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A Plan for Preserving Civilization

Thomas Malone

Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Lester R. Brown. xii + 365 pp. W. W. Norton, 2006. $16.96.

In his 1948 book, Our Plundered Planet, Fairfield Osborn warned that our exploitation of the Earth was threatening our very survival. Urging recognition of "the necessity of cooperating with nature," he said that if civilization is to continue, humankind "must temper [its] demands and use and conserve the living resources of this earth." In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, in a report titled Our Common Future, called for a "new charter" setting out the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the state with regard to the environment and development. This challenge led eventually to "The Earth Charter" (available online at, which was approved by the commission in 2000. "The choice is ours," declares the charter: "form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living."

In Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, award-winning environmentalist and prolific author Lester R. Brown (founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute) confirms Osborn's forebodings and offers an attractive 21st-century alternative to the unacceptable business-as-usual path we have been following with regard to the environment (Plan A), which is leading us toward "economic decline and collapse." This volume is a revised, updated and expanded edition of Brown's 2003 book Plan B. Brown argues that we need to build a new economy. The purposes of this revised edition, he says, are to offer a more detailed vision of what that economy would look like, to include "new evidence that the western economic model will not work for China," to address issues raised by decreases in the supply of oil, to add an "earth restoration budget" and to describe recent technological advances that might help reverse negative environmental trends. The supporting evidence he presents is impressive.

Brown begins by summarizing his concerns:

We are consuming renewable resources faster than they can regenerate. Forests are shrinking, grasslands are deteriorating, water tables are falling, fisheries are collapsing, and soils are eroding. We are using up oil at a pace that leaves little time to plan beyond peak oil. And we are discharging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb them, setting the stage for a rise in the earth's temperature well above any since agriculture began.

Citing projections regarding the need for grain and oil in China, India and other developing countries, Brown warns that "The first big test of the international community's capacity to manage scarcity may come with oil or it could come with grain." The melting of the Greenland ice sheet as the result of greenhouse gas emissions is now proceeding rapidly and could raise sea level by as much as 23 feet, he says, although he concedes that that could take centuries. Meanwhile, taxpayers are subsidizing the world fossil-fuel industry by more than $210 billion a year—"a reservoir of tax deductions that can be diverted to climate-benign, renewable sources of energy."

Something must be done soon. "At issue," says Brown, "is whether national governments can stabilize population and restructure the economy before time runs out." But Plan B 2.0 is not a doomsday scenario; rather, the book is decidedly upbeat. Brown notes that destructive environmental trends that result from human activity can be dealt with using existing technologies, as some countries have already demonstrated. Denmark, for example, already uses wind power to produce 20 percent of its electricity.

Brown recognizes that the aims of reducing global poverty and of preserving and restoring the environment are inextricably linked. Estimates of expenditures necessary to address these interrelated goals constitute the heart of his Plan B. Brown estimates that achieving what he refers to as "basic social goals" (universal primary education, adult literacy, a school lunch program as well as assistance for preschool children and pregnant mothers in the world's 44 poorest countries, reproductive health and family planning, universal basic health care and improved availability of condoms) would cost, worldwide, about $68 billion per year. Reaching "Earth restoration goals" (reforestation, topsoil protection, water-table stabilization, restoration of rangelands and fisheries, and protection of biodiversity) would cost about $93 billion per year, he believes. But even the sum of these two figures ($161 billion) is only a fraction of the roughly $975 billion he says represents the world's total annual military expenditures. Reallocation of just one-sixth of that total—or, alternatively, reallocation of one-third of the $492 billion the United States spends—could therefore help ensure the survival of civilization. The U.S. military budget reduced by one-third would remain several times greater than that of any other country.

Brown concludes by emphasizing that individuals play a central role in these policy decisions. "The choice is ours," he says. "Sketch out a plan for the next year of the things you want to do, how you hope to do them, and whom you can work with to achieve the only goal that really counts—the preservation of civilization. What could be more rewarding?"

The vision of a global society in which all individuals in successive generations can have all of their needs met and obtain an equitable share of life's amenities is now within reach and can be achieved while maintaining a healthy, physically attractive and biologically productive environment. Actualizing that vision will not be easy, Brown admits, but it is worth the effort:

Participating in the construction of this enduring new economy is exhilarating. So is the quality of life it will bring. We will be able to breathe clean air. Our cities will be less congested, less noisy, and less polluted. The prospect of living in a world where population has stabilized, forests are expanding, and carbon emissions are falling is an exciting one.

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