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World On the Edge: How To Prevent Environmental And Economic Collapse Paperback – Dec 21 2010
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“Lester Brown is one of the pioneers and heroes of global environmentalism. If the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize had been extended to a third recipient, the logical candidate would have been Lester Brown.” — E. O. Wilson
About the Author
Lester R. Brown is the founder of the Earth Policy and Worldwatch Institutes. He has been honored with numerous prizes, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the United Nations Environment Prize, and twenty-five honorary degrees. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Top Customer Reviews
The first part of the book methodically described different elements of the current looming environmental catastrophy that we face. Clearly, Brown has many years of experience and research in the area and was able to present his material in clear, well thought-out terms. It was both chilling and overwhelming in its range and detail. Then, he laid out a possible, but difficult "Plan B" that he and his colleagues believe would halt, or at least slow down, the disaster we face. Finally, he had a "hopeful" section in which he discussed a number of interventions that are aready being made in various places across the world.
What I think the book lacked was a sense of how we might begin to encourage our politicians and other decision-makers to pay more attention to that information and act on it. So many of them are being co-opted by corporate interests that have profit as a motive for ignoring environmental factors. Further, more conservative decision-makers are biased by their inherent belief in the role of the "free market" that they lean away from any interventions or regulations that might interfer with it. The book seems to largely ignore that and assume that, if educated, decision-makers will make logical and benign decisions.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is one of the best summaries of the current global environment crisis. Check out what the book says about the global water crisis and the global crisis of fisheries. In reading this book, it is hard not to get angry with our world's leaders, particularly those in the rich nations. There are so many solutions to global problems that have been known for years such as drip irrigation but these are not being adopted on anywhere near the scale that is needed.
The best part of the book is Chapter 13, "Saving Civilization". If you have a limited amount of time read this. This details solutions. Brown even has a global environmental reform budget, $110 billion a year, a tiny sum in global standards that could do so much for environment but it's not being done.
My problems with the book rest with overly optimistic predictions. According to most respected predictions the share of coal will rise in the next ten years in the world energy production. Wind and solar power are still a tiny fraction of world energy production. However, in spite of these faults this book is very worthwhile.
Brown is right on target with his view that America needs nothing less than a national mobilization similar to what we did in World War II.
If you go to my profile, I have a Listmania list of books related to Future Watch Studies.
It gets four stars for reasons I outline in passing below. The author has his pet rocks, they are all here, but NOT in this book can one find corruption, disease, mercury, rare earths, a strategic analytic model that is holistic, actual true costs across the spectrum of options, or a strategic analytic model.
However, and this is strong praise, if you are going to get only one book by Lester Brown, this is the book to get. There are others I recommend, including High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, and A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility--Report of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the latter also free online.
Here are highlights, generally things I did not know and thought worth putting into my notes.
+ 2020 could be the ultimate recession
+ We need a massive mobilization at wartime speed -- but I have a negative annotation, "Old C4I mindset?" In my thinking, and all the books I am reading on cognitive surplus, web 4.0, swarm intelligence, etcetera, the answer is not more government control but rather shutting government down and going back to indigenous circles of full consultation and long-view consensus, something that can only happen with everyone gets it. The elites dug this hole themselves, by trying to micro manage and rule by secrecy at the same time they dumbed down the population and drove the smartest with their integrity intact out of politics.
+ Russia and Pakistan are examples of the future for the West if it does not radically adjust. This is a bit out of date since Russia seems well on its way to overcoming the Harvard-Soros-CIA-Trilateral economic sabotage, and if they have put the fear of death into the Goldman Sachs leaders, all the better. What does not appear in this book in any tangible way is the FACT that the US Government, for lack of integrity, allowed Wall Street to explode the global economy. Mark Lewis gave us full warning in the 1980's with Liar's Poker.
+ The book mentions "indirect costs" and cites Herman Daly, whose book Ecological Economics, Second Edition: Principles and Applications is a foundation work, more recently complemented by Paul Hawkin's Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, but the book does not go nearly far enough on this foundation aspect (which, together with integrity and stategic analytics, would turn the world around in ten years).
QUOTE (8): "Falling water tables today signal rising food prices tomorrow."
QUOTE (11): "On the social front, the most disturbing trend is spreading hunger."
I am much taken with his description of the food bubble being based on the "free water" culture around the world.
QUOTE (15): "The time when military forces weere the prime threat to security has faded into the past. The threats now are climate volatility, spreading water shortages, continuing population growth, spreading hunger, and failing states. The challenge is to define new fiscal priorities that match these new security threats."
+ Saudi Arabia is buying and leasing land in counteris including two of the world's hungriest, Ethipoia and Sudan.
+ I have a note based on the book, "depletion of acquifers = social collapse." I have reviewed over twelve books on water, I no longer use Amazon lists because they do not credit their creators, look for my Huffington Post article, < WATER-Soul of the Earth, Mirror of Our Collective Souls > where I review twelve books I bought in support of a UNESCO survey task.
QUOTE (22): "The world is incurring a vast water deficit - one that is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast. Half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are deleted."
+ Elsewhere in this section I learn that they are no longer going down a meter or two a year, now it is six to ten meters a year. And while he does not make this point, made better in Marc de Villiers, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, when an aquifer near the sea goes down under sea level, the sea can push in and contaminate what is left.
+ Overall I appreciate the high-level concise overview of water catastrophies looming for Afghanistan, China, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and he covers the US as well.
+ The section on eroding soils and expanding deserts points out that there are two massive dust bowls, one in northwest China, West Mongolia, and Central Asia, the other in Central Africa and particularly across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the UN continues to have major forces engaged.
+ Nigeria is losing 867,00 acres of rangeland and cropland to desertification A YEAR. EACH year. This is really scary.
In discussing the politics of food scarcity, the author seems bent on avoiding any discussion of corruption in government or corruption in corporations. While he discusses the need to end ethanol as a grain drain (humor intended), I am really not satisfied with the long litany of crimes against humanity that are integrated in how the industrialized food chain has been corrupted, poisoned, diluted, and generally trashed for reasons that are uniformly against the public interest.
QUOTE (66): "One of the little noticed characteristics of land acquisitions is that they are also water acquisitions."
In relation to the above quote, it bears mention that the illegal war on Libya by NATO and the USA is about oil, but also about the gold that Libya has amassed, and the most precious Libyan acquifer.
The author also observes that governments are selling or leasing millions of acres without consulting the indigenous peoples on them; in some cases they get butchered out of their homestead by corporate mercenaries, in others, such as the Philippines, public anger forces the government to back off on this atrocity and crime against indigenous humanity.
Environmental refugees, we learn are caused by rising seas, flooded river deltas, advancing deserts, toxic waste dumps, and Chernobyl. Since refugees are also caused by wars, both international and civil, and by transnational criminal networks, this is one place where the narrowness of the "look" is more obvious.
I've spent a lot of time living in and studying failing states, including the USA where most of the preconditions for revolution now exist, and poverty has doubled under the incumbent Administration, so I find this author's overview of failing states to be somewhat bland and not very compelling. For me it boils down to a lack of integrity in the West enabling massive corruption everywhere else.
Drawing toward a close the book states that Plan B focuses on stabilizing climate, restoring earth's natural systems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty. All well and good, nothing here that was not anticipate in the 1980's but books such as Limits to Growth.
The budget for restoring natural systems is according to the author $200 billion a year. I find this interesting, consistent with E. O. Wilson's estimates in The Future of Life, a book I found to be extraordinary. Medard Gable, co-craetor with Buckminster Fuller of the analog world Game, has estimated that the cost for eradicating all of the threats to humanity is on the order of $300 billion a year, or one third the cost of what the USA has spent per year on invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, and in creating the monstrocity two authors call Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State
The author touches on holistic design, but nowhere near the complete concepts of Medard Gabel and the Earth Intelligence Network, but certainly demanding that the author have a seat at the high table seeking to catalyze public thinking. He writes of building an energy efficient global economy, redesigning cities for people, and reinventing transportation from bicycle paths to high speed rail.
The section on alternative energy is not as complete as I would like, focusing only on wind, solar, and geothermal, but it is certainly a great section if you only have time for one read.
+ Wind power can supply up to 4000 Gigawatts by 2020, one half of the need, IF the reinvention goes as proposed.
I sense the author is still in the Industrial-Era paradigm of centralized wind farms, where Buckminster Fuller and others have clearly shown that the greatest efficiencies come from LOCALIZED mixes of wind, solar, and other (e.g. idling automobiles--WIRED Magazine had a great cover story the same week Dick Cheney was meeting with Enron and Exxon to plot the invasion of Iraq).
QUOTE (146): "...but for every $1 invested in rangeland restoration yields $2.50 in income from the increased productivity of the earth's rangeland ecosystems."
I believe that. I also believe that the increasing force and frequency of our extreme weather events is an act of man, not an act of God, and we would do well to start reversing a century of paving over wetlands and building inadequate levees to get around flood plain restrictions. Look for the shocking < Graphic: US Counties Protected by Levees > as well as < Graphic: Maps of the Post Flood Future Geography > to get a sense of where we might be very very vulnerable.
The book whimpers to a close, and I have the strong feeling that the author has not read into the emerging literatures as well as he might have--there is too much of the old stuff here. Soap operas as education, micro gardens, no mention of the fish-plant systems that are fully self-contained with no power or chemical needs.
To save civilization we need a new accounting system. True. That's the whole point of Herman Daly's life's work, long overdue for a Nobel Prize.
Page 199 has a budget adding up to 185 billion dollars, $75 billion for Basic Social Goals and $110 billion for earth restoration goals. Since I donate all my books (unmarked) to the George Mason University Library, and my reviews are all I have left, I am going to take the liberty--and offer to others as a reason to buy the book--the specifics.
Basic Social Goals: Universal Primary education (10B), eradication of adult illiteracy (4B); school lunch programs (3B); aid to women, infants, preschool children (4B); reproductive health and family planning (21B); universal basic health care (33B).
Earth Restoration Goals: Planting trees (23B); Protecting topsoil on cropland (24B); restoring rangelands (9B); restoring fisheries (13B); stabilizing water tables (10B); protecting biological diversity (31B).
The book has an index. The additional resources are adequate but not spectacular. In general I feel that the author's concepts and plans are those of an earlier era. In my own vision, I start with giving each of the five billion poor free cell phones and free hand-held access to the Internet both direct and via call centers with powerful resources, educating the poor "one cell call at a time," and then getting out of the way. In brief, the end of the book is uninspiring, but one has to recognize the decades of monomania that the author has given to this work, so despite my placing the book at a four, I would say that if you can only read one book in this genre, this is the book. My reviews of many others books are free, my books lists are all at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog (see Books in the top bar or Remixed Book Lists (70) in the bottom half of the middle column).
Worth buying, worth reading, worth sharing with others.
In a poignant piece in the Sunday January 16, 2010 Washington Post, Susan Eisenhower, Ike's granddaughter reminds us of another great American's look into our future with this quote from his January, 1961 farewell address, more famous for his warning about our burgeoning "military industrial complex", but more important when he said, "We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."
Not quite an environmental statement, but one which counsels a careful look at the future and a deep concern for next generation, even before most of us were thinking about peak oil, global warming, and the population explosion.
Born in 1931, I feel an enormous kinship with this author, as I have been an activist in the family planning field since 1965, having helped start and served on the boards of several then fledgling NGO's just when so many of these presently now well known agencies were first organized to address this primary underlying influence on all our present planetary crises.
Despite the decades ago warnings of many besides Brown about this brewing population crisis, most of the world's leaders have steadfastly ignored allocating adequate expenditures toward providing universal family planning's humane and gentle solutions. Their shortfall in so doing has already proved devastating and will accelerate in intensity as Brown forecasts.
Brown, who was born in 1934, has for decades been an activist in his urgent call for action on the population issue along with all the other predictors of danger rising and has powerfully chronicled them fully in his earlier 50 books. For his pains, he has frequently been dismissed as crying wolf, just as Paul Ehrlich for his premature world famine prediction in 1975, which now has shown itself so correct.
Brown and certainly many of us who have spent our lives immersed in action on these issues now see many of these concerns coagulating into a complex mix attaining more powerful impetuous for disaster than ever in the history of the planet. This new book's title, World on the Edge, puts it forward precisely. In short, as he carefully documents, the human populations of our planet are running out of running room. And soon. There are now many paths to perdition and some of us, including me have suggested a possible apocalypse worldwide should be fail to take corrective actions.
Never just a prophet of gloom, Brown always offers us a path to salvation and this latest book is no exception. In Chapter 13, entitled "Saving Civilization" he reiterates his earlier Plan B recommendations, "With Plan B, we can change course and move onto a path of sustainable progress, but it will take a massive mobilization--at wartime speed. This plan or something very similar to it, is our only hope." What are those goals? "Stabilizing climate, stabilizing population, eradicating poverty, and restoring the economy's natural support systems--are mutually dependent. All are essential to feeding the world's people. It is unlikely that we can reach any one goal without reaching the others. Moving the global economy off the decline-and-collapse path depends on reaching all four goals."
A tall order indeed and many observers including me are not optimistic that Plan B, even if urgently executed now, can ward off massive numbers of human deaths. Formidable experts such as the late Garrett Hardin felt the planet's human numbers were already too large to sustain. The jury is still out and we are blessed to have this cogent voice still seeking a sensible, workable scenario for the future. Despite my pessimism, I vigorously applaud this giant of environmentalist (e.g. Founder of Worldwatch Institute in the early 1980's and subsequently his present NGO, the Earth Policy Institute) for continuing to offer solid information and solutions both in his books and on the Earth Policy web site. Brown's latest offering becomes a must read for all who care about our future.
Many of the problems outlined in the book are solid problems that are occurring in the world at this very moment: global climate change, over grazing and over use of water from aquifers, poverty, illiteracy, and unsustainable population growth. My biggest problem with the discussions is that they were taken to the maximum, and in some cases. without all the information present.
On the issue of expanding deserts (desertification) the author fails to mention one very important part to the equation. While over grazing and poor farming techniques can lead to a susceptibility toward desertification, there also needs to be a lack of rainfall, either through a periodic drought or because the area is already arid or semi-arid and prone to these problems to begin with. The author uses the dust bowl from the United States as an example in several places, but hardly mentioned that the area in question was under a severe, prolonged drought of 500 year proportions. Would the dust bowl have occurred without the drought conditions....maybe... but we will never really know.
In another area, describing sea level rise, the author discusses the Greenland ice sheet and the Larsen ice sheets in Antarctica. He uses figures for sea level rise based on the melting of these ice sheets completely. While they have collapsed, I have not heard any one discuss complete melting, particularly of the Larsen shelves. That is disingenuous at best.
The solutions proposed by the author are admirable, but I doubt they have a chance of working. We are in an extremely toxic political climate in this country, where politicians cannot even agree on whether global warming is occurring or not. Add to that the educational requirements and family planning that the author advocates and I think you have a political train wreck...at least in this country. And the author states we need to do this at a speed rivaling the buildup of war material following WW II. I sincerely doubt there is a chance in Hades of this occurring unless some very strong leadership presents itself in Washington very quickly.
The writing is well done, with the issues and solutions presented in a way that a non-scientist can understand. I agree we are in trouble....I just think the solutions proposed are unworkable at the current time and, will accomplish little.
By Mark J. Palmer
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
Few people in the environmental movement have done as much to look at "the big picture" of environmental degradation as has Lester Brown, former head of the Worldwatch Institute (which publishes annual "State of the World" books that look at the environmental status of our world's life-supporting resources and functions). Brown now heads up the group World Policy Institute that has developed Plan B, outlining ways to resolve environmental issues, as well as the related issues of poverty, economic health, and population.
"World on Edge" is Brown's latest opus, a tour-de-force outline of what is wrong with our current economic and environmental policies with a plan to change the world and save ourselves from ourselves. The opening chapters are not for the faint of heart, as Brown outlines example after example of our world's fading resilience to the onslaught of industrial pollution, energy over-use, wasting of resources, increasing population and plain stupid choices. However, Brown shows how to solve all of these problems in the remaining chapters, asking for a World War II-style ramping up of emergency measures to heal the environment while allowing improvements in human welfare. Brown is nothing if not thorough in his approach, even included estimated price tags for what changing the world will cost.
"World on Edge" is a good summary of problems and solutions, outlining Plan B in short chapters devoted to discussions of what is wrong and how we can fix it. For details of Plan B as well as references to his statements, Brown directs readers to the Plan B website, freeing up the book to concentrate on the essentials.
A few of Brown's revelations might surprise readers. He takes poverty head on, a rarity in environmental publications. He notes his concern for the growing problem of providing clean, fresh water for agriculture and humanity, an issue that has not yet penetrated the public debate on global environmental issues. He notes the environmental underpinnings of failed states, adding environmental degradation to religious zealotry, poverty, drugs, race, and tribalism as a cause of chaos in the Sudan, Somalia and other hot spots around the world.
Brown's solutions are cogent and achievable, he believes, and cites encouraging trends as well as examples of what can be achieved. For example, he explains the importance of wind turbines for energy generation. They are cheaper and more reliable than other alternative energy sources, such as solar panels, and they can be readily obtained and installed. Wind farms, Brown states, can lead the effort right now to economically replace fossil fuels causing global warming and toxic pollution of our air and waters.
As with any such sweeping litany of global solutions, the problem with "World on the Edge" is how to achieve these changes in a political world that is seriously dysfunctional? There is good scientific consensus (ignoring global warming skeptics) on what needs to be done to reduce greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, but as we have seen repeatedly, there is a severe lack of political will to take the steps necessary to protect the people of the Earth.
Brown has no answer to how to achieve his reforms in this climate of unresponsiveness, only the bully pulpit of his books and reports. "World on the Edge" gives us hope for the future, but the people who need to read it probably won't. And that would be a tragedy, as the world spins closer and closer to the edge.
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