EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Can We Mobilize Fast Enough?: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

Mobilizing to save civilization means fundamentally restructuring the global economy in order to stabilize climate, eradicate poverty, stabilize population, restore the economy’s natural support systems, and, above all, restore 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.

On the eradication of poverty, 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.” 61

We can calculate roughly the costs of the changes needed to move our twenty-first century civilization off the decline-and-collapse path and onto a path that will sustain civilization. What we cannot calculate is the cost of not adopting Plan B. How do you put a price tag on civilizational collapse and the massive suffering and death that typically accompanies it?

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. Funding for adult literacy programs 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. 62

Closing the condom gap by providing the additional 14.7 billion condoms needed each year to control the spread of HIV in the developing world and Eastern Europe requires roughly $3 billion—$440 million for condoms and $2.2 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. 63

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 $110 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. 64

Combining social goals and earth restoration components into a Plan B budget yields an additional annual expenditure of $187 billion, roughly one third of the current U.S. military budget or 13 percent of the global military budget. (See Tables 10–2 and 10–3.) In a sense this is the new defense budget, the one that addresses the most serious threats to our security. 65

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 2008 military expenditures totaled $607 billion, 41 percent of the global total of $1,464 billion. Other leading spenders included China ($85 billion), France ($66 billion), the United Kingdom ($65 billion), and Russia ($59 billion). 66

Table 10-2. Plan B Budget: Additional Annual Expenditures Needed
to Meet Social Goals and to Restore the Earth
Goal Funding
Billions of Dollars
Basic Social Goals  
  Universal Primary Education 10
  Eradication of adult illiteracy 4
  School lunch programs for 44 poorest countries 6
  Assistance to preschool children and
pregnant women in 44 poorest countries
  Reproductive health and family planning 17
  Universal basic health care 33
  Closing the condom gap 3
  Total 77
Earth Restoration Goals  
  Planting trees to reduce flooding and conserve soil 6
  Planting trees to sequester carbon 17
  Protecting topsoil on cropland 24
  Restoring rangelands 9
  Restoring fisheries 13
  Protecting biological diversity 31
  Stabilizing water tables 10
  Total 110
Grand Total 187
Source: See endnote 63 and 64.


Table 10-3. Military Budgets by Country and
for the World in 2008 and Plan B Budget
Country Budget
Billions of Dollars
United States 607
China 85
France 66
United Kingdom 65
Russia 59
Germany 47
Japan 46
Italy 41
Saudi Arabia 38
India 30
All Other 380
World Military Expenditure 1,464
Plan B Budget 187
Source: See endnote 65.

As of mid-2009, direct U.S. appropriations for the Iraq war, which has lasted longer than World War II, total some $642 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 cost of war will in the end approach $3 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. 67

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, the failure to act 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 do the job. We can stabilize world population. We can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty, and we can restore the earth’s soils, forests, and fisheries. Shifting 13 percent 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 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, as described earlier. The benchmark of political leadership will be whether leaders succeed in shifting taxes from work to environmentally destructive activities. It is tax shifting, not additional appropriations, that is the key to restructuring the energy economy in order to stabilize climate.

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 any new weapons systems, however advanced.

Just as the forces of decline can reinforce each other, so can the forces of progress. For example, efficiency gains that lower oil dependence also reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. Steps to eradicate poverty help stabilize population. Reforestation sequesters 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 in order to bolster hope in the future. If the United States, for instance, were to launch a crash program to shift to plug-in and all-electric hybrid cars while simultaneously investing in thousands of wind farms, Americans could do most of their driving with wind energy, dramatically reducing the need for oil.

With many U.S. automobile assembly lines currently 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 achievable 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.

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

62. Universal primary education from U.K. Treasury, From Commitment to Action: Education (London: Department for International Development, September 2005); adult literacy campaign is author’s estimate; universal basic health care from Jeffrey D. Sachs and the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, Macroeconomics and Health: Investing in Health for Economic Development (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2001); reproductive health and family planning from J. Joseph Speidel et al., Family Planning and Reproductive Health: The Link to Environmental Preservation (San Francisco: Bixby Center for Reproductive Health and Research Policy, University of California, 2007), p. 10, and from J. Joseph Speidel, discussion with J. Matthew Roney, Earth Policy Institute, 16 October 2007.

63. In Table 10–2, closing the condom gap estimated from Population Action International, “Why Condoms Count in the Era of HIV/AIDS,” fact sheet (Washington, DC: 2008); cost per condom and condom distribution from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Donor Support for Contraceptives and Condoms for STI/HIV Prevention 2007 (New York: 2008); school lunch program from George McGovern, “Yes We CAN Feed the World’s Hungry,” Parade, 16 December 2001; assistance to preschool children and pregnant women is author’s estimate of extending the U.S.’s Women, Infants, and Children program, based on United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision (New York: 2005); UNFPA, The State of World Population 2004 (New York: 2004), p. 39.

64. In Table 10–2, restoring the earth budget compiled from the following: planting trees to reduce flooding and conserve soil and protecting topsoil on cropland from Lester R. Brown and Edward C. Wolf, “Reclaiming the Future,” in Lester R. Brown et al., State of the World 1988 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), p. 174, using data from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Fuelwood Supplies in the Developing Countries, Forestry Paper 42 (Rome: 1983); planting trees to sequester carbon from IPCC, op. cit. note 41, pp. 543, 559; restoring rangelands from UNEP, Status of Desertification and Implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action to Combat Desertification (Nairobi: 1991), pp. 73–92; restoring fisheries from Andrew Balmford et al., “The Worldwide Costs of Marine Protected Areas,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 101, no. 26 (29 June 2004), pp. 9,694–97; protecting biological diversity from World Parks Congress, Recommendations of the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress (Durban, South Africa: 2003), pp. 17–19, and from World Parks Congress, “The Durban Accord,” at www.iucn.org/themes/wcpa, viewed 19 October 2007; stabilizing water tables is author’s estimate.

65. Table 10–3 compiled from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Military Expenditure Database, electronic database at www.sipri.org, updated 2009.

66. SIPRI, op. cit. note 65.

67. Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 15 May 2009); 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); Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, “The $10 Trillion Hangover,” Harper’s, January 2009.

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