World on the Edge, a book review
“The world now has the technologies and financial resources to stabilize climate, eradicate poverty, stabilize population, restore the economy’s natural support systems, and, above all, restore hope. The United States, the wealthiest society that has ever existed, has the resources and leadership to lead this effort.” -Lester Brown
World on the Edge, a just-released, 200-page book by Lester Brown, is important for many reasons.
For those who still don’t understand the depth, immediacy and urgency of the climate crisis, World on the Edge makes that case clearly and understandably with a wealth of hard information.
World makes the connections between that crisis and the other civilizational crises that confront humankind today. The titles of the book’s chapters dealing with these crises summarize them: Falling water tables and shrinking harvests; Eroding soils and expanding deserts; Rising temperatures, melting ice and food security; Environmental refugees: the rising tide; and Mounting stresses, failing states.
For those who appreciate these realities, Brown’s latest book contains a great deal of useful statistics and short summaries of important reports and recent developments.
And perhaps most importantly, Brown explains how the world’s governments and social movements can still avoid the looming threat of worldwide catastrophe, on every continent, this century, if we act in this decade with the degree of urgency required by our situation.
Brown understands why we have reached this point of worldwide crisis: “The vested interests of the fossil fuel and defense industries in maintaining the status quo are strong.”
Elsewhere he writes about a large number of organizations which “argue that what the world needs is not large corporations bringing large-scale, highly mechanized, capital-intensive agriculture into these countries, but international support for community-based farming, centered around labor-intensive family farms that produce for local and regional markets and that create desperately needed jobs.”
Regarding immigration, he writes that “maybe it is time for governments to consider whether it might not be cheaper and far less painful in human terms to treat the causes of migration rather than merely respond to it. This means working with developing countries to restore their economy’s natural support systems-the soils, the grasslands, the forests-and it means accelerating the shift to smaller families to help people break out of poverty. Treating symptoms instead of causes is not good medicine. Nor is it good public policy.”
Brown’s solutions are summarized by the titles of the five chapters of the book dealing with our response to the crisis: Building an energy-efficient global economy; Harnessing wind, solar and geothermal energy; Restoring the economy’s natural support systems; Eradicating poverty, stabilizing population, and rescuing failing states; and Feeding eight billion.
Is this economically possible? Brown calculates that “restoring the earth’s natural systems, stabilizing population and eradicating poverty will require under $200 billion per year in additional expenditures.” The sources of those funds are multiple: an over $700 billion U.S. military budget; taxing speculation in the international currency markets; wealth taxes; ending fossil fuel subsidies; and more. The resources are there; the problem is who controls them.
Brown has specific example after specific example of what needs to be done. One example: if the world shifted from old light bulbs to the new CFL’s, linear fluorescents and LED’s, the share of the world’s electricity used for lighting would be cut from 19% to 7%. “This would save enough electricity to close 705 of the world’s 2800 coal-fired plants.”
He reports that a 2009 survey of world wind resources published by the US National Academy of Sciences showed that on-land wind potential, not including offshore wind, could provide 40 times the world’s current consumption of electricity.
A success story: a United Nations “Billion Tree Campaign,” inspired by Wangari Maathai and other Kenyan women, had planted over 10 billion trees by the end of 2009.
Although Brown does not devote much of his book to the critical issue of how we can overcome the fossil fuel, war industry and related corporate powers-that-be, he does address this issue in a general way toward the end. His conclusion is that what is needed is what he calls the “sandwich” model of social change, “where there is a dedicated grassroots movement pushing for change that is strongly supported by political leadership.”
Brown does not address the implications of the failure of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party in 2009-1010 to enact comprehensive climate legislation, or much climate legislation at all, despite big majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the White House. As I have written about elsewhere, I’m convinced that we will never get the political leadership we need at the top in this country without the emergence of a broadly-based, “third force” movement and alliance.
Thankfully, not surprisingly, Brown does not advocate personal lifestyle changes as what individuals who want to make a difference should do. In his words, “they are not nearly enough. Restructuring the global economy means becoming politically active, working for the needed changes, as the grassroots campaign against coal-fired plants is doing. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.”
Some Specific Criticisms and Praise
There were places where Brown, either by what he wrote or didn’t write, disappointed me. I found nothing in the book about the importance of organic farming as a way to rebuild depleted soils that can then sequester huge amounts of carbon. He made no mention of the fact that almost all of the seeds used for soybean and corn production in the USA are controlled by Monsanto, and many of those are genetically engineered. At one point he speaks approvingly of an “export-oriented farm sector” when it comes to agriculture policy for poor countries, with no mention of how this approach strengthens the industrial agriculture model pushed by transnational agribusiness interests.
At the same time, I appreciated his willingness to deal with the population issue. Given that most of us want people wherever they are to live decent lives, and given the fact that we’ve already gone past what the world’s natural environment is able to sustain, it is important that family planning and small families become the world norm as soon as possible.
I also appreciated his forthright advocacy of a tax shift: “The benchmark of political leadership will be whether leaders succeed in shifting taxes from work to environmentally destructive activities. It is tax shifting, not additional appropriations, that is the key to restructuring the energy economy in order to stabilize climate.”
And I was pleased that Brown made clear that natural gas, nuclear power and burying carbon emissions under the ground or the ocean are in no way part of the mix of solutions needed. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and recent studies at Cornell University are showing that if a full life cycle analysis of it is done, from extraction through transmission to burning, it is probably as bad as coal when it comes to the release of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Nukes are bad for lots of reasons, and “carbon capture and sequestration” is nothing but a pipe dream, a mirage, a lifeline for the coal industry that’s more like the slenderest of threads.
The world is a much more hopeful place because of the work and life of Lester Brown. World on the Edge should be read by everyone who wants to see a better life for their children, which is just about everybody.