Back to the drawing board
Lester Brown drafts a blueprint for planetary survival

Reviewed by Steve Moore


Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

Lester R. Brown, W.W. Norton, 2003; ISBN 0-393-05859-X; 320 pp.; $27.95 cloth

November 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 wheat
  • 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 get there
  • since 1994, China has banned the agricultural use of reservoirs surrounding Beijing
  • 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