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Lester Brown: 'We Must Define Security To Match The Threats Of The 21st Century'

Lester Brown: "I think that if we are going to do anything meaningful, the U.S. is going to have to just step up and take the lead."
Lester Brown: "I think that if we are going to do anything meaningful, the U.S. is going to have to just step up and take the lead."
"It's the food, stupid."

That's essentially the message of "World On The Edge," a new report by Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute and one of "Foreign Policy" magazine's 100 leading global thinkers. Feeding a growing global population on a finite planet is a problem whose time has come.

Brown argues that pressures on the environment -- from climate change to soil erosion to deforestation and declining water resources -- are rapidly combining to create a "perfect storm" that could result in massive disruptions in food supply, the collapse of the current economic structure, widespread unrest, and worse.

And the clock is ticking. Brown rejects the idea that we have until, say, 2050 to get things on the right track. "World On The Edge" (which is available free on line here) is a shrill call for action by 2020.

"We are handicapped by the difficulty of grasping the dynamics of exponential growth in a finite environment -- namely, the Earth," Brown writes. "For me, thinking about this is aided by a riddle the French use to teach schoolchildren exponential growth. A lily pond has one leaf on it the first day, two the second day, four the third, and the number of leaves continues to double each day. If the pond fills on the 30th day, when is it half full? The 29th day. Unfortunately for our overcrowded planet, we may now be beyond the 30th day."

Foreign Policy magazine's Top 100 global thinkers
Lester Brown has been called "one of the world's most influential thinkers" by "The Washington Post." He has won a MacArthur Fellowship -- the so-called genius award -- and has more than two dozen honorary degrees. He has written or co-written 50 books, which have been translated into 40 languages.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke to Brown about his latest book and about the plan he says must be implemented by 2020.

RFE/RL: Let me begin by asking you to summarize the main threats the world is facing now, the ones you summarize at the beginning of "World On The Edge."

Lester Brown: For a long time, as I looked back at early civilizations that had declined and collapsed and realized that food shortages more often than not were responsible, I had rejected the idea that food could be the weak link in our modern, global civilization. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am not only that it could be the weak link, but that it is the weak link. And I think what we're now seeing in our rising food prices throughout the world and the growing competition for access to food and land and water resources, we're beginning to see a new sort of geopolitics of food scarcity emerging.

RFE/RL: What needs to be done to cope with these problems and what kind of resources need to be devoted to it? What is, as you call it in your book, Plan B?

Brown: In looking at the problems we're facing, we're convinced here at the Earth Policy Institute that there are four things we need to be doing, four major things:

One, cutting carbon emissions 80 percent -- not by 2050, which is what politicians like to talk about, but 80 percent by 2020. We think it is going to take that sort of cut if, for example, we want to have a decent shot at saving the Greenland ice sheet or the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau, whose ice melt sustains the major rivers and irrigation systems of Asia.

And the second one is stabilizing population. We live on a finite planet and, at some point, population growth has to come to a halt. And it will come to a halt, either because we accelerate the shift to smaller families or because we fail to and spreading hunger -- which is what is happening now -- begins to push up mortality rates.

And closely related to stabilizing population is the eradication of poverty. It is something that we can do -- we have the resources to do it. And the exciting thing is that when you accelerate the shift to smaller families, it makes it easier to eradicate poverty. And as you eradicate poverty, you accelerate the shift to smaller families. So these two trends, once you get them moving, begin to reinforce each other.

And then the fourth thing we need to do is to restore the economy's natural support systems. This means reforestation, soil conservation, stabilizing water tables, protecting oceanic fisheries, protecting grasslands. This is important because we know that no civilization has ever survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems. Nor will ours.

Now, when you begin looking at how to do this, the key to cutting carbon emissions, we think, is simply to restructure the tax system. Lower income taxes, raise the carbon tax, and do this systematically over the period of a decade. And that will accelerate both investment in energy efficiency and it will also accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar and geothermal and so forth.

Then when we look at the costs of stabilizing population, eradicating poverty, reforestation, soil conservation, raising water productivity, and so on, it comes to an additional $200 billion of expenditures per year. Now, that's a lot. But it is only one-third of the U.S. military budget and less than one-seventh of the global military budget.

What we have concluded is -- and what I talk about in "World On The Edge" -- is the need to redefine security. We have inherited a definition of security from the last century -- a century that was dominated by two world wars and the Cold War -- that is almost exclusively military in its concept. When you use the term "national security" in this country at least, people will think about advanced weapons systems and investments in the military and so forth.

But if we were to start afresh today, forget what we inherited from the last century, and were to sit down with a pad of paper and make a list of principle threats to the future of civilization, that list would include climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices, growing political instability and failing states. Armed aggression, which is the traditional way we define security -- or, I should say, defense against armed aggression -- wouldn't be anywhere near the top of that list. It might make the top 10, but it wouldn't make the top five.

We have to come up with a definition of security that is appropriate to the threats we face in the early 21st century. And they are very different from those we faced during the last century.

RFE/RL: You begin "World On The Edge" with compelling sketches of two of our broadcast countries -- Russia and Pakistan. How does the concept of national security need to change in those two countries?

Russia's drought last summer set off fires around the country.
One of the interesting things about the heat wave in western Russia this past summer, which was one of the most devastating heat waves in history -- it started in late June and by early August there were 300 or 400 new fires starting every day -- and the Russians simply didn't have the capacity, nor would most countries have the capacity, to deal with so many fires all at once. The result was an enormous amount of damage -- it has been estimated at something like $300 billion, an extraordinary loss by Russia.

In early August, when these hundreds of new fires were starting every day, President [Dmitry] Medvedev, in a public statement, said, "You know, we've not taken climate change seriously. We've been among the climate deniers." And he said, "We now know that this is for real and we've got to do something." And that to me was interesting -- it was almost like a death-bed conversion. You know, when you are finally facing the reality of it, you are prepared to do something.

Flooding in Pakistan last year
With Pakistan, the focus was on the very heavy rainfall. And it was unusually heavy rainfall. But in central Pakistan the temperature at one point reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit [53 degrees Celsius] -- the highest, I think, recorded in Asia. And one of the consequences of that was accelerated melting of the mountain glaciers in eastern Pakistan, in the Himalayas. And this ice melt, of course, feeds into the tributaries of the Indus River system, which is at the heart of Pakistan as an economy.

And we also have deforestation. When Pakistan was created in 1947, 40 percent of its land was covered by forest. Today it is only 2 percent. So there's not anything to hold the water when it comes down. So you get this sort of convergence of trends creating a perfect storm, if you will, in Pakistan, and it did an enormous amount of damage.

RFE/RL: And yet Pakistan continues to define its national security in military terms.

Brown: That is shown in its budget allocations and that's been the case for some time. I remember looking at the numbers, Pakistan's budget 20 years or so ago and -- I don't remember the precise numbers -- but it was something like the military budget exceeded the budget for education by 45-fold or something like that. As a result of the decision to allocate resources in that way, we now have Pakistan a nuclear power with 60 percent of its women who cannot read.

RFE/RL: During the 2007-08 global economic crisis, the automotive industry was particularly hard hit and governments were willing to pour massive amounts of money into that sector. But they didn't restructure it in, as you write in your book, "a massive mobilization at wartime speed" to support a noncarbon-based economy. They didn't shift factories to the production of wind turbines, as you urge in your book. Now the auto industry is much recovered and is churning out SUVs like a decade ago. Do you see this as a missed opportunity?

Brown: It was a missed opportunity. There was an opportunity for governments everywhere to use that situation to sort of underpin a major restructuring of economies to make them more sustainable, not less sustainable. And almost without exception we failed on that.

RFE/RL: What is your take on the recent events in the Middle East? Is this an expression of democratic idealism, or is it the kind of resource-depletion-driven unrest that we are likely to see a lot more of?

Brown: It's difficult to...attach a mathematical value to the share of the unrest due to the basic desire for freedom and the right of self-expression and so forth, on the one hand, versus record levels of youth unemployment and rising food prices. When you put those things together, you begin to create a very combustible mixture of concerns and frustrations.

RFE/RL: In Egypt, though, wasn't a lot of the rise in food prices attributable to the fact that Russia stopped exporting grain to Egypt because of the drought? And you also mention in your book that China is buying farmland in Ethiopia and diverting water from the Nile.

Brown: Egypt is in a situation that is unique, even among countries in North Africa and the Middle East, in that it imports roughly 55 percent of its grain and it imports the water to produce the other 45 percent -- the imported water coming from the upper Nile watershed, which is basically Sudan and Ethiopia. And what's happening now is that the share that they import, they were trying to tie that down with a five-year agreement with the Russians to provide them with 3 million tons of wheat each year.

But the ink was hardly dry on that agreement before the heat and the drought hit Russia and they announced they were going to ban all exports of grain, including their commitment to supply Egypt the 3 million tons. So Egypt suddenly found itself in a world market of tightening supplies and rising prices, scrambling to replace that wheat with wheat from Western Europe, the U.S., Australia, or wherever. It was a difficult time for them. I think they found enough wheat to compensate for the loss of exports from Russia, but it was a scramble.

Water-use pressures on the Nile reduce the flow considerably by the time it reaches the Mediterranean.
The other interesting thing about the 45 percent of the grain that they produce with water from the Nile River. ...Keep in mind two things: one, rainfall in Egypt is negligible to nonexistent and, two, when the Nile River today reaches the Mediterranean, there is very little water left in it.

So, the more affluent importing countries have become concerned about the inability of the world market to supply them with grain when they need it. So they are beginning to acquire land in other countries, and two of the big targets for investment have been Sudan and Ethiopia. And governments of South Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, India, for example, are investing in those countries and taking huge chunks of land -- hundreds of thousands of hectares. And with those land acquisitions, of course, come water rights.

Most of that land, without water, is not very useful. What's happening now is that as this land is developed, it will take more and more of the upstream water from the Nile system, leaving less to reach Egypt. So Egypt will be squeezed on that front as well. How the Nile waters get divided up over time is going to be a very politically contentious issue.

RFE/RL: If we find ourselves in, say, 2015 still more or less muddling along as we are doing now, will you start working on a Plan C? Or is this really the last best chance, in your opinion?

Brown: If we don't get things moving fast, we're at risk of going over the edge. And by that I mean, beginning to see a wholesale breakdown of the global economic system. Let me give you just one quick example. Everyone was concerned about the heat wave in western Russia this summer. It reduced the Russian harvest from close to 100 million tons to 60 million tons. Chopped it by 40 percent.

But in a sense the world was lucky because if that heat wave had been centered not in Moscow but in Chicago, and the U.S. had lost 40 percent of its grain harvest of 400 million tons, it and the world would have lost 160 million tons of grain. That would have dropped world grain stocks to the lowest level in history by far, much lower than in 2007-08 when grain prices originally took off a few years ago. And it would create grain and food prices higher than we can probably now easily imagine.

And what that would lead to is exporting countries restricting exports in order to try to keep their food prices under control. And it would mean that oil-exporting countries that also import grain would be trying to barter oil for grain to make sure that they got the grain they needed. And then the rest of the world would have been left scrambling for whatever was available on the world market.

It would have been a dicey situation, and I doubt the global economic structure would hold up under those sorts of stresses.

RFE/RL: And one last question. These are global problems -- what is the best forum for settling them? Are you looking to the UN or the G20 for leadership?

Brown: You know, I think that if we are going to do anything meaningful, the U.S. is going to have to just step up and take the lead. If the U.S. does that, the world will follow. I don't have too much confidence either in the UN -- with its 190 members or whatever -- and its ability to move quickly and effectively on this sort of thing. And I don't think the G20 will either.

It is interesting that [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy's principle focus in dealing with the rising-food-price issue is how to deal with speculation. Well, that's a useful thing to do, but it's treating the symptoms not the causes of the problem. It doesn't deal with the drivers of higher food prices like climate change and spreading water shortages and population growth and soil erosion and so forth.

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