeded what it can regenerate.
As of August 21, Global Footprint Network said that “humanity has demanded all the ecological services – from filtering CO2 to producing the raw materials for food – that nature can regenerate this year. For the rest of the year, we will meet our ecological demand by depleting resource stocks and accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, said, “If you spent your entire annual income in nine months, you would probably be extremely concerned. The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages are all clear signs: We can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.”
Watch a video on overshoot. Calculate your own Ecological Footprint and learn what you can do to reduce it.
Lester Brown says, "Saving civilization is not a spectator sport."
Reah Janise Kauffman
Monday, August 16, 2010
American Renewable Energy Day (AREDAY) takes place each August in Aspen, Colorado. The organizers, Chip Cumins and Sally Ranney, gather leading thinkers and doers for this three-day summit. This year’s theme is “Creating a Clean Energy Economy at Speed and Scale.”
Lester Brown will be Thursday’s keynote luncheon speaker on August 19. Some of the other 80 presenters include Dr. Sylvia Earle, Amory Lovins, Ted Turner, Cathy Zoi, Tom Friedman, T. Boone Pickens, and James Cameron.
Some of the summit themes: creating climate wealth, renewable energy technology, food security, ocean systems, renewable energy finance, the lungs of the earth (forests), politics of climate change, and youth and climate.
AREDAY always has an environmental film festival to reinforce the conference theme. This year’s films are The Cove, Into the Cold, Climate Refugees, and Avatar.
There will also be an expo—free to the public—featuring energy displays and demonstrations. Registration is required for all other events.
To keep up with future appearances of Lester’s, check our Events page.
Reah Janise Kauffman