Book Review

Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble
(2003, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company)
Written by: Lester R. Brown

Reviewed by: Nathan Springer, December 2008

Lester R. Brown’s Plan B begins with a tapestry of global mega threats spun from the story of regional environmental degradation followed by a host of potential solutions and capped with a chapter on the economic and policy macro changes necessary to address the threats on a global scale. In detail characteristic of his 20 years contributing to the World Watch Institute’s State of the World, he offers a compelling vision of the challenges and possible solutions facing our world.

“A Civilization in Trouble” launches the first part of Plan B with a detailed analysis of four environmental and social mega threats: falling water supplies, shrinking cropland, rising temperatures, and extreme poverty. According to Brown, fresh water that fuels the world’s food supply is rapidly disappearing as we draw down aquifers beyond their replenishment rate and divert rivers. Desertification, urbanization, and soil erosion threaten the arable lands necessary to feed the world. Temperature rising at an accelerating rate causes melting of mountain snow masses and polar ice caps, which could lead to rising seas. Social destabilization and environmental degradation caused by extreme poverty, the HIV epidemic, and illiteracy concludes the section on threats. In no uncertain terms, Brown says business as usual, “Plan A”, is responsible.

In response, he offers “Plan B”, a litany of possible technologies, programs, and changes to correct our misguided trajectory in the second part of the book. Brown calls for an “urgent reordering of priorities, a restructuring of the global economy,” to address global environmental problems. The second part follows the same order as the first by offering solutions to each mega threat. To address water shortages, he calls for a global effort to increase water productivity through more efficient use. To feed the world, he recommends halting desertification and sprawl while increasing the number of harvests per year, transitioning to aquaculture for animal protein, and eating lower on the food chain. He is a fervent advocate of wind and hydrogen energy and supports energy efficiency as well as solar and geothermal energy to address climate change. To address global poverty, Brown urges family planning, universal education with a focus on girls, and curbing the spread of infectious diseases. Brown also argues for stabilizing world population at 7.4 billion if we are to succeed in addressing all these challenges.

A massive mobilization not unlike the U.S. military mobilization for WWII would tackle these problems immediately, says Brown. He claims that world taxpayers subsidize $700 billion each year for environmentally destructive activities and advocates redirecting this money to environmental enhancement and poverty reduction. He proposes a similar shift in taxes by taxing activities whose environmental cost is not reflected in the market. Finally, he recommends funding the $62 billion per year in direct aid that the U.N. and World Bank say is necessary for universal education, family planning, and basic health care, noting that doing nothing would be far more costly.
Brown is a master at connecting the dots behind regional problems to draw a picture of global macro trends. Built on a career appropriating vast quantities of ecological and demographic information for his policy proposals, he beautifully synthesizes the information into four global mega threats. The portrait is convincing in its factual certitude, providing a sometimes overwhelming stream of information on the problems facing so many regions. In his section on water depletion, he cites falling water tables in regions of China, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico as evidence of a global water shortage. Threats to the world’s bread-basket in the U.S., China, and India illustrate worldwide concerns over food supply. Examples from Iran, Algeria, Kenya, and China exemplify global concerns about soil loss and desertification. He displays command of environmental and social data unsurpassed in its detail of local challenges united by common global threads.  Brown’s approach of synthesizing mega threats appears overwhelming in its entirety, but provides a common framework to address multiple problems at once.

Brown is essentially an agronomist. He is somewhat of an outlier of mainstream environmentalism with his guiding philosophy that it’s all about food. One of Brown’s greatest strengths is to make ecological harm accessible to the daily lives of people. Although he deftly traverses ecological information, his primary concern is the effect of environmental degradation on agriculture, economy, and society. He notes that falling water tables, increasing population, and poverty have a direct impact on our ability to feed ourselves, form stable democratic societies, and conduct business in a globally interconnected economy. He should be applauded for linking poverty reduction to environmental goals. His use of agriculture as a focal point endows environmental concerns with relevance to anyone who eats.

Taking in its entirety, Brown’s list of solutions is a cause for optimism. It offers a dose of hope to the melancholy-inducing first section on global environmental degradation. His objective seems to be that we have the capacity to implement changes and lack only initiative. Using examples of successful programs in India, Israel, and Australia, he describes new water pricing and metering strategies as well as efficiency technology. He applauds the success of the U.S. Conservation Resource Program in curbing soil erosion, and suggests several tried-and-true methods to increase yields using multiple planting seasons. He rightly asserts that the most direct remedy to extreme poverty and population growth is by educating women, citing projects that accomplished both. He uses concrete examples that demonstrate the technological capacity to tackle and resolve these daunting problems.
Brown ends his introduction by stating that we cannot continue to rely on “timid, incremental responses.” Unfortunately, Brown does just that until the last twenty pages of the book. While his piecemeal list of policy and technological fixes offers tools to tackle these issues, he provides little underlying cohesion. His lengthy career understanding problems has provided him insight into their cross-currents, but it feels as if he has not devoted the same energy in considering their cross-cutting solutions. Only in the final pages of the book does he recommend bold strategies for restructuring the global economy with taxes and subsidies. If he were truly advocating a mighty change, the second half of the book should have been infused with analysis of the social preconditions necessary to implement his list of solutions.

It is disappointing that, as a social scientist, he overlooks many of these fundamental cultural and social preconditions to implementing widespread change. He makes anachronistic calls for “command-and-control” policies as if governments exist in a vacuum and implement policies at will. He calls for an outright ban on non-refillable bottles to reduce energy use in production of containers instead of the realistic “disposal fee” combined with energy prices that internalize costs of fossil fuels. His approach to converting to a wind and hydrogen economy is quixotic: he insists the $700 billion in subsidies for environmentally destructive activities be diverted to alternative energy as if it were a matter of a planetary vote. He ignores the powerful interests and public perceptions that uphold existing tax structures and subsidies. The marketplace is the biggest driver of ecological change, yet the importance of changing market fundamentals is at best a footnote to the myriad technological fixes he offers. His reliance on technological solutions suggests that we arrived at our ecological crisis through an absence of technology.

His call for restructuring our approach would be strengthened by three cross-cutting mega solutions pulled from Brown’s own list: restructuring the global economy, educating women, and ending cheap fossil fuels. Brown’s call for an “honest market” would benefit from concrete examples where harmful health and social effects of resource depletion have been mitigated by internalizing costs. Investments in women’s education could be a primary mega solution due to women’s influence in local economic development, environmental preservation, reductions to family size, and disease prevention. Finally, cheap fossil fuels have powered the agricultural revolution, overconsumption of aquifers, and climate change. Brown’s call for a shift in taxes and subsidies from fossil fuel could use a robust “how to” manual along with the plethora of benefits we can expect from ending cheap fossil fuels. These three mega solutions cut across water depletion, land productivity, climate change, and poverty. By developing the mega solutions with the same depth of analysis he devoted to mega threats, Plan B would be the “new approach” and “urgent restructuring of priorities” it was meant to be.


One Response to Book Review

  1. Wonderful article. keep going.

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