An interview with the founder of Worldwatch and Earth Policy Institute
There are few titans remaining in the environmental world — figures that command respect not only inside the movement but in the larger global political milieu as well. Lester Brown is one of them. In 1974, he founded the Worldwatch Institute, one of the first think tanks to focus on the global environmental situation (its agenda-setting yearly reports, State of the World, remain required reading among the green set). In 2001, he left Worldwatch to start the Earth Policy Institute, a small outfit dedicated to envisioning an “eco-economy” and figuring out how to get there.
In 2003, EPI released Plan B, a book synthesizing research on the earth’s multiple converging ecological crises and laying out a step-by-step plan (including a budget — if you’re curious, it’s $161 billion) for how to transition to a sustainable path. Reception was enthusiastic; mogul Ted Turner was one of many influential figures to buy dozens of copies to send to friends.
Late last year saw Plan B 2.0, a revised, expanded edition incorporating the many developments — good and bad — of the intervening two years. In addition to your local bookstore, the book is available in its entirety as PDF or HTML on EPI’s website.
Brown’s been globe-trotting since the book’s release, promoting the plan. Weeks before I met with him, he spoke to world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, at the invitation of founder and executive director Klaus Schwab. He and I met in a small cafe in Seattle and, over omelets, discussed biofuels, plug-in hybrids, China, the Bush administration, and sudden, unpredictable social change.
What was the genesis of Plan B?
Our goal was to give a sense of what an environmentally sustainable economy would look like. If you don’t know where you want to go, there’s a good chance you won’t get there. And within the environmental community there was no global vision.
Do you envision regular two-year updates?
Things are happening fast enough now, in terms of new opportunities, new technologies, new success stories, new problems developing, new understandings of climate change, and so forth. So I’m beginning to think this is going to be an every-two-year effort.
Even since this book came out, Goldman Sachs got in the wind-energy business big time. A year ago it bought Horizon, which was a small company building wind farms, and now that company has 5,000 megawatts of generating capacity under construction or in the planning stage. That’s equal to 17 typical coal-fired power plants.
What trend in the world is most alarming?
One is climate change and the other is population growth.
On population growth, close to 3 billion people will be added between now and mid-century, the vast majority in countries where water tables are already falling and wells are going dry. That’s not a happy situation.
China’s growth is illuminating, but it’s just that they’re growing faster than most of the rest of the world. In that sense they’re doing us a favor: they’re telescoping history so that we can see what the future looks like.
You discuss nuclear energy very little in the book. What are your thoughts on it?
I’ve tried to love nuclear, but I haven’t been very successful. I don’t think it can get beyond the economics. If we insist that utilities bear the full cost of nuclear power — and that’s something we need to do — they have to set aside money for decommissioning and include that in the rates. That would cost as much or more than construction. They have to deal with the waste issue. And they have to find an insurance company that will insure them.
There are other questions as well. If we decide to go nuclear, do we mean all countries can have nuclear power? Do we have an A-list and a B-list? If so, who makes that list? Who enforces it? Looking at Iran and North Korea right now, I’m not sure we’re very good at that.
Do you consider biofuels a permanent solution or a bridge?
I think we’re going to need almost all agricultural resources to produce food. We keep forgetting the water issue, which is a sleeper. Half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. We may wake up one morning and there won’t be enough grain to go around, and not enough water to produce enough grain.
We’ve always been concerned about the effect of high oil prices on food-production costs, and those are very real, given the oil intensity of world agriculture today. But more important is the effect of high oil prices on the demand for agriculture commodities. Once oil gets up to $60 a barrel, it becomes profitable to convert agricultural commodities into automotive fuels. In effect, the price of oil becomes a support price for agricultural commodities, and therefore food prices. If at any point the food value of the commodity drops below the fuel value, the market will move that commodity into the energy economy.
I don’t think we yet quite grasp the effect of $60-a-barrel oil on food prices, because the capacity to distill ethanol and produce biodiesel is not yet large enough to really have an impact. But it’s exploding all over the world. Up until a year or two ago, all the government programs here [in the U.S.], in Europe, and in Brazil were driven by government subsidies. In Brazil there are no more subsidies. Ethanol investment is just exploding; it’s entirely a market-based operation.
There’s enormous investment in this country in ethanol distilleries and biodiesel refineries. Most people aren’t even aware that on Jan. 1 a year ago, we adopted a $1-a-gallon subsidy for biodiesel. But we’re setting up competition between supermarkets and service stations for the same commodities.
There is a very attractive alternative automotive-fuel model: gas-electric hybrids with a plug-in and wind energy.
Is it scaleable quickly enough?
Oh yeah. There’s a lot of momentum building behind plug-in hybrids. There was a conference organized [a month] ago in Washington on plug-ins. It was organized by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the NGO that organizes these things for Congress. [Sen.] Orrin Hatch [R-Utah] left the Alito hearings to come and make a statement.
The interesting thing about the plug-in effort is that the neocons and the environmentalists are both supporting it, and that’s a unique combination. There were more neocons speaking at the conference than environmentalists; they want to break dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
What are your thoughts on this idea of breaking our dependence on Middle East oil?
Middle East oil accounts for 15, at most 20 percent [PDF] of our oil. But it’s far more important to other parts of the world, and we’re all in this together. We have to think about it broadly.
One of the attractive features of moving toward gas-electric hybrids and wind power is that we have the infrastructure already in place. In Plan B, the original, I talk about a hydrogen fuel-cell automotive-energy economy. And that may come, but it’s a generation down the road. With the gas-electric hybrids, you need gasoline service stations and you need an electrical grid. We have both.
It’s relatively easy to increase wind-generating capacity tenfold. The companies are there, the technologies are there — it’s just a matter of incentives. We might not even need many of those now. We could start doubling each year.
One of the neat things about the gas-electric hybrid plug-in is that the batteries in the vehicle fleet become a storage facility for wind energy. And there’s a tank of gasoline as additional backup. So it’s really an ideal marriage, a great way of rapidly exploiting wind. And wind is such a huge resource.
Is there a reason that you seem so much more enthusiastic about wind than solar?
It’s mostly timing. If you look at the cost curves, wind is roughly a decade ahead of solar. It’s just a matter of time.
One knock you often hear on environmentalists is that they care more about flora and fauna than human beings. But it strikes me that your book is extremely humanist, centered on human welfare.
One of the strengths of the book is that it integrates economics and the environment in a socially responsible way. One of the important developments of the past year was Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. He legitimized the discussion of early 21st century global civilization, in terms of where we’re headed and what the prospects are. You can talk about that now in a way that you couldn’t before.
How do you maintain your optimism?
Social change comes rapidly and unexpectedly sometimes.
The Berlin wall coming down was essentially a bloodless political revolution in Eastern Europe. There were no articles in political science journals in the ’80s that said, hey, keep an eye on Eastern Europe, big change is coming there. But one morning people woke up and realized the great socialist experiment was over.
What if we’d been sitting at this table 10 years ago and I had said, “I think that the tobacco industry is going to cave”? It was the most powerful lobby in Washington. It controlled committee chairs. But there was a steady flow of articles on smoking and health over a period of a few decades, along with persistent denial. The industry just lost its credibility.
The two things looming large are oil — security of supply, disruptions around the world, a vague notion that China’s out there now competing for it, the price of gasoline, the price of home heating oil — and the climate issue, the steady drumbeat. Every week or two another major study comes out, nailing down another piece of the climate puzzle. People are beginning to feel uncertain now.
Is it frustrating to you that people seem to need human enemies, human bogeymen?
To a very substantial degree that’s a cultivated anxiety. It doesn’t exist in Europe, or elsewhere, the way it does here. They’re concerned, but they’re not preoccupied with it. And if I had to make a list of the top 10 threats to our future in the world, terrorism would be on the list, but it would be in the lower part of the list.
All this leads me to sense that we’re moving toward one of those thresholds that are hard to define, at least until you cross them. Among the manifestations are the 100 mayors — maybe more than that now — who’ve signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. This is a grassroots political revolution.
I don’t think we realize yet what Katrina is. Most of us had assumed the first climate refugees would be from Tuvalu and the Maldive Islands. But it’s the U.S. Gulf Coast. There are a few hundred thousand environmental refugees there — climate refugees.
One of the lessons of Katrina is how grossly unprepared we were for something that could easily be worse next time, or happen two places simultaneously next time.
The interesting thing about this current administration is they don’t seem to be interested in governing, in trying to make things work. FEMA’s a classic case, symbolic of this entire government.
Plan B seems deliberately apolitical.
I didn’t want it to be a political tract. But I could happily have weighed in on [politics]. When societies are in trouble, sometimes they have a Nero and sometimes they have a Churchill. One of the questions is how this administration will respond to the mounting pressure to do something about these issues.
However little competence they’ve shown in other areas, they’ve certainly demonstrated an amazing talent for avoiding moments of accountability. It’s like performance art.
It’s a public-relations operation with a hidden agenda.
Does anybody know the concrete political, media, and advocacy steps needed to pull off a fundamental transition to a sustainable economy?
In order for these changes to occur, we have to cross a social threshold, and societies don’t cross those easily or quickly. Things have to build up enough steam … and then suddenly it just goes.
And when you cross them, it’s not always clear what the response will be; there’s enough energy driving things that it can go in many directions. You can’t plan that change. You can offer a new model for an automotive fuel economy, and these sorts of things, so when the time comes there’ll be some sense of what to do.
It’s at least as possible that Americans will react with retrenchment, defensiveness, trade barriers, and military buildup — an island mentality.
Right. It could happen that way. The reason for doing a book like Plan B is to make it clear that we’re all in this together. If our civilization goes down, it’s not going to be pieces of it here and there — the whole thing’s going to go down.
Does it concern you that many of your book’s exemplary solutions come out of semi-authoritarian political situations?
I was looking for success stories, whether it’s breakthroughs in fish farming in China or dairy production in India overtaking the U.S. Wind energy in Western Europe. Solar-cell manufacturing in Japan. Reforestation in South Korea. I didn’t look at the form of government to sort out what would work. Carp polyculture’s roots go back 2,000 years; it doesn’t require a one-party dictatorship.
I remember when the Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik. A lot of Americans were despairing, and said the Soviets have a command economy, they can beat us at anything they want. But what that system lacked was a free flow of information and ideas, and in the end that’s what really weakened them. We were on the moon 10 years later, and now it’s been almost half a century and the Russians still haven’t gotten there.
Does it worry you that China’s ultimate success may be hampered in the same way, by inhibited flow of information and political freedom?
The answer is, I don’t know. They’re having great trouble. We tend to think of China as this monolith: You have the party in Beijing sending down regulations. But at the grassroots there are no enforcement mechanisms. The Chinese EPA is at most 600 people. That’s a tiny organization. They can’t do anything about this in any meaningful way. There are hundreds of thousands of factories to be monitored. They’re a long way from doing that.
What’s the most important thing for humanity to start doing?
Get the market to tell the ecological truth. Calculate the cost of burning a gallon of gasoline, for example, and incorporate the indirect cost in the form of a tax. We’re all economic decision-makers — consumers, corporate planners, government policymakers, investment bankers — and we respond to market signals. But the market’s giving us bad information. I mean grossly distorted information. So we’re making bad decisions and getting in more and more trouble every day. Whether we can pull out of that or not, I’m not sure.
What should I do? Talk to congressfolk? Write a letter to the editor? Buy a hybrid?
Most of the people in audiences I’m talking with have been asking themselves that question. Recycle paper, buy a Prius, whatever — lifestyle changes. But we’ve reached the point where we have to go beyond that. We now have to go for systemic change; otherwise we’re not going to make it. That’s why tax restructuring is so important. (Incidentally, the Chinese authorities are studying and working on a major tax restructuring just for this purpose.)
That means becoming politically active. Each of us is going to have to define that in our own terms. Maybe it’s lobbying city council or representatives in Washington, letting them know what we think, what we want them to do. If enough of us do that, change will begin.
We’re seeing signs that Republicans are beginning to cross over on some of these issues, because of the concerns of their constituents. We’re getting some major corporate crossovers. GE is now a major player in wind energy. They are cranking up 300 turbines year before last, 600 last year, 1,200 this year — they’re just going. And Goldman Sachs is beginning to invest heavily. When I talk about Goldman Sachs, it changes the way people think about wind energy.
Things may be starting to change.