Book Review: World On the Edge
The influential and integrative thinker, Lester R. Brown’s recently published new book comes with an intriguing title, World On The Edge–How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (Norton Books 2011). Brown has published various books and received numerous awards and heads The Earth policy Institute.
Brown wrote The Edge in two fundamental parts. The first part describes what currently takes place in the world: food shortages, rapidly vanishing gas, coal and petroleum resources, shrinking environmental habitat, rising global temperatures, the overload of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, failing states, et cetera. The melting ice caps in Antarctica and Green Land which could raise ocean levels from three to twenty-nine feet would prove disastrous. Brown provides specific data with numbers and figures for everything. He also makes the poignant point that economist do not take into account the cost of many basic materials because they do not factor in the environmental and ecological costs. He notes when all the costs of a gallon of gasoline are figured, it should not cost from three to five dollars a gallon, but rather from ten to fifteen.
The first part of The Edge paints a very bleak picture. Brown denotes that it would behoove the wealthy governments of the world to do something about this situation and to do it soon.
In the end of this section Brown gives a synopsis of what could happen, and it coincides closely with what currently takes place in the Middle East because of the convergence of the “Perfect Storms” he describes. This book was written considerably before what currently takes place in the Middle East. What currently takes place in the area of the world gives validity to the book and its observations.
In the end, the question is whether governments are strong enough to withstand the political and economic stress of extensive migrations flows, both internal and external (these are brought on by all the converging ecological, environmental, agricultural, pollutions and demographic stress factors described with pertinent data). Some of the largest flows will be across national borders and they are likely to be illegal. As a general matter, environmental refugees will be migrating from poor countries to rich ones, from Africa, Asian and Latin America to North America and Europe. In the face of mounting environmental stresses, will the migration of people be limited and organized or will it be massive and chaotic?
People do not normally leave their homes, their families, and their communities unless they have no other option. Maybe it is time for governments to consider whether it might not be cheaper and far less painful in human terms to treat the causes of migration rather than merely respond to it. This means working with developing countries to restore their economy’s natural support systems—the soils, the grasslands, the forest—and it means accelerating the shift to smaller families to help people break out of poverty. Treating symptoms instead of causes is not good medicine. Nor is it good policy.
Brown makes it a point to note that it is in the security and defense interests of the United States and Western Europe, Australia, and the first world to do this. It will not only help the First World, it will significantly help the third world and save a great deal of money in the process.
Brown contents that all the peoples of the world must act now, and that at best a ten year gap exists whether everyone on the planet will be saved, or all of us will go down together. He sees no alternative, and he lays the data out in an impelling way that cannot be ignored. He describes the “Failing States” that one now sees, and it becomes obvious from the data Brown presents, that what currently takes place is only the beginning.
In part two, Brown shows how the Earth and its Oceans are forgiving, and will with a little concerted effort work with humankind so that they can save themselves. Fundamental to Brown’s plan is an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2015. This may seem drastic, but not the way Brown presents it with viable options for reaching this goal, and reaching it rapidly. Wind and solar generation of energy are key components, as are the planting of billions of trees to restore the climate, cut down on soil erosion and help eliminate desertification. The elimination of poverty is also a key part of the how to save the world and everyone on it. Brown contends that the world’s population needs to be stabilized at eight (8) billion, and he shows how this is a realistic goal, and one relatively easily achieved.
The elimination for poverty and the saving of the planet for the people living on it is relatively inexpensive for the entire world, and even in terms of the United States of America by itself. Brown makes it a point to show with figures how much more energy the US uses than the rest of the world, as well as how much more it spends on “Defense.” He contends that the best and most inexpensive defense is to actually help the rest of the world as opposed to trying to exploit it. The bottom line, when all cost are calculated for halting an impending environmental, ecological and demographic catastrophe is $185 billion a year. This is minimal even in terms of only the US “Department of Defense” budget, much less a budget for the entire planet. Brown is not an advocate of a “One World Government.
The solutions for saving the planet offered by Brown are simple, cost and ecologically efficient and fundamentally sound, and don’t rely on technological pie in the sky. What he presents is readily available in the here and now. The two drawbacks of the book are that the solutions rely to heavily on conventional petroleum based agricultural, and that he does not adequately stress the viable locally based perma-culture-type food growing. Furthermore, he does not stress to what a large extent current military operations around the globe more adversely impact the planet than any other single factor in terms of the environment, ecology, and in generating more poverty.
Anyone serious about saving the planet who wants to learn about how and what to do, needs to read this easily read, fast page turning book.