Scott Thill: The book and television program is called
Mobilizing to Save Civilization. So let's start with how Plan A,
what you call "business as usual," bungled the job?
Lester Brown: Plan A belongs to another age. There was a time when
the market could set prices pretty well and guide the direction of
economic development. But in recent decades, and particularly recent
years, we have come to realize that many of the indirect costs have
not been included in the prices that the market sets.
The market is
good at setting direct costs.
For example, when you buy a gallon of
gas, the market includes the costs of pumping, refining and
distribution of that gas to your local service station. But the
market is not very good at treating the indirect costs of treating
respiratory illnesses from breathing polluted air, and certainly not
the cost of climate change. The problem with Plan A's system, which
worked pretty well a century ago when the world economy was only a
twentieth of what it is now, is that these indirect costs are now
far larger than the direct ones.
So we're being guided by the
market, but it's not telling us the truth about the prices or costs.
In a nutshell, that's the big challenge we're facing in the world
ST: Plan B is arguing that we need to save not the planet, but
LB: Environmentalists have been talking for decades about saving the
planet, but the planet is going to be around for some time to come.
The question is, will civilization as we know it be around for some
time to come? Can it survive the mounting global stresses of rising
pollution, starvation, food prices, water shortages and failed
states? These are the real threats to our security now, but we're
not responding to them.
ST: Do you think that's because losing civilization is beyond the
comprehension of civilization itself?
LB: That's quite possible, when you look at the trends of earlier
civilizations whose archaeology we study now. More often that not,
food shortages were responsible for their decline and eventual
For a long time, I had rejected the idea that food shortages
could be the weak link in our modern 21st-century economy.
fact, I think it is the weak link, and I think that's where the
wake-up call is going to come from.
Rising prices spreading a hunger
to more and more failing states are the manifestations of our
mounting stresses. That requires a mindset that's very different
than we've had up until now.
ST: This is not encouraging, given our current geopolitical and
LB: Well, the other thing I'd like to add is that change comes very
quickly and unexpectedly sometimes. I can remember the Berlin Wall
coming down, which was the visual manifestation of a political
revolution that changed the form of every government in Eastern
Europe. Or the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union, which I had
assumed was going to be with us forever. But suddenly, it wasn't
Right now, we're watching a political phenomenon in
Africa and the Middle East that not many of us had anticipated, a
grassroots political fervor strong enough to unseat the despots that
have been ruling that part of the world for decades. It's
interesting because this is not the part of the world where I would
have looked for political revolutions, if you will. But they're
happening, and on a scale that would have been unimaginable months
So these tipping points come every once in a while in places
and forms that are new and different. We can probably explain some
of this through social networking and the Internet, but nonetheless
these are radical changes occurring in a number of countries at the
ST: Many of these despots were assisted into power by the United
States in order to keep Plan A alive.
Are our current interventions
in Africa and the Middle East geostrategic capitalizations on these
grassroots revolutions for access to what's left of Earth's fossil
fuels? Or are we helping wipe away the 20th century's regimes so we
can focus on beating climate change, which is the mammoth task of
our new century?
LB: That's an interesting question. My guess is that rising food
prices are leading us to the tipping point for both crises. It's
difficult to convince people of the need to stabilize the climate.
When you're talking about rising CO2 levels going from 280 parts per
million at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to 385 parts per
million today, few can relate to that. No one has ever seen, smelled
or tasted CO2; it's a very abstract thing. But people do understand
rising food prices, and they do respond to them.
So whether it's a
growing dependence on imported food in North Africa and the Middle
East, or rising food prices at the checkout counter in America, we
can see how that would lead to change that is at the moment very
difficult for us to manage.
ST: I've seen reports of scientists engineering meat in labs. Do you
think that technocratic solution, or any others, can save our
civilization from collapsing because of
food shortages, as so many
have in the past?
LB: The idea of producing food in labs is a bit beyond at least our
commercial reach at the moment. It's not something that's close to
being economically possible. Plus, it happens that nature devised
this process a couple billion years ago called photosynthesis, which
uses sunlight to convert water and CO2 to create basic
And we have not come up with any important
improvements on that process: It's still the most efficient way to
convert solar energy into biochemical energy.
But in looking at the global picture,
it is water that is emerging
as the principal constraint on efforts to expand food production.
There's a lot of land in the world that could provide us food, if
there was water to go with it. And what we have seen is that there
are countries whose rising demand for food have led them to
over-pump aquifers and underground water resources. Now, you can
over-pump in the short run.
But once you've depleted the aquifer,
then the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of
aquifer recharge from precipitation. So we're looking at a situation
where a number of countries have artificially inflated their grain
production by over-pumping.
ST: And their bubbles are bursting.
LB: These bubbles are in countries that contain over half of the
world's people, and they're starting to burst. The first is
occurring in Saudi Arabia, which was self-sufficient in wheat
production for 20 years but whose production has fallen by
two-thirds in three years. They're going to have to phase it out
entirely in another year or two, because they were pumping a fossil
aquifer, which is like an oil field.
Once you pump it out, it's
gone. You're going to see more of those.
ST: Once we exhaust or deplete these aquifers, and climate change
perhaps dries out our glaciers, it seems logical that we will turn
to the seas for our water. What are your thoughts on
desalination, and how might that complicate our already heavily
LB: We can de-salt sea water. There's no question that we have the
technology to do that. There are hundreds of desalination plants in
the Middle East, particularly in the oil-exporting countries in the
Persian Gulf. The problem is that it takes a lot of water to produce
food. It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain.
make desalination cheap enough to produce food that we could afford,
we'd have to reduce the cost of desalination by a factor of ten.
Though we're getting small percentage increases in desalination
efficiency, I don't know anyone who sees us being able to de-salt
seawater at a cost that will make it feasible to irrigate large
areas of land.
We don't drink very much water, so for household uses we can afford
desalination. At least, people with reasonably good incomes can;
poorest people in the world can't even afford that. So desalination
is not the answer.
We drink in one form or another close to four
quarts of water a day, whether that's in juice, coffee or whatever.
But the food we eat requires 2,000 liters of water to produce, 500
times as much. And that's where the water crunch is going to come
from, on the production side of the food equation.
ST: Let's talk about
the actual crisis in Japan, and the pall it has cast
upon the nuclear power industry.
LB: Well, we don't know yet the extent of the damage we're going to
see at the Fukushima power plant. But it is clear that is has become
a clear issue of public concern in Japan, and I do think it is going
to change attitudes toward nuclear power worldwide. There's a
tendency for industry and political leaders to say that it's not
going to change how we think about nuclear power. But I think it
There's already talk about the
Indian Point power plant on
Long Island: If there's an accident there where the United States
government suggests a 50-mile-wide civilian and military evacuation,
as it has in Japan, that would mean emptying out New York City.
When people begin thinking about that, they start to realize what a
catastrophe it could be. Is it worth it to have this relatively old
nuclear power plant operating so close to population centers? I
think that plant is going to close, and I also think that's going to
affect how we think about nuclear power.
Because it's not just about
the operation of these plants, it's the
storage of the spent fuels.
That's what is creating problems in Japan.
We've got at least 70
sites with spent fuel in a similar situation. If we lose control of
our ability to cool that fuel because of some accident or disaster,
we're going to have a big problem on our hands.
ST: I read that the
Yucca depository in Nevada has to be able to
capably store nuclear waste for a million years, which frankly seems
beyond our ability, if not our comprehension.
LB: Who wants waste that has to be stored for a million years around
them? That's a problem. There's not a single country in the world
that has come up with a way of safely disposing of nuclear waste. We
haven't solved the problem of what to do with all the waste that has
been accumulating, and that is going to become a matter of public
Japan doesn't even need nuclear power; it has so much
It's ironic that the same seismic threats to
Japan are indicators of the country's enormous amount of geothermal
energy. Japan has something like 10,000 natural hot baths, all using geothermally heated water. Any country with that many hot springs
can tap geothermal energy for electricity.
So the question has to be asked:
These sorts of questions will come up again and again in the
future, and that's going to make it more difficult to develop
nuclear power plants.
I mean, Wall Street gave up on investing in
nuclear power plants more than 30 years ago. The only way you can
get in now is if the government - which is to say taxpayers like
you and I - guarantee the loan.
ST: Plan B explains that we're in a race between the lethal tipping
points of climate change and failed states. Can we reach in time the
tipping point of grassroots revolution and public involvement that
you mentioned earlier? Because it seems like we're way behind.
LB: We're losing ground right now. The question is whether we can
turn things around quickly enough. But I don't think we have a lot
of time. Time is our scarcest resource. But as I said, change can
come quickly, and in ways that we sometimes don't anticipate.
ex-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt explained in the show,
the period between the first civil rights march in Selma and the
Voting Rights Act lasted less than five years.
If you go back to
before Pearl Harbor, and ask the American people if they should get
involved in World War II, the majority would have said no. But if
you ask them the day after Pearl Harbor, the majority of them would
have changed their mind in a matter of days.
ST: In that situation, nationalism played a huge role in Hitler's
horrific regime and our galvanized response to it. But do you think
our problem with climate change is that it is rooted in
interconnectedness, which is nationalism's atomized opposite?
Climate change is clearly an issue that no country can solve on
its own. It's going to take all of us working together to solve it.
And that in itself is intimidating.
But what I expect to see is some
countries simply moving ahead on their own in ways that will lead
other countries to begin doing the same. I don't think change will
come as a result of an internationally negotiated climate agreement,
but rather from countries like America, China and a few other major
economies stepping ahead in a major way.
The energy rethink that
this nuclear accident in Japan is going to generate may also carry
over into major alternatives like geothermal, wind and solar energy.
ST: China has already taken the lead. If you want to be part of what
Plan B calls the New Energy Economy, you have to deal with China.
LB: It's the leading manufacturer of solar cells worldwide by a wide
margin. They're also moving very rapidly into a huge expansion of
wind power generation.
By 2020, China plans to add something like
200,000 megawatts of wind-generated energy capacity. That's huge.
That's like building a coal-fired power plant every week for the
next four years. I don't think we've quite yet realized the scale of
what's happening with renewable energy in China.
China has also emerged as a leading manufacturer of high-speed rail
equipment. After the $8 billion bond passed in California, the first
representative there to discuss supplies and equipment with
California government officials was a delegation from China. Which
is interesting, because it was workers from China who provided much
of the labor for the Western part of our transcontinental railroad.
So the Chinese are back again, but in a much different capacity. And
that is something we should be thinking about.
ST: Speaking of rail, we've seen states handing free billions for
high-speed rail, and the jobs that go with them, back to the
government because of a bankrupt ideology. Does high-speed rail's
American future worry you?
LB: I'm a bit worried. One of the problems is that many Americans
have not traveled in Europe or Japan, where they have really good
If you don't know what it is, how it works or how
efficient and reliable it can be, you don't have the same attitude
or appreciation for it.
In 2004, I was invited to speak at the 40th
anniversary of high-speed rail in Japan. I mean, these trains travel
at 170 miles an hour, have carried billions of passengers and have
never had a single train-related fatality.
And the average late
arrival time a year before the conference was 14 seconds. We can't
think in those terms right now.