Plan B 3.0 by Lester R. Brown

Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization can be downloaded for free, but I recommend buying a copy and making it your personal Bible.  Lester R. Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, continues to monitor the Earth’s economic and ecological health and analyze what needs to be done to build a sustainable future.  We’ve all boarded the Titanic, and Lester Brown knows about the iceberg, but few people listen to him.  Studying this book gives me so much to contemplate.  Just glancing at the subjects in the table of contents will tell you what’s this book is about, and you can read every chapter online, or download a .pdf of each chapter or the whole book, and even download an Excel spreadsheet of the data too, if you like studying numbers.

Just look how he has divided the problems we face:

  • Deteriorating Oil and Food Security
  • Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas
  • Emerging Water Shortages
  • Natural Systems under Stress
  • Early Signs of Decline
  • Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population
  • Restoring the Earth
  • Feeding Eight Billion Well
  • Designing Cities for People
  • Raising Energy Efficiency
  • Turning to Renewable Energy
  • The Great Mobilization

What is My Fair Share?

To ask if God exists, is philosophical speculation.  No on knows, and we have debated the question for centuries and will continue to do so.  To ask if there is a limit to economic growth is not imaginary speculation.  We will soon know the answer, one way or the other.  Most people believe there is unlimited economic potential for growth.  The economic foundation of our society is based on this belief, just like the builders of the Titanic believed they had built an unsinkable ship.

There are new economists that now see that any model of economics that does not include the ecology of the Earth is doomed to fail.  Lester Brown says that any product that doesn’t factor in its complete costs from all sources is doomed to bankruptcy in the market, like Enron failed as a company because it cooked the books and hid part of its true operating costs.

What this means is economics is really a subset of ecology.

If you accept this, then you come to understand that the Earth has limits, and realize that growth based economics means we’re all cells consuming the Earth like a cancer spreading in a host.  The idea of steady-state economics is a theory that suggests we can all be healthy cells that live symbiotically within our planetary organism.

Once you realize this, your primary ethical question of existence is:  How much can I consume without being cancerous?  This is more than just worrying about carbon dioxide and global warming.  That’s only one of many cancerous growths attacking the Earth.  The answer has to be more than:  As little as possible.  Economists and ecologists need to set goals for individuals to aim for in their daily lives.

If you could buy a piece of land and live there in a totally sustainable manner, without using resources outside of your property, that might be one answer, but not a practical one.  Scientists are just beginning to explore this issue.  Think of the parable about the fishes and the loaves, but this time divide them between 7 billion people and then factor in that the supply of wheat and fish should never end.

Another way to think about it would be to let scientists determine how much carbon dioxide can safely go into the atmosphere each year and then divide that number by 7 billion and let us each figure out how we’re going to budget our CO2 use.  A recent issue of the New Scientist suggests that might only be 1 ton per person, which means living like someone from Yemen or in the Republic of Congo today.

Since I’m probably using 10-20 times that, I’m quite cancerous.  About the only way to get myself down to using 1 ton of carbon per year would be to ride a bike and make my house perfectly energy efficient.  A possibility, but not a likely one.  The 1 ton per person is a global fair share estimate and much more restrictive than those 50% and 80% reduction goals for American peak usage.

What Happens If We Don’t Change?

Even if we don’t concern ourselves with various forms of pollution, there’s a good chance we’re still heading for economic collapse.  If unlimited economic growth is truly unsustainable, then it will also fail for other reasons, other than too much poisonous output.  We can also fail for not having enough input.  The economy can also crash and burn by not jogging faster than debt, something that’s been dominating the news lately.  Other canaries falling dead are stories about shortages.  Just before the liquidity scare, it looked like we were about to start running short of oil.  Luckily a cure for high oil demand is a slow economy, or is that lucky?  What if we ran out of oil but didn’t have renewable energy.  What if we ran out of fresh water before we ran out of oil?  We could easily face critical shortages of commodities long before we faced surpluses of rising oceans.  Reading Plan B 3.0 illustrates the enormity of all the problems we’ll be facing.

Human nature tends to ignore looming icebergs or melting glaciers.  We like to focus on what we want, and not people shouting that the sky is falling.  However, we have seen great positive social transformations happen quickly – just look at the switch to electricity or going from horse power to horsepower.  And isn’t it amazing how fast we all became geeks with our computers, video games and cell phones?  I think we’ll all change over and over again, whether changing for good or bad, whether we move into an ecological paradise, or a depression that makes the Great Depression seem like the good ole days.

We can’t avoid change.  The real question is whether we can surf change or will change flow over us like a tsunami.

Change is Happening Now

Everything Lester Brown writes about in Plan B 3.0 can be seen on your high definition television right now, if you’re willing to tune in to the right shows.  If you only watch Pushing Daisies and Heroes you can delay learning about the iceberg until after it hits.  A good way to set up your early warning system is to watch PBS Frontline each week.  Keep adding PBS shows, and then documentaries from National Geographic and the various Discovery channels.  Watch between the scenes.  Count how many references to drought you’ve seen in one week, or how many continents and countries are losing their glaciers.  You don’t need a supercomputer or Al Gore to spot trends in global weather patterns.

How Smart Are People?

All the problems mentioned in Plan B 3.0 can be managed.  Theoretically, if humans can cause the problems, humans can fix the problems, but that may not be how things play out.  What everyone really wants to know is whether they are going to be one of those people at the Superdome after Katrina, or will they be the kind of person who had the resources to get out safely on their own.  Being prepared helps.  Sometimes luck is merely a coin toss, and other times luck favors those who plan ahead.  But how do you prepare for global recession?

Plan B 3.0 is a look at what the people in power need to be doing to solve the transition from the economics of growth to a steady-state economy at the macro level.  What we need now are Plan B handbooks for us little guys, advising us what we should be doing to make the same adjustments at the micro levels.  This could be books about careers for college students, to how-to books about starting businesses in a steady-state economy.  I doubt the plumbing industry will be shaken up, but is there much of a future for jet airline pilots?

JWH – 11-2-8

One thought on “Plan B 3.0 by Lester R. Brown”

  1. Nicely summed up, but we are in for it, I’m afraid. The second law of thermodynamics applies, all the more rapidly when not all costs are accounted for. Almost nobody likes a story with an unhappy ending, thanks to too much TV, so Mr. Brown’s message is a tough one to get out.

    Thank you, though.

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