Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Need for Plan B

Lester Brown is more concerned about the existence of civilization than the planet. The founder and president of Earth Policy Institute based in Washington DC, he previously worked in the United States government in agriculture and also pioneered sustainable development, a buzzword we freely use these days.

And on his trip to Beijing, Brown just released his Plan B 4.0, suggestions on how to keep civilization going. Plan A, Brown says, is business as usual and that is no longer an option even though we are still on this path.

He strongly urges Plan B because he has studied why earlier civilizations collapsed and discovered that most of them did due to food shortages.

And in the 21st century, Brown points out three reasons for imminent food shortages which could lead to the end of civilization:

1. Population growth -- The planet has 80 million more people every year, or about 216,000 people per day.

2. Rising affluence -- People are aiming to be upwardly mobile and with more wealth, they consume more agriculturally-intensive things like livestock which require more grain or soybean meal.

3. Converting grain into fuel (ethanol) -- Only in the last few years are we seeing grain that used to be for consumption now being turned into fuel. Food and energy economies used to be separate but now are inextricably linked on the world market.

Then Brown points to three supply factors that affect food shortages:

1. Spreading water shortages -- We need 4 litres of water a day to live, but crops need 2,000 litres. Half of the world's population are seeing their water tables dropping significantly, such as China and India. When food production is increased, the faster the water is depleted. For example, some 130 million Chinese are facing over pumping of water, so water shortages are imminent.

2. Melting ice sheets -- If they all melted, that would lead to a 7-metre rise in the sea level; even a 1-metre rise would see areas like Bangladesh and the Mekong delta, both rice-growing regions under water, along with 19 others. Brown says there is a projection of a 2-metre rise of the sea level this century.

3. Melting mountains and glaciers -- This is the 19th consecutive year of melting glaciers, with the greatest concern on the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, as the majority of the rivers in Asia flow from these areas. And as China and India are the world's leaders in rice production, the melting of these glaciers will be their greatest threat to their food security.

Brown notes other factors like soil erosion and loss of arable land, but the three above-mentioned are his top concerns.

What solutions does he have in mind?

He believes it is important to keep the world population under 8 billion, eradicate poverty, and restore natural support systems like forests; but so far we have not reversed any of these.

In any event, he is seeing some bright spots, like China moving quickly in wind power generation, with a plan to build seven wind mega complexes which could yield 130,000 megawatts, or 130 less coal-fired power plants.

He is also heartened to see that in the US there are grassroots campaigns to oppose the building of coal-fired power plants and this has now grown to close existing coal-fire power plants.

There are other measures governments can take such as raising taxes on fossil fuels.

Another point he makes is that we need to redefine "security". After two World Wars and a Cold War, security is still defined in military terms, but really the threat now is water shortages, population growth and glaciers melting.

He also strongly believes developing countries like China should not look to emulate what the West has done for the past two centuries and instead design an economy that is relevant to today. These countries should also design cities for people, not cars; he thinks there is a blind desire to imitate, but believes China has the capability to rethink how it wants to develop.

Hopefully China is listening -- but time is of the essence.

Brown may sound like he is predicting the end of the world, but he believes as more people become aware and educated about what needs to be done, not only will they get involved, but also push their governments to make a more concerted effort to save civilization as we know it.

No comments: