3 , 2004: For anyone with a stake in the future,
this genre of book is a must, and this title might be one
of the best. For almost three decades, Lester Brown, founder
and president of the Earth Policy Institute, has been a pioneer
in sustainable development. His roots as a tomato farmer show
in his no-nonsense way of getting the facts out. And facts
he has, 49 pages of reference notes at the end. This book
pulls together much previous research and information into
a readable text.
Lester Brown starts off by developing the idea of a “bubble
economy”. This false economy is result of our collective
failure—on a global scale—to account for natural
limitations. Brown offers a compelling argument that a “business-as-usual”
approach can no longer sustain the bubble economy and the
global community. Continuing down our present path will eventually
burst the economic bubble, resulting in widespread suffering.
He cites significant evidence suggesting that the bubble is
at the breaking point, particularly with respect to population
growth and declining food production.
“The sector of the economy that seems likely to unravel
first is food,” Brown writes (7). He presents substantial
evidence that eroding soils, collapsing range lands and fisheries,
water and energy shortages, and rising temperatures will drastically
reduce our ability to produce food.
Here is a small sample from Brown’s 16 pages of information
on the state of the world's water:
- in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas aquifer levels
have dropped 100 feet
- Israel has been forced to discontinue the irrigation of
- in Saudi Arabia, irrigation agriculture may only last
one more decade
- the Colorado (US), Yellow (China), Amu Darya (Central
Asia), Nile (Egypt), Indus and Ganges (India) Rivers either
no longer reach the sea or are just a trickle when they
- since 1994, China has banned the agricultural use of reservoirs
- between 1994 and 1996, the Gobi Desert expanded by half
the size of Pennsylvania
Although most of these problems seem far away, Brown does
an excellent job of explaining why they are urgently relevant.
He states, “Overall, China’s grain production
has fallen from its historical peak of 392 million tons in
1998 to an estimated 338 million tons in 2003. . . . For perspective,
this drop of over 50 million tons is equal to the Canadian
grain harvest” (29). He cites the near-depletion of
China’s once vast grain reserves and notes that we are
likely to see the consequences at the grocery checkout counter
in the near future. Global issues certainly, but an ever increasing
presence in our personal lives. Linking global problems to
personal effect is one of the threads pulled through the book.
Brown’s coverage of the other issues surrounding food
production and the need to balance population with production
are equally thorough and convincing. Concerning population,
Brown, not only focuses on sheer numbers but also quality
of life issues. Such topics as HIV, literacy, poverty, political,
environmental, and resource conflict are well covered.
In the second part of Plan B, Brown gives us a road
map for mitigating and/or solving the problems of the “business
as usual” approach. Part of this section offers examples
of what small enclaves of individuals and communities are
doing to offset these issues. However, Brown knows these are
not enough and calls for and outlines a “Marshall Plan”
approach by all global leaders to redirect and strengthen
specific areas. He gathers strength from President Roosevelt’s
post-Pearl Harbor call to mobilization, “Let no man
say it cannot be done” (204). He also builds hope by
citing such global leaders as Jacques Chirac (French President),
Juergen Schrempp (CEO Daimler-Chrysler) and Tony Blair (UK
Prime Minister) who are beginning to realize the threat of
the “bubble economy” and are working toward Plan
B. He is quick to point out the economic costs of such an
undertaking and lays out a rational and palatable method of
payment for the changes that are needed.
As a farmer, reading this book strengthens in me the old adage,
“think globally, act locally.” Personally, I can
contribute to reducing the bubble by making my own farm and
life more sustaining and sustainable. But we must also work
to elect and support leaders who will address these important
issues and work with those who share this concern. Those kinds
of activities are community driven.
Not many folks like to hear this story (probably why we continue
down this path), but reading Plan B makes denial
tough, if not impossible. Brown persuasively argues that the
human race has the potential to move to "Plan B."
So don't just read this book with worry and hope—read
it and act!
© 2004 Steve Moore
Steve Moore has farmed for 30 years in south-central
Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com.