There is much that we do not know about the future. But one thing we do know is that business as usual, including our continuing failure to reverse the environmental trends undermining the world food economy, will not last for much longer. Massive change is inevitable. “The death of our civilization is no longer a theory or an academic possibility; it is the road we’re on,” says Peter Goldmark, current director of the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. Can we find another road before time runs out? I think so. I call this road Plan B.
Plan B is the alternative to business as usual. Its goal is to move the world from the current decline and collapse path onto a new path where food security can be restored and civilization can be sustained. Just as the trends that are behind the current deterioration in the food situation—including the loss of cropland to development and soil erosion, falling water tables, the conversion of food into fuel, and rising carbon emissions—go far beyond agriculture itself, so too must the response. In times past it was the Ministry of Agriculture that held the key to expanding agricultural research, expanding credit to farmers, and all the other obvious things that fall within its province, but securing future food supplies now depends on the mobilization of our entire society.
For these reasons Plan B is far more ambitious than anything the world has ever undertaken, an initiative that has no precedent in scale or urgency. It has four interdependent components: cutting net carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020, stabilizing population at 8 billion or lower, eradicating poverty, and restoring the earth’s natural systems, including soils, aquifers, forests, grasslands, and fisheries. The ambitiousness of this plan is not driven by perceived political feasibility but by scientific reality.
The plan to cut carbon emissions involves dramatically raising energy efficiency worldwide, investing in the massive development of renewable energy resources, banning deforestation, and planting trees by the billion. Plan B essentially outlines a transition from an economy powered mainly by oil, coal, and natural gas to one powered largely by wind, solar, and geothermal energy.
The Plan B goal of stabilizing population is set at 8 billion or lower simply because I do not think world population will ever reach the 9.2 billion projected by U.N. demographers for 2050. The vast majority of the 2.4 billion people projected to be added by 2050 will be born in developing countries—countries where the land and water resource base is deteriorating and hunger is spreading. Many support systems in these countries are already in decline, and some are collapsing. The question is not whether population growth will come to a halt before reaching 9.2 billion but whether it will do so because the world shifts quickly to smaller families or because it fails to do so—and population growth is checked by rising mortality. Plan B embraces the reduced fertility option.
Eradicating poverty is a priority goal for three reasons. One, in combination with giving women everywhere access to reproductive health care and family planning services, it is the key to accelerating the global shift to smaller families. It also helps bring impoverished nations into the international community, giving them a stake in such matters as stabilizing climate. When people are not sure where their next meal is coming from, it is difficult for them to get excited about trying to stabilize the earth’s climate. And third, eradicating poverty is the humane thing to do. One of the hallmarks of a civilized society is the capacity to care about others.
The fourth component of Plan B involves repairing and protecting the natural systems that support humankind. This includes conserving soil, banning deforestation, promoting reforestation, restoring fisheries, and making a worldwide effort to protect aquifers by raising water productivity. Unless we can reverse the deterioration of these systems, we are unlikely to reverse the rise in the number of hungry people, now totaling over 1 billion.
The ambitiousness of this save-our-civilization plan is matched by the urgency with which it must be implemented. Success depends on moving 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 attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States shifted from producing cars to turning out planes, tanks, and ships within a matter of months. The current restructuring cannot be achieved without a fundamental reordering of priorities. And it will not be accomplished without sacrifice. For example, the key to the 1942 industrial restructuring was a nearly three year ban on the sale of new cars.
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 off the collapse path and back onto an environmentally sustainable path has already been done in one or more countries. For example, more than 30 countries have essentially stabilized their population size.
We see the components of Plan B in technologies already on the market. On the energy front, for example, we can get more energy from an advanced-design wind turbine than from an aging oil well. The new plug-in gas-electric hybrids coming to market, like the Chevrolet Volt, can get up to triple-digit miles per gallon. In the Plan B energy economy of 2020, most of the U.S. fleet will be plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, and they will be running largely on wind-generated electricity for the equivalent of less than $1 a gallon of gasoline.
The world is in the early stages of a revolution in lighting technology. We know that compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) can provide the same lighting as century-old incandescent bulbs but use only one fourth as much electricity. Even more exciting, we are now looking at a still more-advanced lighting technology—the light-emitting diode (LED)—which uses 15 percent of the electricity used by an incandescent bulb. Shifting from incandescents to LEDs and installing motion sensors and dimmers can reduce electricity used for lighting by more than 90 percent.
As for Plan B models at the national level, Denmark today gets more than 20 percent of its electricity from wind and has plans to push this to 50 percent. Some 27 million Chinese homes get their hot water from rooftop solar water heaters. Iceland, which heats 90 percent of its homes with geothermal energy, has virtually eliminated the use of coal for home heating.
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 quarter-century retired one tenth of its cropland, most of it highly erodible, and shifted to conservation tillage practices on part of the remainder—has reduced soil erosion by 40 percent. Meanwhile, the grain harvest expanded by one fifth.
Some of the most innovative leadership has come from cities. Curitiba, Brazil, began restructuring its transport system in 1974, and in the two decades that followed the city cut car traffic by 30 percent while its population doubled. Amsterdam has a diverse urban transport system where some 40 percent of all trips within the city are taken by bicycle. London is taxing cars entering the city center and investing the revenue in upgrading public transit.
The challenge is to build a new economy at wartime speed before we miss so many of nature’s deadlines that the economic system begins to unravel. Participating in the construction of this enduring new economy is exhilarating. So is the quality of life it will bring. A world where population has stabilized, forests are expanding, and carbon emissions are falling is within our grasp.
Adapted from Chapter 1, “Selling Our Future” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb4.