College Quarterly
Spring 2007 - Volume 10 Number 2
Reviews Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble
Lester R. Brown
New York: W. W. Norton, 2006

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Environmentalists have a habit of concerning themselves with, among other things, ecological degradation in general and, in particular, the interrelated consequences of the growth of human population and the human “carbon footprint,” global warming, desertification, the extermination of species, the consumption of non-renewable resources, and the pollution of the air, land and water.

People concerned with social justice address issues of economic inequity, human rights, genocide, racism, sexism and the multitude of hideous policies and practices emanating out of the human predilection for intra-species aggression from domestic violence to international war.

Although it is commonly recognized that each concern has implications for the other (destructive human behaviour is having a devastating effect on the environment, and the natural limits to economic growth have profound repercussions in the domain of social justice), comparatively few scholars, non-governmental activists and government officials link economics and ecology in more than perfunctory ways. Moreover, even fewer commentators combine their critiques with plausible expectations and practical plans for a sustainable future.

Lester R. Brown is different. He is president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute and a veteran of many years of struggle on numerous environmental fronts. He is committed to the notion that the Earth is in a fragile state as far as human hopes for a prosperous and equitable global economy are concerned; and, he is also certain that a comprehensive shift in our economic practices must not simply offer material well-being for our species, but must reverse the trend toward ecological ruination as well. We must do both or die.

Brown’s, however, is not an easy optimism. He insists upon an extensive reconstruction of economic objectives, prospects and methods. Understanding that the Earth cannot keep pace with a growing human population, intensive technological change and social demands for more and more usable energy and consumer goods and services, especially in the vast emerging nations of India, China and the newly flourishing economies of the Pacific Rim, he outlines the features of a new economy that will resemble our own no more than industrialization mimicked feudal agriculture.

Plan B 2.0 is an updated and expanded revision of an earlier work, Plan B, which was published in 2003. Its main additions are an expanded argument about why the Western economic model is inappropriate for the rising Asian giants, a more detailed vision of the new economy he champions, and some fairly specific suggestions about how to get there from here. Underlying all of this is the sincere belief that nothing but an almost metaphysical redefinition of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature is absolutely necessary if we are to avoid ecological and social destruction.

We have, Brown contends, the technologies needed to replace our dependence on fossil fuels, to regenerate forests and fisheries, to stop the chronic lowering of water tables and to “build the new economy brick by brick.”

The inventory of innovations that he presents is largely familiar. He advocates hybrid automobiles, wind turbines, energy efficient home appliances and water-efficient irrigation systems. He wants to limit greenhouse gases and to encourage a reuse-recycle economy. Nothing is spectacularly new here.

What makes Brown’s work engaging is not the degree to which he earnestly argues for what are plainly common sense solutions, but the manner in which he deals with the devilish details. It is commonplace to speak of globalization in the form of a global marketplace, a competitive global economy, global patterns of migration from rural to urban areas and from “third world” to well developed industrial or postindustrial societies. It is likewise commonplace to offer glib summaries of the ensuing challenges that these trends betoken either for the alleged balance of nature or for human prospects within it.

Brown goes further. He speaks to specific aspects of the ecology-economy nexus (or, perhaps more accurately, “dialectic”). He unsentimentally analyses the depth of the hole we have dug for ourselves and the terribly complicated but nonetheless urgently necessary steps that we must take to redeem the folly of the past century and more. We must stop digging, to be sure; but, we must also start fashioning a feasible means to climb out.

An example of some interest is ethanol production. Brown points out that the world commodity market is being transformed as the line between food and fuel becomes blurred. Biofuels have the promising advantage of reducing concerns about climate change and increasing the possibility of energy independence from Middle Eastern petroleum. However, when it is remembered that the corn used by the United States in its early stages of ethanol production could feed 100 million people, and that the competition between service stations and supermarkets for the same commodities will inescapably drive up food prices, a special problem for people unable to afford either food or an automobile arises. The apparent solution may thus become part of a larger problem.

All, however, is not lost, for Brown alerts us to the fact that a far more efficient and cheaper ethanol can be produced from almost any food source. In France, sugar beets yield 714 gallons of fuel per acre. In Brazil, sugarcane yields 662 gallons per acre. US corn is limited to only 354 gallons. Moreover, Brown reports that France’s sugar beets provide “1.9 energy units for each unit of invested energy” while the US processes who commonly use natural gas to produce ethanol obtain “only 1.5 energy units for each energy unit used.”

Such calculations may not be the stuff of slogans, but careful attention to energy accountancy is vital if we are to generate a comprehensive strategy for survival. That strategy could also benefit from the substitution of alternatives to foodstuffs. Instead of processing edible commodities into fuel, entirely new sources could be considered (though such consideration would fly in the face of existing agricultural interests which are delighted to see prices rise and food-buyers and fuel-buyers compete for ever more expensive goods. Brown, in the alternative, suggests that switchgrass (which grows readily on land that is unsuitable for annual crops but is anticipated to yield 1,150 gallons of ethanol per acre) and fast-growing poplar trees could make a significant contribution to ethanol production without the disadvantage of driving up the cost of food. As well, the relative ease with which tropical and subtropical climate can help alleviate the energy challenge can have positive effects on the economies of nations that are now mired in poverty.

Creative ways to boost production and simultaneously share the wealth are, of course, only part of the overall program for saving the Earth and ourselves in the bargain. Another essential element is the restoration of natural support systems. A simple illustration is the role of paper recycling in the effort to restore forests. Here a further statistic becomes salient. China and Italy recycle only 27% and 31% respectively of the paper they use, whereas South Korea and Germany reuse 66% and 72%. Idle chatter about Eastern and Western cultural values do not explain why geographically proximate countries on two very different continents should display such dissimilar results. Somewhere in the mix, must come the recognition of economic and ecological priorities and the political will to deal realistically with both of them.

It has been said that human beings will not contend with crises except when the consequences become too stark to ignore. It has also been said that the speed with which these consequences may be upon us is such that, when we finally wake up, it may be too late.

Lester Brown’s latest book is a useful instrument for furthering discussion and prompting action. His style is straightforward and never over-heated. He is neither shrill nor given to unnecessary hyperbole. He prefers that the facts speak for themselves. He is also non-ideological in the sense of deducing a plan of action from ready-made doctrine. He is happy to give credit where it is due and to deny no one the opportunity to take pragmatic steps both for their own sakes and as models for others to emulate.

Just as the details provide evidence for paths of improvement as well as warnings about false ideas and foolish actions, so too there will be controversies about Brown’s diagnoses and recommended therapies. For instance, he writes approvingly of fish farms that have become the fastest growing part of the world food economy, increasing at a rate of 9% per year since 1990. Others, however, are less convinced that “aquaculture” is the best solution to the problem of efficient conversion of wheat into protein. Nonetheless, whether or not specific studies and policy recommendations are accepted or rejected, we cannot gainsay the fact that Lester Brown has offered us a wide-ranging and far-reaching account of the inextricably linked issues of economy and environment, of prosperity and pollution and of the kinds of thought and action that are required if our planet and its people are to prosper.

Despite the current enthusiasm for reforms as a result of the popularity of the issue of global warming, that is just one aspect of the many-faceted conundrum that our species faces. More than garbage recycling, demands for modest packaging and a decline in the SUV market will be required if we are to relieve stress on the Earth and salvage what remains of our civilization. We must redesign our methods of production and consumption and reassess our priorities in order to permit us to achieve any of our individual and collective goals – not least our biological survival. Plan B 2.0 can do much to promote the redefinition of our aspirations and ambitions, to encourage sober thought about the reconstruction of our ideas and actions, and the nature of at least the initial steps to be taken in a new direction.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology