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Lester Brown's Posts

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revolution is in the air

Why do states break down?

They can't stop what's coming.Photo: Al Jazeera EnglishUprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Middle East at the start of 2011 have reminded the world just how politically fragile some countries are. But the focus of international politics has been shifting for some time now. After a half-century of forming new states from former colonies and from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community is today faced with the opposite situation: the disintegration of states. As an article in Foreign Policy observes, “Failed states have made a remarkable odyssey from the periphery to the very center of global …

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flour to the people

How to make sure there will be enough food

We shouldn't be getting so much of our energy from cornfields.Photo: Ben HusmannToday there are three sources of growing demand for food: population growth; rising affluence and the associated jump in meat, milk, and egg consumption; and the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. Population growth is as old as agriculture itself. But the world is now adding close to 80 million people per year. Even worse, the overwhelming majority of these people are being added in countries where cropland is scarce, soils are eroding, and irrigation wells are going dry. Even as we are multiplying in number, …

Read more: Food, Living, Politics

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‘World on the Edge': quick facts

We are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency. Can we think systemically and fashion policies accordingly? Can we change direction before we go over the edge? Here are a few of the many facts from my latest book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, to consider: There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night -- many of them with empty plates. If the 2010 heat wave centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago, it could easily have reduced the U.S. grain harvest of …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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2010 hits top of temperature chart

This post was written by Alexandra Giese, staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute. Topping off the warmest decade in history, 2010 experienced a global average temperature of 14.63 degrees Celsius (58.3 degrees F), tying 2005 as the hottest year in 131 years of recordkeeping. This news will come as no surprise to residents of the 19 countries that experienced record heat in 2010. Belarus set a record of 38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7 degrees F) on August 6 and then broke it by 0.2 degrees Celsius just one day later. A 47-degree Celsius (117-degree F) spike in Burma set a …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Yet we still don't want Glenn Beck's 'food insurance'

The world is only one poor harvest away from chaos

Connect the dots -- we're in trouble: In Saudi Arabia, the wheat harvest has been reduced by two-thirds in three years due to irrigated fields (pictured above as green circles) sucking the life out of the aquifer.Photo: NASAOur early 21st century civilization is in trouble. We need not go beyond the world food economy to see this. Over the last few decades we have created a food production bubble -- one based on environmental trends that cannot be sustained, including overpumping aquifers, overplowing land, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. If we cannot reverse these trends, economic decline is …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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apres nous, le deluge

Future at risk on a hotter planet

We are entering a new era, one of rapid and often unpredictable climate change. In fact, the new climate norm is change. The 25 warmest years on record have come since 1980. And the 10 warmest years since global recordkeeping began in 1880 have come since 1998. The effects of rising temperature are pervasive. Higher temperatures diminish crop yields, melt the mountain glaciers that feed rivers, generate more-destructive storms, increase the severity of flooding, intensify drought, cause more-frequent and destructive wildfires, and alter ecosystems everywhere. We are altering the earth’s climate, setting in motion trends we do not always understand …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Cereal killer

Feeding the world means hogging less grain

Photo: Big Grey MareAfter several decades of rapid rise in world grain yields, it is now becoming more difficult to raise land productivity fast enough to keep up with the demands of a growing, increasingly affluent population. From 1950 to 1990, world grainland productivity increased by 2.2 percent per year, but from 1990 until 2009 it went up by only 1.3 percent annually. Despite some impressive local advances, the global loss of momentum in expanding food production is forcing us to think more seriously about reducing demand by stabilizing population, moving down the food chain, and reducing the use of …

Read more: Food

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Waste, not

Reducing urban water use around the world with compost toilets

We should keep his water clean, not flush it away.Photo: Meena Kadri Theodore Roosevelt once noted that "civilized people ought to know how to dispose of the sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water." But that's what we're still doing every day. The one-time use of water to disperse human and industrial wastes is an outmoded practice, made obsolete by new technologies and water shortages. Yet it is still common around much of the world. Water enters a city, becomes contaminated with human and industrial wastes, and leaves the city dangerously polluted. Toxic industrial wastes …

Read more: Living

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Dirt poor

Conserving and rebuilding soils in the U.S. and around the world

A line of trees planted as a "shelterbelt" in Pennsylvania.Photo: Nicholas_T The literature on soil erosion contains countless references to the "loss of protective vegetation." Over the last half-century, clearcutting, overgrazing, and overplowing have removed so much of that protective cover that the world is quickly losing soil accumulated over long stretches of geological time. Preserving the biological productivity of highly erodible cropland depends on planting it in grass or trees before it becomes wasteland. The 1930s Dust Bowl that threatened to turn the U.S. Great Plains into a vast desert was a traumatic experience that led to revolutionary changes …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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site unsoiled

Peak soil is no joke: Civilization's foundation is eroding

The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization. This soil, typically 6 inches or so deep, was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. But sometime within the last century, as human and livestock populations expanded, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation over large areas. This is not new. In 1938, Walter Lowdermilk, a senior official in the Soil Conservation Service of the USDA, traveled abroad to look at lands that had been cultivated for thousands of years, seeking to …

Read more: Food