Group human insanity

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.Friedrich Nietzsche

I was minded to select this quote because an item in the UK Independent newspaper brought to light a new book from Lester R Brown, founder and President of Earth Policy Institute, called World on the Edge.  Here’s what The Independent wrote (selected extracts by me, the full article is here ):

Like many environmentalists, Lester Brown is worried.

In his new book “World on the Edge,” released this week, Brown says mankind has pushed civilization to the brink of collapse by bleeding aquifers dry and overplowing land to feed an ever-growing population, while overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.

If we continue to sap Earth’s natural resources, “civilizational collapse is no longer a matter of whether but when,” Brown, the founder of Worldwatch and the Earth Policy Institute, which both seek to create a sustainable society, told AFP.

“We’ve got to get our act together quickly. We don’t have generations or even decades – we’re one poor harvest away from chaos,” he said.

Global warming is also impacting the global supply of grain, which Brown calls the foundation of the world food economy.

Every one-degree-Celsius rise above the normal temperature results in a 10 percent fall in grain yields, something that was painfully visible in Russia last year, where a seven-week heatwave killed tens of thousands and caused the grain harvest to shrink by 40 percent.

Food prices soared in Russia as a result of the poor harvest, and Russia – which is one of the top wheat exporters in the world – cut off grain exports.

Different grains are staple foods in most of the world, and foods like meat and dairy products are “grain-intensive.”

It takes seven pounds (3.2 kilograms) of grain fed to a cow to produce a pound of beef, and around four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of grain to produce a pound of cheese, Brown told AFP.

In “World on the Edge”, Brown paints a grim picture of how a failed harvest could spark a grain shortage that would send food prices sky-rocketing, cause hunger to spread, governments to collapse and states to fail.

Regular readers of Learning from Dogs will understand, because I bang on about it, how the behaviour of dogs over thousands and thousands of years gives us so many metaphors that we can use to rethink how we live, before it’s too late.

(Of course, it’s not just dogs, there are many ‘higher order’ pack animals such as horses, lions and dolphins. to name but a few, that instinctively live in harmony with their surroundings and also we shouldn’t forget some of the earlier human inhabitants of this planet; Eskimos, native North American Indians, Australian Aborigines, that lived similarly in balance with their environment.)

Anyway, back to the theme of this article.

Read a little about Lester, his biography is here.  It starts:

Lester Brown

The Washington Post called Lester Brown “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” The Telegraph of Calcutta refers to him as “the guru of the environmental movement.” In 1986, the Library of Congress requested his personal papers noting that his writings “have already strongly affected thinking about problems of world population and resources.”

Brown started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in southern New Jersey with his younger brother during high school and college. Shortly after earning a degree in agricultural science from Rutgers University in 1955, he spent six months living in rural India where he became intimately familiar with the food/population issue. In 1959 Brown joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service as an international agricultural analyst.

Brown earned masters degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Maryland and in public administration from Harvard. In 1964, he became an adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman on foreign agricultural policy. In 1966, the Secretary appointed him Administrator of the department’s International Agricultural Development Service. In early 1969, he left government to help establish the Overseas Development Council.

As I said, that was just the start; read the full biography here.

Having recently signed up to the EPI mailing list, this morning an email arrived talking further about Lester Brown’s latest book, World on the Edge.  Here’s what was in that email.

World on the Edge: Quick Facts

JANUARY 25, 2011

We are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency. Can we think systemically and fashion policies accordingly? Can we change direction before we go over the edge? Here are a few of the many facts from the book to consider:

  • In Sana’a, the capital of Yemen—home to 2 million people—water tables are falling fast. Tap water is available only once every 4 days; in Taiz, a smaller city to the south, it is once every 20 days.
  • The indirect costs of gasoline, including climate change, treatment of respiratory illnesses, and military protection, add up to $12 per gallon. Adding this to the U.S. average of $3 per gallon brings the true market price closer to $15 per gallon.
  • Between 2007 and 2010, U.S. coal use dropped 8 percent. During the same period,300 new wind farms came online, adding 21,000 megawatts of U.S. wind-generating capacity.

“We can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty, and we can restore the earth’s soils, forests, and fisheries. We can build a global community where the basic needs of all people are satisfied—a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized.” –Lester R. Brown

World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse is available online at

In a very real sense it’s a book we should all be reading and if so minded you can buy it directly from the EPI here.  But there is a health warning, so to speak.  That is that each and every one of us has to take a stand to protect the world we live on, to preserve it for our children’s children, and to start the long haul towards sustainability.

Think about one small thing you can do this week to make a positive difference, and do it!

“By the inch it’s a cinch, by the yard it’s hard!”

8 thoughts on “Group human insanity

  1. Thanks for posting. Times are getting worse for sure. It’s interesting, though, as I was reading about failing grain harvests it made me think how grain has enabled this overpopulation problem to begin with. We aren’t really evolved to eat it. We eat it because it’s cheap and stores well. But it’s not our natural primal diet. And regarding dairy being dependent on grain – cows aren’t evolved to eat grain either. They eat grass, not grain. So how ironic the food staple that allowed us to grow to these huge unsustainable numbers is failing.


  2. We’re not so dis-natured as we fear. Yes, hints of annihilation are seen by all. Ask any animal. Yet what wrecks us might not be as certain as we see it. Great difficulty, yes, but let’s be wary about dooming ourselves. There’s terror in all our history, and here we are. Co-mingling with news of disaster is news of promise, and here we are. I think of the utter resolve our relatives used to bring us here. Imagine. Not once have we truly empathized with their centuries of terror, all years of imminent Armageddon, and here we are. I look at every problem and freak as if we’re finished, and then I study our adventurers and tinkers and stalwarts in the fort, there’s relief, because we’re pitching in on our survival. That’s what we all do. Ask any animal.


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