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Price Tag for Global Survival: $161 Billion a Year

Eco-researcher Lester Brown totes up the math.

Terrence McNally 3 Feb
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Of all the resources needed to build an economy that will sustain economic progress, none is more scarce than time. That is one of the key messages of Lester Brown's new book, "Plan B. 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble." The world may finally be listening.

China now consumes more grain, meat, coal and steel than the United States. If China's income grows as projected, in 2031 its income per person will match incomes in the United States today. At that point, it will be consuming the equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain harvest, driving 1.1 billion cars (versus 800 million in the world today) and using 99 million barrels of oil per day, well above current world production of 84 million barrels. That's Plan A.

New threats -- climate change, environmental degradation, the persistence of poverty and the loss of hope -- call for new strategies. Brown -- who left World Watch in 2001 to found Earth Policy Institute -- says it's time for Plan B -- a renewable-energy-based, reuse-recycle economy with a diversified transport system: time to build a new economy and a new world. The world is now spending $975 billion annually for military purposes. Plan B -- social goals and earth restoration -- requires an additional annual expenditure of $161 billion.

Brown, founder of the World Watch Institute, was in Europe recently to address the Royal Geographic Society in London, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and the OECD in Paris.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: For many, environmental issues are local -- the beach, the nearby polluting factory, the smog. Yet, you focused on the global environment at a time when few were. Where did that come from?

LESTER BROWN: Well, I suppose there were a number of things that contributed to it. One was, when I was farming, I was very much aware of the environmental issues that one has to deal with, whether it's water resources or weather or soils or crop diseases or what have you.

Beyond that, after I graduated from Rutgers in 1955 with a degree in agricultural science, I had the chance to spend half of 1956 living in villages in India, and there I was exposed very directly to the food population issue, though India at that time had only 430 million people or so compared with over a billion today.

Then I became a foreign policy adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman during the Kennedy-Johnson administration. The population pressures on resources and the problems associated with that, whether it's deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion or aquifer depletion, those problems were becoming evident way back then. By 1974, I was convinced not only that these were going to be major issues, but also that we needed a research institute to focus on environmental issues at the global level.

TM: Yet you also make clear that we need a vision of the future, not just the bad news.

LB: No question. If we don't have a sense of where we want to go, we're probably not going to get there. I think one of the things that's lacking in the global environmental movement is a vision. We spend so much time being against things, it's not always clear what we're for.

TM: In the first paragraph of the preface to "Plan B: 2.0," you write: "If our goal is to sustain economic progress, we have no choice other than to move onto a new path." Two things -- first, you don't mention the word "environment" in that sentence, you're talking about economic progress. Second, why isn't that reality being recognized and acted on?

LB: Two things are driving the recognition of the need for a restructuring of the global economy. One is the knowledge of what's happening to the economy's environmental support systems, whether it's forests, fisheries, rangelands, soils, aquifers or the climate system. Many environmentalists have been clear for some time that we have to restructure the economy if we want progress to continue. If we don't, we're going to be in serious trouble.

In Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse," he looked at earlier civilizations, many of which also got on to an economic path that was environmentally unsustainable. What he pointed out was that some of those early civilizations realized they were in trouble and made the needed course corrections to survive. Others either did not understand they were in environmental trouble, or understood it but politically they could not mobilize an effective response.

TM: "Plan B" came out two years ago. Why did you feel the need to deliver "Plan B: 2.0"?

LB: Enough things have changed over the past two years, both in terms of what we can do and the potential of new technologies like gas-electric hybrid cars and advances in wind turbine design, and so forth. But more importantly, the evidence that China has already overtaken the United States in the consumption of most basic resources.

Ever since you and I can remember, we've been saying that the U.S. with 5 percent of the world's people consumes a third or 40 percent of the world's resources. That was true for a long time. It is no longer true. China is now consuming more of these basic resources. Look at the food sector -- grain and meat, the energy sector -- oil and coal, the industrial sector -- steel. China now consumes more of all of those than the United States, except for oil. Their consumption of meat is nearly double that of the United States, and their steel consumption is 258 million tons a year. We consumed 104 million tons a year last year.

TM: India is expected to overtake China in terms of population. We hear about India mostly in terms of outsourcing jobs to India. What's its take on resources?

LB: India has a huge population, but they're still mostly poor; they're a good 20 years behind China. They're probably where China was in 1980 or '85.

TM: Having said that, India still has a middle class of about 300 million, about the size of the entire U.S. population.

LB: That's right and it's growing fast.

Now that China has overtaken the U.S. in the total consumption of resources, we have license to ask the next question: what if China catches up to the U.S. in consumption per person? If their economy, which has been growing at 9 or 10 percent a year in recent years, drops down to 8 percent a year, by 2031, income per person in China will be the same as that in the U.S. today. By 2031 we're probably talking about 1.45 billion Chinese.

TM: 1.45 billion consuming at the rate we consume today is impossible. China alone would consume more than one earth at that point.

LB: Based on those projections, in 2031, China would be consuming two thirds of the current world grain harvest. Their consumption of paper would be double current world production. There go the world's forests. If China, in 2031, has three cars for every four people, as we now have in this country, it would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars.

The current global fleet is 800 million. They would have to pave over an area comparable to the land they now have in rice, and they would be consuming 99 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 84 million barrels a day and will probably never produce much more than that.

TM: Because we're also close to or about to hit peak oil. We've heard the diagnosis. What's the prescription? What is Plan B?

LB: The Western economic model, the fossil fuel-based, automobile-centered throw-away economy, is not going to work for China. It won't work for India, which by 2031 will have an even larger population, nor will it work for the other three billion people in the developing countries, who are also dreaming the American dream. Most importantly, it will not work for the industrial countries either; in a world that is more and more integrated economically and where we all depend on the same oil, grain and iron ore.

So then the question becomes, if the old economy won't work, what will the new economy look like?

We can see this much more clearly than we could even two years ago, and that's exciting. It will be powered by renewable sources of energy. It will have a comprehensive reuse, recycle system, and it will have a much more diversified transport system, not as much the automobile-centered system we now have.

We can now see the new economy beginning to emerge in various places around the world. We see it in the wind farms of Western Europe, the solar rooftops of Japan, the bicycle-friendly streets of Amsterdam, the reforested mountains of South Korea and the growing fleet of gas-electric hybrid cars in the United States. It's beginning to take shape, but it's not moving fast enough.

TM: What is it going to take to accelerate that?

LB: It's difficult to say. I play around with scenarios that will wake us up. The situation today reminds me a bit of the United States in the early 1940s when we were trying to ignore the war in Europe and the war in Asia, somehow thinking that we could get through without getting involved -- and then came Pearl Harbor. Overnight, literally everything changed and we mobilized for a war like you've never seen a country mobilize before. It was an extraordinary performance, but it took a very clear, distinct wake-up call.

TM: At the point at which we get a wake-up call that extreme, it may be too late to reverse some of those things, isn't that true?

LB: It's quite possible that the wake-up call will come too late. Or the wake-up call could come with another disruption in the supply of oil that would drive prices up to, say, $100 a barrel, which is entirely feasible. Another less direct possibility: When the price of oil gets up to $60 a barrel, it becomes profitable to convert many agricultural commodities into automotive fuel. Almost everything that we eat can be converted either into ethanol or bio-diesel to run automobiles. As we develop the ethanol distilling capacity and the bio-diesel refining capacity, the price of oil begins to set the price of food. If the food value of a commodity is less than the fuel value, it will be converted into fuel.

TM: In other words, we would take food out of the mouths of the poor and put it into the fuel tanks of the rich?

LB: That's right. One of the consequences of high oil prices is that it sets up direct competition between supermarkets and service stations for the same commodities. The difference is that, in agricultural terms, the appetite of service stations is basically insatiable.

TM: If the world gets hammered this year and next year as they did last year by weather disasters, the people or the insurance companies are going to say something has to be done about climate change -- another possible wake-up call. What is Plan B?

LB: Plan B has three components: (1) a restructuring of the global economy so that it can sustain civilization; (2) an all-out effort to eradicate poverty, stabilize population and restore hope in order to elicit participation of the developing countries; and (3) a systematic effort to restore natural systems.

Virtually everything we need to do to build an economy that will sustain economic progress is already being done in one or more countries. In Europe, for instance, which is leading the world into the wind era, some 40 million people now get their residential electricity from wind farms. The European Wind Energy Association projects that by 2020, half of the region's population -- 195 million Europeans -- will be getting their residential electricity from wind.

TM: But it's not just about new technologies, is it?

LB: That's right. Building an economy that will sustain economic progress also means eradicating poverty and stabilizing population -- in effect, restoring hope among the world's poor. Eradicating poverty accelerates the shift to smaller families. Smaller families, in turn, help to eradicate poverty.

The principal line items in the budget to eradicate poverty are investments in universal primary school education; school lunch programs for the poorest of the poor; basic village-level health care, including vaccinations for childhood diseases; and reproductive health and family planning services for all the world's women. In total, reaching these goals will take $68 billion of additional expenditures each year.

TM: Where does the environment fit in all this?

LB: A strategy for eradicating poverty will not succeed if an economy's environmental support systems are collapsing. This means putting together an earth restoration budget -- one to reforest the earth, restore fisheries, eliminate overgrazing, protect biological diversity and raise water productivity to the point where we can stabilize water tables and restore the flow of rivers. Adopted worldwide, these measures require additional expenditures of $93 billion per year.

Combining social goals and earth restoration components into a Plan B budget means an additional annual expenditure of $161 billion. Such an investment is huge, but it is not a charitable act. It is an investment in the world in which our children will live.

TM: Where's the money going to come from?

LB: The world is now spending $975 billion annually for military purposes. The U.S. 2006 military budget of $492 billion, accounting for half of the world total, goes largely to the development and production of new weapon systems. Unfortunately, these weapons are of little help in curbing terrorism, nor can they reverse the deforestation of the earth or stabilize climate.

If the United States were to underwrite the entire $161 billion Plan B budget by shifting resources from the $492 billion spent on the military, it still would be spending more for military purposes than all other NATO members plus Russia and China combined.

TM: I hardly imagine the slightest move in that direction for at least the next three years of a Bush administration …

LB: Of all the resources needed to build an economy that will sustain economic progress, none is more scarce than time. With climate change we may be approaching the point of no return. Nature is the timekeeper.

Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we can decide to stay with business as usual and watch our global economy decline and eventually collapse. One way or another, the decision will be made by our generation. Of that there is little doubt. But it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at  [Tyee]

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