Book Review – Plan B by Lester R. Brown

Plan B not only argues … for the restructuring of the economy, it points out why this needs to be done at wartime speed. Time is running out. Whereas historically we lived off the interest generated by the earth’s natural capital assets, we are now consuming those assets themselves. We have built an environmental bubble economy, one where economic output is artificially inflated by overconsumption of the earth’s natural assets. The challenge today is to deflate the bubble before it bursts.

Lester R. Brown
Founder and former President of The World Watch Institute
Founder and President of the Earth Policy Institute
Plan B, like the Ehrlich’s One with Nineveh, is a strongly balanced book written by an author deeply familiar with the subject matter.

In addition to discussing the global environmental crisis in great detail, Brown spends a good deal of time thinking about where the first environmental meltdowns are likely to occur and what effects they might have. One area that concerns him is China with its 1.3 billion people.

…China is exceeding the carrying capacity of its ecosystem – overplowing its land, overgrazing its rangelands, overcutting its forests, and overpumping its aquifers. In its determined effort to be self-sufficient in grain, it cultivated highly erodible land in the northern and western provinces, land that is highly vulnerable to wind erosion….

These actions caused or accelerated the process of desertification which is now occurring in the area.

China’s Environmental Protection agency reports that the Gobi Desert expanded by 52,400 square kilometers (20,240 square miles) from 1994 to 1999, an area half the size of Pennsylvania. …the advancing Gobi is now within 150 miles of Beijing….

The remaining areas of northern China which have escaped desertification comprise China’s bread basket – where it grows up to a quarter of its wheat. Here, the shallow replenishable aquifers have been exhausted and farmers have to drill wells to nearly 1000 feet to access the deeper fossil aquifers. But this is only a short term solution.

…the Geological Environmental Monitoring Institute … in Beijing reported that under Hebei Province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer dropped 2.9 meters (nearly 10 feet) in 2000. Around some cities in the province, it fell by 6 meters. He Qingcheng, head of the GEMI groundwater monitoring team, notes that as the deep aquifer … is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve.

The consequence of this desertification and diminishing water supply is likely to be that China’s ability to grow grain will drop below its requirements at some point in the not too distant future and it will have to buy wheat on the world market. Brown tells a story that bears on what may happen then.

When the former Soviet Union unexpectedly turned to the world market in 1972 for roughly a tenth of its grain supply, following a weather-reduced harvest, world wheat prices climbed from $1.90 to $4.89 a bushel.

China’s appearance in the world’s wheat markets with its 100 billion dollars of trade surplus money will cause effects that Brown says will become matters of national security for the US.

A doubling of world grain prices today could impoverish more people in a shorter period of time than any event in history. With desperate people holding their governments responsible, such a price rise could also destabilize governments of low-income, grain importing countries.

Brown’s coverage of the global environmental crisis is not as complete as the Ehrlich’s was in One with Nineveh but he was intentional in this (to keep the book short for busy readers) and he acknowledges it in his preface. Specifically, he passed over biological diversity issues as well as water pollution and environmental education. As an aside about biological diversity he says,

The traditional approach of protecting biological diversity by fencing off land as parks or preserves, as valuable as that is, is not enough. If we cannot stabilize population and if we cannot stabilize climate, there is not an ecosystem on earth we can save.

Brown’s Plan B is excellent. If nothing else, read Chapter one, “A Planet Under Stress” and browse through the tale of contents and read the chapter and subchapter titles to see the breadth of his coverage of the issues.

To the book at Amazon: &

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