EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 7. Shifting Gears: The Overseas Development Council

I had been too busy to think much about what I would do if Hubert Humphrey were to lose. And perhaps it was just as well. Shortly after the election in 1968, I was approached by James P. Grant, a senior official at AID and someone I had worked with a few years earlier when he was the AID mission director in Turkey. Jim had been contacted by a group of U.S. opinion leaders who wanted to start a research organization to focus on third-world development and the U.S. role in it and asked if he would head it.

After the extraordinary success of the Marshall Plan and the enthusiasm it generated, U.S. public support for international development was waning. The group wanted to create an organization, the Overseas Development Council (ODC), to try to reverse this trend and restore U.S. support for international development efforts. These goals meshed nicely with my sense of what needed to be done.

Jim said he would take this position if I would join him. Although he had extensive experience with developing countries, he had not had much research experience and was thus looking for help. Jim offered me the position of vice president, but having just been in a management position I indicated a preference for being a senior fellow and concentrating on research. At this point there were many issues that I had been thinking about and wanting to write about. Jim understood. Within a few weeks, we signed a lease for space at 1717 Massachusetts Avenue NW in the heart of Washington’s Think Tank Row, and in January 1969 the ODC was born.

This period was a particularly yeasty time in U.S. history. It was in 1969, that the country made good on Kennedy’s bold 1961 promise that the United States would land a man on the moon during the decade. The photograph of the earth taken from outer space reminded us that political boundaries, not visible from space, are mere human constructs.

Also serving as part of the political backdrop to everything we did was the divisive, hotly debated Vietnam War. The Cold War between the West, led by the United States, and the Eastern bloc, led by the Soviet Union, was a dominant issue during this era. China, largely in isolation since the communist takeover in 1949, was showing signs of opening up to the outside world.

While I was heading the International Agricultural Development Service, we had our largest overseas technical assistance team in Vietnam—some 200 strong in total. During my first visit there the embassy scheduled a briefing by two Army lieutenants of roughly my age. As the briefing proceeded with maps, charts, troop numbers, body counts, and an overview of U.S. strategy, I remember feeling that it was so superficial—not a winning strategy. Like many others, I began to wonder why we were there.

Within the United States, the 1960s witnessed the emergence of the counterculture, consisting mostly of young, upper-middle-class whites, most of whom were either college graduates or college dropouts, who were challenging the status quo. They were opposed to the war in Vietnam, supported greater gender and racial equality, and wanted freedom to experiment with drugs. Jentri Anders, a social anthropologist, summarized the goals of this movement as “freedom to explore one’s potential, freedom to create one’s Self, freedom of personal expression, freedom from scheduling, freedom from rigidly defined roles and hierarchical statuses.”

On the economic front, the early 1970s saw a dramatic rise in grain prices. This began in the summer of 1972 after the Russians, facing a catastrophic crop failure, cornered the world wheat market by secretly buying up most of the exportable wheat supplies. As this became public knowledge, wheat prices soared and food prices followed. Almost overnight once stable prices became erratic.

Shortly thereafter came the Arab oil export embargo, and oil prices climbed even more. Gasoline became scarce. Television news focused on the long lines of cars at gas stations. From 1950 to 1972, a bushel of wheat could have been traded for a barrel of oil, but between 1972 and 1974 alone, the price of wheat doubled and the price of oil quadrupled. By 1980 it took six bushels of wheat to buy one barrel of oil. From a research vantage point, these were my issues, my cup of tea.

With growing uncertainty about what the future might hold, people were eager for new insights. Analysts were trying to forecast the future, producing a number of books including Future Shock, in which Alvin and Heidi Toffler discussed the effects of fast-changing technology. Other influential books looking at the effects of accelerating technological change were Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Between Two Ages and Ralph Lapp’s The Logarithmic Century.

The modern environmental movement, spurred by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, was gaining momentum. The first Earth Day was held in 1970. More books quickly followed: Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, Richard Falk’s This Endangered Planet, and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle. And then in 1972 came The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. Other books had begun hinting at potential constraints on economic growth, but while they created waves, The Limits to Growth generated a tsunami.

At the launching of the Limits to Growth, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and moderated by Elliot Richardson, who was then secretary of health, education, and welfare, I listened with interest as the authors discussed the various limits on economic growth that they had identified and projected. From the beginning, it was clear the business community would attack it. (However, in 2012, when I spoke at the fortieth anniversary of the release of The Limits to Growth, I was able to identify in some detail the emerging constraints on the expansion of the food supply, such as shrinking water supplies and the glass ceiling on rice yields in Japan and South Korea and wheat yields in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The study’s critics had largely disappeared in the intervening years.)

It was against this backdrop that I was shifting from an unbelievably exciting decade in government to one with a whole new range of options. Freed of management responsibilities, I had time to write books and articles and accept speaking invitations on a variety of topics, ranging from the world food prospect to the growing interdependence among countries. New vistas opened for me as I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, Science, and Scientific American.

Scientific American, which devoted its annual theme issue in 1970 to the biosphere, invited me to write the article on food. This forced me to organize my thinking about agriculture as a process in the biosphere. What I learned was that not only did Scientific American have a huge circulation in its own right, but that it ingeniously marketed individual articles. For starters, the magazine had a four-page marketing pamphlet of some 1,600 articles printed in fine type, each accompanied by a box for checking to order. This list was widely promoted in colleges and universities. Professors could select from these articles to, in effect, assemble their own textbooks, tailor-made for the particular courses they were teaching.

Scientific American also recombined articles from the magazine around various themes, republishing them as Scientific American books. For example, my article was included in a collection of food articles and at least four other theme collections including biology, anthropology, civilization, and human nutrition. This was a lesson in marketing that I would later use.

My early months at the ODC were spent writing Seeds of Change, a book about the Green Revolution. I had been researching the evolution of the high-yielding dwarf wheats and rices, a process that began in Japan for the wheats and that continued with their adaptation and improvement by Norman Borlaug and his colleagues in Mexico. Japan’s dwarf rices were adapted at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) under Robert Chandler’s leadership for use in other countries. These dwarf short-straw varieties could double yields, partly because much less of the plant’s photosynthate was needed to produce the straw, leaving more to produce seed.

While I was working on the food in the biosphere article, Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on eradicating hunger. Science asked me to write the appreciation piece. I began the article like this: “Late in 1944, four young American scientists assembled in the hills outside Mexico City. Their mission was to export the U.S. agricultural revolution to Mexico. They believed that the application of science to agriculture could achieve the same results in the poor countries as it had in the United States. Like Mao Tse-tung, they believed that the future of these countries would be decided in the countryside.”

I concluded the piece by noting that Borlaug’s work in developing the new wheats along with high-yielding rices shortly afterward at the IRRI could “affect the well-being of more people in a shorter period of time than any technological advance in history. This is not to imply the new seeds offer a solution to the food problem, but they do buy some precious time, perhaps an additional 10 to 15 years in which to stabilize population growth.” Norm, who was a longtime friend, rarely ever gave a talk on the world food prospect in which he did not emphasize the urgency of putting the brakes on population growth.

Two years later, I was invited by the Saturday Review of Literature, now defunct, to review The Limits to Growth. And though I was not certain about the value of computer modeling to project our future, there was clearly a need for a systemic approach to analyzing global environmental-economic relationships, and it did seem to me that this young team of MIT researchers, led by Dennis and Donella Meadows, were on the right track. Their thinking meshed with my own approach to research, analysis, and policymaking.

In 1973 I did a lengthy piece, “The Need for a World Food Reserve,” that appeared on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. Not surprisingly, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, opposed the idea. He argued that the reserve would depress farm prices when in effect it was designed to avoid both price collapses and soaring prices. With a floor price for acquisition and a ceiling price for release, it would offer stability to both consumers and farmers. At this writing, there is again talk about the need for a food reserve. Since we no longer have cropland idled under U.S. farm programs as we did then, and since climate change is introducing even greater uncertainty in agriculture, the need for that reserve is even more urgent today.

While my early years at the USDA had been devoted to becoming knowledgeable about world agriculture, shortly after publication of Man, Land and Food I began broadening my knowledge about the world in general and particularly about the relationship between the earth’s ecosystem and the world economy. This allowed me to weigh in more effectively when advising governments directly or when outlining policy directions in my research, writing, and speaking.

My next book, World Without Borders, was for me a breakout work both in the breadth of issues it covered and the audience it was reaching. It described how the world was tied together by the earth’s natural systems, the fast-growing trade and financial links, and their interplay with governments. The bottom line was that the world needed new and stronger international institutions to deal with these linkages. Fortuitously, the international community, led by the United States, created the United Nations Population Fund in 1967 (originally called the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, UNFPA) and, in 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme.

The New Yorker described World Without Borders as “an encyclopedic, lucid assessment of some of the world’s persistent problems … and some carefully documented, highly plausible suggestions for solving them. [Brown] persuasively argues … that the day of the militaristic nation state is over, and that a unified global society is the only hope for survival.” This book was about globalization well before the concept was widely used.

At this point, with time to broaden my knowledge of the world, I was becoming keenly aware of the expanding role of multinational corporations in the global economy. This was a time not only of world economic growth but of economic integration across national boundaries. Corporations would produce for a world market. Manufacturing supply chains could be anchored in many countries.

To illustrate this point, I constructed an integrated list of countries (measured by gross national product) and corporations (measured by gross annual sales). In the top fifty of this integrated list of 100, countries dominated, with only eight corporations making the top fifty. General Motors, the largest corporation, was ranked eighteenth. In the second grouping of fifty, there were thirty-six corporations and only fourteen countries. We clearly had entered a new era, one of not only increased corporate influence but also of globalization. We clearly had entered a new era of increased corporate influence and of globalization.

The title for the book came from a newspaper article in which students in Prague, Czechoslovakia, were interviewed some time after Soviet tanks had rolled into their city to quell the 1968 uprising. When a student was asked what kind of world she would like, she responded, “A world without borders.” The words jumped off the page, capturing the spirit of the book that I was writing.

One manifestation of the growing concern about resource issues and globalization was the organizing of conferences by the United Nations on such topics as population, food, water, and urbanization. Two of these meetings were scheduled in 1974: the World Population Conference, held in Bucharest in August, and the World Food Conference, held in Rome in November. The UNFPA had asked me to write a book for the Bucharest conference. They wanted a book that dealt with the many dimensions of the population issue, including not only food but other resources and the relationship between social conditions and fertility levels. Entitled In the Human Interest, this book appeared in English as well as in Arabic, Italian, Indonesian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish.

In late summer, we at the ODC realized that no book had been commissioned for the upcoming food conference. So Erik Eckholm, my research assistant, and I began working fast on a book entitled By Bread Alone. As we were coming down the home stretch, we learned that The New York Times was planning a series of articles on food for the weeks leading up to the October conference. Erik and I tried to figure out who the various reporters would be, including those who wrote on topics such as agriculture, nutrition, and trade. We sent each of them a copy of the book while it was still in typescript. After several New York Times feature articles on food either cited or quoted By Bread Alone, editors at the Times began restricting such reliance on us.

The USDA, which was also working on a report to be released before the conference, was behind schedule and in the end failed to deliver. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome was producing a background report for the conference as well, but it had little original to say and it largely ignored the population issue. As a result, By Bread Alone became the leading source of information for anyone looking for an up-to-date account of the world food situation and future prospects for eradicating hunger.

In 1975, I received a letter from Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania and one of Africa’s elder statesman. He wrote, “Sometime ago, you sent me a copy of your book, By Bread Alone. I had already read your World Without Borders and I am writing to congratulate you as well as to thank you, for both books.”

He went on to say, “In By Bread Alone, you say that ‘not two in a hundred of the national political leaders knows that population which increases by 3 percent a year will increase 19 times in a century,’ and you may well have been right. But whatever the number who had that knowledge, you have now increased it by at least one! Your example on page 180 struck me very forcibly because the Algerian population of 15 million which you gave as your example is very roughly the same as the present Tanzanian population. That our population may be 288 million in a hundred years makes you (me!) think.”

I describe such contacts with historical figures as intersections with history. Another of these came in late 1974 when Eve Labouisse, a member of the Cosmopolitan Club, a prestigious New York women’s club, invited me to speak at one of their monthly dinners. Specifically she wanted me to talk about the world food situation, which had become rather chaotic following the crop failure in the Soviet Union.

After accepting the invitation, I learned that my host’s full name was Eve Curie Labouisse. She was the daughter of Marie Curie, one of my heroes. Marie Curie was not only the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, she was also the first of only four scientists to earn two of the coveted awards—the first in physics, shared with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel in 1903, and the second in chemistry, in 1911.

Although we often think of Marie Curie as French she was actually Polish, née Maria Sklodowska. She came to Paris as a graduate student because Poland did not admit women to graduate schools.

Marie Curie coined the term radioactivity and discovered two elements, radium and polonium, the latter named after her homeland.  In addition, Eve’s sister Irène and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 for their synthesis of new radioactive elements. Furthermore, Eve’s husband, Henry Labouisse, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 on behalf of UNICEF, which he headed from 1965 to 1979.

Eve was fond of apologizing because she was the only member of the family who did not have a Nobel Prize. Born in Paris on December 6, 1904, she had become a concert pianist and then, during World War II, played an active role in the French resistance. A woman of many talents, she wrote a widely acclaimed biography of her mother that was published in 1937, not long after her mother’s death, a book I had read as a teenager.

At about this time, I was on a flight from London to Dulles Airport (outside Washington, DC) in, as I recall, one of the early Boeing 747 jumbo transports. My seat was next to the window. On my immediate right was an elderly woman. She had with her some packages wrapped in brown paper that she was trying to put under her seat. I indicated that they should be pushed under the seat in front of her, which I helped her do. After she was seated, she was trying to find the light switch, so I explained how to operate the light. It seemed clear to me that she was not a very experienced traveler. As we talked on the flight, she referred to her son David and what he was doing. I then realized that she was Alice Acheson, widow of President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson.

She was returning from Iran, where she had been touring archeological sites with two guides, both leading U.K. academics on ancient Persian culture. The items she had wrapped in brown paper were small, rare Persian rugs given to her by the Shah of Iran during her visit.

A week or so later, I got a phone call from Mrs. Acheson asking if I was indeed the young man who had helped her get her Persian carpets through customs. I indicated that I was. She then asked if I could attend a dinner two weeks hence. I replied that I would be delighted to do so. Some days later she called and said that it would be a black tie affair. Not long before the dinner, she called again to say she had arranged for me to have a dinner partner. She turned out to be Janet Murrow, the widow of Edward R. Murrow, a pioneer among television talk show hosts, and since Joseph Alsop, a leading newspaper columnist, was there, we ended up discussing the world food situation, which was a live issue at the time.

During the ODC years, I addressed many conferences, some of them in what for me were exotic places, such as Aspen, Colorado, and Salzburg, Austria. In Aspen, the conferences usually focused on energy and food. During the early 1970s the Aspen Institute organized the Great Ideas seminars for corporate executives. These were two-week periods of intense exposure to great ideas, a concept inspired by Mortimer Adler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. One of these Great Ideas seminars, held in the summer of 1972, was chaired by Bill Moyers, who asked me to be his assistant. It was here that I met Roger and Vicki Sant, who years later provided the start-up grant to launch the Earth Policy Institute in 2001.

In 1971 and again in 1974 I was invited to be on the faculty of the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies. This series was designed to expose promising young midcareer Europeans, mostly in government but including some in industry as well, to American culture and thinking. The seminar was held in Schloss Leopoldskron, the elegant home where The Sound of Music was filmed. In 1971, Shirley and I attended. In 1974, Brian and Brenda, who were thirteen and eight, accompanied me.

At one of the dinner discussions among Salzburg faculty members, I suggested that we challenge the students to a race around the lake, roughly two miles. The group quickly agreed. Princeton economist John Lewis, who was chairman of the faculty and someone I knew from his years in New Delhi, announced that the faculty were challenging the students, most of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties, to a race around the lake. The “faculty,” of course, was me. John had no intention of running, nor did any other faculty member. In any event, the date was scheduled. This event became a social focus of our three-week seminar as people speculated about the prospects for various fellows, some of whom were experienced distance runners.

One of the more promising entrants was a very athletic, well-conditioned Romanian who was a member of his country’s white-water kayak team. Another was a young German who had been an 800-meter runner in college. There was also a lean, young Canadian in attendance who looked like he could be a formidable competitor. As the race started, the pace was unusually fast, one I knew I could not sustain. Either the field was going to leave me behind or they were overcommitting in the early stages of the run, perhaps because no one knew quite what to expect from the other runners. I adjusted my pace based on the latter assumption, knowing that I needed to slow down to retain any chance of winning. As we approached the far side of the lake, which people could see from the Schloss grounds, I was in fourth place. Then slowly, one by one, I picked off the Romanian, the German, and, finally, with a few hundred yards to go, the Canadian.

When running on the far side of the lake, I could hear Brenda yelling, “Go, Daddy, go!” It was a fun occasion, one that I particularly enjoyed sharing with Brian and Brenda.

Meanwhile, the two books and the articles I had written were generating many speaking opportunities. During the last few months in 1974, for example, I gave talks at a Nobel conference in Stockholm, a meeting of the Club of Rome in Berlin, the World Food Conference in Rome, and an international nutrition conference in Guatemala. The flow of speaking invitations has continued ever since.

Among the more interesting experiences during my time at the ODC was my inclusion in the notorious Nixon White House “enemies list.” Even today I’m not certain why my name was on the list, but I do know that associated with that listing was a break-in at my town house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, one in which drawers were pulled out and turned upside down, everything dumped onto the floor. As best as I could tell, however, nothing was missing. My office was also broken into. Being on the list promised one more thing: a complimentary audit of your income taxes by the Internal Revenue Service. My sense was that these were measures designed to intimidate those who in some way actively opposed the president’s policies.

The sad part of this period was that my marriage was coming to an end. We separated for a year as Shirley returned to Wyoming with the children. We had actually talked about the advantages of their growing up in ranch country as opposed to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, but never in terms of actually separating. A year later, we divorced amicably, maintaining a joint checking account for years to come.

My six years at the ODC were intellectually rich ones. I was given great freedom by Jim Grant in selecting research topics and the books that I would write. Jim left it to me to set my own research and writing priorities, continuing in the tradition of Quentin West, John Schnittker, and Orville Freeman by creating a working environment where the only constraints on what I could contribute were those imposed by my personal limitations.

Working with Jim broadened my horizon because of his experience and vision of the world. To begin with, he was born in Peking (Beijing), where his father was for fifteen years a professor of public health at the Rockefeller Foundation–funded Peking Union Medical College. Jim’s work in the late 1940s with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in China, his stint as the U.S. AID mission director in Turkey from 1964 until 1967, and his time in Washington as assistant administrator of the U.S. AID for Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 helped prepare him to lead the ODC. He was a visionary. Jim made the ODC a center for development research, seminars, and conferences—in short, a focal point for the international development community.

But his crowning glory was to come after he left ODC in 1980 to head UNICEF. In this capacity, he took the vaccination of children and the use of oral rehydration therapy to treat childhood diarrhea to a whole new level. It was an extraordinary achievement by a U.N. agency and a tribute to Jim’s ability to persuade national political leaders to take the health and development of children seriously. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in 2008 that Jim “probably saved more lives than were destroyed by Hitler, Mao, and Stalin combined” through this work.

As my thinking and writing ranged widely during these years with Jim, it became clear to me that negative environmental trends were emerging as a major threat to our future and that protecting our environment would become the great issue of our time. It was also clear that this issue deserved a research institute of its own. Another chapter was about to begin.