Plan B. Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble,
Lester R. Brown, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2003
Reviewed by Debbie Bulger
The earth is in trouble. In China the Gobi Desert expanded by an
area half the size of Pennsylvania from 1994 to 1999. Life expectancy
in sub-Saharan Africa has dropped from 62 to 47 years. World grain
production / person is dropping. Water tables have fallen in China,
the United States, and India which together produce half the world's
In business, the term "plan B" refers to an alternate plan one has
in reserve for those times when the original strategy is not working.
Brown argues for the immediate implementation of measures to save
the earth from disaster.
founder of the Earth Policy Institute, asks whether the United States
will continue with business as usual or exercise the leadership
necessary to mobilize world resources to avert water shortages,
food shortages, climate change, population explosion, and the social
unrest and economic collapse that will result.
The good news is that there are demonstrated solutions to each of
these problems being implemented around the world today.
Brown points out that the economic collapse of food production could
occur first. We are already witnessing the collapse of wild fish
stocks. On land, our deep pumping of non-replenishable fossil aquifers
such as those under the American Midwest and in India, threatens
our ability to grow crops. Eroding soils worldwide are decreasing
land productivity. In the U.S. especially, we are paving over prime
cropland for roads and parking lots.
Rising temperatures also negatively affect crop yields. For example,
the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has
discovered that the fertility of rice drops from 100% at 931F to
zero at 1041F. Ohio State University researchers have noted that
photosynthesis begins to drop off when the temperature exceeds 951F.
One of the economic tools Brown advocates is market honesty, i.e.,
charging the true cost for goods and services based on their indirect
costs as well as direct costs. By lowering taxes on income and raising
taxes on harmful things such as carbon emissions, governments can
speed up the shift to sustainable agriculture and industry.
Subsidy shifting must also occur he feels. A 1997 report observed,
". . . there is something unbelievable about the world spending
hundreds of billions of dollars annually to subsidize its own destruction."
Instead of assisting climate change by subsidizing the fossil fuel
industries, Brown urges governments to shift these subsidies to
wind, solar, and fuel cell research and installation. Some countries
have already begun. China cut its coal subsidy from $750 million
in 1993 to $240 million in 1995 and has imposed a tax on high sulfur
coal. Germany is talking about lowering its carbon emissions 40%
Brown documents many ways to raise water productivity, stabilize
population, cut carbon emissions, and fund the necessary changes
confronting us. The only question remaining is whether or not we
have the will to change.
This easy-to-read book should be required reading for all political
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