Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

The Race to Save Civilization

by Lester Brown


If we look at early civilizations that declined and collapsed—the ones whose archeological sites we now study, such as those of the Sumerians and Mayans—more often than not it was a shortage of food that brought them down. Until recently I had rejected the idea that food could be the weak link in our modern civilization; I now think it probably is. I'd like to look at global environmental issues through a food lens. If we look at the environmental trends that are undermining our future, almost all of them affect the food prospect. Deforestation, soil erosion, falling water tables, deteriorating grasslands, expanding deserts, collapsing fisheries, rising temperatures, melting ice sheets and rising sea level, melting mountain glaciers that disrupt river flows, and disappearing species—almost all of them affect the food prospect.

Three Major Threats to Global Food Production

Let's consider three of these threats to our food supply: falling water tables, melting ice sheets, and melting mountain glaciers. Water tables are now falling in countries that contain half the world's people, including the big three grain producers: China, India, and the United States. Water tables are falling because of overpumping, mostly from irrigation. Seventy percent of all the water we use in the world is for irrigation. Industry uses about twenty percent and we have ten percent for residential use. What we are doing is inflating food production in the short run by overpumping aquifers. But once the aquifers are depleted, then pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. So in effect we're creating food bubbles in at least fifteen, maybe twenty countries in the world, including the two big ones, China and India. A World Bank study indicates that 175 million people in India and 130 million in China are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. This is a way of measuring the size of the food bubble. There are a number of other countries where the food bubble is either bursting or about to burst. One is Saudi Arabia, which has been pumping from a fossil aquifer and has been self-sufficient in wheat production for twenty years. That aquifer is now largely depleted. Fossil aquifers do not recharge. Saudi Arabia's wheat production has dropped 70 percent in the last three years and will probably be at zero by the year after next. Saudi Arabia is the first country where we've actually seen the food bubble burst and production begin to decline. Yemen is not far behind.

The second environmental threat to food security is melting ice sheets. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt entirely—and that would not happen overnight—it would raise sea level some twenty-three feet. If the west Antarctic ice sheet, which has started to break up, breaks up entirely, that will raise sea level another fifteen feet. The latest projections are of a rise of up to six feet during this century. But even a three-foot rise in sea level would inundate many of the rice-growing river deltas in Asia. A three-foot rise in sea level would put half the rice land in Bangladesh underwater. A three-foot rise would cover much of the Mekong Delta, which produces half the rice in Vietnam, which is the world's number two rice exporter. There are another nineteen rice-growing river deltas that would be affected in varying degrees by just a one-meter rise in sea level. It's an indication of the complexity of our modern world when ice melting on an island in the far north Atlantic can shrink the rice harvest in Asia, where half the world's people live.

The third threat is melting mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. It is the ice melt from those glaciers that sustains the major rivers of Asia during the dry season: the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, and many smaller rivers. This ice melt sustains the flow of these rivers and the irrigation dependent on them. So what happens to those mountain glaciers in Asia is going to affect food prices for everyone in the world. Again, the idea that glaciers melting on the Tibetan Plateau could affect prices in U.S. supermarkets as China comes into the world market for massive quantities of grain is not something that's intuitively obvious unless you think a bit about it. But we're living in a very complex world now, with the interaction between the environmental system, the economic system, and the political system.

Why Demand for Grain Is Increasing

Now consider the demand side of the food equation. Population growth is at 80 million more people a year. That means that tonight there were 216,000 people at the dinner table who were not there last night, and it means that tomorrow night there'll be an additional 216,000 people at the dinner table.

Population growth is not new, but large populations moving up the food chain is a relatively recent development in human history and evolution. It's only since World War II that livestock products—beef, eggs, milk, pork, and poultry—have begun to be produced largely with grain. Moving up the food chain takes more grain.

The third factor in increasing demand for food is the capacity we now have to convert grain into oil, i.e., ethanol. Last year we harvested 415 million tons of grain in this country. One-hundred-and-six million tons of that harvest went to ethanol distilleries. What this means is that the world price of grain is now tied to the price of oil, because if the fuel value of the grain exceeds the food value, the market will move the grain into the energy economy. This is new, and I don't think most economists have yet quite realized that if oil goes from $80 to $100, $120, $150, even $200, the price of grain will follow it up in the absence of government intervention. If we leave it to the market, that's where things will go.

These three factors all generate an additional demand for grain. That's why we saw a few years ago a tripling of world grain prices, while grain prices right now are about 50 percent above the historical level. They've not gone back to the historical level, nor do I expect they will. So food is the weak link in the system. We see this not only with grain prices but also with the number of hungry people in the world, which declined until about the turn of this century and for the last decade has been increasing. That's exactly what happened with the Sumerians and the Mayans. The number of hungry people began to increase.

This is a trend that deserves far more attention than we're giving it. With rising food prices and more hungry people, the number of failing states is increasing, typically by another two or three countries a year. That lengthening list raises a disturbing question: how many failing states before we have a failing global civilization? The answer: we don't know. We haven't been here before. This is new territory for us.

A Viable Strategy

In response to this situation, we've devised Plan B, now described in a new edition Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Lets consider two components of Plan B (and there are more in the book):

1. Cutting Carbon Emissions 80 percent by 2020

We need to make this cut not by 2050, which is what politicians like to talk about, but by 2020. We didn't ask what would be politically feasible. We asked how much and how fast we need to cut carbon emissions if we want to save the Greenland ice sheet. And I use that as a metaphor for saving civilization, because if we can't save the Greenland ice sheet, we are in trouble. And it is still doable. For example, if we just went to the most efficient lighting technologies available now, worldwide—in most cases that's compact florescent bulbs, in some situations like streetlights it's LEDs, light-emitting diodes—we can close 705 of the 2,500 coal-fired power plants in the world from electricity savings, just completing the transition that's already under way, of shifting to the most economically available lighting technologies on the market today.

2. Restoring the Earth's Natural Systems

Forests, grasslands, fisheries, soils, and so forth all need to be restored. It's entirely doable. We worked out a budget. Restoration of natural systems, soil conservation, reforestation, eradication of poverty—which is one of the major components—and stabilization of population all together budget out at about $200 billion of additional expenditures a year. That's quite a bit. But we're spending $1.2 trillion (six times that) now for military expenditures. We need to redefine security. We have a mindset based in the twentieth century, which was dominated by two world wars and a cold war, so we think the threats to our future are military. The real threats to our future security and political stability are climate change, falling water tables, and rising food prices.

Let me talk for a minute about cutting carbon emissions. It takes a lot of effort.

Things are beginning to happen fast on the energy front in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, going from oil, coal, and natural gas to wind, solar, and geothermal. For example, China, a latecomer to wind energy, has been doubling its wind-generating capacity each year for five years. Last year it installed more new wind capacity than we did. The Chinese government is now committed to developing seven wind mega-complexes with a total generating capacity over 130,000 megawatts, equivalent to 130 coal-fired power plants. That's like building a new coal-fired power plant every week for the next two and half years. It is huge. We've never seen energy thinking in any field on this scale before.

And last year, while the governments of Europe were preparing for Copenhagen, a consortium led by Munich Re, a reinsurance company, and including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and a dozen other leading companies, announced the Desertec Project. This is a project to harness the solar resources of North Africa and integrate them into a European–North African grid that would also include the wind resources of Northern Europe and the North Sea to largely power the economies of Europe and North Africa with renewable sources of energy. The potential here is huge. The Algerians point out that in their desert they have enough harnessable solar energy to power the world economy. That sounds like a mathematical error but it's not. Those of you who read the energy literature know that the sunlight striking the earth in one hour will power the world economy for one year. So it's not a question of whether we have enough renewable energy, be it solar or wind (and I haven't even talked about geothermal). A recent U.S.-Chinese survey reported that China has enough harnessable wind energy to increase its current electricity consumption sevenfold. In this country, three of our fifty states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—have more harnessable wind energy than we could ever consume. So the resources are there. The question is how to quickly make the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Can we do it? I think we can.

There is one other major development in the energy field that does not get very much attention: the extraordinarily successful grassroots movement in this country, coordinated nationally by the Sierra Club, to ban new coal-fired power plants. As a result of that effort we now have a de facto moratorium on building new coal plants. I doubt we'll ever license another coal plant in this country. But beyond that the campaign is now moving into phase two, which is to close existing coal plants. I was working on a list a few weeks ago. There are now at least thirty, maybe more, coal plants in this country scheduled to close, either to convert to natural gas or to be replaced by wind farms or by investments in efficiency. We've still got a ways to go because we've got some 600 coal plants altogether, but thirty is a good start.

Can We Move Fast Enough?

So we're beginning to move in the right direction but we've got to move faster. When I see how much we have to do and how little time in which to do it, I go back and read the economic history of World War II. First, the extraordinarily successful—in military terms—surprise attack by the Japanese on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, part of which was anchored at Pearl Harbor. One month later, President Roosevelt laid out U.S. arms production goals. He said, "We're going to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, at least a few thousands ships." We were still in the Depression mode economy at the time, and people could not grasp this, but what he and his colleagues realized was that at that time the single largest concentration of industrial power in the world was in the U.S. automobile industry, because even during the Depression we'd been making 2 million or 3 million cars a year. He called in the leaders of the automobile industry and said, "Because you represent such a large share of our industrial capacity, we're going to rely heavily on you to help us reach these goals." They said, "Mr. President, we'll do everything we can, but it's going to be a stretch, producing cars and all these arms too." He said: "You don't understand. We're going to ban the sale of cars in the United States." And that's exactly what we did, and we exceeded every one of those goals.

We're now in a race between tipping points—between natural tipping points and political tipping points. Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet? Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas in the Tibetan Plateau? Can we arrest the deforestation of the Amazon before the forest dries out to the point it becomes vulnerable to natural fire, when it will not be savable? Scientists think we're getting very close to that point now. So we're in a race between tipping points and time is everything. One of our difficulties is that nature's the timekeeper. Nature sets these thresholds. We don't know where they are. We don't know when the Greenland ice sheet melting becomes irreversible. The problem is we can't see the clock. We don't know how much time we have left.

We talk about saving the planet. Those of us working on environmental issues have been talking about the need to save the planet for some time. But the planet's going to be around for a while. The question is, can we save civilization? That's what's at stake now, and I don't think we've yet realized it. But we're seeing the stresses building. Climate stresses, food stresses, energy stresses, all of the environmental trends I talked about before are imposing more stresses, and the weaker governments are starting to break down under them. That's the bottom line.

Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. We all have a stake in the future. Most of us have children. Many of us have grandchildren. We all have a stake in the future, but we all have to get involved. Many of us are already involved, but if you're not, pick an issue that's important to you. Is it stabilizing world population? Work with some of the groups that are working on that. Is it closing coal-fired power plants? There's a campaign under way and they could use your help to close existing plants. Or what about developing a world-class recycling program in your community? Save enormous amounts of energy. We forget how much energy we save having good recycling plants.

So my challenge to you is a very simple one. It is to get involved in these issues. This is not something that may happen at some distant point in the future. These are things that are already happening. We are now on a path that's headed toward economic decline and collapse. The question is, can we move off that path? Can we restructure the world energy economy quickly enough to stabilize climate, for example? These are our challenges.


Lester Brown is founder of the Worldwatch Institute and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. BBC Radio commentator Peter Day calls Brown "one of the great pioneer environmentalists." He is the author or co-author of more than fifty books on global environmental issues, most recently Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.