EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 13. Plan B: Building a New Future: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

Mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring the economy’s natural support systems, eradicating poverty, and stabilizing population. We have the technologies, economic instruments, and financial resources to do this. The United States, the wealthiest society that has ever existed, has the resources to lead this effort. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University’s Earth Institute sums it up well: “The tragic irony of this moment is that the rich countries are so rich and the poor so poor that a few added tenths of one percent of GNP from the rich ones ramped up over the coming decades could do what was never before possible in human history: ensure that the basic needs of health and education are met for all impoverished children in this world. How many more tragedies will we suffer in this country before we wake up to our capacity to help make the world a safer and more prosperous place not only through military might, but through the gift of life itself?” 19

It is not possible to put a precise price tag on the changes needed to move our twenty-first century civilization off the overshoot-and-collapse path and onto a path that will sustain economic progress. What we can do, however, is provide some rough estimates of the scale of effort needed.

As discussed in Chapter 7, the additional external funding needed to achieve universal primary education in the more than 80 developing countries that require help, for instance, is conservatively estimated by the World Bank at $12 billion per year. Funding for an adult literacy program based largely on volunteers will take an estimated additional $4 billion annually. Providing for the most basic health care in developing countries is estimated at $33 billion by the World Health Organization. The additional funding needed to provide reproductive health care and family planning services to all women in developing countries is less than $7 billion a year. 20

Closing the condom gap by providing the additional 9.5 billion condoms needed to control the spread of HIV in the developing world and Eastern Europe requires $2 billion—$285 million for condoms and $1.7 billion for AIDS prevention education and condom distribution. The cost of extending school lunch programs to the 44 poorest countries is $6 billion. An estimated $4 billion per year would cover the cost of assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in these countries. Altogether, the cost of reaching basic social goals comes to $68 billion a year. 21

As noted in Chapter 8, a poverty eradication effort that is not accompanied by an earth restoration effort is doomed to fail. Protecting topsoil, reforesting the earth, restoring oceanic fisheries, and other needed measures will cost an estimated $93 billion of additional expenditures per year. The most costly activities, protecting biological diversity at $31 billion and conserving soil on cropland at $24 billion, account for over half of the earth restoration annual outlay.

Combining social goals and earth restoration components into a Plan B budget yields an additional annual expenditure of $161 billion, roughly one third of the current U.S. military budget or one sixth of the global military budget. (See Table 13–1.) 22

Unfortunately, the United States continues to focus on building an ever-stronger military, largely ignoring the threats posed by continuing environmental deterioration, poverty, and population growth. Its proposed defense budget for 2006, including $50 billion for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, brings the U.S. projected military expenditure to $492 billion. (See Table 13–2.) Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members spend $209 billion a year on the military. Russia spends about $65 billion, and China, $56 billion. U.S. military spending is now roughly equal to that of all other countries combined. As the late Eugene Carroll, Jr., a retired admiral, astutely observed, “For forty-five years of the Cold War we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union. Now it appears we are in an arms race with ourselves.” 23

It is decision time. Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we can decide to stay with business as usual and watch our modern economy decline and eventually collapse, or we can consciously move onto a new path, one that will sustain economic progress. In this situation, no action is actually a decision to stay on the decline-and-collapse path.

It is hard to find the words to convey the gravity of our situation and the momentous nature of the decision we are about to make. How can we convey the urgency of this moment in history? Will tomorrow be too late? Do enough of us care deeply enough to turn the tide now?

Will someone somewhere one day erect a tombstone for our civilization? If so, how will it read? It cannot say we did not understand. We do understand. It cannot say we did not have the resources. We do have the resources. It can only say we were too slow to respond to the forces undermining our civilization. Time ran out.

No one can argue today that we do not have the resources to eradicate poverty, stabilize population, and protect the earth’s natural resource base. We can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty, and we can restore the earth’s soils, forests, and fisheries. Shifting one sixth of the world military budget to the Plan B budget would be more than adequate to move the world onto a path that would sustain progress. We can build a global community where the basic needs of all the earth’s people are satisfied—a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized.

This economic restructuring depends on tax restructuring, on getting the market to be ecologically honest. The benchmark of political leadership in all countries will be whether or not leaders succeed in restructuring the tax system as, for example, Germany and Sweden have done. This is the key to restructuring the energy economy—both to stabilize climate and to make the transition to the post-petroleum world. 24

It is easy to spend hundreds of billions in response to terrorist threats, but the reality is that the resources needed to disrupt a modern economy are small, and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security, however heavily funded, provides only minimal protection from suicidal terrorists. The challenge is not to provide a high-tech military response to terrorism, but to build a global society that is environmentally sustainable and equitable—one that restores hope for everyone. Such an effort would more effectively undermine the support for terrorism than any increase in military expenditures, than any new weapons systems, however advanced.

As we look at the environmentally destructive trends that are undermining our future, the world is desperately in need of visible evidence that we can indeed turn things around at the global level. Fortunately, the steps to reverse destructive trends or to initiate constructive new trends are often mutually reinforcing or win-win solutions. For example, efficiency gains that reduce oil use also reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. Steps to eradicate poverty simultaneously help eradicate hunger and stabilize population. Reforestation fixes carbon, increases aquifer recharge, and reduces soil erosion. Once we get enough trends headed in the right direction, they will often reinforce each other.

What the world needs now is a major success story in reducing carbon emissions and dependence on oil to bolster hope in the future. If the United States, for instance, were to decide to replace the existing fleet of inefficient gasoline-burning vehicles with super-efficient gas/electric hybrids over the next 10 years, gasoline use could easily be cut in half. Beyond this, a gas/electric hybrid with an additional storage battery and a plug-in capacity sets the stage for using electricity for short distance driving, such as the daily commute or grocery shopping. Then, as suggested in Chapter 10, if we invest in thousands of wind farms, Americans could do most of their short-distance driving essentially with wind energy, dramatically reducing pressures on the world’s oil supplies. 25

With many U.S. automobile assembly lines idled, it would be a relatively simple matter to retool some of them to produce wind turbines, enabling the country to quickly harness its vast wind energy potential. This would be a rather modest initiative compared with the World War II restructuring, but it would help the world to see that restructuring an economy is entirely doable and that it can be done quickly, profitably, and in a way that enhances national security by reducing dependence on vulnerable oil supplies. Globally, it would help slow the potentially disruptive rise in oil prices. Beyond this, it would reduce carbon emissions, helping to stabilize climate. And, most important, it would restore public confidence in government.

Table 13-1. Plan B Budget: Additional Annual Expenditures Needed to Meet Social Goals and to Restore the Earth

Funding (billion dollars)
Basic Social Goals

Universal primary education

Adult literacy
School lunch programs for 44 poorest countries
Assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in 44 poorest countries
Reproductive health and family planning
Universal basic health care
Closing the condom gap
Earth Restoration Goals
Reforesting the earth
Protecting topsoil on cropland
Restoring rangelands
Stabilizing water tables
Restoring fisheries
Protecting biological diversity

Source: See endnote 22.


Table 13–2. Comparison of Military Budgets by Country and for the World with Plan B Budget
Country Budget (billion dollars)
United States 492
Russia 65
China 56
United Kingdom 49
Japan 45
France 40
Germany 30
Saudi Arabia 19
India 19
Italy 18
All other 142
World Military Expenditure 975
Plan B Budget 161

Note: The U.S. number is the budget estimate for FY2006 (including the $50 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan); Russia and China data are for 2003.

Source: See endnote 23.

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19. Jeffrey Sachs, “One Tenth of 1 Percent to Make the World Safer,” Washington Post, 21 November 2001.

20. See Table 7–1 and associated discussion in Chapter 7 for more information.

21. Ibid.

22. See Tables 7–1 and 8–1 and associated discussion for more information on basic social goals (Chapter 7) and earth restoration goals (Chapter 8).

23. Table 13–2 compiled by Earth Policy Institute from Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Highlights of Senate Armed Services Committee Action on the Fiscal Year 2006 Defense Authorization Bill (S. 1042),” factsheet, at www.armscontrolcenter.org/archives/001919.php, 22 July 2005; Christopher Hellman, “U.S. Military Budget is the World’s Largest, and Still Growing,” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, at www.armscontrolcenter.org/archives/ 001221.php, 7 February 2005, based on data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the U.S. Department of Defense; Elisabeth Sköns et al., “Military Expenditure,” in Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2005: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2006 (Washington, DC: 2005); Eugene Carroll from Christopher Hellman, “Last of the Big Time Spenders: U.S. Military Budget Still the World’s Largest and Growing,” Center for Defense Information, at www.cdi.org/issues/wme/spendersFY03.html, 4 February 2002.

24. For more information on tax restructuring, see Chapter 12.

25. For more information on energy efficiency, see Chapter 10.


Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute