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Lester Brown's Posts

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U.S. feeds one quarter of its grain to cars while hunger is on the rise

The 107 million tons of grain that went to U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total U.S. grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004. The United States looms large in the world food economy: it is far and away the world's leading grain exporter, exporting more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined. …

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America's Century-Long Love Affair with the Car May Be Coming to an End – Data Highlights

Between 1950 and 2008 more cars were added to our roads virtually every year as the total fleet expanded steadily from 49 million to 250 million vehicles. In 2009, however, 14 million cars were scrapped while only 10 million cars were sold, shrinking the fleet by 4 million vehicles, or nearly 2 percent. With record numbers of cars set to reach retirement age between now and 2020, the fleet could shrink by some 10 percent, dropping from the all-time high of 250 million in 2008 to 225 million in 2020. Graph on Motor Vehicles in the United States, 1950-2009, with …

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U.S. car fleet shrank by four million in 2009

America’s century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end. The U.S. fleet has apparently peaked and started to decline. In 2009, the 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by 4 million, or nearly 2 percent in one year. While this is widely associated with the recession, it is in fact caused by several converging forces.  Future U.S. fleet size will be determined by the relationship between two trends: new car sales and cars scrapped. Cars scrapped exceeded new car sales in 2009 for the first time since …

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Soybeans threaten Amazon rainforest

Photo courtesy Kanko* via FlickrSome 3,000 years ago, farmers in eastern China domesticated the soybean. In 1765, the first soybeans were planted in North America. Today the soybean occupies more U.S. cropland than wheat. And in Brazil, where it spread even more rapidly, the soybean is invading the Amazon rainforest. For close to two centuries after its introduction into the United States the soybean languished as a curiosity crop. Then during the 1950s, as Europe and Japan recovered from the war and as economic growth gathered momentum in the United States, the demand for meat, milk, and eggs climbed. But …

Read more: Food

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Ice Melting Faster Everywhere

This Eco-Economy Indicator is written by my colleague Alexandra Giese, a staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute. From the Arctic sea ice to the Antarctic interior and the mountainous peaks of Peru, Alaska, and Tibet, ice is melting at an alarming rate. The accelerating loss of ice sheets, sea ice, and glaciers is one of the most powerful and striking indicators of a warming climate. The most notable ice loss in recent years has been the shrinking of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. From the beginning of the satellite record in 1979 through 1996, ice area decreased at …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Stabilizing Climate: Beyond International Agreements

Note: the following was written in July 2009, before the Copenhagen climate change conference. From my pre-Copenhagen vantage point, internationally negotiated climate agreements are fast becoming obsolete for two reasons. First, since no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed. And second, since it takes years to negotiate and ratify these agreements, we may simply run out of time. This is not to say that we should not participate in the negotiations and work hard to …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Selling our future

In Chapter 1 of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, I underscore important indicators of global stability and resource consumption.  The following are summaries of key datasets that inform these discussions. Each year, the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine rank 60 “failing states,” countries which on some level fail to provide personal security or basic services, such as education, health care, food, and physical infrastructure, to their people.  The countries are evaluated using the Failed States Index, a ten-point scale for each of twelve political, social, economic, and military indicators (i.e., a state that is failing completely …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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China Challenging the United States for World Wind Leadership

This Eco-Economy Indicator is written by my colleague J. Matthew Roney, a staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute. It stresses the importance of wind energy development. Leadership of the global wind market is about to change hands. The United States—the birthplace of the modern wind industry—has held the top spot in new installations since 2005, growing at 50 percent a year and adding a record 8,540 megawatts of wind generating capacity in 2008. But if the credit-crunched U.S. industry adds only 8,000 megawatts in 2009, as anticipated, China’s new installations of some 10,000 megawatts will make it the world …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The localization of agriculture

In the United States, there has been a surge of interest in eating fresh local foods, corresponding with mounting concerns about the climate effects of consuming food from distant places and about the obesity and other health problems associated with junk food diets. This is reflected in the rise in urban gardening, school gardening, and farmers’ markets. With the fast-growing local foods movement, diets are becoming more locally shaped and more seasonal. In a typical supermarket in an industrial country today it is often difficult to tell what season it is because the store tries to make everything available on …

Read more: Food

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Inferno on Earth: Wildfires spreading as temperatures rise

The following is a Plan B Update by my colleague Janet Larsen, the Director of Research for the Earth Policy Institute, about the connection between the increase of wildfires and rising temperature. Future firefighters have their work cut out for them. Perhaps nowhere does this hit home harder than in Australia, where in early 2009, a persistent drought, high winds, and record high temperatures set the stage for the worst wildfire in the country’s history. On Feb. 9, now known as “Black Saturday,” the mercury in Melbourne topped 115 degrees F as fires burned over 1 million acres in the …

Read more: Climate & Energy