11 05 2008

If you are looking for a book that unblinkingly, unemotionally, lays out exactly how, and how badly, we are screwing up this planet, you are looking for Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0.

If you are looking for a book that gives some idea of what could be done to at least soften the impact of the crash that is happening, you are looking for Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0

But if you are looking for a book that talks about why Lester Brown’s proposals aren’t being adopted, you will have to look elsewhere.  You might start with Al Gore’s recent Assault on Reason, but the Inconvenient Truth guy, for all his smarts, is still part of the problem. I mean, really, Al,…”Occidental Petroleum”?…”Green Walmart”?

A lot of recent writers, from Al Franken to Michael Moore to Greg Palast, and the list goes on, seem to grasp pieces of the puzzle.  Some  blame capitalism, but history shows that the Communist Russians and Chinese were voracious destroyers of the environment as well.  For me, the little-known Buddhist writer David Loy has laid it out best in two of his recent books: A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack, and Money, Sex, War, and Karma, Loy describes “the religion of the market” and how it has distorted the human psyche and the planetary ecosystem.  But, while I strongly recommend these books to you, they’re not the ones I’m here to talk about.  I want to focus on Lester Brown and Plan B 3.0.

I mean, it shows you how schizophrenic we are as a society when this book has a blurb by Bill Clinton, but Hillary’s platform calls for massive production of biofuels, which Brown excoriates, and targets an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050–which, according to Brown, is about thirty years too late.  Barak Obama, too, thinks we can wait until 2050, and John McCain?  Get serious!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The first half of Plan B lays out the problem, or problems.  Deteriorating oil and food security, rising temperatures and rising seas, emerging water shortages, natural systems under stress–all I’m doing here is reading you the chapter headings.  In a chapter titled “Early Signs of Decline,” he tells us that malnutrition is so pervasive in India that “60 percent of all newborns in India would be in intensive care had they been born in California.” and then goes from nutrition to the iminent exhaustion of the world’s mineral resources, finding that there are only a few decades worth of extractable lead, tin, copper, iron, and bauxite (aluminum) left in the ground, and covering the growing number of failing states–including Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons and is just a natural disaster away from chaos.  As recent events in Burma show us, the world is much more fragile than we would like it to be.

All of this adds up to a convincing argument that the consumer civilization that we try so hard to enjoy was a really bad idea.  So….is it too late to change it, or are we headed for Mad Maxville?

This, unfortunately, is where Brown falls down.  He has a great many good ideas, possibly enough that, if we could try all of them, enough of them would work to pull us back from over the brink, but there are also assertions that even an uneducated layman like me can clearly see amount to grasping at straws, even without the question of their political feasibility.  More on that in a moment.  But first, the straws.

Brown is big on universal primary education.  There are compelling arguments for this, such as that the more education a girl gets, the fewer children she is likely to have, and certainly universal literacy is a kind of evolutionary advance, but universal education is a sword that can cut two ways.

There are traditional ways of life that are ecologically balanced, and depend on children functioning as part of the family team.  Skills such as farming, animal care, construction, and many crafts are best taught to the young.  When children are taken from their parents and forced to sit in a classroom where their heads are filled with abstract facts, the transmission of these traditions is broken.  Families cease to function, and school graduates, given a carefully selected taste of life beyond their villages, leave for the burgeoning cities, where mostly they become part of the problem. If we are going to impart universal literacy, and I agree we should, we need to value traditional village survival skills and allow time for children to learn them.

Brown also banks heavily on “forest farming” and no-till agriculture to stabilize watersheds, recharge aquifers, and sequester carbon.  Again, we need models different from the ones usually practiced for these ideas to work in the real world.  Forest farming all too often results in monoculture one species of tree planted on thousands of acres, with herbicides used to prevent anything else from growing, just as no-till farming is heavily dependent on herbicides and patented seeds.  Herbicides, like all other petrochemical products, are just going to get more expensive and harder to find, while patented seeds are owned by multinational corporations who thus prevent farmers from engaging in the ancient practice of saving their own seeds, turning seed into another major expense for the grower and decreasing food security.

Brown suggests that the US build a vast network of electric-powered public transport, with the electricity generated by solar, wind, and geothermal plants.  The US is the only first-world country that does not have a good public transportation network.  What we have, instead, is a sprawling, automobile-oriented infrastructure that does not lend itself to centralized public transportation, and we have destroyed our country’s financial integrity by spending trillions fighting to control Iraq’s oil and building McMansions, so that the credit we would need for such an infrastructure investment is no longer available to us.  Heckuva job, Georgie.

Brown advocates a “World War II-type mobilization” to retool US industry to create the products needed to transition into a post-oil economy. Unfortunately, the US is not the manufacturing country it was in the 1940s, and a retooling of Chinese industry to create what is need instead of the distractions that now make up so much of the market would only worsen the US’s financial hemorrhage.

But in a way, these are quibbles.  The glaring point at which Brown misses the boat is in the very goal he sets:  stabilizing CO2 emissions below 400ppm, with the thought that that is the “tipping point” beyond which catastrophic, irreversible climate change will set in.  Well, even a book written as recently as last October, like this one, can be dated.  Since Plan B was published, Dr. James Hansen, the US’s premier climate scientist, has announced that, in his estimation, the tipping point was at 350 ppm, and we have already passed it.  Oops.

This does not invalidate Brown’s many excellent suggestions for technical fixes to the environment, but it underlines the failure of conventional politics to take him seriously.

Brown points out that everything that needs to be done could be done for a fraction of the US’s, and the world’s military budget, and would greatly lessen the need for military-style security.  Unfortunately, our country’s Presidential candidates seem to be competing with each other about how much they will increase military spending–which will only make things worse, and cause calls for more military spending, until our overseas bankers cut off our credit.

What Brown does not seem to understand is that the US is run by an elite who see nothing wrong with the fact that they are getting richer while we are getting poorer.  Most members of this elite are concerned about the environment, but they are not concerned enough to do something about the fact that it is they and their pathological acquisitiveness that is a big piece of the problem.  Since that seems to be the case, I must sadly conclude that we are in for a full-tilt crash and Mr. Brown’s caring and thoughtful book will be seen by historians of the future, if there are any, as a brilliant exercise in what might have been.

OK, Lester…what’s “Plan C”?

music: James McMurtry, “Dancing in the Ruins”



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