EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 13. Plan B: Building a New Future: A Call to Greatness

History judges political leaders by whether or not they respond to the great issues of their time. For today’s leaders, that issue is how to move the global economy onto an environmentally sound path. We need a national political leader to step forward, an environmental Churchill, to rally the world around this mobilization.

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, several world leaders suggested a twenty-first century variation of the Marshall Plan to deal with poverty and its symptoms, arguing that in an increasingly integrated world, abject poverty and great wealth cannot coexist. Gordon Brown, U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, notes that, “Like peace, prosperity was indivisible and to be sustained, it had to be shared.” Brown sees a Marshall Plan–like initiative not as aid in the traditional sense, but as an investment in the future. 26

French President Jacques Chirac, a political conservative, told the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in September 2002 that “the world needed an international tax to fight world poverty.” He suggested a tax on airplane tickets, carbon emissions, or international currency trading. To illustrate his commitment, Chirac announced that over the next five years France would double its development aid, reaching the internationally agreed upon goal of devoting 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to aid. Going beyond economic issues, he also suggested the creation of a world environment organization to coordinate efforts to build an environmentally sustainable economy. 27

The urgency of the situation we are now in means that individual countries will simply have to take initiatives on such things as reducing carbon emissions without waiting for a new international agreement to be negotiated. It took the better part of a decade to negotiate the grossly inadequate Kyoto Protocol. We no longer have time for prolonged negotiations. 28

In 1999, when the German government decided to launch a tax restructuring that would raise taxes on energy use and reduce those on income, a step designed to both reduce carbon emissions and increase employment, its leaders did not insist that the rest of the world or even other European countries agree to do it. They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do for Germany. If countries take strong steps to reverse the trends undermining our future, other countries are certain to follow. At this point in history, the best way to lead is by doing. 29

Similarly, when Sweden decided on an even more basic environmentally guided restructuring of its tax system, it did not insist that others also do so. It acted on its own and decisively, providing an example for other countries. 30

In the United States, frustration with Washington’s decision to ignore the Kyoto Protocol has led mayors of more than 180 cities to band together to honor the Protocol’s goals of cutting carbon emissions 7 percent below the 1990 level over the next decade. In early June 2005, Fred Pearce wrote in the New Scientist, “Last month, in the boldest repudiation of a national government yet, a group of American mayors swept aside the Bush administration’s refusal to cut carbon emissions.” Among the cities were some of the country’s largest: Los Angeles, Denver, and New York. Initiatives to achieve the carbon cutting goals are numerous and vary widely among cities. In Salt Lake City, the city authority is buying wind-generated electricity. New York City is converting its municipal motor fleet to gas-electric hybrid vehicles. 31

A revolt is also under way at the state level. Nine states in the northeastern United States are negotiating a pact to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. State legislatures elsewhere in the country are adopting renewable portfolio standards, which establish a minimal amount of future electricity that must come from renewable energy sources. Among them are California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. 32

Paralleling the need for political leadership is the need for media leadership. Given the urgency of action, and of mobilizing support for these actions, the world faces an unprecedented public education challenge. Turning the tide depends on the communications media rising to the occasion to raise public awareness about the gravity of our situation and the urgency of responding to it. Only the communications media can disseminate information on the scale needed and in the time available. No other institution has this capacity.

This position of the media industry is remarkably similar to that of the U.S. automobile industry in World War II. Like the auto industry some 60 years ago, this is not a responsibility that publishers and editors have asked for or, indeed, that they necessarily want to assume. But there is no alternative. If the communications media worldwide do not take the lead in raising public environmental understanding, the current mobilization will likely fail. We are facing a situation totally different from any faced before, one that requires an entirely new response.

On January 1, 2005, the New York Times took a step in this direction when it devoted four fifths of its op-ed page to a piece by Jared Diamond, based on his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond reflected on the lessons we could draw from earlier civilizations that, like ours, had moved onto an economic path that was environmentally unsustainable. 33

What Diamond learned in researching this book was that moving off the decline-and-collapse path back onto an economic path that is environmentally sustainable is not always easy. Some civilizations are able to read the warning signs and change course quickly. Others fail to do so and collapse. 34

This research makes it clear that environmental mismanagement, if it continues long enough, leads to civilizational collapse. Diamond’s article helped launch a public dialogue about the environmental parallels between our contemporary global civilization and the earlier civilizations discussed in the book.

Nongovernmental environmental groups are also answering the call. By selecting Wangari Maathai for the 2004 Peace Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize committee was recognizing grassroots environmental leadership at its best. Nearly 30 years ago, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an organization that mobilized people at the local level to plant some 30 million trees in Kenya. As Geoffrey Dabelko wrote in Grist, the movement mobilized thousands of women, offering them empowerment, education, and even family planning. In 2002, Maathai was elected to Parliament and was shortly thereafter appointed Deputy Minister of Environment by the new government. 35

Corporate leaders are also getting involved. Ted Turner, founder of CNN, broke new ground for individual philanthropy when he announced in 1997 a gift of $1 billion to the United Nations to support population stabilization, environmental protection, and the provision of health care. He created the UN Foundation to serve as a vehicle through which the resources could be transferred. Turner could have waited until his death to leave a bequest for the earth, but given the urgency of the situation the world was facing, he argued that billionaires needed to respond now before problems become unmanageable. 36

Turner undoubtedly influenced Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, as well as other newly minted billionaires.

Channeling his wealth as the world’s richest individual into a foundation and allocating it to improve health in developing countries, including initiatives ranging from massive childhood vaccinations to curbing the HIV epidemic, Gates is saving millions of lives. 37

There is a growing sense among the more thoughtful political leaders that business as usual is no longer a viable option, that unless we respond to the environmental threats to our twenty-first century civilization, we are in trouble. The prospect of failing states is growing as mega-threats such as the HIV epidemic, hydrological poverty, and land hunger threaten to overwhelm countries on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder.

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26. Gordon Brown, “Marshall Plan for the Next 50 Years,” Washington Post, 17 December 2001.

27. Gerard Bon, “France’s Chirac Backs Tax to Fight World Poverty,” Reuters, 4 September 2002.

28. “A Long Decade of Negotiations: The Difficult Birth of the Kyoto Protocol,” European Affairs, summer 2002.

29. J. Andrew Hoerner and Benoît Bosquet, Environmental Tax Reform: The European Experience (Washington, DC: Center for a Sustainable Economy, 2001), pp. 17–18.

30. Ministry of Finance, Sweden, “The Budget for 2005: A Commitment to More Jobs and Increased Welfare,” press release (Stockholm: 20 September 2004); Ministry of Finance, Sweden, “Taxation and the Environment,” press release (Stockholm: 25 May 2005).

31. Fred Pearce, “Cities Lead the Way to a Greener World,” New Scientist, 4 June 2005; Office of the Mayor, Greg Nickels, Seattle, “U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement,” at www.seattle.gov/mayor/climate, updated 3 October 2005.

32. John Richardson, “States Poised to Set Limits on Emissions,” Portland Press Herald, 21 September 2005; Kathy Belyeu, “States of Motion: Not Content to Wait for Federal Action, More U.S. States Act to Develop Renewable Energy,” Solar Today, May/June 2005.

33. Jared Diamond, “The Ends of the World as We Know Them,” New York Times, 1 January 2005; Diamond, op. cit. note 8.

34. Diamond, op. cit. note 8.

35. Geoffrey Dabelko, “Nobel of the Ball: Kenyan Eco-Activist Wangari Maathai Wins Nobel Peace Prize,” Grist Magazine, 8 October 2004.

36. For more information about the United Nations Foundation, see www.unfoundation.org.

37. For more information about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, see www.gatesfoundation.org.


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