This month’s feature is an adapted excerpt from Chapter 1 of Lester R. Brown’s “Entering a New World, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization”. The full text is available for free downloading or purchase here.
More information about the highly influential author is available here.
Nearly all of the 80 million people being added to world population each year are born in countries where natural support systems are already deteriorating in the face of excessive population pressure, in the countries least able to support them. In these countries, the risk of state failure is growing.
Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country–industrial or developing–has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.
Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC?
Several converging trends are making it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up with the growth in food demand. Prominent among these are falling water tables, the growing conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses, and more extreme climate events, including crop-withering heat waves, droughts, and floods. As the stresses from these unresolved problems accumulate, weaker governments are beginning to break down.
Compounding these problems, the United States, the world’s breadbasket, has dramatically increased the share of its grain harvest going to fuel ethanol–from 15 percent of the 2005 crop to more than 25 percent of the 2008 crop. This ill-conceived U.S. effort to reduce its oil insecurity helped drive world grain prices to all-time highs by mid-2008, creating unprecedented world food insecurity.
We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems. Can we phase out coal-fired power plants before the melting of the Greenland ice sheet becomes irreversible? Can we gather the political will to halt deforestation in the Amazon before its growing vulnerability to fire takes it to the point of no return? Can we help countries stabilize population before they become failing states?
We have the technologies to restore the earth’s natural support systems, to eradicate poverty, to stabilize population, and to restructure the world energy economy and stabilize climate. The challenge now is to build the political will to do so. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. Each of us has a leading role to play.
Adapted from Chapter 1, “Entering a New World,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at http://www.earth-policy.org/books/pb3.