EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 13. Reflections

We are a product of our times. For me, the son of a dirt farmer, born during the Depression, acquiring a work ethic came early—well before I started school. More broadly, my own work, indeed my life over the last half century, has been shaped by the realization that it is my generation that has moved the world onto an economic path that is not environmentally sustainable, a path that has us headed for decline and collapse. The challenge of reversing this process has shaped my life.

Although I grew up in a family that was far from affluent, it was remarkably stable. In this social environment, expectations were low. If your parents had not graduated from elementary school and never traveled much beyond the local community, they were not so likely to press you on the educational front. This lack of high expectations provided a wonderfully pressure-free environment that let me set my own goals.

Being steeped in the biographies of historical figures in my youth led me to identify with people who attempted and achieved seemingly impossible goals. The subjects of these biographies were responding to the great issues of their time. For Galileo, it was showing that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. For the founding fathers, it was achieving independence and building a new country, one with a democratic form of government.

Although I had launched a promising farming operation during the 1950s with my brother Carl, by the summer of 1958 my mind was already turning to some of the larger issues facing humanity. The months spent living in the villages of India when I was twenty-two certainly reinforced this interest. It also helps explain my early attention to world population growth, soil erosion, and hunger. Once you understand the effect of soil erosion on the sustainability of agriculture, it is a short mental step to see how environmental trends more broadly threaten the sustainability of the global economy and, indeed, of civilization itself.

Looking back, it is clear that I have been the beneficiary of both a strong public educational system and a society of unmatched social mobility. Where else could one be the first in a family to graduate from elementary school and later be recognized with a stack of honorary degrees?

In retrospect, I realize that at every stage of my life I’ve been able to shape my own agenda. When I was in grade school, my overriding interest was in learning, which went far beyond our classroom assignments. Learning was also reading books.

Starting a tomato-growing business while in high school was also a learning experience, one that helped me to find my strengths. More specifically, I learned how to borrow money, to recruit workers, to manage, and to use time efficiently.

When I joined the Foreign Agricultural Service at the USDA, my official assignment was the Rice Bowl countries, but my real interest was the world. I wanted to get to know world agriculture and know it better than anyone. Continually raising the bar on what I wanted to do helped me to discover what I could do.

Having grown up on a farm and farmed myself for eight years, I look at the world through the eyes of a farmer. Systemic thinking comes naturally to farmers, who necessarily have to deal with a wide range of issues. As a farmer you develop an understanding of nature as it relates to agriculture in all its complexity. For example, during a full moon, tomatoes ripen faster, requiring more baskets and pickers, than during the dark of the moon. You have to pay attention to the daily weather. With tomatoes it is essential to know the combination of temperature and humidity that fosters the tomato blight. This is the same blight that attacks the potato. It is the one that caused the Irish potato famine beginning in 1845, which decimated both the Irish potato harvest and the population. It helps explain why there are 35 million of us in the United States today who are of Irish descent—and why one-fourth of my DNA is Irish.

The attraction of systemic thinking influenced the academic path I chose to follow. The major in general agricultural science offered at Rutgers enabled me to take science courses in many fields. Taking a course, for example, in geology, meteorology, or genetics did not mean that I had much depth in these fields. But learning the basic concepts and vocabulary unique to each enabled me to look at issues from many different vantage points—something that would be invaluable in analyzing global environmental and food issues.

As a student, my record was well above average, but I was never interested in getting a PhD. For me, that was not the route to broadening my knowledge base. In the end, I settled for three degrees in three fields—agricultural science at Rutgers, agricultural economics at Maryland, and public administration at Harvard.

Free from the confines of a particular discipline, I am able to analyze the macro issues the world is facing in a systemic fashion, including such issues as climate change, population growth, food insecurity, the energy transition, and failing states. This approach has enabled me to sometimes see things others could not so easily see. In a world where specialization has become the norm, there is a hunger for a broader interdisciplinary understanding of the world’s more pressing issues.

The positive feedback for taking this broader approach is itself rewarding. In April 2010 I was invited to participate in a panel discussion and screening on Capitol Hill of the popular movie Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron. Shortly after I arrived at the reception that preceded the panel, Cameron approached me and said, “I recognize you from your book jacket photo. I am reading Plan B 4.0 for the fourth time.” I was astounded.

During the panel discussion, which also included columnist Tom Friedman, actress Sigourney Weaver, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, Cameron—whose education was partly in the sciences—explained that he had only in recent years become interested in environmental issues. He found himself reading countless articles in scientific journals as well as news reports as he tried to piece together the big picture. He found it time-consuming and frustrating. And then a friend recommended that he read Plan B 4.0. It was just what Cameron needed. He could now see the big picture, the earth’s ecosystem and its relationship with the global economic and political systems. He could understand, for example, how rising temperatures lower grain yields and how environmental degradation contributes to state failure.

Although many individuals have written books about the environment, they tend to be one-time efforts, not an ongoing series. Against this backdrop, my books, roughly one per year, including the State of the World reports, represent the closest thing there is to a history of world environmental trends and developments for the last half of the twentieth century.

The lack of official tracking of environmental trends contrasts sharply with those of agriculture and health. The U.N. agencies that were formed during the early years of the United Nations were producing their own annual status reports. For example, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization published The State of Food and Agriculture each year. The World Health Organization produced World Health Statistics. Likewise, the International Labour Organization published annually on the status of the world’s labor force.

The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) was not created until 1972. Headed initially by Maurice Strong, it was by U.N. standards a shoestring organization with a limited budget. It was not until 1997 that UNEP began publishing an occasional report entitled Global Environment Outlook. These are useful, information-rich reports, but only five of them have been published over the last fifteen years.

At the personal level, I take great pride in the achievements of my son and daughter. Shirley, who assumed much of the responsibility for raising Brian and Brenda, initially because of my demanding travel schedule during the USDA years, then later after we divorced, is an exceptional mother. She has also been wonderfully supportive of me, both when we were married and ever since.

During the summers when Brian was an environmental science major at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he worked as a river guide for rafting trips and developed a strong interest in kayaking. At age twenty-two, he entered a kayak slalom race on the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania. Three years later, he became a member of the U.S. Slalom Kayak Team.

After retiring from international competition several years later, Brian sold canoes and kayaks in the Rocky Mountain states. A few years later, he parlayed his income from this into real estate in Durango, Colorado, where he now lives. Brian enjoys living close to the edge. He has ten “first runs” of rivers—eight in North America and two in Latin America, the latter two originating on the Bolivian Plateau and flowing northeast into the Amazon Basin. In descending one of these rivers through unbelievably rugged terrain, he said he felt like he was in a place where no human had been before.

Over the past five years, Brian has turned to nature photography. At his first public exhibition in a gallery in Durango, there was standing room only. Three of his sixteen photographs sold the day before the show opened. In his words, he tries to “capture the essence or emotional context of a subject.” He writes, “Often to me the process is so engaging that I forget to breathe, and the world ceases to exist outside of my view finder.” A stunning photo he took of Denali (Mt. McKinley) during a father-son trip to Alaska in July 2011 hangs in the conference room at the Earth Policy Institute.

One thing I could do with Brian and Brenda was to encourage participation in sports. In high school, Brenda was interested in track. However, her school, with perhaps a dozen students in her class, did not have a girl’s track team. A math teacher took her under her wing, registering Brenda in regional and state track meets, even driving her to them. I coached long distance. One of the most exciting events came in a thirteen-school state championship track meet, where Brenda entered both the one- and two-mile races. She placed in both and as a result scored enough points to finish seventh out of the thirteen teams. Although she did not win either event, she outscored six of the teams. I am a proud father!

Brenda earned a degree in microbiology from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, followed by a doctorate in veterinary science. As a vet she treats both small and large animals. The small animal practice is based in her clinic in Greeley, Colorado. The large animal practice covers the forty-mile stretch of ranch country that goes from Greeley north to the Wyoming border, an area where there are many cattle and few people.

Brenda is a pioneer in animal acupuncture and routinely uses it in her practice. She is also a certified human acupuncturist. She can treat a rancher and his horse during the same call.

She and her husband, Chris Haun, have three children: Bridget, now at the University of Wyoming, Lena in Pawnee High School, and Cash who is in kindergarten. She and Chris, who has a light construction business, also have a ranch. What I find so remarkable about Brenda is that she is simultaneously a vet, always on call, a mother, and a rancher. 

With my son and daughter living in Colorado and my brother and sister in New Jersey, I usually divide the holidays between them, I typically spend a week in the summer with Brenda’s family, Brian, and Shirley in Aspen, often when I am addressing a conference there, and enjoy the week over Christmas at Brenda’s ranch.

Carl and his wife, Mary Lou, host a cookout on July 4 as well as Thanksgiving for the extended Brown family. My brother’s home is on the edge of the farm where we grew up and that he and I own. Carl looks after our farm, where his daughter, Darlene, and her family now live. We rent the land to a nearby farmer to grow soybeans.

Marion and her husband, Bob, a former French teacher, live along a pleasant wooded stream eleven miles east of the farm. Marion, like me, worked her way through college, graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in art history, which she taught in high school. She and Bob started the Canvas Bag, an art supply and framing business in Bridgeton. They also have a small art gallery next door where they display the work of local artists. And since Bob is also a runner, we have run countless miles together over the rural roads where I grew up. We have also run several Cherry Blossom 10-Mile races.

Marion and Bob always host my visits to New Jersey. Marion deserves a gold medal for her daily oversight of our parents during their latter years. She is also the family event organizer and family genealogist, learning things about our roots that are of intense interest to me.

My companion, Maureen Kuwano Hinkle, was a widely respected environmental lobbyist from 1972 to 1999. Among other notable achievements, she is the godmother of the USDA Conservation Reserve Program, which led to the conversion of over 30 million acres of highly erodible cropland back to grass or trees. We share many interests. She has time to read books I would like to read, notably those dealing with history and biography. She enjoys going with me to conferences, particularly those held in places like Davos and Aspen. In addition to her intellect, she is also a great cook and goes out of her way to make life easy for me.

In my personal life, I have always sought simplicity and efficiency. This begins with not owning a car. I live in a one-bedroom condo on the top floor of an older apartment building that faces north, overlooking Rock Creek Park, with the National Cathedral in the distant background. During the summer solstice, I can watch the sun set on the spires of the cathedral. (My own Stonehenge.) With the zoo only a half mile up the creek, I can hear the lions roar early in the morning. The one-mile walk to work on a quiet residential street integrates some exercise into my day and affords me time for reflection and occasionally a fresh idea. There are scores of good restaurants, including almost every ethnic restaurant imaginable, within a twenty-minute walk of my apartment.

My time is devoted largely to reading and writing, with some for speaking and the associated travel. Anyone wanting to be a systemic global analyst has to read all the time. My reading day begins in the office at 7:30 a.m., just after I’ve started the coffee, by quickly scanning the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. Each day my colleagues gather a set of articles from newspapers, magazines, scientific journals, and the Internet for me to read. They occasionally pass on a book they think I need to see.

I devote my mornings to writing, seven days a week. Technically I rarely actually write anything, nor do I type. Instead I dictate. If I’m doing a book, I spend some time thinking about the table of contents and getting feedback from my colleagues, trying to get the structure clearly in mind. Then my colleagues collect information from a diverse array of sources for each of the chapters. I go through this material, making notes on an unlined letter-sized pad. Once that is complete, I dictate from the notes. In the next stage, I rework the dictated draft. When it is ready for review, my colleagues read and critique it, giving me excellent feedback.

My simple lifestyle is designed to provide as much room for research and writing as possible. As my colleagues know well, I wear the same style light-blue Oxford weave cotton shirts every day—short sleeves in the summer, long sleeves in the winter—with dark blue shorts for summer, and navy blue corduroy trousers for winter. No time wasted in selecting colors. And, when necessary, I clip on a bow tie that I carry in my suit pocket.

And I use energy frugally. Although air-conditioning units were installed when the 1929 vintage apartment building was renovated some thirty-five years ago, I prefer to open the windows and use the ceiling fans that I have in each room. Otherwise, I could not hear the birds sing in the park or the leaves rustle in the summer breeze.

In terms of health, I have been remarkably fortunate to date. I have not called in sick over the past half-century. Is this because of inherited DNA or because I so enjoy what I am doing? I don’t know. Maybe both.For exercise, in addition to walking to work, I also run. When I started running competitively sixty-five years ago as a fourteen-year-old sophomore, I was not the best distance runner in our high school. After fifty-six years of running, I finally achieved national ranking as a ten-miler, ranking fourth in the seventy to seventy-four age group. After entering the seventy-five to seventy-nine age group, I moved up to third place. Next is the eighty-and-up category. We will see. This is my “persistence pays” story.

My training regimen has typically involved running four miles two nights a week, sometimes ending with running up 800 stairs, two at a time, at the Woodley Park-Zoo Metro escalator. Back at the apartment after running, I do a quick round of push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. On Saturdays I do a distance run in Rock Creek Park of nine to fifteen miles, the distance depending on where I am in my training cycle. Running provides a sense of well-being. Without running to maintain at least a minimum of physical conditioning, I could not maintain the schedule that I do.

For some twenty-five years, roughly 1965 to 1990, I also played touch football every Saturday from Labor Day to Memorial Day with an “over-the-hill” group. Setting aside the world’s problems and concentrating only on winning a football game was enormously relaxing. If I had the time, I would still be playing football.

I have no desire to accumulate wealth beyond the savings needed to sustain me. Although I have received millions in speaking fees and prizes, I have always channeled this income into the organizations where I worked.

When I am asked by young people, often college students, for career advice, I usually suggest that they resist the trend in our educational system to become ever more specialized as they progress up the educational ladder. Instead, I urge them to develop their own educational agenda, one that broadens their knowledge base. There are many specialists in the world, but what we desperately need now are people who can integrate across fields of knowledge and think broadly about the big issues.

Additional suggestions for students: Pursue your dream, set your standards high, and keep raising the bar. Don’t fear failure. That is how we learn. And dream big. Goethe summed it up: "Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men."

What will my legacy be? Bryan Walker writing for Celsius.com in 2011 has described my role as follows: “Brown understands well the precariousness of human civilisation as the time of environmental reckoning draws ominously closer. He expresses it in patient and telling detail that addresses the intelligence and humanity of the reader. He equally buttresses his outline of the solutions with solid information as to how and why they can work.  Whether sanity and clarity carry weight in the halls of power may be moot, but Brown well represents the thinking of the substantial body of people who see the perils ahead and want their governments to mobilise to avert them.”

In my mind, helping to develop the concept of sustainable development is my principal legacy. Closely related to this is systemic thinking and analysis, a mode of research that became the foundations of both the Worldwatch and the Earth Policy institutes.

The concept of environmentally sustainable development began evolving in my mind during the early 1960s when I was writing Man, Land and Food and looking at the relationships between projected population growth and the earth’s land and water resources. I began to see a troubling relationship emerging between growing human demands on the earth’s natural systems—including forests, grasslands, fisheries, and croplands—and their carrying capacities. I was by no means the only one to work on this concept, but two of the books I wrote early on, The Twenty-Ninth Day in 1978 and Building a Sustainable Society in 1981, helped to shape understanding of what sustainable development was and how to attain it.

As my thinking on sustainable development progressed, it evolved into Plan B, which not only describes a society that can endure but also how to create it. The development of Plan B with my colleagues at the Earth Policy Institute has been particularly rewarding as it allows me to draw on a lifetime of research. The good news is that more and more governments are recognizing that business as usual is no longer a viable option and that they need to adopt Plan B or something very similar to it.

The yardstick by which I judge myself is not in terms of how many books I’ve written, though that has been rewarding, or how many talks I’ve given, much as I’ve enjoyed them, but rather whether we are reversing the trends that are undermining our future. Are we making the transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and geothermal energy fast enough to prevent climate change from spiraling out of control? Are we reforesting the earth, reducing pollution, and stabilizing world population? If we cannot reverse the trends that have us on a decline-and-collapse scenario, I cannot claim success.

There are many developments that spawn hope. For example, in the United States, the world’s largest economy, carbon emissions are falling fast as coal plants close and as cars become more fuel efficient. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign reports that more than one fourth of U.S. coal plants have closed or will soon do so. Their goal is to shutter every one.

The Obama administration has mandated a 50 percent reduction in fuel use of new cars between 2010 and 2025. Oil consumption in the United States, which is already falling, will continue to do so in the years ahead.

Following the crop-shrinking drought and heat in the United States during the summer of 2012 and Superstorm Sandy that ravaged New Jersey and New York in the fall of 2012, society is recognizing the need to take action on climate change. Once societies reach these tipping points, change can come very fast.

I am sometimes asked when I plan to retire. I have no plans to do so simply because I so enjoy what I am doing. There are still many trends to be reversed. My goal is to keep working as long as mind and body permit. If we can reverse these trends, we may be able to move civilization onto a sustainable path. What could be more satisfying?