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Even given the extraordinarily challenging situation we face, there is much to be upbeat about. First, virtually all the destructive environmental trends are of our own making. All the problems we face can be dealt with using existing technologies. And almost everything we need to do to move the world economy onto an environmentally sustainable path has been done in one or more countries.
We see the components of Plan B—the alternative to business as usual—in new technologies already on the market. On the energy front, for example, an advanced-design wind turbine can produce as much energy as an oil well. Japanese engineers have designed a vacuum-sealed refrigerator that uses only one eighth as much electricity as those marketed a decade ago. Gas-electric hybrid automobiles, getting 55 miles per gallon, are easily twice as efficient as the average vehicle on the road.
Numerous countries are providing models of the different components of Plan B. Denmark, for example, today gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind and has plans to push this to 50 percent by 2030. Similarly, Brazil is on its way to automotive fuel self-sufficiency. With highly efficient sugarcane-based ethanol supplying 40 percent of its automotive fuel in 2005, it could phase out gasoline within a matter of years.
With food, India—using a small-scale dairy production model that relies almost entirely on crop residues as a feed source—has more than quadrupled its milk production since 1970, overtaking the United States to become the world’s leading milk producer. The value of India’s dairy production in 2002 exceeded that of the rice crop.
On another front, fish farming advances in China, centered on the use of an ecologically sophisticated carp polyculture, have made China the first country where fish farm output exceeds oceanic catch. Indeed, the 29 million tons of farmed fish produced in China in 2003 was equal to roughly 30 percent of the world’s oceanic fish catch.
We see what a Plan B world could look like in the reforested mountains of South Korea. Once a barren, almost treeless country, the 65 percent of South Korea now covered by forests has checked flooding and soil erosion, returning a high degree of environmental stability to the Korean countryside.
The United States—which retired one tenth of its cropland, most of it highly erodible, and shifted to conservation tillage practices—has reduced soil erosion by 40 percent over the last 20 years. At the same time, the nation’s farmers expanded the grain harvest by more than one fifth.
Some of the most innovative leadership has come at the urban level. Amsterdam has developed a diverse urban transport system; today 35 percent of all trips within the city are taken by bicycle. This bicycle-friendly transport system has greatly reduced air pollution and traffic congestion while providing daily exercise for the city’s residents.
Not only are new technologies becoming available, but some of these technologies can be combined to create entirely new outcomes. Gas-electric hybrid cars with a second storage battery and a plug-in capacity, combined with investment in wind farms feeding cheap electricity into the grid, could mean that much of our daily driving could be done with electricity, with the cost of off-peak wind-generated electricity at the equivalent of 50¢-a-gallon gasoline. Domestic wind energy can be substituted for imported oil.
The challenge is to build a new economy and to do it at wartime speed before we miss so many of nature’s deadlines that the economic system begins to unravel. This introductory chapter leads into five chapters outlining the leading environmental challenges facing our global civilization. Following these are seven chapters that outline Plan B, both describing where we want to go and offering a roadmap of how to get there.
Participating in the construction of this enduring new economy is exhilarating. So is the quality of life it will bring. We will be able to breathe clean air. Our cities will be less congested, less noisy, and less polluted. The prospect of living in a world where population has stabilized, forests are expanding, and carbon emissions are falling is an exciting one.
Excerpted from Chapter 1, “Entering a New World,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb2.