Rob Parsons

Plan "B"

Because the environmental status quo isn't working

by Rob Parsons

June 21, 2007

A recent long airplane trip and pitiful in-flight movies afforded me the opportunity to catch up on some reading. For quite some time, I had been meaning to read Lester Brown's Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. The current updated version notes that media mogul Ted Turner found the book so important that he distributed more than 3,500 copies to heads of state, cabinet members, Fortune 500 CEOs and members of Congress.

I've long been a fan of Brown, who founded Worldwatch Institute in 1974 and Earth Policy Institute (EPI) in 2001. Worldwatch, one of the first global think tanks to focus on global environmental issues, produced yearly State of the World reports, which provided sobering reminders of ongoing resource destruction from shortsighted human behavior.

EPI dedicated its efforts to envisioning a global eco-economy and figuring out how to get there. Plan B 2.0 compiles and analyzes research on the planet's converging ecological crises, and lays out a step-by-step plan to create an environmentally sustainable economy.

Brown notes that for many years critics have pointed to the United States as the world's most conspicuous consumer, with five percent of the world's people consuming more than a third of the Earth's resources. But China's 1.1 billion people have now surpassed the U.S. in consumption of grain, meat, coal and steel.

India, too, and other populous nations are following the Western economic model of fossil-fuel based, automobile-centered, disposable economies. And each year, the planet gets another 70 million new people.

The U.S. population, now surpassing 301 million, has doubled in the past 50 years. Maui's population-today 140,000 residents-has doubled in the past quarter century. Everywhere, the question facing government and society is whether we can respond quickly enough to prevent alarming trends from becoming full-blown catastrophes.

The challenges discussed in Plan B 2.0 are daunting, ranging from the decline of cheap oil to worldwide fresh water shortages. We need ever more food to feed growing populations, but biofuel producers are eyeing farmland and residential developers are diverting agricultural water allotments.

Temperatures and ocean levels are both on the rise. Forests, host to entire unique ecosystems of endangered species-and our best converters of carbon dioxide-are shrinking. Topsoil is depleted or poisoned, rangelands are overgrazed, deserts are advancing, and fisheries are collapsing.

Poverty, hunger and disease, such as AIDS, West Nile Virus and malaria, are advancing, despite our understanding of what is needed to address them. The social and economic gap between the world's richest one billion and poorest one billion is unprecedented. Government is having trouble providing basic services, but population and resource conflicts are leading to anarchy and terrorism.

How can we convey the urgency of this moment in history? Brown asks. Do we care enough to turn the tide? What immediate actions can we take to reduce our own impacts, and to help others understand the need to modify our collective behavior?

Plan B 2.0 provides a blueprint to chart a course towards eradicating poverty, restoring the earth's productive health, stabilizing climate change and feeding more than six billion people. But there's no quick fix, guarantee or room for complacency.

If my recent travels are an accurate indication, we're nowhere near changing our course. First, there's the irony of my flying more than 4,500 miles to Savannah, Georgia, so I could attend a conference on energy efficiency. There I found myself pondering an elemental question: how many energy auditors does it take to change a light bulb? from incandescent to compact fluorescent? (See accompanying "On Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs")

Energy efficiency awareness, while valuable and necessary, seems like a mere band-aid where an entire Intensive Care Unit is needed. People on the Mainland continue to zoom around in planes and cars. I blissfully took part in the gas-gulping pleasure of driving from Madison to Milwaukee to treat my mom and nephew to a Cubs-Brewers game where 40,000 other fans consumed lots of beer and hot dogs and cheered overpaid athletes in an endearing summer ritual still referred to as our National Pastime.

There is little doubt that the money from ticket sales and player salaries of just one Major League game could help lift people in countries in Africa out of hunger and disease. We have the resources, but lack the conscience and the political will to change our ways.

Achieving worldwide balance between food and people may depend on "stabilizing the population as soon as possible, reducing the unhealthy consumption of livestock produce in industrial countries, and restricting the conversion of food crops to automotive fuels," Brown wrote. With 38 percent of the world's grain harvest used to fatten animals for human consumption, our use of farmland and irrigation water resources is startlingly inefficient. Not surprisingly, health care costs are greater in countries with more than moderate meat consumption. All those ballpark hot dogs help put Americans near the top of the list for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other illnesses related to poor diet.

Brown doesn't view the trend to biofuels as a permanent solution, as he believes that we're going to need almost all our agricultural resources to produce food.

"The food and energy economies, historically separate, are now merging," he wrote. "In this new economy, if the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will move it into the energy economy. As the price of oil climbs so will the price of food... Do we really want to subsidize a rise in food prices?"

Wind power looms as a best choice for electrical energy generation. Wind is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean and doesn't affect our climate. No other energy source has all these attributes.

If we add to the gas-electric hybrid vehicle a second battery to increase its electrical storage-and a plug-in capacity so batteries can be recharged from the grid-motorists could then save gasoline for the occasional long trip. The batteries in the vehicle fleet become a storage facility for wind energy, leading to dramatic savings of gasoline and a reduction of carbon emissions.

We'll also need radical changes to resuscitate our devastated ocean fisheries. The creation of a global network of marine reserves, covering roughly 30 percent of the ocean's surface, is clearly the overriding priority. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) recently placed a complete ban on fishing for certain species of snappers, including the popular onaga and opakapaka. Such measures, while appearing drastic to some, actually have a good track record of success. Marine reserves work, provided there is adequate enforcement to protect them.

Brown sees the future of water as a real sleeper, though here on Maui we seem to get yearly reminders of the need to conserve what we're fortunate to have. "Effectively managing underground water supplies requires knowledge of the amount of water being pumped and aquifer recharge rates," Brown wrote.

Locally, there has been no quantification of these studies since they were first requested back in 1988. Private well drillers continue tapping our diminishing resources, and our decision makers seem unaware of or unconcerned about the cumulative long-term effects.

Few doubt that restoring the Earth will take an enormous international effort. And, says Brown, "such an initiative must be undertaken at wartime speed, lest environmental deterioration translate into economic decline, just as it did for earlier civilizations that violated nature's thresholds and ignored its deadlines."

That's the goal. But on Maui, we have to ask: are we moving fast enough?

Plan B 2.0 is available in its entirety as a free download on EPI's website: http://www.earth-policy.org/