EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 13. The Great Mobilization: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

Mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring its natural support systems, eradicating poverty, stabilizing population and climate, and, above all, restoring hope. 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?” 46

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

As noted in Chapter 7, the additional external funding needed to achieve universal primary education in developing countries that require help, for instance, is conservatively estimated at $10 billion per year. (See Table 13–2.) 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 amounts to $17 billion a year. 47

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 $3 billion—$550 million for condoms and $2.75 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 $77 billion a year. 48

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 $113 billion in additional expenditures per year. The most costly activities, protecting biological diversity at $31 billion and conserving soil on cropland at $24 billion, account for almost half of the earth restoration annual outlay. 49

Combining social goals and earth restoration components into a Plan B budget yields an additional annual expenditure of $190 billion, roughly one third of the current U.S. military budget or one sixth of the global military budget. (See Table 13–3.) In a sense this is the new defense budget, the one that addresses the most serious threats to our security. 50

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 defense budget for 2006, including $118 billion for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought the U.S. military expenditure to $560 billion. Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members spend a combined $328 billion a year on the military. Russia spends about $35 billion, and China, $50 billion. U.S. military spending is now roughly equal to that of all other countries combined. 51

As of late 2007, direct U.S. appropriations for the Iraq war, which has lasted longer than World War II, total some $450 billion. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes calculate that if all the costs are included, such as the lifetime of care required for returning troops who are brain-injured or psychologically shattered, the war will cost in the end some $2 trillion. Yet the Iraq war may prove to be one of history’s most costly mistakes not so much because of fiscal outlay but because it has diverted the world’s attention from climate change and the other threats to civilization itself. 52

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 a de facto decision to stay on the decline-and-collapse path.

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 will be whether leaders succeed in restructuring the tax system. Restructuring the tax system, not additional appropriations, is the key to restructuring the energy economy.

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 do more to combat terrorism than any increase in military expenditures or than any new weapons systems, however advanced.

Just as the forces of decline can reinforce each other, so can the forces of progress. Fortunately, the steps to reverse destructive trends or to initiate constructive new trends are often mutually reinforcing, win-win solutions. For example, efficiency gains that lower oil dependence also reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. Steps to eradicate poverty help stabilize population. Reforestation fixes carbon, increases aquifer recharge, and reduces soil erosion. Once we get enough trends headed in the right direction, they will reinforce each other.

The world needs 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 launch a crash program to shift to plug-in hybrid cars while simultaneously investing in thousands of wind farms, Americans could do most of their short-distance driving with wind energy, dramatically reducing pressure on the world’s oil supplies. 53

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 restructuring during World War II, 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 both by reducing dependence on vulnerable oil supplies and by avoiding disruptive climate change.

Table 13–2. Plan B Budget: Additional Annual Expenditures Needed to Meet Social Goals and to Restore the Earth

Source: See endnote 47.
Funding (billion dollars)

Basic Social Goals

Universal primary education
Eradication of adult illiteracy
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

Planting trees to reduce flooding and conserve soil
Planting trees to sequester carbon
Protecting topsoil on cropland
Restoring rangelands
Restoring fisheries
Protecting biological diversity
Stabilizing water tables
Grand Total


Table 13–3. Military Budgets by Country and for the World in 2006 and Plan B Budget

Source: See endnote 50.
Budget (billion dollars)

United States

United Kingdom
Saudi Arabia
All other
World Military Expenditure
Plan B Budget

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

47. Table 13–2 complied from Tables 7–1 and 8–1; see associated discussion in Chapter 7 for more information on social goals and funding.

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

49. See Table 8–1 and associated discussion in Chapter 8 for more information.

50. Table 13–3 compiled from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Military Expenditure Database, electronic database at www.sipri.org, updated June 2007, with U.S. military expenditure from Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Analysis of the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2006 Supplemental Funding Request,” at www.armscontrolcenter.org, viewed 14 September 2007.

51. SIPRI, op. cit. note 50.

52. Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other War on Terror Operations Since 9/11 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 16 July 2007); Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, The Economic Costs of the Iraq War: An Appraisal Three Years After the Beginning of the Conflict (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, February 2006).

53. For more information on plug-in hybrids and wind energy, see Chapter 12.


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