A MODERN, ENVIRONMENTAL JEREMIAH
Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Lester R. Brown. W. W. Norton, New York, 2003. 285 pp., illus. $15.95 (ISBN 0393325237 paper).
It is the prophet Jeremiah—that archetype of doomsayers—from whose name is derived the term jeremiad, a tale of woe. Lester Brown, in Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, offers such a tale of woe (plan A) but also some hope for salvation (plan B). Brown maintains that under plan A, today's status quo, the planet faces four key threats—water shortage; land degradation; global warming; and the social ills of poverty, disease, and illiteracy—that could well prove our undoing. Collectively, these will burst the “food bubble” in which food production is artificially inflated as a result of overconsumption of Earth's natural resources. The barometer of the severity of the world's food shortage will be China, as its grain harvests decrease.
Brown sees the “world incurring a vast water deficit—one that is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast” (p. 23). Citing falling water tables, rivers running dry, and the increased diversion of irrigation water to urban and industrial needs, he warns that food supplies in China, India, Pakistan, and Mexico are especially vulnerable, given their high dependence on irrigated crops. Moreover, Brown writes, “perhaps a third or more of…[the] world's cropland…is losing topsoil through erosion faster than new soil is forming, thereby reducing the land's inherent productivity. Where losses are heavy, productive land turns into wasteland or desert” (p. 43). Productive cropland also is giving way to cities and highways, and as the human population grows, there is less and less cropland per capita, a situation that would be exacerbated by global warming. Brown suggests that “the detrimental effects of higher temperatures on yields appear to be overriding the CO2 fertilization effect for the major crops” (p. 2). Mountain snowpacks that provide summer irrigation water will be reduced, coastal croplands will be lost to rising sea level, and an increasing number of storms will compromise agriculture and its infrastructure. Finally, Brown describes a socially polarized world in terms of life expectancy, disease (especially HIV), poverty, hunger, and illiteracy, all linked to population growth.
These ills he sees as collectively accelerating environmental decline, spreading hunger, and fomenting unrest, creating streams of environmental refugees. Population pressure and a dearth of land will fuel conflicts within and between countries: “One of the biggest risks in this new century is that governments will be overwhelmed by the new challenges that are now emerging…. Worn out by the struggles to deal with the consequences of fast-multiplying human numbers, they are unable to respond to new threats, such as the HIV epidemic, aquifer depletion, and land hunger” (p. 108).
Plan B, the alternative to plan A, entails boosting water and land productivity, cutting carbon emissions in half, and responding to the social challenge of poverty and disease. Brown's book is packed with sensible imperatives illustrated with case examples: Improve water productivity through realistic prices, better irrigation practices, rainwater harvesting, and greater off-farm water efficiency. With respect to land productivity, traditional breeding and feeding approaches have reached their limits and biotechnology holds little promise; therefore, Brown argues, multiple cropping, agroforestry, aquaculture, restored animal grazing and residue consumption, and curtailment of erosion must be pursued. Cutting carbon emissions requires a trinity of measures: energy efficiency, more conscientious use of renewables, and inauguration of a hydrogen economy. The key to addressing social challenges is slowing population growth—accelerating the shift to smaller families through universal education, good nutrition, and prevention of infectious diseases. Accomplishing all this requires both massive government mobilization, particularly in the United States, and “rapid systemic change—change based on market signals that tell the ecological truth” (p. 199).
So besides fairly summarizing its content, how can a middle-of-the-road scientist review this book? One approach is to scour the text for illustrations of the one-sided nature of the data provided. For example, Brown illustrates falling water tables thus: “In the United States, the USDA reports that in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas—three leading grain-producing states—the underground water table has dropped by more than 30 meters (100 feet)” (p. 29). Kansas caught the eye of this reviewer, for in a recently completed study in which I participated, Kansas State University colleagues concluded that “irrigators have adopted water saving practices and their groundwater use has declined. The rate of change in mean depth to water for measured wells in Finney County [Kansas] has declined from −0.44 meters (−17.30 inches) per annum from 1978 to 1987 to only −0.07 meters (−2.76 inches) per annum between 1992 and 1995” (AAG 2003). Thus what is omitted is that in many parts of the region, the groundwater decline has slowed considerably. This is true also at the global and national levels. Total global water withdrawal has slowed and per capita withdrawal has begun to decline. In the United States, total withdrawals were down 10 percent (20 percent on a per capita basis) in 1995 from a 1980 peak (Gleick 1998).
A second approach is to examine the underlying theories, assumptions, and framing within which the plethora of arguments and details are placed. In chapter after chapter, population growth is cited as the fundamental cause of environmental deterioration. Indeed, it may not be only coincidence that “plan B” is also commonly used to refer to the emergency contraceptive levonorgestrel. Brown is locked into a basic Malthusian framing of his world concerns, so much so that he ignores or downplays the dramatic slowing of population growth in the last few decades. The rate of world population growth peaked in the 1960s; the annual increment in growth peaked in the 1980s.
Another major assumption that Brown makes is that the use of specific resources or ecosystem services must each be sustainable and not exceed the rate at which they are renewed in nature. Most environmentalists share similar concerns, but we often disagree on the question of substitutability. Natural capital is not fixed; Earth is a dynamic system, and some forms of natural capital may be substituted for by other types of natural capital or by technology. Indeed, most of the cropland Brown rightly values began as forests or grasslands. In turn, topsoils can be replaced by fertilizers, and fertilizers perhaps by genetically modified nitrogen fixation.
A third approach commonly used by critics of Jeremiahs—and Lester Brown qualifies as a modern Jeremiah—is to assert the failure of previous forecasts and thereby discredit the current set of forecasts. Many critics have used this third approach to castigate Brown's work, particularly his selective use of declines in grain reserves, which he often presents as “the number of days of world grain carryover stocks.” For example, in a piece Brown wrote as president of the Earth Policy Institute, he claimed, “The new combination of falling water tables and rising temperatures, along with trends such as soil erosion, has led to four consecutive shortfalls in the world grain harvest. This year  fell short of consumption by a record 92 million tons. These shortages have reduced world grain stocks to their lowest levels in 30 years” (Brown 2003).
Brown's critics often cite his rush to note major declines in reserves and his tendency to seldom acknowledge subsequent or past increases as reserves. For example, if one takes the 4 years (1996–1999) previous to the 2000–2003 period that he cites and uses his data, one discovers that grain stocks rose in each of those years despite the changes in water tables, temperature, and soil erosion that surely applied to those years as well as the years he cites.
But in a lengthy examination of the role of earlier Jeremiahs, I noted that accuracy of forecast was not a fair indicator. For if we heed our Jeremiahs, we may be able to institute timely corrective behavior to ensure that doomsday does not arrive. Indeed, Plan B ignores the fact that such corrective behavior is under way even though it is insufficient and needs to be accelerated (Kates and Parris 2003). In an attempt to capture that paradox, I once wrote the following Jeremiah parable:
I imagine spaceship Earth as a kind of fortunate Titanic. On the ship's prow in the middle of the night, Jeremiah Brown peers into the dimness. Faintly perceiving some ominous shapes ahead, he cries out lustily, “Icebergs ahead.” Unsure if he is heard, he cries out again and again. On the ship's bridge, the captain, hearing Jeremiah only after some time, turns to the navigator and asks for a course correction to avoid a collision. Ten degrees to the starboard, she says. The captain, thinking, “What luck that I have already started to turn because of the bad weather ahead,” orders a five-degree correction. The helmsman looks at his compass and suddenly realizes that he has been dozing for a few minutes and that the ship has actually been drifting—fortunately, though, in the right direction. Without saying anything, he then corrects the course by two degrees. Up ahead, alone and in the cold, Jeremiah awaits a hard starboard course correction, maybe even a reversal of engines. Sensing none, he mutters to himself, “They never listen to me,” and prepares for the worst. (Kates 1995, p. 635)
Environmental Jeremiahs like Lester Brown seem to call attention only to the most alarming trends, pointing to them as portents of catastrophe. Then, partly because we already have listened to them and partly because of the more favorable trends they ignore, catastrophe seems averted—until they again remind us of plan A.
- 1[AAG] Association of American Geographers, Global Change and Local Places Research Group. 2003. Global Change in Local Places: Estimating, Understanding, and Reducing Greenhouse Gases. Cambridge (United Kingdom): Cambridge University Press.
- 3PH Gleick. 1998. The World's Water 1998–1999: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington (DC): Island Press.
- 4RW Kates. 1995. Labnotes from the Jeremiah experiment: Hope for a sustainable transition. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 85: 623-640.
- 5RW Kates, TM Parris. 2003. Long-term trends and a sustainability transition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 100: 8062-8067.