A Plan for Preserving Civilization
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
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.