EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Can We Mobilize Fast Enough?: Introduction

There is much that we do not know about the future. But one thing we do know is that business as usual will not continue for much longer. Massive change is inevitable. “The death of our civilization is no longer a theory or an academic possibility; it is the road we’re on,” says Peter Goldmark, former Rockefeller Foundation president and current director of the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Can we find another road before time runs out? 1

The notion that our civilization is approaching its demise is not an easy concept to grasp or accept. It is difficult to imagine something we have not previously experienced. We hardly have the vocabulary, much less the experience, to discuss this prospect. We know which economic indicators to watch for signs of an economic recession, such as declining industrial output, rising unemployment, or falling consumer confidence, but we do not follow a similar set of indicators that signal civilizational collapse.

Given the role of food shortages in earlier civilizational declines, we obviously should watch food price and hunger trends closely. The growing number of hungry people, the projected continuation of this trend, and the lack of a plan to reverse it should be a matter of concern to political leaders everywhere. 2

Neither spreading hunger nor the threat of it unfolds in a political vacuum. Affluent grain-importing countries are buying large tracts of land in poorer countries in the emerging cross-border competition for control of land and water resources. This opens a new chapter in the geopolitics of food scarcity. Where ultimately does this lead? We do not know. We have not been here before.

In many ways, the most basic indicator of our plight is the number of failing states. Each year this list grows longer. How many states must fail before our global civilization begins to unravel? Again, we do not know the answer because we have not been here before.

Our future depends on reversing both the spread of hunger and the growing number of failing states, but this will not happen if we continue with business as usual. Turning this situation around will take a worldwide, wartime-like mobilization. We call it Plan B. This plan, or something similar to it, is our only way out.

Plan B embraces a massive mobilization to restructure the world economy—and at wartime speed. The closest analogy is the belated U.S. mobilization during World War II. But unlike that chapter in history, in which one country totally restructured its industrial economy in a matter of months, the Plan B mobilization requires decisive action on a global scale.

The four mutually dependent Plan B goals—stabilizing climate, stabilizing population, eradicating poverty, and restoring the economy’s natural support systems—are all essential to restoring food security. It’s unlikely that we can reach any one without reaching the others.

Eradicating poverty is not only the key to population stabilization, political stabilization, and a better life, it also provides hope. As Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank for micro-credit in Bangladesh, has pointed out, “Poverty leads to hopelessness, which provokes people to desperate acts.” 3

Stabilizing population not only helps eradicate poverty, it makes it easier to reach almost every other goal that we seek. On a finite planet, where we are pushing the earth beyond its limits, every country should have a population stabilization policy.

As noted in Chapter 7, international assistance programs require a special initiative, a unique component, to rescue failing states. Just as hospitals have intensive care units that give special attention to the most seriously ill, so too international assistance programs need a special facility to deal with seriously ill nation states. 

We know from our analysis of climate change, from the accelerating deterioration of the economy’s ecological supports, and from our projections of future resource use that the western economic model—the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy—will not last much longer. We need to build a new economy, one that will be powered by renewable sources of energy, that will have a diversified transport system, and that will reuse and recycle everything.

We can describe this new economy in some detail. The question is, How do we get from here to there before time runs out? In effect, we are in a race between political tipping points and natural tipping points. Can we reach the political tipping point that will enable us to cut carbon emissions before we reach the point where the melting of the Himalayan glaciers becomes irreversible? Will we be able to halt the deforestation of the Amazon before it dries out, becomes vulnerable to fire from natural causes, and turns into wasteland?

The key to building a global economy that can sustain economic progress is the creation of an honest market, one that tells the ecological truth. To create an honest market, we need to restructure the tax system by reducing taxes on work and raising those on carbon emissions and other environmentally destructive activities, thus incorporating indirect costs into the market price.

If we can get the market to tell the truth, then we can avoid being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that leads to bankruptcy. As Øystein Dahle, former Vice President of Exxon for Norway and the North Sea, has observed: “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.” 4

Some countries are recognizing the need for bold dramatic change. Several governments have announced that they plan to become carbon-neutral, including Norway, Costa Rica, and the Maldives. They have formally joined the Climate Neutral Network launched by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2008. The Maldives, a low-lying island country of 385,000 people that is threatened by rising seas, is on a fast track, planning to systematically develop its wind and solar resources to replace fossil fuels and reach carbon neutrality by 2019. Costa Rica is shooting for 2021. The Maldives and Costa Rica are the first countries to adopt a carbon reduction goal more ambitious than that of Plan B. 5

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, describes climate neutrality as “an idea whose time has come, driven by the urgent need to address climate change but also the abundant economic opportunities emerging for those willing to embrace a transition to a Green Economy.” By far the most effective policy tool in striving for carbon neutrality is restructuring taxes and subsidies. 6

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1. Peter Goldmark, Environmental Defense Fund, e-mail to author, 28 June 2009.

2. Lester R. Brown, “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” Scientific American, May 2009, pp. 50–57.

3. Mohammad Yunus and Karl Weber, Creating a World Without Poverty (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), p. 105.

4. Øystein Dahle, discussion with author, State of the World Conference, Aspen, CO, 22 July 2001.

5. Norway, Costa Rica, and the Maldives from U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), Climate Neutral Network, “Countries,” at www.unep.org/climateneutral, viewed 24 June 2009; Olivia Lang, “Maldives Vows to be First Carbon-neutral Nation,” Reuters, 15 March 2009.

6. UNEP, “UNEP Unveils the Climate Neutral Network to Catalyze a Transition to a Low Carbon World” press release (Nairobi: Climate Neutral Network, 21 February 2008).

Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute