Posts Tagged ‘Lester R Brown’
That damn edge, embrace it or ….. or what?
It’s some ago that I read Lester Brown’s book World on the Edge but I still recall the effect it had on me. Namely, this is not some environmentalist’s ‘willy waving’ but something that has the potential to hurt, I mean HURT! Since the book was published the stream of information and evidence has turned into a flood of awareness that if we don’t change our ways soon then we, as in the vastness of human life, will go over the edge.
So it was a good reminder to come across a recent extract on the Earth Policy Institute website that is republished in full, as follows:
No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports. Nor will ours. Yet economists look at the future through a different lens. Relying heavily on economic data to measure progress, they see the near 10-fold growth in the world economy since 1950 and the associated gains in living standards as the crowning achievement of our modern civilization. During this period, income per person worldwide climbed nearly fourfold, boosting living standards to previously unimaginable levels. A century ago, annual growth in the world economy was measured in the billions of dollars. Today, it is measured in the trillions. In the eyes of mainstream economists, our present economic system has not only an illustrious past but also a promising future.
Mainstream economists see the 2008–09 global economic recession and near-collapse of the international financial system as a bump in the road, albeit an unusually big one, before a return to growth as usual. Projections of economic growth, whether by the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, or Deutsche Bank, typically show the global economy expanding by roughly 3 percent a year. At this rate the 2010 economy would easily double in size by 2035. With these projections, economic growth in the decades ahead is more or less an extrapolation of the growth of recent decades.
But natural scientists see that as the world economy expanded some 20-fold over the last century, it has revealed a flaw—a flaw so serious that if it is not corrected it will spell the end of civilization as we know it. At some point, what had been excessive local demands on environmental systems when the economy was small became global in scope.
A study by a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel aggregates the use of the earth’s natural assets, including carbon dioxide overload in the atmosphere, into a single indicator—the ecological footprint. The authors concluded that humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. By 2007, global demands on the earth’s natural systems exceeded sustainable yields by 50 percent. Stated otherwise, it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption. If we use environmental indicators to evaluate our situation, then the global decline of the economy’s natural support systems—the environmental decline that will lead to economic decline and social collapse—is well under way.
How did we get into this mess? Our market-based global economy as currently managed is in trouble. The market does many things well. It allocates resources with an efficiency that no central planner could even imagine, much less achieve.
However the market, which sets prices, is not telling us the truth. It is omitting indirect costs that in some cases now dwarf direct costs. Consider gasoline. Pumping oil, refining it into gasoline, and delivering the gas to U.S. service stations may cost, say, $3 per gallon. The indirect costs, including climate change, treatment of respiratory illnesses, oil spills, and the U.S. military presence in the Middle East to ensure access to the oil, total $12 per gallon. Similar calculations can be done for coal.
We delude ourselves with our accounting system. Leaving such huge costs off the books is a formula for bankruptcy. Environmental trends are the lead indicators telling us what lies ahead for the economy and ultimately for society itself. Falling water tables today signal rising food prices tomorrow. Shrinking polar ice sheets are a prelude to falling coastal real estate values.
Beyond this, mainstream economics pays little attention to the sustainable yield thresholds of the earth’s natural systems. Modern economic thinking and policymaking have created an economy that is so out of sync with the ecosystem on which it depends that it is approaching collapse. How can we assume that the growth of an economic system that is shrinking the earth’s forests, eroding its soils, depleting its aquifers, collapsing its fisheries, elevating its temperature, and melting its ice sheets can simply be projected into the long-term future? What is the intellectual process underpinning these extrapolations?
We are facing a situation in economics today similar to that in astronomy when Copernicus arrived on the scene, a time when it was believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Just as Copernicus had to formulate a new astronomical worldview after several decades of celestial observations and mathematical calculations, we too must formulate a new economic worldview based on several decades of environmental observations and analyses.
The archeological record indicates that civilizational collapse does not come suddenly out of the blue. Archeologists analyzing earlier civilizations talk about a decline-and-collapse scenario. Economic and social collapse was almost always preceded by a period of environmental decline.
For past civilizations it was sometimes a single environmental trend that was primarily responsible for their decline. Sometimes it was multiple trends. For Sumer, rising salt concentrations in the soil, as a result of an environmental flaw in the design of their otherwise extraordinary irrigation system, led to a decline in wheat yields. The Sumerians then shifted to barley, a more salt-tolerant crop. But eventually barley yields also began to decline. The collapse of the civilization followed.
For the Mayans, it was deforestation and soil erosion. As more and more land was cleared for farming to support the expanding empire, soil erosion undermined the productivity of their tropical soils. A team of scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has noted that the extensive land clearing by the Mayans likely also altered the regional climate, reducing rainfall. In effect, the scientists suggest, it was the convergence of several environmental trends, some reinforcing others, that led to the food shortages that brought down the Mayan civilization.
Although we live in a highly urbanized, technologically advanced society, we are as dependent on the earth’s natural support systems as the Sumerians and Mayans were. If we continue with business as usual, civilizational collapse is no longer a matter of whether but when. We now have an economy that is destroying its natural support systems, one that has put us on a decline and collapse path.
The reality of our situation may soon become clearer for mainstream economists as we begin to see some of the early economic effects of overconsuming the earth’s resources, such as rising world food prices. On the social front, the most disturbing trend is spreading hunger.
As rapid population growth continues, cropland becomes scarce, wells go dry, forests disappear, soils erode, unemployment rises, and hunger spreads. As environmental degradation and economic and social stresses mount, the more fragile governments are losing their capacity to govern. They become failing states—countries whose governments can no longer provide personal security, food security, or basic social services, such as education and health care. As the list of failing states grows longer each year, it raises a disturbing question: How many states must fail before our global civilization begins to unravel?
How much longer can we remain in the decline phase, whether measured in natural asset liquidation, spreading hunger, or failing states, before our global civilization begins to break down? We are dangerously close to the edge. Peter Goldmark, former Rockefeller Foundation president, puts it well: “The death of our civilization is no longer a theory or an academic possibility; it is the road we’re on.”
Adapted from World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown. The message is clear.
But if you haven’t read the book it’s available online, for free! Just go here and not only will you find the link to the book but also links to other valuable materials.
Founder and President of the Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown, speaks about his new book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. The issues, says Brown, are critical — and the big question is whether we can change direction before “we go over the edge.” Among his points: solar, wind and geothermal energy, with energy efficiency, can provide all the power we need, but a massive effort must be made now to fully shift to these clean, safe, renewable energy technologies. He strongly rejects nuclear power.
A powerful ‘good news’ story.
I am republishing in full a recent report from the Earth Policy Institute. It underlines how wringing our hands in the face of so much doom and gloom, while perfectly understandable, can hide the fact that mankind can and does change, frequently for the better. This EPI report is a tad ‘dry’ but still a great read. As an incentive, let me show you the final sentence, “If so, the United States could become a world leader in cutting carbon emissions and stabilizing climate.”
Here’s the full paper.
NOVEMBER 02, 2011
U.S. Carbon Emissions Down 7 Percent in Four Years: Even Bigger Drops Coming
Lester R. Brown
Between 2007 and 2011, carbon emissions from coal use in the United States dropped 10 percent. During the same period, emissions from oil use dropped 11 percent. In contrast, carbon emissions from natural gas use increased by 6 percent. The net effect of these trends was that U.S. carbon emissions dropped 7 percent in four years. And this is only the beginning.
The initial fall in coal and oil use was triggered by the economic downturn, but now powerful new forces are reducing the use of both. For coal, the dominant force is the Beyond Coal campaign, an impressive national effort coordinated by the Sierra Club involving hundreds of local groups that oppose coal because of its effects on human health.
In the first phase, the campaign actively opposed the building of new coal-fired power plants. This hugely successful initiative, which led to a near de facto moratorium on new coal plants, was powered by Americans’ dislike of coal. An Opinion Research Corporation poll found only 3 percent preferred coal as their electricity source—which is no surprise. Coal plant emissions are a leading cause of respiratory illnesses (such as asthma in children) and mercury contamination. Coal burning causes 13,200 American deaths each year, a loss of life that exceeds U.S. combat losses in 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The campaign’s second phase is dedicated to closing existing coal plants. Of the U.S. total of 492 coal-fired power plants, 68 are already slated to close. With current and forthcoming U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality regulations on emissions of mercury, sulfur, and ozone precursors requiring costly retrofits, many more of the older, dirtier plants will be closed
In August, the American Economic Review—the country’s most prestigious economics journal—published an article that can only be described as an epitaph for the coal industry. The authors conclude that the economic damage caused by air pollutants from coal burning exceeds the value of the electricity produced by coal-fired power plants. Coal fails the cost-benefit analysis even before the costs of climate change are tallied.
In July 2011, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a grant of $50 million to the Beyond Coal campaign. It is one thing when Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, says that coal has to go, but quite another when Michael Bloomberg, one of the most successful businessmen of his generation, says so.
The move to close coal plants comes at a time when electricity use for lighting will be falling fast as old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs are phased out. In compliance with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, by January 2012 there will be no 100-watt incandescent light bulbs on store shelves. By January 2014, the 75-watt, 60-watt, and 40-watt incandescents will also disappear from shelves. As inefficient incandescents are replaced by compact fluorescents and LEDs, electricity use for lighting can drop by 80 percent. And much of the switch will occur within a few years.
The U.S. Department of Energy projects that residential electricity use per person will drop by 5 percent during this decade as light bulbs are replaced and as more-efficient refrigerators, water heaters, television sets, and other household appliances come to market.
Even as coal plants are closing, the use of wind, solar, and geothermally generated electricity is growing fast. Over the last four years, more than 400 wind farms—with a total generating capacity of 27,000 megawatts—have come online, enough to supply 8 million homes with electricity. (See data.) Nearly 300,000 megawatts of proposed wind projects are in the pipeline awaiting access to the grid.
Texas, long the leading oil-producing state, is now the leading generator of electricity from wind. When the transmission lines linking the rich wind resources of west Texas and the Texas panhandle to the large cities in central and eastern Texas are completed, wind electric generation in the state will jump dramatically.
In installed wind-generating capacity, Texas is followed by Iowa, California, Minnesota, and Illinois. In the share of electricity generation in the state coming from wind, Iowa leads at 20 percent.
With electricity generated by solar panels, the United States has some 22,000 megawatts of utility-scale projects in the pipeline. And this does not include residential installations.
Closing coal plants also cuts oil use. With coal use falling, the near 40 percent of freight rail diesel fuel that is used to move coal from mines to power plants will also drop.
In fact, oil use has fallen fast in the United States over the last four years, thus reversing another long-term trend of rising consumption. The reasons for this include a shrinkage in the size of the national fleet, the rising fuel efficiency of new cars, and a reduction in the miles driven per vehicle.
Fleet size peaked at 250 million cars in 2008 just as the number of cars being scrapped eclipsed sales of new cars. Aside from economic conditions, car sales are down because many young people today are much less automobile-oriented than their parents.
In addition, the fuel efficiency of new cars, already rising, will soon increase sharply. The most recent efficiency standards mandate that new cars sold in 2025 use only half as much fuel as those sold in 2010. Thus with each passing year, the U.S. car fleet becomes more fuel-efficient, using less gasoline.
Miles driven per car are declining because of higher gasoline prices, the continuing recession, and the shift to public transit and bicycles. Bicycles are replacing cars as cities create cycling infrastructure by building bike paths, creating dedicated bike lanes, and installing sidewalk parking racks. Many U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York, are introducing bike-sharing programs.
Furthermore, when people retire and no longer commute, miles driven drop by a third to a half. With so many baby boomers now retiring, this too will lower gasoline use.
As plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars come to market, electricity will replace gasoline. Ananalysis by Professor Michael McElroy of Harvard indicates that running a car on wind-generated electricity could cost the equivalent of 80-cent-a-gallon gasoline.
With emissions from coal burning heading for a free fall as plants are closed, and those from oil use also falling fast—both are falling faster than emissions from natural gas are ramping up—U.S. carbon emissions are falling.
We are now looking at a situation where the 7 percent decline in carbon emissions since the 2007 peak could expand to 20 percent by 2020, and possibly even to 30 percent. If so, the United States could become a world leader in cutting carbon emissions and stabilizing climate.
The ways of our carbon-consuming past & present cannot be continued into the future.
In many ways that sub-heading above is not controversial for millions of citizens of Planet Earth. The challenge is in changing behaviours, ending old habits of energy use, and working towards a truly sustainable relationship with the only planetary home we have!
Some time ago, I wrote about Lester Brown’s book, World on the Edge, quickly following it up with Plan B Movie for Planet Earth. Since reading Lester’s book, I have subscribed to the Blog/website Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown is President of EPI.
Like many others, Jean and I are of the view that the Keystone XL Pipeline is not required. Last week there was an update from EPI about this subject illustrating how the pipeline is not required. That update is published in full, as follows,
Plan B Updates
OCTOBER 06, 2011
U.S. Gasoline Use Declining: Keystone XL Pipeline Not Needed
Lester R. Brown
As the debate unfolds about whether to build a 1,711-mile pipeline to carry crude oil from the tar sands in Canada to refineries in Texas, the focus is on the oil spills and carbon emissions that inevitably come with it. But we need to ask a more fundamental question. Do we really need that oil?
The United States currently consumes more gasoline than the next 16 countries combined. Yes, you read that right. Among them are China, Japan, Russia, Germany, and Brazil. (See data.)
But now this is changing. Not only is the affluence that sustained this extravagant gasoline consumption eroding, but the automobile-centered lifestyle that was considered part of the American birthright is fading as well. U.S. gasoline use has dropped 5 percent in four years.
Four key developments are set to further reduce U.S. gasoline use: a shrinking car fleet, a decline in the miles driven per car, dramatic mandated future gains in new car fuel efficiency, and the shift from gasoline to electricity to power our cars.
The U.S. fleet appears to have peaked at 250 million vehicles in 2008. From 1994 through 2007, new-car sales were in the range of 15–17 million per year. Since then they have totaled 10–13 million per year, and they are unlikely to top 14 million again. Retirees likely will exceed sales of new cars throughout this decade.
The contraction that began when the fleet dropped from 250 million in 2008 to 248 million in 2010 is likely to continue. Sales of new cars are not matching those of earlier years in part because the economic prospect has dimmed and in part because we are still urbanizing. Today 82 percent of us live in urban areas where cars are becoming less essential.
On top of urbanization, we also have a change in the manner in which young people socialize. For teenagers in rural communities a half century ago, getting a driver’s license and something to drive—a car, a pickup, or even a farm truck—was a rite of passage. That’s what everyone did.
This too is changing. Today’s teenagers, most of whom grew up in an urban setting, socialize through smartphones and the Internet. For many of them, a car is of little interest. The number of licensed teenage drivers in this country—the car owners of the future—has dropped from a peak of 12 million in 1978 to 10 million today.
Cities are also being redesigned for people. Among other things, this means cities are becoming pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, with ready access to public transit.
Many cities are building a cycling infrastructure of bicycle trails, dedicated bike lanes, and bike racks for parking. Bike-sharing programs are showing up, too. In Washington, D.C., the Capital Bikeshare program that began in 2010 has expanded to 116 stations with 1,100 bicycles. Within the first year, some 16,000 riders signed up for annual membership in the program. Denver and Chicago have similar bike share programs. And New York City is about to launch a huge program of its own.
The second reason that gasoline use is falling is the decline in miles driven per car. This is partly in response to economic uncertainty and the high price of gasoline. When gas costs nearly $4 a gallon, people think twice before jumping in a car and using a gallon of gasoline to pick up a half-gallon of milk.
A third trend that is reducing gasoline use is the rising fuel efficiency of the U.S. automobile fleet. New cars sold in 2008 averaged 27 miles per gallon. But in early 2009, President Obama raised the average fuel efficiency standard so that those sold in 2016 will get 36 miles per gallon. Additional standards announced in 2011 mean that new cars sold in 2025 will use less than half as much gasoline as the 2008 models.
The game changer in reducing gasoline use is going to come as drivers shift from gasoline to electrically powered vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars. General Motors recently introduced the Chevrolet Volt, designed to run largely on electricity, and Nissan unveiled the Leaf, an all-electric vehicle. Beyond these, Toyota is accepting orders for the plug-in version of its Prius hybrid, the pacesetter in fuel efficiency. It will be followed by a steady flow of new plug-in hybrid and all-electric car models coming to market.
Although these electrically powered vehicles are typically more costly to buy, the day-to-day cost of operating them is extraordinarily low. An analysis by Professor Michael McElroy at Harvard indicates that running a car on wind-generated electricity could cost less than the equivalent of 80-cent-a-gallon gasoline.
With the auto fleet shrinking, with the average car being driven less, with the fuel use of new cars to be cut in half by 2025, and with electricity starting to replace gasoline as a fuel, why do we need to build a pipeline to bring crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to oil refineries in Texas? The answer is we don’t.
There’s a footnote that I would like to add from the Center for Biological Diversity (great website!) that came out in a recent newsletter.
Here it is,
Lawsuit Seeks to Halt Work on Controversial Keystone XL Pipeline
The hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline hasn’t been approved for construction, but federal officials don’t seem to care; they’ve allowed the pipeline company to mow down 100 miles of native prairie grasslands in Nebraska to clear the way — before any public hearings were held on whether Keystone XL should move forward at all.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit in federal court in Omaha Wednesday to halt that work. Specifically, we’re challenging decisions by the State Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow work to begin before a decision’s been made on the pipeline or the public hearings, which look like little more than a sham at this point.
If approved, TransCanada’s 1,700-mile pipeline would carry up to 35 million gallons of oil a day from tar sands in Canada to refineries in Texas. Not only will this project add fuel to the global climate crisis, but the pipeline will cut across Nebraska’s legendary Sandhills, hundreds of rivers and streams, and the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for millions of people. TransCanada’s existing pipeline, called Keystone 1, has reportedly leaked 14 times since it started operating in June 2010.
Please will there be some common sense over this?
Not quite as strange as one might think.
In Paul Gilding’s book, The Great Disruption, there is a chapter called When the Dam of Denial Breaks. On page 121 Paul Gilding writes this,
To argue we are naturally greedy and competitive and can’t change is like arguing that we engage naturally in murder and infanticide as our forebears the chimps do and therefore as we did. We have certain tendencies in our genes, but unlike other creatures we have the proven capacity to make conscious decisions to overcome them and also the proven ability to build a society with laws and values to enshrine and, critically, to enforce such changes when these tendencies come to the surface.
So don’t underestimate how profoundly we can change. We are still capable of evolution, including conscious evolution. This coming crisis is perhaps the greatest opportunity in millennia for a step change in human society.
The United States of America gets a lot of stick, rightly so, for it’s greedy consumption of energy, especially the use of coal. According to the World Coal Association, the USA in 2010 produced 932 million tons of hard coal, second in the world to China that produced 3,162 million tons.
But the one thing that the USA has shown time and time again is that it has the capacity to change very quickly, especially when the country, from its leaders to its entrepreneurs, senses a global leadership opportunity. With that in mind, read the latest release from the Earth Policy Institute, reproduced below,
AUGUST 10, 2011
A Fifty Million Dollar Tipping Point?
Lester R. Brown
At a press conference on July 21, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was contributing $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, called it a “game changer”. It is that, but it also could push the United States, and indeed the world, to a tipping point on the climate issue.
It is one thing for Michael Brune to say coal has to go, but quite another when Michael Bloomberg says so. Few outside the environmental community know who Michael Brune is, but every business person knows Michael Bloomberg as one of the most successful business entrepreneurs of his generation.
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign has two main goals. The first is to prevent the permitting and construction of new coal-fired power plants. So far 153 proposed power plants have been taken off the board. The second goal is to close the 492 existing plants. The Sierra Club lists 71 plants already scheduled for total or partial closure, most of them by 2016.
The efforts to stabilize climate will be won or lost with coal, the world’s largest source of carbon emissions. The effort to phase out coal is now well under way in the United States, the world’s second ranking coal user after China.
There are likely to be many ripple effects from the Bloomberg grant. To begin with, it may encourage other philanthropists to invest in climate stabilization.
The prospect for investment in coal, already deteriorating, will weaken even faster. In August 2010, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) announced that several leading U.S. investment banks, including Bank of America and J.P. Morgan, had ceased lending to companies involved in mountaintop removal coal mining. Now with Bloomberg’s opposition, investors will be even more wary of coal.
The Bloomberg-Sierra initiative again focuses attention on the 13,200 lives lost each year in the United States due to air pollution from burning coal. If deaths from black lung disease among coal miners are included the number climbs even higher. The number of coal-related deaths in one year dwarfs total U.S. fatalities in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We invest heavily in protecting the lives of our troops in the Middle East, and rightly so. Bloomberg is saying let’s do the same for our people at home.
In addition, this initiative brings attention to the health care costs to society of burning coal. These are currently estimated at more than $100 billion per year, roughly $300 for every person in the United States or $1,200 for a family of four. These costs are real, but it is the American people, not the coal companies, who shoulder the burden.
Further reinforcing the urgency of phasing out coal are the more extreme weather events that climate scientists have been warning about for decades. During the first half of 2011 we watched TV news channels become weather channels. First it was a record number of tornadoes in one month, including the one that demolished Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Then, a few weeks later, an even more powerful tornado demolished Joplin, Missouri. As drought and heat sparked record or near-record wildfires in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the lower Mississippi Basin was flooding. Searing heat waves scorched the southern Great Plains, the Midwest, and the East Coast. Intense heat has continued to break records across the country as Texas suffers its most severe one-year drought on record.
For coal, the handwriting is on the wall. Between 2007 and 2010, coal use in the United States dropped 8 percent. (See data.) Meanwhile, more than 300 new wind farms came online, totaling over 23,000 megawatts of generating capacity—the electricity output equivalent of 23 coal-fired power plants.
When people were asked in a national poll where they would like to get their electricity from, only 3 percent opted for coal. Despite the coal industry’s heavy expenditures to promote “clean coal,” it is still a loser in the public mind.
In addition to the Sierra Club, RAN, and a talented team of Earthjustice lawyers, the anti-coal movement also has allies in Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, the latter with its highly developed capacity to focus public attention on environmental issues. This was evident in May when a Greenpeace team of eight daring activists scaled the 450-foot Fisk coal plant smokestack located in Chicago and painted “Quit Coal” on it. They were drawing public attention to the deadly air pollution in the city coming from the plant.
As the United States closes its coal-fired power plants, it sends a message to the world. With Michael Bloomberg’s grant bolstering the Sierra Club’s well-organized program to phase out coal, we can now imagine a coal-free United States on the horizon. The United States could again become a world leader, this time in stabilizing climate.
Copyright © 2011 Earth Policy Institute
“The United States could again become a world leader, this time in stabilizing climate.” That would be a dream come true, a dream of unimaginable consequences.
Finding the right solutions for the 21st century and the next generation.
Just before presenting the release from the Earth Policy Institute that came out on the 20th, here’s a reminder about watching the film, Plan B, that I wrote about on the 4th April. It’s a very good film from an excellent and creditable source. You can watch it for FREE from PBS, BUT ONLY UNTIL THE END OF APRIL!
Here’s the link – Plan B, the film
Now to the release published in full on Learning from Dogs.
Earth Policy Release
World on the Edge
April 19, 2011
“LET NO MAN SAY IT CANNOT BE DONE”
By Lester R. Brown
We need an economy for the twenty-first century, one that is in sync with the earth and its natural support systems, not one that is destroying them. The fossil fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that evolved in western industrial societies is no longer a viable model—not for the countries that shaped it or for those that are emulating them. In short, we need to build a new economy, one powered with carbon-free sources of energy—wind, solar, and geothermal—one that has a diversified transport system and that reuses and recycles everything. We can change course and move onto a path of sustainable progress, but it will take a massive mobilization—at wartime speed.
Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by the scale and urgency of the changes we need to make, I reread the economic history of U.S. involvement in World War II because it is such an inspiring study in rapid mobilization. Initially, the United States resisted involvement in the war and responded only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor. But respond it did. After an all-out commitment, the U.S. engagement helped turn the tide of war, leading the Allied Forces to victory within three-and-a-half years.
In his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the country’s arms production goals. The United States, he said, was planning to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, and several thousand ships. He added, “Let no man say it cannot be done.”
No one had ever seen such huge arms production numbers. Public skepticism abounded. But Roosevelt and his colleagues realized that the world’s largest concentration of industrial power was in the U.S. automobile industry. Even during the Depression, the United States was producing 3 million or more cars a year.
After his State of the Union address, Roosevelt met with auto industry leaders, indicating that the country would rely heavily on them to reach these arms production goals. Initially they expected to continue making cars and simply add on the production of armaments. What they did not yet know was that the sale of new cars would soon be banned. From early February 1942 through the end of 1944, nearly three years, essentially no cars were produced in the United States.
In addition to a ban on the sale of new cars, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. Suddenly people were recycling and planting victory gardens. Strategic goods—including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar—were rationed beginning in 1942. Yet 1942 witnessed the greatest expansion of industrial output in the nation’s history—all for military use. Wartime aircraft needs were enormous. They included not only fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes, but also the troop and cargo transports needed to fight a war on distant fronts. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, the United States far exceeded the initial goal of 60,000 planes, turning out a staggering 229,600 aircraft, a fleet so vast it is hard even today to visualize it. Equally impressive, by the end of the war more than 5,000 ships were added to the 1,000 or so that made up the American Merchant Fleet in 1939.
In her book No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how various firms converted. A sparkplug factory switched to the production of machine guns. A manufacturer of stoves produced lifeboats. A merry-go-round factory made gun mounts; a toy company turned out compasses; a corset manufacturer produced grenade belts; and a pinball machine plant made armor-piercing shells.
In retrospect, the speed of this conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy is stunning. The harnessing of U.S. industrial power tipped the scales decisively toward the Allied Forces, reversing the tide of war. Germany and Japan, already fully extended, could not counter this effort. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill often quoted his foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey: “The United States is like a giant boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.”
The point is that it did not take decades to restructure the U.S. industrial economy. It did not take years. It was done in a matter of months. If we could restructure the U.S. industrial economy in months, then we can restructure the world energy economy during this decade.
With numerous U.S. automobile assembly lines currently idled, it would be a relatively simple matter to retool some of them to produce wind turbines, as the Ford Motor Company did in World War II with B-24 bombers, helping the world to quickly harness its vast wind energy resources. This would help the world see that the economy can be restructured quickly, profitably, and in a way that enhances global security.
The world now has the technologies and financial resources to stabilize climate, eradicate poverty, stabilize population, restore the economy’s natural support systems, and, above all, restore hope. The United States, the wealthiest society that has ever existed, has the resources and leadership to lead this effort.
One of the questions I hear most frequently is, What can I do? People often expect me to suggest lifestyle changes, such as recycling newspapers or changing light bulbs. These are essential, but they are not nearly enough. Restructuring the global economy means becoming politically active, working for the needed changes, as the grassroots campaign against coal-fired power plants is doing. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.
Inform yourself. Read about the issues. Share the Earth Policy Institute’s publications with friends. Pick an issue that’s meaningful to you, such as tax restructuring to create an honest market, phasing out coal-fired power plants, or developing a world class-recycling system in your community. Or join a group that is working to provide family planning services to the 215 million women who want to plan their families but lack the means to do so. You might want to organize a small group of like-minded individuals to work on an issue that is of mutual concern. You can begin by talking with others to help select an issue to work on.
Once your group is informed and has a clearly defined goal, ask to meet with your elected representatives on the city council or the state or national legislature. Write or e-mail your elected representatives about the need to restructure taxes and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. Remind them that leaving environmental costs off the books may offer a sense of prosperity in the short run, but it leads to collapse in the long run.
During World War II, the military draft asked millions of young men to risk the ultimate sacrifice. But we are called on only to be politically active and to make lifestyle changes. During World War II, President Roosevelt frequently asked Americans to adjust their lifestyles and Americans responded, working together for a common goal. What contributions can we each make today, in time, money, or reduced consumption, to help save civilization?
The choice is ours—yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that continues to destroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can be the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.
Adapted from Chapter 13, “Saving Civilization,” in Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/wote
Additional data and information sources at www.earth-policy.org
This is a ‘must see’ video for all to watch.
On the 17th March, I wrote another piece inspired by Lester Brown’s book, World on the Edge. That piece was about what Lester Brown calls Plan B and shows that there are positive, real solutions to the dilemma that us humans have got ourselves in.
Anyway, I was delighted to see in my email in-box the following,
PLAN B: MOBILIZING TO SAVE CIVILIZATION—THE FILM
For the month of April only, you can watch a streaming edition of the film Plan B on the PBS website. So if you missed the initial release for whatever reason, here is your opportunity to watch it at your leisure.
Based on Lester Brown’s Plan B book series, this 90-minute film, by the award-winning film producers Marilyn and Hal Weiner, follows Lester as he speaks in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, New Delhi, Rome, Istanbul, Ankara, and Washington, DC, and visits with world leaders to discuss ways to respond to the challenges of climate change.
The film begins with a dramatic portrayal of a world where there is a mounting tide of public concern about melting glaciers and sea level rise and a growing sense that we need to change course in how we react to emerging economic and social pressures. The film also spotlights a world where ocean resources are becoming scarce, croplands are eroding, and harvests are shrinking.
But what makes Plan B significant and timely is that it provides hopeful solutions—a road map that will help eradicate poverty, stabilize population, and protect and restore our planet’s fisheries, forests, aquifers, soil, grasslands, and biological diversity.
Along with Lester Brown, you will hear from notable scholars and scientists including Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and former Governor and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
Narrated by Matt Damon, well-known for his work raising environmental awareness.
The film is available to view here. Note that it is only free to watch for the month of April.
Going for a sustainable future is not ‘pie in the sky’.
I have been attempting to write on Learning from Dogs about my experience reading the Lester Brown book, World on the Edge. In
fact, there have been four articles written all with the title Total, Utter Madness (Pts 1 to 4.) If you read the early chapters of Lester’s book you will have no issue with the notion of summarising the propositions that he presents as ‘total, utter madness’.
There was another article published on the 3rd March that I called, ‘Where are we off to?‘ that presented more information about the fragility of mankind on this Planet if we don’t change our ways, and soon. (There are links to all my articles from this 3rd March piece.)
But much of the second half of Lester Brown’s book is about the relative ease with which we can change the way we all live and offer the generations ahead of us a real alternative to the selfish, greedy way in which we treat Planet Earth at present. That alternative is called Plan B.
Plan B offers the real hope of developing a sustainable relationship with our planet. So this post is to reproduce in full a recent release by the Earth Policy Institute about wind power.
Wind: The Center of the Plan B Economy
Lester R. Brown
For many years, a small handful of countries dominated growth in wind power, but this is changing as the industry goes global, with more than 70 countries now developing wind resources. Between 2000 and 2010, world wind electric generating capacity increased at a frenetic pace from 17,000 megawatts to nearly 200,000 megawatts.
Measured by share of electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leading nation at 21 percent. Three north German states now get 40 percent or more of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, the figure is 8 percent—and climbing. And in the state of Iowa, enough wind turbines came online in the last few years to produce up to 20 percent of that state’s electricity.
In terms of sheer volume, the United States leads the world with 35,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, followed by China and Germany with 26,000 megawatts each. Texas, long the leading U.S. oil-producing state, is now also the nation’s leading generator of electricity from wind. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online, 370 megawatts more under construction, and a huge amount under development. If all of the wind farms projected for 2025 are completed, Texas will have 38,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity—the equivalent of 38 coal-fired power plants. This would satisfy roughly 90 percent of the current residential electricity needs of the state’s 25 million people.
In July 2010, ground was broken for the Alta Wind Energy Center (AWEC) in the Tehachapi Pass, some 75 miles north of Los Angeles, California. At 1,550 megawatts, it will be the largest U.S. wind farm. The AWEC is part of what will eventually be 4,500 megawatts of renewable power generation, enough to supply electricity to some 3 million homes.
Since wind turbines occupy only 1 percent of the land covered by a wind farm, farmers and ranchers can continue to grow grain and graze cattle on land devoted to wind farms. In effect, they double-crop their land, simultaneously harvesting electricity and wheat, corn, or cattle. With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers typically receive $3,000–10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine on their land. For thousands of ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains, wind royalties will dwarf their net earnings from cattle sales.
In considering the energy productivity of land, wind turbines are in a class by themselves. For example, an acre of land in northern Iowa planted in corn can yield $1,000 worth of ethanol per year. That same acre used to site a wind turbine can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. This helps explain why investors find wind farms so attractive.
Impressive though U.S. wind energy growth is, the expansion now under way in China is even more so. China has enough onshore harnessable wind energy to raise its current electricity consumption 16-fold. Today, most of China’s 26,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity come from 50- to 100-megawatt wind farms. Beyond the many other wind farms of that size that are on the way, China’s new Wind Base program is creating seven wind mega-complexes of 10 to 38 gigawatts each in six provinces (1 gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts). When completed, these complexes will have a generating capacity of more than 130 gigawatts. This is equivalent to building one new coal plant per week for two and a half years.
Of these 130 gigawatts, 7 gigawatts will be in the coastal waters of Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most highly industrialized provinces. China is planning a total of 23 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity. The country’s first major offshore project, the 102-megawatt Donghai Bridge Wind Farm near Shanghai, is already in operation.
In Europe, which now has 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind online, wind developers are planning 140 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity, mostly in the North Sea. There is enough harnessable wind energy in offshore Europe to satisfy the continent’s needs seven times over.
In September 2010, the Scottish government announced that it was replacing its goal of 50 percent renewable electricity by 2020 with a new goal of 80 percent. By 2025, Scotland expects renewables to meet all of its electricity needs. Much of the new capacity will be provided by offshore wind.
Denmark is looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50 percent by 2025, with most of the additional power coming from offshore. In contemplating this prospect, Danish planners have turned conventional energy policy upside down. They plan to use wind as the mainstay of their electrical generating system and to use fossil-fuel-generated power to fill in when the wind dies down.
Spain, which has 19,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity for its 45 million people, got 14 percent of its electricity from wind in 2009. On November 8th of that year, strong winds across Spain enabled wind turbines to supply 53 percent of the country’s electricity over a five-hour stretch. London Times reporter Graham Keeley wrote from Barcelona that “the towering white wind turbines which loom over Castilla-La Mancha—home of Cervantes’s hero, Don Quixote—and which dominate other parts of Spain, set a new record in wind energy production.”
In 2007, when Turkey issued a request for proposals to build wind farms, it received bids to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, far beyond its 41,000 megawatts of total electrical generating capacity. Having selected 7,000 megawatts of the most promising proposals, the government is issuing construction permits.
In wind-rich Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta are the leaders in installed capacity. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has received applications for offshore wind development rights on its side of the Great Lakes that could result in some 21,000 megawatts of generating capacity. The provincial goal is to back out all coal-fired power by 2014.
On the U.S. side of Lake Ontario, New York State is also requesting proposals. Several of the seven other states that border the Great Lakes are planning to harness lake winds.
Earth Policy Institute’s Plan B to save civilization has four components: stabilizing climate, restoring earth’s natural support systems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty. At the heart of the plan is a crash program to develop 4,000 gigawatts (4 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to cover over half of world electricity consumptionin the Plan B economy. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, up from a doubling every three years over the last decade.
This climate-stabilizing initiative would mean the installation of 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each. Manufacturing 2 million wind turbines over the next 10 years sounds intimidating—until it is compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces each year.
At $3 million per installed turbine, the 2 million turbines would mean spending $600 billion per year worldwide between now and 2020. This compares with world oil and gas capital expenditures that are projected to double from $800 billion in 2010 to $1.6 trillion in 2015.
Adapted from Chapter 9, “Harnessing Wind, Solar, and Geothermal Energy” in Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/wote.