EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Entering a New World: A Civilizational Tipping Point

In recent years there has been a growing concern over thresholds or tipping points in nature. For example, scientists worry about when the shrinking population of an endangered species will fall to a point from which it cannot recover. Marine biologists are concerned about the point where overfishing will trigger the collapse of a fishery.

We know there were social tipping points in earlier civilizations, points at which they were overwhelmed by the forces threatening them. For instance, at some point the irrigation-related salt buildup in their soil overwhelmed the capacity of the Sumerians to deal with it. With the Mayans, there came a time when the effects of cutting too many trees and the associated loss of topsoil were simply more than they could manage. 55

The social tipping points that lead to decline and collapse when societies are overwhelmed by a single threat or by simultaneous multiple threats are not always easily anticipated. As a general matter, more economically advanced countries can deal with new threats more effectively than developing countries can. For example, while governments of industrial countries have been able to hold HIV infection rates among adults under 1 percent, many developing-country governments have failed to do so and are now struggling with much higher infection rates. This is most evident in some southern African countries, where up to 20 percent or more of adults are infected. 56

A similar situation exists with population growth. While populations in nearly all industrial countries except the United States have stopped growing, rapid growth continues in nearly all the countries of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. Nearly all of the 70 million people being added to world population each year are born in countries where natural support systems are already deteriorating in the face of excessive population pressure, in the countries least able to support them. In these countries, the risk of state failure is growing. 57

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country—industrial or developing—has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 bc?

Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20 years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking supply of oil. 58

This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems, but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added to the list. The risk is that these accumulating problems and their consequences will overwhelm more and more governments, leading to widespread state failure and eventually the failure of civilization.

Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed. Several converging trends are making it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up with the growth in food demand. Prominent among these are falling water tables, the growing conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses, and more extreme climate events, including crop-withering heat waves, droughts, and floods. As a result, world grain production has fallen short of consumption in seven of the last eight years, dropping world grain stocks to their lowest level in 34 years. Corn prices nearly doubled and wheat prices nearly tripled between late 2005 and late 2007. 59

Just when it seemed that things could not get much worse, the United States, the world’s breadbasket, is planning to double the share of its grain harvest going to fuel ethanol—from 16 percent of the 2006 crop to 30 percent or so of the 2008 crop. With this enormous growth in the U.S. capacity to convert grain into fuel, the world price of grain is moving up toward its oil-equivalent value. This ill-conceived U.S. effort to reduce its oil insecurity has helped drive world grain prices to all-time highs, creating unprecedented world food insecurity. Under this stress, still more states may fail. 60

State failure can come quickly—and often unexpectedly. In looking back at earlier civilizations, it was often a single environmental trend that led to their demise. But countries today are facing several simultaneously, some of which reinforce each other. The earlier civilizations such as the Sumerians and Mayans were often local, rising and falling in isolation from the rest of the world. In contrast, we will either mobilize together to save our global civilization, or we will all be potential victims of its disintegration.

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55. Postel, op. cit. note 23, pp. 13–21; Gugliotta, op. cit. note 28.

56. UNAIDS, “HIV and AIDS Estimates and Data, 2003 and 2005,” 2006 Report on the Global Aids Epidemic (Geneva: May 2006).

57. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 10.

58. Colin J. Campbell, “Short Written Submission to the National Petroleum Council,” e-mail to Frances Moore, Earth Policy Institute, 14 August 2007, p. 5; “Iceland Launches Energy Revolution,” BBC News, 24 December 2001; John Vidal, “Sweden Plans to be World’s First Oil-Free Economy,” Guardian (London), 8 February 2006.

59. USDA, op. cit. note 18; Chicago Board of Trade, “Market Commentaries,” for wheat and corn, at www.cbot.com, viewed various dates September 2007; historical commodity prices from futures.tradingcharts.com, viewed 3 October 2007.

60. Ethanol requirement in 2008 from Renewable Fuels Association, “Ethanol Biorefinery Locations,” at www.ethanolrfa.org, updated 28 September 2007; 2008 grain harvest from Interagency Agricultural Projections Committee, Agricultural Projections to 2016 (Washington, DC: USDA, February 2007); 2006 corn used for ethanol from USDA Economic Research Service, Feed Grains Database, at www.ers.usda. gov/Data/FeedGrains, updated 28 September 2007; 2006 grain harvest from USDA, op. cit. note 18.


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