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Rescuing a planet under stress.

Understanding the Problem

As world population has doubled and as the global economy has expanded sevenfold over the last half-century, our claims on the Earth have become excessive. We are asking more of the Earth than it can give on an ongoing basis.

We are harvesting trees faster than they can regenerate, overgrazing rangelands and converting them into deserts, overpumping aquifers, and draining rivers dry. On our cropland, soil erosion exceeds new soil formation, slowly depriving the soil of its inherent fertility. We are taking fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce.

We are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb it, creating a greenhouse effect. As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, so does the earth's temperature. Habitat destruction and climate change are destroying plant and animal species far faster than new species can evolve, launching the first mass extinction since the one that eradicated the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago.

Throughout history, humans have lived on the Earth's sustainable yield--the interest from its natural endowment. But now we are consuming the endowment itself. In ecology, as in economics, we can consume principal along with interest in the short run but in the long run it leads to bankruptcy.

In 2002 a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel, an analyst at Redefining Progress, concluded that humanity's collective demands first surpassed the Earth's regenerative capacity around 1980. Their study, published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, estimated that our demands in 1999 exceeded that capacity by 20 percent. We are satisfying our excessive demands by consuming the Earth's natural assets, in effect creating a global bubble economy.

Bubble economies aren't new. U.S. investors got an up-close view of this when the bubble in high-tech stocks burst in 2000 and the NASDAQ, an indicator of the value of these stocks, declined by some 75 percent. According to the Washington Post, Japan had a similar experience in 1989 when the real estate bubble burst, depreciating stock and real estate assets by 60 percent. The bad-debt fallout and other effects of this collapse have left the once-dynamic Japanese economy dead in the water ever since.

The bursting of these two bubbles affected primarily people living in the United States and Japan but the global bubble economy that is based on the overconsumption of the Earth's natural capital assets will affect the entire world. When the food bubble economy, inflated by the overpumping of aquifers, bursts, it will raise food prices worldwide. The challenge for our generation is to deflate the economic bubble before it bursts.

Unfortunately, since September 11, 2001, political leaders, diplomats, and the media worldwide have been preoccupied with terrorism and, more recently, the occupation of Iraq. Terrorism is certainly a matter of concern, but if it diverts us from the environmental trends that are undermining our future until it is too late to reverse them, Osama bin Laden and his followers will have achieved their goal in a way they couldn't have imagined.

In February 2003, United Nations demographers made an announcement that was in some ways more shocking than the 9/11 attack: the worldwide rise in life expectancy has been dramatically reversed for a large segment of humanity--the seven hundred million people living in sub-Saharan Africa. The HIV epidemic has reduced life expectancy among this region's people from sixty-two to forty-seven years. The epidemic may soon claim more lives than all the wars of the twentieth century. If this teaches us anything, it is the high cost of neglecting newly emerging threats.

The HIV epidemic isn't the only emerging mega-threat. Numerous nations are feeding their growing populations by overpumping their aquifers--a measure that virtually guarantees a future drop in food production when the aquifers are depleted, in effect, these nations are creating a food bubble economy--one where food production is artificially inflated by the unsustainable use of groundwater.

Another mega-threat--climate change--isn't getting the attention it deserves from most governments, particularly that of the United States, the nation responsible for one-fourth of all carbon emissions. Washington, D.C., wants to wait until all the evidence on climate change is in, by which time it will be too late to prevent a wholesale warming of the planet. Just as governments in Africa watched HIV infection rates rise and did little about it, the United States is watching atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise and doing little to check the increase.

Other mega-threats being neglected include eroding soils and expanding deserts, which jeopardize the livelihood and food supply of hundreds of millions of the world's people. These issues don't even appear on the radar screen of many national governments.

Thus far, most of the environmental damage has been local: the death of the Aral Sea, the burning rainforests of Indonesia, the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery, the melting of the glaciers that supply Andean cities with water, the dust bowl forming in northwestern China, and the depletion of the U.S. great plains aquifer. But as these local environmental events expand and multiply, they will progressively weaken the global economy, bringing closer the day when the economic bubble will burst.

Humanity's demands on the Earth have multiplied over the last half-century as our numbers have increased and our incomes have risen. World population grew from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.1 billion in 2000. The growth during those fifty years exceeded that during the four million years since our ancestors first emerged from Africa.

Incomes have risen even faster than population. According to Erik Assadourian's Vital Signs 2003 article, "Economic Growth Inches Up," income per person worldwide nearly tripled from 1950 to 2000. Growth in population and the rise in incomes together expanded global economic output from just under $7 trillion (in 2001 dollars) of goods and services in 1950 to $46 trillion in 2000--a gain of nearly sevenfold.

Population growth and rising incomes together have tripled world grain demand over the last half-century, pushing it from 640 million tons in 1950 to 1,855 million tons in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To satisfy this swelling demand, farmers have plowed land that was highly erodible--land that was too dry or too steeply sloping to sustain cultivation. Each year billions of tons of topsoil are being blown away in dust storms or washed away in rainstorms, leaving farmers to try to feed some seventy million additional people but with less topsoil than the year before.

Demand for water also tripled as agricultural, industrial, and residential uses increased, outstripping the sustainable supply in many nations. As a result, water tables are falling and wells are going dry. Rivers are also being drained dry, to the detriment of wildlife and ecosystems.

Fossil fuel use quadrupled, setting in motion a rise in carbon emissions that is overwhelming nature's capacity to fix carbon dioxide. As a result of this carbon-fixing deficit, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations climbed from 316 parts per million (ppm) in 1959, when official measurement began, to 369 ppm in 2000, according to a report issued by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California.

The sector of the economy that seems likely to unravel first is food. Eroding soils, deteriorating rangelands, collapsing fisheries, falling water tables, and rising temperatures are converging to make it more difficult to expand food production fast enough to keep up with demand. According to the USDA, in 2002 the world grain harvest of 1,807 million tons fell short of world grain consumption by 100 million tons, or 5 percent. This shortfall, the largest on record, marked the third consecutive year of grain deficits, dropping stocks to the lowest level in a generation.

Now the question is: can the world's farmers bounce back and expand production enough to fill the hundred-million-ton shortfall, provide for the more than seventy million people added each year, and rebuild stocks to a more secure level? In the past, farmers responded to short supplies and higher grain prices by planting more land and using more irrigation water and fertilizer. Now it is doubtful that farmers can fill this gap without further depleting aquifers and jeopardizing future harvests.

At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, Italy, hosted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 185 nations plus the European community agreed to reduce hunger by half by 2015. Using 1990-1992 as a base, governments set the goal of cutting the number of people who were hungry--860 million--by roughly 20 million per year. It was an exciting and worthy goal, one that later became one of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

But in its late 2002 review of food security, the UN issued a discouraging report:
 This year we must report that progress has virtually
 ground to a halt. Our latest estimates,
 based on data from the years 1998-2000, put
 the number of undernourished people in the
 world at 840 million .... a decrease of barely 2.5
 million per year over the eight years since

Since 1998-2000, world grain production per person has fallen 5 percent, suggesting that the ranks of the hungry are now expanding. As noted earlier, life expectancy is plummeting in sub-Saharan Africa. If the number of hungry people worldwide is also increasing, then two key social indicators are showing widespread deterioration in the human condition.

The ecological deficits just described are converging on the farm sector, making it more difficult to sustain rapid growth in world food output. No one knows when the growth in food production will fall behind that of demand, driving up prices, but it may be much sooner than we think. The triggering events that will precipitate future food shortages are likely to be spreading water shortages interacting with crop-withering heat waves in key food-producing regions. The economic indicator most likely to signal serious trouble in the deteriorating relationship between the global economy and the Earth's ecosystem is grain prices.

Food is fast becoming a national security issue as growth in the world harvest slows and as falling water tables and rising temperatures hint at future shortages. According to the USDA more than one hundred nations import part of the wheat they consume. Some forty import rice. While some nations are only marginally dependent on imports, others couldn't survive without them. Egypt and Iran, for example, rely on imports for 40 percent of their grain supply. For Algeria, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, among others, it is 70 percent or more. For Israel and Yemen, over 90 percent. Just six nations--Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Thailand, and the United States--supply 90 percent of grain exports. The United States alone controls close to half of world grain exports, a larger share than Saudi Arabia does of oil.

Thus far the nations that import heavily are small and middle-sized ones. But now China, the world's most populous nation, is soon likely to turn to world markets in a major way. As reported by the International Monetary Fund, when the former Soviet Union unexpectedly turned to the world market in 1972 for roughly a tenth of its grain supply following a weather-reduced harvest, world wheat prices climbed from $1.90 to $4.89 a bushel. Bread prices soon rose, too.

If China depletes its grain reserves and turns to the world grain market to cover its shortfall--now forty million tons per year--it could destabilize world grain markets overnight. Turning to the world market means turning to the United States, presenting a potentially delicate geopolitical situation in which 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with a $100-billion trade surplus with the United States will be competing with U.S. consumers for U.S. grain. If this leads to rising food prices in the United States, how will the government respond? In times past, it could have restricted exports, even imposing an export embargo, as it did with soybeans to Japan in 1974. But today the United States has a stake in a politically stable China. With an economy growing at 7 to 8 percent a year, China is the engine that is powering not only the Asian economy but, to some degree, the world economy.

For China, becoming dependent on other nations for food would end its history of food self-sufficiency, leaving it vulnerable to world market uncertainties. For Americans, rising food prices would be the first indication that the world has changed fundamentally and that they are being directly affected by the growing grain deficit in China. If it seems likely that rising food prices are being driven in part by crop-withering temperature rises, pressure will mount for the United States to reduce oil and coal use.

For the world's poor--the millions living in cities on $1 per day or less and already spending 70 percent of their income on food--rising grain prices would be life threatening. A doubling of world grain prices today could impoverish more people in a shorter period of time than any event in history. With desperate people holding their governments responsible, such a price rise could also destabilize governments of low-income, grain-importing nations.

Food security has changed in other ways. Traditionally it was largely an agricultural matter. But now it is something that our entire society is responsible for. National population and energy policies may have a greater effect on food security than agricultural policies do. With most of the three billion people to be added to world population by 2050 (as estimated by the UN) being born in nations already facing water shortages, childbearing decisions may have a greater effect on food security than crop planting decisions. Achieving an acceptable balance between food and people today depends on family planners and farmers working together.

Climate change is the wild card in the food security deck. The effect of population and energy policies on food security differ from climate in one important respect: population stability can be achieved by a nation acting unilaterally. Climate stability cannot.

Instituting the Solution

Business as usual--Plan A--clearly isn't working. The stakes are high, and time isn't on our side. The good news is that there are solutions to the problems we are facing. The bad news is that if we continue to rely on timid, incremental responses our bubble economy will continue to grow until eventually it bursts. A new approach is necessary--a Plan B--an urgent reordering of priorities and a restructuring of the global economy in order to prevent that from happening.

Plan B is a massive mobilization to deflate the global economic bubble before it reaches the bursting point. Keeping the bubble from bursting will require an unprecedented degree of international cooperation to stabilize population, climate, water tables, and soils--and at wartime speed. Indeed, in both scale and urgency the effort required is comparable to the U.S. mobilization during World War II.

Our only hope now is rapid systemic change--change based on market signals that tell the ecological truth. This means restructuring the tax system by lowering income taxes and raising taxes on environmentally destructive activities, such as fossil fuel burning, to incorporate the ecological costs. Unless we can get the market to send signals that reflect reality, we will continue making faulty decisions as consumers, corporate planners, and government policymakers. Ill-informed economic decisions and the economic distortions they create can lead to economic decline.

Stabilizing the world population at 7.5 billion or so is central to avoiding economic breakdown in nations with large projected population increases that are already overconsuming their natural capital assets. According to the Population Reference Bureau, some thirty-six nations, all in Europe except Japan, have essentially stabilized their populations. The challenge now is to create the economic and social conditions and to adopt the priorities that will lead to population stability in all remaining nations. The keys here are extending primary education to all children, providing vaccinations and basic health care, and offering reproductive health care and family planning services in all nations.

Shifting from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy to stabilize climate is now technologically possible. Advances in wind turbine design and in solar cell manufacturing, the availability of hydrogen generators, and the evolution of fuel cells provide the technologies needed to build a climate-benign hydrogen economy. Moving quickly from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy depends on getting the price right, on incorporating the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels into the market price.

On the energy front, Iceland is the first nation to adopt a national plan to convert its carbon-based energy economy to one based on hydrogen. Denmark and Germany are leading the world into the age of wind. Japan has emerged as the world's leading manufacturer and user of solar cells. With its commercialization of a solar roofing material, it leads the world in electricity generation from solar cells and is well positioned to assist in the electrification of villages in the developing world. The Netherlands leads the industrial world in exploiting the bicycle as an alternative to the automobile. And the Canadian province of Ontario is emerging as a leader in phasing out coal. It plans to replace its five coal-fired power plants with gas-fired plants, wind farms, and efficiency gains.

Stabilizing water tables is particularly difficult because the forces triggering the fall have their own momentum, which must be reversed. Arresting the fall depends on quickly raising water productivity. In pioneering drip irrigation technology, Israel has become the world leader in the efficient use of agricultural water. This unusually labor-intensive irrigation practice, now being used to produce high-value crops in many nations, is ideally suited where water is scarce and labor is abundant.

In stabilizing soils, South Korea and the United States stand out. South Korea, with once denuded mountainsides and hills now covered with trees, has achieved a level of flood control, water storage, and hydrological stability that is a model for other nations. Beginning in the late 1980s, U.S. farmers systematically retired roughly 10 percent of the most erodible cropland, planting the bulk of it to grass, according to the USDA. In addition, they lead the world in adopting minimum-till, no-till, and other soil-conserving practices. With this combination of programs and practices, the United States has reduced soil erosion by nearly 40 percent in less than two decades.

Thus all the things we need to do to keep the bubble from bursting are now being done in at least a few nations. If these highly successful initiatives are adopted worldwide, and quickly, we can deflate the bubble before it bursts.

Yet adopting Plan B is unlikely unless the United States assumes a leadership position, much as it belatedly did in World War II. The nation responded to the aggression of Germany and Japan only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But respond it did. After an all-out mobilization, the U.S. engagement helped turn the tide, leading the Allied Forces to victory within three and a half years.

This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a nation and, indeed, the world can restructure its economy quickly if it is convinced of the need to do so. Many people--although not yet the majority--are already convinced of the need for a wholesale restructuring of the economy. The issue isn't whether most people will eventually be won over but whether they will be convinced before the bubble economy collapses.

History judges political leaders by whether they respond to the great issues of their time. For today's leaders, that issue is how to deflate the world's bubble economy before it bursts. This bubble threatens the future of everyone, rich and poor alike. It challenges us to restructure the global economy, to build an eco-economy.

We now have some idea of what needs to be done and how to do it. The UN has set social goals for education, health, and the reduction of hunger and poverty in its Millennium Development Goals. My latest book, Plan B, offers a sketch for the restructuring of the energy economy to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, a plan to stabilize population, a strategy for raising land productivity and restoring the earth's vegetation, and a plan to raise water productivity worldwide. The goals are essential and the technologies are available,

We have the wealth to achieve these goals. What we don't yet have is the leadership And if the past is any guide to the future, that leadership can only come from the United States. By far the wealthiest society that has ever existed, the United States has the resources to lead this effort.

Yet the additional external funding needed to achieve universal primary education in the eighty-eight developing nations that require help is conservatively estimated by the World Bank at $15 billion per year. Funding for an adult literacy program based largely on volunteers is estimated at $4 billion. Providing for the most basic health care is estimated at $21 billion by the World Health Organization. The additional funding needed to provide reproductive health and family planning services to all women in developing nations is $10 billion a year.

Closing the condom gap and providing the additional nine billion condoms needed to control the spread of H1V in the developing world and Eastern Europe requires $2.2 billion-$270 million for condoms and $1.9 billion for AIDS prevention education and condom distribution. The cost per year of extending school lunch programs to the forty-four poorest nations is $6 billion per year. An additional $4 billion per year would cover the cost of assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in these nations.

In total, this comes to $62 billion. If the United States offered to cover one-third of this additional funding, the other industrial nations would almost certainly be willing to provide the remainder, and the worldwide effort to eradicate hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty would be under way.

The challenge isn't just to alleviate poverty, but in doing so to build an economy that is compatible with the Earth's natural systems--an eco-economy, an economy that can sustain progress. This means a fundamental restructuring of the energy economy and a substantial modification of the food economy. It also means raising the productivity of energy and shifting from fossil fuels to renewables. It means raising water productivity over the next half-century, much as we did land productivity over the last one.

It is easy to spend hundreds of billions in response to terrorist threats but the reality is that the resources needed to disrupt a modern economy are small, and a Department of Homeland Security, however heavily funded, provides only minimal protection from suicidal terrorists. The challenge isn't just to provide a high-tech military response to terrorism but to build a global society that is environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and democratically based--one where there is hope for everyone. Such an effort would more effectively undermine the spread of terrorism than a doubling of military expenditures.

We can build an economy that doesn't destroy its natural support systems, a global community where the basic needs of all the Earth's people are satisfied, and a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized. This is entirely doable. To paraphrase former President Franklin Roosevelt at another of those hinge points in history, let no one say it cannot be done.

The choice is ours--yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over a global bubble economy that keeps expanding until it bursts, leading to economic decline. Or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that stabilizes population, eradicates poverty and stabilizes climate. Historians will record the choice--but it is ours to make.

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute. This article is adapted from his recently released book Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, which is available for free downloading at
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Author:Brown, Lester R.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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