6 March, 2008
American green guru Lester Brown was in Brussels this week to promote his new book Plan B 3.0. As I had just finished reading the book, I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions during a presentation in the European Parliament last Tuesday. I felt he did not really answer my fundamental critique of the book, maybe because I failed to make my points clear enough. So let’s try to explain why I think this book is essential reading for all policy-makers although I also feel it has serious weaknesses in the solutions it puts forward.
Let me start with the praise. Plan B 3.0 is probably the best encyclopedic-like introduction to all the different societal stresses we are facing at the beginning of the 21st century. Brown’s diagnosis of the climate, energy, water, food and biodiversity crises is well-researched, comprehensive and has all the latest data needed to understand why the subtitle of the book calls for “saving civilisation”. Brown’s diagnosis is bleak: the growth of “failing states” is a good indicator for the start of a “failing” civilisation on the verge of collapse because it is over-consuming the natural assets on which it is based.
Lester Brown’s response to this global crisis consists of four major components:
- stabilising climate;
- stabilising population;
- eradicating poverty;
- restoring the Earth’s ecosystems.
These four “overriding goals” are underpinned by several radical policy proposals such as an 80% reduction of CO2 by 2020 (the EU has a 20% target) and the gradual introduction of a global carbon tax of 20 dollars annually, reaching a carbon price of 240 dollars by 2020. On the energy front, Lester Brown sees energy efficiency and huge investments in renewable energy as the solutions to declining oil reserves and has little trust in carbon sequestration and nuclear.
To save civilisation, we will need a world-war-II-like mobilisation of resources and finances, says the American author. He gives the example of how the automobile sector was mobilised to start building tanks and arms instead of cars (with a three-year ban on selling new cars – try to sell that these days to the German carmakers 😉 ). A complete reconversion of our economy would not even be that expensive, according to the calculations in Plan B. It could be done on a budget of 190 billion dollars, just a fraction of what the world now spends on its military (1,235 billion dollars). BTW Forbes today published its list of the world’s richest billionaires. With the fortune of the four (4) richest, we would be able to solve this planetary crisis 🙂
I have two big problems with Lester’s rescue plan.
First and foremost, the book has little or nothing to say on the fundamental and deep changes we will have to make in the way we live. The book implicitly seems to accept that our Western way of producing and consuming can continue if we just make the necessary adjustments. This is what I no longer believe. Our current lifestyle which is now unfortunately being cloned in China, India and the new economic superpowers is inherently unsustainable. But no politician dares to speak this REAL “inconvenient truth” and Lester Brown does not explicitly address it either. More will be needed than green and ethical individuals changing their light bulbs or doing their personal bits to save the planet. What we need, will be serious sacrifices with some pain (also some gain BTW in new quality of life) and a lot of wealth re-distribution. Let’s call this Lifestyle 2.0. Our children and grandchildren will never have the same materialist abundance which characterised our post-war half century because they will no longer have the natural capital we squandered in a bit more than 150 years.
How we can downsize our consumption societies and at the same time lift the other half of the world out of poverty without having to give up the rest of our natural resources, our freedoms and democracies is the main questions for the next ten years. Where are the political, economic and cultural leaders who have the vision to find the answers to this question?
The second (less important) problem I have with Lester’s excellent book, is the “war mobilisation” metaphor. It is correct in terms of underlining the urgency of the societal challenges but it fails to convince because this is not a conflict with a physical enemy (the “other”). If there would be an attack on Earth by Martians tomorrow , I am convinced the world governance we need would be a matter of days. For a planetary calamity where the real enemy is our own way of life, it will be foolish to think that this will come about with the same speed. Only after a future dramatic collapse will we find the global leadership needed, unfortunately. I hope I am wrong, but I fear I am not 🙁Author : Willy De Backer