Author and environmentalist Lester R. Brown tells Nandini Nairour civilisation is at risk

He might bring doom’s day prophecies with him. But he offers solutions as well. Environmentalist Lester R. Brown was in the Capital’s Taj Mahal hotel recently for the launch of the Hindi version of his book, “Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilisation” (W.W Norton & Company).

The last time he was in India was 50 years ago for six months. He worked in villages, near Nagpur and close to Lucknow, as a volunteer. He has authored or co-authored about 50 books, and has been translated into 40 languages. The Washington Post has called him, “one of the world’s most influential thinkers”.

Earth Policy

As President of the Earth Policy Institute, Washington DC, Brown has been sounding the alarm about climate change and the threat to civilisation. “Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option,” he says. “It’s time for Plan B.” Plan B for Brown implies an all-out response at wartime speed.

The biggest threat according to him is carbon dioxide emissions. If the Greenland ice sheet continues to melt at its present pace, then the sea level will rise 23 feet, inundating many of the world’s coastal cities and the river deltas of Asia. Changes in the climate will have a catastrophic impact. With a one degree Celsius rise in temperature, we can expect 10 per cent decline in wheat, corn and rice production. He reasons that this will increase food price, which in turn will create political instability. Political instability leads to failing states — “an early sign of a failing civilisation,” he notes.

To stanch this threat, Brown’s solutions are straightforward. He advocates an increase in energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy and a global reforestation programme. Brown bucks the trend and doesn’t merely point fingers at developing countries like India and China. Instead, he notes that the U.S. accounts for close to 40 per cent of carbon emissions. He elaborates that a plant-based diet requires about one-fourth as much energy as a diet rich in red meat.

He refutes President George Bush’s claim that a change in the dietary habits of developing countries is leading to the rise in food prices. Instead, he points out that the grain fed to livestock in India is miniscule, since they are largely left to graze. China does use more grain than India for its livestock, but Brown places the blame elsewhere.

Great tragedies

He notes, “We are witnessing the beginning of one of the great tragedies of history. The U.S., in a misguided effort to reduce its oil insecurity by converting grain into fuel for cars, is generating global food insecurity on a scale never seen before.”

Brown staunchly believes that the food to fuel mandate is damaging the environment. But he is more optimistic about the future, politically and thus environmentally, believing “there will be a change in the coming months”.

Brown does not see genetically modified crops (GM) as the way out. But he makes clear, “I’m not opposed to GM crops per se. It has helped reduce insecticide.” But he emphasises, “GM is not an answer to food shortage.”

In Plan B, he sees wind as the panacea. Solar thermal power plants and geothermal energy also need to be developed. Brown’s plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 per cent by 2020, to minimise the rise in temperature, doesn’t come cheap.

But his reasoning is, “If we don’t do it. We risk losing our civilisation.”