EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Worldwatch: A World Leader

One Saturday morning as I was working at home, it occurred to me that with the stable of publications we had at that point—the State of the World reports, the Worldwatch Papers, and the magazine—we were accumulating a huge database of global trends. It also occurred to me that our individual researchers, who had been contributing chapters to the first half dozen or so State of the World reports on a particular topic, whether it was renewable energy, water, forests, food, or population, were acquiring enough information to write a book on each of these subjects.

Although we had written groundbreaking books throughout our first decade, when we started publishing State of the World with our small staff, we didn’t have the time and resources to continue producing other books. We concentrated our energies instead on the new report. But now our research team had expanded to twelve and we had a broader institutional database to draw upon. Why not do a new series of books? To explore the idea, which came on a Saturday morning, I called one of my young colleagues, Alan Durning, who happened to live just a few blocks away, and invited him over for a midmorning cup of coffee to discuss the book series. He was immediately responsive. And later when I broached the subject with the other senior researchers, it appealed to them too.

We decided to call them the Worldwatch/Norton Environmental books. During the 1990s we published twelve of these. Alan Durning wrote a book on overconsumption, How Much Is Enough?, which became an immediate hit. Sandra Postel produced Last Oasis, a book that established her as a world authority on water. David Malin Roodman, barely thirty years old, produced The Natural Wealth of Nations, a book that made a convincing case for restructuring taxes by reducing income taxes and increasing taxes on environmentally destructive activities. Chris Bright, associate editor of the magazine, wrote Life Out of Bounds, the best book available on invasive species and the effect they are having throughout the world.

What was so amazing about our book publishing success at Worldwatch was that many of our books were written by first-time authors fresh out of school, more often than not with only a bachelor’s degree. As The Wall Street Journal noted, we had become “a magnet for talent,” hiring perhaps 1 out of every 300 applicants.

What I looked for in recruits was intelligence, judgment, and imagination. There are many very bright people, but not all of them have good judgment and still fewer are imaginative. We looked for young people who were either environmental science majors or who had majored in science, but who were also able to write.

For the institute, this was a period of rapid flowering and an extraordinary unfolding of talent. Each of these books was translated into several other languages, further strengthening our efforts to supply the world with fresh environmental information. Several of the books won awards.

In 1991, as I was walking to work one morning, I had another idea about how to make information on the environment even more accessible: a short book of environmental indicators. Our society was organized to provide huge amounts of economic data on a daily or monthly basis. Newspapers were devoting roughly two square inches each day to the prices of pork bellies traded on the Chicago commodities market, posting the day’s high and low prices. Every month there were reports on new housing starts, employment levels, and automobile sales. But the world was simply not systematically tracking the even more important environmental trends.

Was the earth’s annual temperature rising or declining? What about the world fish catch? How fast was wind-power generation growing from year to year? What was happening with world irrigated area? How were the earth’s forests faring in the face of unprecedented population growth? What was happening with bicycle sales? And what about atmospheric carbon dioxide levels?

There were many other data gaps, situations where the world needed more data to make responsible decisions. As I was thinking about the issues that morning on the way to work, I was also thinking about the format, and I chose fertilizer use as the one on which we could do a mock-up. Each indicator would be allocated two pages: the left-hand page would be a double column of text, a description and analysis of the trend over the past year against the longer-term historical backdrop. The right-hand page would have a column of historical trend data back to 1950 if they were available that far back. And where appropriate, that column of figures could be accompanied by the trend in per capita terms to keep the focus on population. The upper right-hand side of the page would display a graph of the trend itself.

For the mock-up on fertilizer, for example, the primary graph was the world production of fertilizer from 1950 onward. A secondary graph compared fertilizer use trends in key countries like the United States, Russia, India, and China.

I took this mock-up to W. W. Norton along with a list of the other indicators that could be included in the book. Like State of the World, this book would be produced annually. Iva Ashner, our contact person at Norton, was enthusiastic. The Surdna Foundation liked the idea and provided a substantial start-up grant.

On the staff, Hal Kane, Chris Flavin, Ed Ayres, and I took the lead. The first Vital Signs, which is what we titled this annual book series, was released in October 1992 at a well-attended press conference. Among the indicators it covered were world grain production, fertilizer use, carbon emissions, nuclear power generation, bicycle sales, automobile production, and growth of the world economy. When David Briscoe, environment reporter for the Associated Press, asked me after the press launch if he could take four additional copies for his colleagues, I knew we had another hit.

At this point, with a stable of publications that included two annuals—State of the World and Vital Signs—the topical Worldwatch/Norton books on environmental issues, the bimonthly World Watch magazine, and the ongoing Worldwatch Papers, we had a powerful lineup of publications with which to reach our global constituency.

State of the World continued to grow. In 1992 the first printing of the U.S. edition reached 100,000 copies. This did not include the English editions printed in the United Kingdom, India, and Australia. The German and Japanese editions, with first printings of 30,000 and 20,000 copies respectively, followed the English edition. The Finnish edition of State of the World 1991, the first in that language, bounced immediately to the top of the bestseller list in Finland.

Just as we were reaching new highs, the United Nations was convening the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. This two-week conference was the climax of a process begun in December 1989, with preparatory discussions and preliminary negotiations among the U.N. member countries. These led to the adoption of what was called Agenda 21, a wide-ranging blueprint for action to foster sustainable development worldwide. At its close, Maurice Strong, the Conference Secretary-General, called the Earth Summit a “historic moment for humanity.”

Chris Flavin, Sandra Postel, and I had written the book Saving the Planet for the conference. As it turned out, we had the only book describing the challenges and potential goals of the Earth Summit. We held a day-long press briefing seminar that was organized and financed by our Worldwatch Norden affiliate, led by Øystein Dahle and Magnar Norderhaug. Ketil Gravir, a journalist with Norwegian Radio and a colleague of Magnar’s, did an excellent job of moderating the session. Joining those of us on the staff—Chris Flavin, Sandra Postel, Hilary French, and me—were outside speakers Gro Harlem Brundtland, prime minister of Norway, who gave the opening address; General Olusegun Obasanjo, both a past and a future ruler of Nigeria; José Lutzenberger, former environment minister of Brazil; and Kazuo Aichi, former environment minister of Japan.

Interestingly, by the time the United Nations finally set the time of its opening session, it coincided with the scheduled Worldwatch press symposium. We were asked to change the time, but that was impossible, since the venue and the speakers had been lined up and the invitations sent out. As a result, we went ahead and held our press symposium at the same time as the opening session. Over 170 reporters from 114 media organizations attended our event, far exceeding the number that attended the conference’s official opening. This suggested that reporters were more interested in a serious discussion of the issues than they were of the highly generalized, often overtly political speeches by the national delegates. In addition to the press symposium, my colleagues and I did roughly 100 media interviews during the Earth Summit.

As a research institute working on global issues, we took seriously the need to reach a global constituency with our research results. For a small organization with a total staff of thirty, this requires a lot of help. To begin with, we had to make books a leading research product because book publishing is the only segment of the communications media where there is a well-established network of translators and publishers who can move information into the world’s leading languages.

A second pillar of the effort to reach this global audience was a close working relationship with the communications media worldwide. This included the wire services: Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News, Kyodo News, Xinhua, Deutsche Press Agency, Agence France Press, EFE News Service, Press Trust of India, and many smaller news agencies. We also worked closely with national television and radio networks, including RAI in Italy, NHK in Japan, CCTV in China, the leading U.S. national networks, and leading international broadcasters like CNN, BBC, and Voice of America (VOA). The latter two actually broadcast in many languages as they try to reach a worldwide audience.

One of the things we learned early on was the value of serving good food at our press lunches. The institute became known not only for its cutting-edge research, but also for its tasty food! Once we made the investment in research, a small additional investment in a first-class caterer earned a huge return.

The great advantage of being located in Washington is that the international press corps is likely to be the best anywhere simply because this is where the political action is. It is an assignment to which reporters aspire. It is not only the U.S. government that attracts the press, but also the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is thus a great place to have lunch with the reporters who are with leading news organizations.

By the mid-1990s, our clipping service was picking up forty stories per working day, and it covered only the more prominent newspapers and magazines in key countries. Our reputation and leadership in cutting-edge policy analysis translated into worldwide media attention. In essence, it meant that nothing we published was ignored. This is why Worldwatch became the most widely cited research institute in the world and why we often got a clean sweep of our releases by the big three electronic networks, the BBC, CNN, and VOA.

Early each year I went to Europe to launch State of the World in other languages. I regularly included Brussels, where Frank Schwalba-Hoth, a former German member of the European Parliament and longtime friend, would organize a briefing at the European Parliament. In 1992, I asked Frank for a personal favor, which was to help me find my ancestral village in southeastern Germany and my German cousins. The Berlin Wall had come down in 1989, and German reunification was finalized in October 1990. This was my first opportunity to find them. Three of the Schmidt (Smith) brothers had migrated to the United States in 1852. The fourth and youngest brother stayed in Germany to look after the parents. Two of his descendents also migrated to the United States, one in 1880 and another in 1922. My sister, Marion, the family genealogist, had located the village Frankenhausen in East Germany and actually had an address of the last known location of the German branch of our family.

I had been invited to speak at a conference in Berlin of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group that won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts on nuclear disarmament. Because of my scheduling constraints, I ended up speaking during the opening evening of the conference along with Willy Brandt, former chancellor and winner of the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize, with him leading off. After Brandt delivered his talk at the conference, I assumed he would leave, but much to my surprise he stayed to listen to me.

The president of the physician’s group took Brandt and me to dinner in a small, private room in a nearby restaurant. I did not expect to be so impressed with Brandt, but it quickly became clear that I was in the presence of a person of strong character, one with distinctive leadership skills. Remembering the time Brandt had spent in Norway after fleeing Germany and potential arrest by the Nazis, I asked him whether he knew Gro Harlem Brundtland, three-time prime minister of Norway. He said that he did. Because her father was part of the Norwegian resistance to the Nazi occupation, they sometimes held meetings in the Brundtland home when Gro was a young girl running about the house. So Brandt said he had seen Gro but had not had much contact with her since then. (When I later mentioned to Gro the visits by Brandt to her home, she recalled them very clearly and realized that she had forgotten to mention them in her recently published autobiography.)

The next morning, Frank and I drove south toward Frankenhausen in Thüringen Province in an old Russian Lada, a car Frank had borrowed from Greenpeace. We arrived shortly after midday. When we went to the lone address we had, we learned from the woman living there that she did not know the family, but she did know that a woman who lived a few blocks away had been a childhood playmate of someone who had lived there. We located this woman. She directed us to someone else, who linked us to another potential contact, and so on. At 10 p.m., we established phone contact with my German cousin, Elke Gessner, and her husband Uwe. They were living in the town of Sangerhausen, seventeen miles northeast of Frankenhausen. We agreed to meet the next morning in the restaurant at the small hotel overlooking the charming village square in Frankenhausen where Frank and I were staying.

Frank and I are among the world’s most casual dressers, but Elke and Uwe were dressed as though they were going to church, and while we were driving a decrepit Lada, they were driving a new Peugeot. Elke was a dental surgeon and Uwe an engineer. Clearly the poverty that permeated East Germany at this time did not affect everyone.

Initially they were suspicious, as anyone living in the repressiveness of East Germany had a right to be. But as we talked and exchanged information and looked at the photographs that someone had sent them a long time ago, it became clear that I was, indeed, their cousin. And, fortunately for me, they had a good command of English. We had coffee and talked for a couple of hours and then had lunch. Later, after visiting the local graveyard and touring the village area, we returned with them to their home in Sangerhausen for mroe coffee and some of Elke’s homemade pastries before heading to the Berlin airport.

Since then, various members of our families have exchanged visits, including Marion and her husband Bob, Carl and his wife Mary Lou, and Carl’s granddaughters, Leslie and Allison. In 1994, Elke and Uwe made their first trip to the United States to attend my sixtieth birthday party. My colleague Reah Janise had organized the surprise party, which was held in the grand ballroom of the Cosmos Club just a few blocks from our office. She had enlisted Scott McVay, head of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, to use a ruse to get me to the event. She had invited people from all over the world. In attendance were Edgar Lin from Taiwan; Prince Alfred von Liechtenstein; Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior; Eddie Albert, the actor; Jim Davis, my roommate from Rutgers; and lifelong friends Tom and Joanne Trail. My son and daughter, brother and sister and their spouses, and the guys with whom I’d played football for a quarter of a century also attended the party. And there were many more. I was in shock for the next few weeks.

Elke’s daughter Christine was a medical student at that time, and my daughter Brenda had recently graduated from vet school. Not long after, Christine and her fiancé visited my daughter and her family at their ranch in Colorado and were excited to see that they do, indeed, have horses and that they use them to round up cattle, just like in the western films.

When I am doing a book launching in Berlin, Elke and Uwe meet me at the airport or train station and stay at the same hotel. They also usually sit in on my talks and press conferences, and I include them in dinners with German political leaders.

Our maternal grandfather’s ancestry is the one branch of the family we have been able to trace back to Europe. Marion is still working on tracing the other three ancestral lines—Brown (English), Cain (Scottish), and Gallaher (Irish).

While all of my speaking invitations are interesting, a few stand out because they are what I referred to earlier as intersections with history. For instance, in 1990 I was asked to speak at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts. My faculty host was Michael Meeropol. After I left campus, I learned that Michael was the elder son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. After his father and mother were executed as spies in 1953, he and his younger brother Robert were reared by the Meeropols. Michael, a member of the economics faculty, was a leader at the college in raising environmental awareness.

At about this same time, when I was in Frankfurt to launch the German edition of State of the World, our publisher, Fischer Verlag, organized a lunch for a half dozen people at a local restaurant. We were sitting there when the sixth member of the party arrived on a bicycle, parked it a few feet away—the restaurant was semioutdoor—and joined us. I thought my host had said that his name was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the same as that of the French college student who had led the student demonstrations in Paris that culminated in the downfall of Charles de Gaulle. But that couldn’t be, because Cohn was French and this was Frankfurt.

I said, “Are you Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Danny the Red?” He said yes. He explained that he had since moved to Germany and been elected to the Frankfurt City Council.  Later he became a German Green Party member of the European Parliament. Now he was referred to as Danny the Green. When I addressed the annual meeting of the European Green Party in Helsinki in 2006, he interviewed me for a video that was posted on the party’s website.

Another time while on a book tour for State of the World 1991, I was briefing President Mitterrand of France in his spacious office late one afternoon. During our discussion, one of the phones rang on his desk and a light started flashing. He glanced at the bank of phones and said, “I had better take that.” So he went over and spoke for a half minute or so in French and then came back and sat down. He said, “It was Bush. I told him to call back in fifteen minutes.”

The following day when reading the news I realized that the likely subject of their conversation was a joint communiqué they were working on in response to Saddam Hussein’s refusal to let a U.N. team of nuclear weapons inspectors use helicopters in their inspections. The press reported the next day that Bush and Mitterrand said they would not stand by and let Hussein make a mockery of the United Nations.

Sometimes these intersections with history occur with Hollywood greats. In 1996, I was one of several honorary degree recipients at Villanova University, along with James Earl Jones. During a reception, when I asked him about his background, he said he had grown up in Michigan, living with his grandmother on her farm, and had enrolled at the University of Michigan as a premed student. But in his senior year, he realized, as many of us did at the time, that when he graduated there was a good chance he would be drafted and sent to Korea. Before that happened, he wanted to do something for fun. So he took a drama course. The world probably lost a good doctor.

Meanwhile, everything was expanding at Worldwatch. By the mid-1990s we had 159 book and magazine publishing contracts in some twenty-five languages. Of those, we bore the printing costs for only two, the English editions of the Worldwatch Papers and World Watch magazine.

One of the questions that I continually asked myself as the director of a research institute was whether our research products had any market value. People can always go to a funder and claim that their research products are valuable to society. But are they really? For me to comfortably make that argument, I first had to establish that we were producing products that people would buy.

From the institute’s beginning, I sought ways to market our publications to cover as much of our budget as possible. In our first full year of operation, our earned income from publication sales, royalties, and honoraria totaled 8 percent of our operating budget. The next year, it climbed to 15 percent, then to new highs of 19 percent, 29 percent, 37 percent, and 46 percent. Then it climbed to over half, reaching 65 percent in 1992.

When I stepped down as president in 2000, I could look back at the institute’s first twenty-six years, a span during which our earned income from royalties, sales, and speaking fees covered 51 percent of our expenditures. For most public policy research institutes, this is more likely to be two to five percent. Worldwatch had done something that, as far as I know, no public policy research institute has done before or since: it had covered over half of its budget from the marketing of its research products.

In many respects, the evolution of Worldwatch was an institutional reflection of my personality. It included a commitment not only to research but also to the dissemination of research results, something that began for me with Man, Land and Food in 1963. Other personal traits reflected in the institute were the exclusive focus on systemic research and a strong commitment to efficiency. Among other things, my obsession with efficiency meant keeping the number of staff meetings to a minimum. It meant not publishing an annual report on the activities of the institute. And, as noted earlier, we did not need a budget officer. The leanness of the institute staffing was both admired and appreciated by funders. Bottom line: the entrepreneurial instincts that shaped the tomato-growing operation launched in my teens were the same that shaped the Worldwatch Institute.

Another source of the institute’s efficiency was that in addition to being CEO, I was also a full-time researcher and did all the fund-raising. Reah Janise, who was both my assistant and vice president for special activities, also wore multiple hats, including managing our worldwide publishing network. Sharing my sense of efficiency, she is an expert scheduler, including my extensive travel itineraries. Whenever I needed extra help, such as transcribing an article or chapter over a weekend, I could always call on her.

As a manager, I requested regular reports on virtually every facet of our operation, including response to our direct mail promotions, earned income from publication sales, book royalties, subscriptions, honoraria, and interest earned on our operating reserves. Another indicator I followed closely was course adoptions in colleges and universities for State of the World. As the decade progressed, our other books such as Saving the Planet, How Much Is Enough?, Last Oasis, and Who Will Feed China? were also widely adopted for classroom use.

By the end of the century, we were firmly established as the world’s most widely cited research institute. No other institute could remotely approach us partly because we had mobilized a vast array of book publishers and media outlets to disseminate the results of our research. Worldwatch had become the principal source of environmental analysis and information worldwide.

This is not to say that everyone was in agreement with our emphasis on environmental issues. Most of the criticism came from the far right. Two of my principal critics during the ODC and Worldwatch years were Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute and Julian Simon at the Heritage Foundation. Both questioned the attention Worldwatch devoted to environmental destruction and resource depletion. They saw these problems as being solved with technology and market responses. Simon, an economist, argued in his book The Ultimate Resource that what the world needed was not family planning programs but more people. He saw people as “the ultimate resource.”

Simon not only disagreed with what I wrote, but he was also apparently upset by the media coverage that my work generated. In a speech, he said that my views “run directly counter to the mainstream of agricultural economists. Yet he remains the most quoted writer on the subject. How come? How come Lester Brown and colleagues have the entire ear of the press and the nation?”

I never spent time responding to Simon’s arguments. Kent McDougal of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Although Simon’s question was rhetorical, the answer seems to be that Worldwatch’s products, packaging and promotion have a lot of appeal, especially to journalists.”

The State of the World reports brought us many interesting visitors. In early 1997, the German Environment Ministry contacted us in Washington, indicating that the minister Angela Merkel would be coming to town and wanted to meet. I met with her late one afternoon at the Watergate Hotel. We had a great discussion, very informal and free-ranging, on world environmental issues, one that lasted for nearly two hours. She later did a book on the global environment in which she drew heavily on our discussion. Eight years later, she was chancellor of Germany.

Merkel’s political career has been meteoric and unique in many ways. For starters, she was from East Germany. She is also a woman, one with a PhD in physics. During her years as chancellor, so far totaling seven, she has been a strong leader not only in Germany but also at the international level, where she figures prominently in everything from shaping Europe’s role in the world to the debate over how to manage the European currency crisis.

Meanwhile, I began to think about my personal timetable. In 1999, as I was reaching the common retirement age of sixty-five, I began to think about Worldwatch beyond me. One of the things that would enhance the Institute’s long-term prospects would be to create an endowment fund, but doing so would require a restructuring of the board, bringing on people with financial resources who could help.

As we moved in this direction, some new board members wanted more say in managing the institute than I was prepared to give. This board situation, combined with staff members who wanted to be more involved in decision-making, coalesced into a move to replace me as president. At first I thought of fighting this move, but then at age sixty-six decided that it was not worth it.

Over the preceding years, I had occasionally asked myself whether the institute could survive my departure. I had wondered if I had created an organization that was so much a reflection of my interests, skills, and personality that it would be difficult for anyone else to sustain it as it then existed.

The prospect of no longer managing an organization in which I had invested twenty-six extraordinarily intense years was deeply depressing. But I also knew that I could not keep Worldwatch going forever. And I had promised myself early in my career that I would always be prepared to start over again if need be.

Worldwatch still exists, now under the able leadership of Robert Engelman, but on a much smaller scale, with fewer publications, most of which are written by outsiders. World Watch magazine no longer exists. And there are no longer any topical books being published.

The Worldwatch board proposed that I become its chairman and remain at the Institute as a full-time research fellow. The latter had some appeal because I could devote myself fully to research and I would no longer carry the burden of management, staff recruiting, and fund-raising. Only having to think about my own research was a luxury I had not known for twenty-six years.

This arrangement was, however, only to last until early 2001, just a year or so. I had too many ideas—not only on research topics but also on new research products and ways of disseminating information. It was time to start a new organization. Reah Janise shared this thinking. We started to look for office space for what was to become the Earth Policy Institute. But before the story of that new institute, another one needs to be told.