"Attention has focused on oil insecurity, and rightly so, but it is not the same as food insecurity. An empty gas tank is one thing, an empty stomach another. And while there are substitutes for oil, there are none for food." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Plan B is shaped by what is needed to save civilization, not by what may currently be considered politically feasible. Plan B does not fit within a particular discipline, sector, or set of assumptions.
Implementing Plan B means undertaking several actions simultaneously, including eradicating poverty, stabilizing population, and restoring the earth’s natural systems. It also involves cutting carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020, largely through a mobilization to raise energy efficiency and harness renewable sources of energy.
Not only is the scale of this save-our-civilization plan ambitious, so is the speed with which it must be implemented. We must move at wartime speed, restructuring the world energy economy at a pace reminiscent of the restructuring of the U.S. industrial economy in 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The shift from producing cars to planes, tanks, and guns was accomplished within a matter of months. One of the keys to this extraordinarily rapid restructuring was a ban on the sale of cars, a ban that lasted nearly three years.
We face an extraordinary challenge, but there is much to be upbeat about. All the problems we face can be dealt with using existing technologies. And almost everything we need to do to move the world economy back onto an environmentally sustainable path has already 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 nearly 50 miles per gallon, are twice as efficient as the average car on the road.
Numerous countries are providing models of the various 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. Some 60 million Europeans now get their residential electricity from wind farms. By the end of 2007, some 40 million Chinese homes will be getting their hot water from rooftop solar water heaters. Iceland now heats close to 90 percent of its homes with geothermal energy. In so doing, it has virtually eliminated the use of coal for home heating.
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 as the world’s leading milk producer. The value of India’s dairy production now exceeds that of its rice harvest.
Fish farming advances in China, centered on the use of an ecologically sophisticated carp polyculture, have made this the first country where fish farm output exceeds the oceanic catch. Indeed, the 32 million tons of farmed fish produced in China in 2005 was equal to roughly a third 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 environmental health and stability to the Korean countryside.
The United States—which over the last two decades retired one tenth of its cropland, most of it highly erodible, and shifted to conservation tillage practices—has reduced soil erosion by 40 percent. 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 from cities. Curitiba, Brazil, a city of 1 million people, began restructuring its transport system in 1974. Since then its population has tripled, but its car traffic has declined by 30 percent. Amsterdam has developed a diverse urban transport system, where nearly 40 percent of all trips within the city are taken by bicycle. Paris has a transport diversification plan that also includes a prominent role for the bicycle and is intended to reduce car traffic by 40 percent. London is relying on a tax on cars entering the city center to attain a similar goal.
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 an enhanced battery and a plug-in capacity, combined with investment in wind farms feeding cheap electricity into the grid, permit most daily driving to be done with electricity, and at a cost equivalent of less than $1-a-gallon gasoline. In much of the world, 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. Our civilization is in trouble because of trends we ourselves have set in motion.
The good news is that momentum is building in efforts to reverse damaging environmental trends. Just to cite one example, in early 2007 Australia announced that it would ban incandescent light bulbs by 2010, replacing them with highly efficient compact fluorescents that use only one fourth as much electricity. Canada quickly followed with a similar initiative. Europe, the United States, and China are expected to do the same soon. The world may be approaching a tipping point on a political initiative that can drop world electricity use by nearly 12 percent, enabling us to close 705 coal-fired power plants. This “ban the bulb” movement could become the first major win in the battle to stabilize climate.
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, less polluted, and more civilized. A world where population has stabilized, forests are expanding, and carbon emissions are falling is within our grasp.
Adapted from Chapter 1, “Entering a New World,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb3.