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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

With the pressure of writing two books this year, Lester Brown has kept his travel to the bare minimum. Nevertheless, he managed a weeklong trip to Europe following Thanksgiving.

Dutch edition: Full Planet, Empty PlatesHis first stop was The Netherlands where he launched the Dutch edition of Full Planet, Empty Plates. The publisher, Maurits Groen, who owns an environmental consultancy, has been a fan of Lester’s work for some time. Recently Maurits’ company developed a solar lamp, called Waka Waka, to be used in Africa to replace the dangerous kerosene lamps used by many households in the developing areas. Lester also spoke at the Waterproof conference, focusing on the water-food-energy nexus.

Next stop was Brussels where Frank Schwalba-Hoth, former member of the Green Party, arranged an excellent program for Lester, which included speaking at the European Parliament. Lester spoke about the new geopolitics of food scarcity.Italian edition: Full Planet, Empty Plates

Finally Lester landed in Milan where he gave a keynote address at Barilla’s 4th Annual Forum on Food and Nutrition. The video is available on their website. (Go to the Nov 29 tab. There are 4 pages of videos. Lester’s is on the third page.) Following his keynote, he autographed copies of the Italian and English editions of Full Planet, Empty Plates and gave a presentation on the book.

Friday morning he spoke at the IULM University in Milan followed by an afternoon presentation at the University of Bologna. The Italian press interviewed Lester before he left on the trip and during. Our thanks to Barilla for inviting Lester to speak and to our publisher Edizioni Ambiente.

Next stop for Lester is a visit to his family for the holidays.

Happy Holidays to all!

Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 12/26 at 08:00 AM

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In this spot, we often talk about happenings at Earth Policy other than our research. But at this time of the year, we wanted to give you a sense of what our research team has produced in 2012.

Full Planet, Empty PlatesTwo major activities have kept the research team hopping this year. The first centered on research for Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, the book by Lester Brown that was released at a press teleconference on September 28, just two months after delivery to W.W. Norton & Company. Belying the book’s short page length (123 pages) is a mountain of data and resources supporting each fact, all of which have been posted on our website. The second major activity has been researching new Data Highlights, Plan B Updates, and Eco-Economy Indicators, along with Book Bytes, and two PowerPoint presentations summarizing Full Planet, Empty Plates.

The major theme of the book is that we are entering an era of food scarcity that is leading to intense competition for control of land and water resources—a new geopolitics of food. This new era is visible in dangerously low levels of grain stocks and the deepening of hunger, with some families resorting to scheduling foodless days each week. While some 3 billion increasingly affluent people are moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry products, climate change, water shortages, crop-shrinking heat waves, and the diversion of grain to fuel cars are making it more difficult for farmers to keep pace with demand.

The tightening grain situation has led many grain-importing countries to buy or lease large tracts of land in other countries to grow food for themselves, often in countries whose populations receive assistance from the U.N. World Food Programme. This onslaught of land acquisitions has now become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it. Many of the land deals are made in secret, and much of the time the land involved is already being farmed by villagers, who are summarily displaced. The potential for conflict is high.

Meanwhile, a second book has been taking shape: Lester’s autobiography, Breaking New Ground: A Personal History. Staff have been engaged in compiling Lester’s speaking engagements for the past 50 years, going through old files from his USDA, Overseas Development Council, and Worldwatch Institute days, and compiling a chronicle of his life through photographs. (We are looking at a late October/early November 2013 release, so stay tuned!)

Books notwithstanding, the research team has been mindful of global environmental trends. For instance, with the drought and heat toasting much of the country, the team closely monitored the corn crop. On July 19, EPI held a press teleconference where Lester stated that the USDA’s estimate of a corn harvest shortfall of 12 percent was likely to be closer to 25 percent. The Institute’s findings meshed with reports from farmers who were expecting exceptionally poor harvests. On Monday, June 23, the Guardian asked Lester to write an op-ed on the harvest, prices, and weather—and wanted it that evening for a Tuesday release on its environment page, which we provided.

The op-ed caught the attention of news organizations including NPR’s Talk of the Nation, the Leonard Lopate Show, Alternet, and Bloomberg television. Meanwhile, the Institute released the Guardian piece as a Plan B Update to its public and media lists. Food related issues were the major news draw to the Institute this year. In addition, an interview with Lester published in IFC’s magazine Handshake resulted in additional articles quoting Lester.

Janet Larsen’s Update “Meat Consumption in China Now Double That in the United States” also garnered global attention. Janet found that a quarter of all meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China. Since 1978, China’s meat consumption has risen from 8 million tons to 71 million tons. The piece was reposted on major blogs including Sustainablog, the Economist, and the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. Robert Samuelson cited it in his May 13 Washington Post Op-Ed piece "The Boom on the Farm."

Janet also wrote “The Dust Bowl Revisited,” an Update to coincide with the November release of Ken Burn’s PBS dust bowl series. Shortly after Thom Hartmann had her on his television program, “The Big Picture,” to discuss it and the World Bank's warning of a 7 degree temperature rise by 2100.

The tsunami that wiped out a number of cities in Japan and created a meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear plant that resulted in all of the country’s nuclear reactors being shut down for a time, led Matt Roney to write an Update entitled “Fukushima Meltdown Hastens Decline of Nuclear Power.” Fukushima led some European countries to phase out their nuclear programs entirely, while other countries were proceeding cautiously with their nuclear program. As Matt noted, the world’s fleet of reactors is aging and new plants are suffering construction delays and cost increases, likely presaging a long-term decline in reliance on nuclear power.

During the sprint to complete Full Planet, Empty Plates, Mother Earth News, which often reprints EPI’s releases, asked for a piece on wind power, which was then sent to them within a day and a half. A few months later, the piece was transformed into a long article entitled “Exciting News About Renewable Energy” and published in the October/November issue. Retitling the piece “The Great Transition,” EPI released it as two Updates, which were reposted to major environmental blogs and websites and retweeted over 50 times, most notably by Eco Watch and Earth Business Network.

Subjects covered by Data Highlights included meat consumption peaking in the United States, the rise in Arab grain imports, the growth in hydropower, the free fall in Arctic sea ice, the shortfall in contraceptive coverage, and how governments spend $1.4 billion per day in subsidies that destabilize the climate. And five Eco-Economy Indicators were released on grain, temperature, wind, forestry, and the economy.

In addition to posting the immense database supporting the analysis in Full Planet, Empty Plates, the research team developed two PowerPoint presentations relating to the book. The first was a comprehensive look at the book, while the second was a shorter version. Another presentation was developed to draw attention to some of the 150-plus datasets that accompany the book. Collectively the presentations have been viewed online more than 20,000 times. EPI’s PowerPoint presentations and data are some of the most downloaded items from the Institute’s website.


Reah Janise Kauffman

Posted by Reah Janise on 12/19 at 08:00 AM

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On November 12, 2012, Lester Brown gave the inaugural talk of a new environmental lecture series at the University of Maryland, the institution where he earned a Master’s degree in agricultural economics in 1959. He was introduced by Herman Daly, professor emeritus and former senior economist at the World Bank, widely known as the founding father of ecological economics.

Dr. Daly noted in his heartfelt introduction that he thought of Lester Brown as an older brother, someone to be followed (“not like on Twitter”) in the field of economics. In the late 1950s and early 1960s when academic economics were entrenched in a “sterile formalism,”he said that Lester stuck with “substance,” focusing on the importance of things that were real, like soil, water, and food.

Throughout his productive career Daly had the opportunity to visit ministries of the environment around the world, where, he recounted, he would almost always see some Worldwatch and Lester Brown books on the shelves, generally looking well-used. In true form for an economist, Daly couldn’t resist measuring Lester's efficiency, which he calculated as a ratio of valuable output over costly input.  With the output evident in citations “all over the place,” 50 books, 25 honorary degrees, and a number of apprentices mentored, divided by monetary input (looking at Lester’s institutional budgets, it’s “almost like dividing by zero!”)  He then compared Lester’s near infinite efficiency to that of the World Bank: a ratio of minor accomplishments to a massive budget, not a promising figure.

Daly concluded his remarks with a fantasy vision of a statue of Lester on the University of Maryland campus. To bookend the existing statue of alumnus Jim Henson conversing with Kermit the Frog, he envisioned the inscription reading “It’s not easy being green, especially for an economist.”

Thank you Dr. Daly, for such a thoughtful and kind introduction, and—most of all—for your tireless work in greening economics, institutions, and the world.

More than 200 people attended the standing-room only lecture. In his remarks, Lester spoke about his most recent book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. He warned of the tightening margin between food production and fast-growing demand, noting that the major threats to security in the world today are not armed aggression or advanced military technologies, but climate change, population growth, food shortages, rising food prices, and spreading instability. He concluded by asking people to pick an issue that they felt strongly about—from the movement to close coal-fired power plants, to banning bottled water on college campuses—and get to work. “Saving civilization is not a spectator sport!”

Here’s hoping that more people take that message to heart.



Janet Larsen


Herman Daly’s article, “From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady State Economy,” can be read in Solutions Journal.

Posted by julianne on 12/11 at 12:47 PM


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