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October 26, 2009 – I’d like to review a very important book today.

Brown, Lester. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2009.

Before I do, allow me to correct a misstatement in a previous article. I believe I erroneously referred to Brown as one of the “unsung” heroes of the environmental movement. That, as it turns out, is rather far left of the truth. I’ll quote directly from the dust jacket of this book:

“Lester R. Brown is the president of Earth Policy Institute, an organization dedicated to building a sustainable future. Described by the Washington Post as ‘one of the world’s most influential thinkers,’ Brown started his career as a tomato farmer. Shortly after earning a degree in agricultural science, he spent six months living in rural India, where he became intimately familiar with the food/population issue. Brown later became head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s International Agricultural Development Service. In 1974, he founded the Worldwatch Institute and in 2001 the Earth Policy Institute. He has received 24 honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the 1987 United Nations Environment Prize, a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Award,’ and the 1994 Blue Planet Prize.”

Brown’s record speaks for itself. With regard to his latest book, Lester Brown proves himself as current on matters climatic and environmental as he has ever been. The material in this book is so critically significant, I intend to quote widely from it, and then discuss the issues raised. The problems humankind faces are presented in the first section of the book, consisting of Chapters 1, 2 and 3 (the introduction and “The Challenges”).

“As food supplies tighten, we are witnessing an unprecedented scramble for land that crosses national boundaries … The land-buying countries are mostly those whose populations have outrun their own land and water resources. Among them are Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, Kuwait, Libya, India, Egypt, Jordan, The United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Saudi Arabia is looking to buy or lease land in at least 11 countries, including Ethiopia, Turkey, Ukraine, Sudan, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Brazil.” (p. 10) This astonishing behavior – a first, so far as I know, in world history – is clearly born of desperation. Who in their right mind wants to have to bring their food a third of the way around the world? While at first blush it would seem clear that the Arab countries would do well to seek arable land as close to home as possible, their choices may be limited by the willingness of potential sellers to sell. They may also be placing restrictions on the field of acceptable candidates themselves, regarding Muslim countries as preferable to non-Muslim. The non-Arab countries seeking land to purchase – China, India, and South Korea – may be better positioned to arrive at quid pro quo agreements, since their economies are all growing. Arab nations have little to offer besides gold, which may very well be demanded rather than currency.

Another consideration to be taken into account is the “what if” of food scarcity in the crop-growing, selling country. Would any country sell food to nations with whom they have no contact other than as customers, and let their own people starve? Would the military of the selling nation protect the food from looting, shooting would-be thieves in order to keep crops out of the hands of their countrymen? I find this hard to believe! If the selling country did not protect crops to be exported, would the buying nation send their own troops to protect the crops? How long would they stay? Would this be considered an invasion? Would the land they “own” become, in effect, an extension of their country? All of these sound like distinct possibilities.

“Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is losing 351,000 hectares (867,000 acres) of rangeland and cropland to desertification each year … In the southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan [in Iran], sand storms have buried 124 villages, forcing their abandonment.” (p. 36) “China’s desertification may be the worst in the world … over the last half century, some 24,000 villages in northern and western China have been entirely or partly abandoned as a result of being overrun by drifting sand.” (p. 37) Desertification (the creation of desert where desert did not previously exist) is a growing problem throughout the world. It is the result of a host of agrarian miscalculations: overgrazing, over-irrigating, constant farming that doesn’t permit the land to rest, failure to replace essential soil nutrients, and compaction of the soil with heavy farm machinery. Simply put, land that cannot grow crops will blow away, since there are no plant roots to hold it in place.

“Many of the world’s largest cities, such as Los Angeles, Cairo, and New Delhi, can increase their water consumption only by taking it from agriculture … Irrigated areas in California shrank 10 percent between 1997 and 2007 as farmers sold their irrigation water to cities.” (pp. 42-43) Drip irrigation will need to be employed, if these dry lands continue to be planted. This method off irrigation is very expensive to install. Americans, and others far less able to bear additional cost, must expect to see the cost of food continue to increase.

“As the leading grain exporter and ethanol producer, the United States is in the driver’s seat. It needs to make sure that efforts to reduce its heavy dependence on imported oil do not create a far more serious problem: chaos in the world food economy.” (p. 51) This has already happened.

“Advancing deserts are squeezing expanding populations into an ever smaller geographic area. Whereas the U.S. Dust Bowl displaced 3 million people, the advancing desert in China’s Dust Bowl provinces could displace tens of millions.” (p. 53) “Sea level is rising too, as a result of the thermal expansion that takes place as ocean water warms and as ice sheets melt … Geographically, the oceans will expand and the continents will shrink … generating hundreds of millions of refugees.” (p. 55) Environmental refugees could well be the most serious of all the problems facing us. If the countries most likely to lose land to coastal flooding have not already begun to prepare, they need to do so very soon. India and Bangladesh, both of which stand to lose land to coastal flooding, and the first of which is already dealing with desertification, will find few countries willing to accept their enormous numbers of refugees. Indeed, Pakistan has already erected a wall between itself and Bangladesh.

Brown then discusses the many solutions available, some of which are already being enacted. There can be no doubt he views wind energy as a major resource of which we are only beginning to make use. As for solar power, did you know Algeria is installing enough solar cells to power the southern half of Europe? That Algeria receives so much sunlight it could power the world? There is much good news to tell, which explains Brown’s refusal to be deterred from believing Plan B remains a possibility. The best news of all is that Plan B 4.0 is available free, as a download, at the Earth Policy Institute website, www.earth-policy.org. If ever there were a perfect opportunity to educate yourself about both the problems and their resolution, this is it. Read this book and tell your friends about it. This one comes straight from the horse’s mouth!

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