Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2008. Softcover ISBN 9780393330878

Reviewed by Kristin Saucier
Updating and expanding on his earlier Plan B and Plan B 2.0, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, is Lester Brown’s most urgent call yet for a rapid and all-out restructuring of the world’s economy. Economist and president of Earth Policy Institute, Brown builds an excellent case for the need for his plan, spending the first half of Plan B 3.0 outlining the dire situation of the environment and civilization. Food security is declining, especially due to the use of food crops for fuel in the United States. The temperature is rising, causing glaciers to melt, crop yields to diminish, more destructive storms to form, droughts and wildfires to increase, arctic and Antarctic ice sheets to melt, and sea levels to rise. The world is running out of fresh water, with water tables falling and rivers and lakes drying up, leading to the possibility of future wars fought over water. The forests are shrinking, deserts are advancing, and soil erosion is accelerating, threatening the foundation of civilization. Fisheries are declining, and Brown declares that we are at the beginning of the sixth great extinction of plants and animals.
As if the picture Brown paints is not bleak enough, he goes on to describe how the AIDS pandemic, emerging infectious diseases, declining life expectancies in some regions, shrinking resources and deepening social and economic inequalities, are leading to the decline of civilization. Each of these calamities befalling the earth is not just an abstract prediction, but is happening now around the world, as Brown so convincingly shows us through a myriad of examples.
By the time Brown finishes his description of the way things are and will continue to be if the world continues with Plan A (business as usual), the reader is more than ready to accept whatever plan Brown will propose in the second half of the book. Brown systematically tackles each of the problems outlined in the first section, offering a comprehensive plan to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s damaged ecosystems. Basic social goals must be achieved to prevent the decline of civilization, Brown argues, through ensuring universal basic education and health, eradicating adult illiteracy, school lunch programs, and providing access to family planning and reproductive health.

To restore the earth, Brown recommends planting trees to reduce flooding, conserve soil, and sequester carbon; protecting topsoil on cropland through conservation tillage and banning clear-cutting; regenerating fisheries by creating marine reserves, reducing nutrient flows from fertilizer runoff and untreated sewage, and reducing fishery subsidies; protecting plant and animal diversity; and stabilizing water tables.

Redesigning cities so that they are people, rather than car-centric, is another important component of Plan B. This change entails putting an emphasis on public transportation, walking and biking. To further improve cities, Brown sees an opportunity for urban gardening and compost toilets, which would reduce water use.

The final part of Brown’s plan calls for improved energy efficiency and a shift to renewable energy resources. In a Plan B world, wind energy prevails and electric cars and high-speed electric trains are the norm. These changes, among others including the use of energy-efficient appliances and climate-conscious architecture, are necessary to cut carbon dioxide emissions eighty percent by 2020, the level that most scientists agree would reestablish the balance between carbon emissions and nature’s capacity to sequester carbon. Other sources of energy that present great potential include solar, geothermal, river, wave and tidal power. Plant-based energy sources also have their place, but as Brown cautions, based on the United States’ experience, if not properly planned, can lead to reduced food production and increased food prices.

The strength in Brown’s plan lies in the specific recommendations that he offers for each overall objective and the examples he gives of how these interventions are already being put into place around the world. Through his examples, such as explaining the growth of wind farms off the coast of the United Kingdom and the Green Wall Sahara Initiative of the African Union, for instance, switching to wind energy or protecting topsoil seem like realistic possibilities rather than futuristic goals. Moreover, Brown is the first to admit that each of the proposed interventions comes with a price tag, together totaling 190 billion dollars each year. While certainly expensive, Brown puts this figure into perspective, reminding us that this is one-third the current U.S. military budget, or one-sixth the current global military budget.
Brown’s interventions require a mix of personal, corporate, and governmental action. The individual actions seem easy enough, from replacing throwaway paper goods with cloth alternatives and installing compact fluorescent light bulbs to using public transportation and eating less meat. Brown’s argument for these changes is compelling; for example, the reader is surprised to learn that widespread use of compact bulbs would save enough electricity to close 705 of the world’s coal-fired plants, or that the reduction in carbon emissions in shifting from a red meat-rich diet to a plant-based diet is about the same as shifting from a Chevrolet Suburban SUV to a Toyota Prius hybrid car.

The changes that need to be made on a national and global level, however, though urgently necessary based on Brown’s description, may be challenging to implement. Not that the recommendations require technology not yet developed; indeed, the technology either exists or is close to completion. Rather, the initiatives may face political obstacles. For instance, Brown proposes a worldwide carbon tax that should be phased in at $20 per ton each year between 2008 and 2020, stabilizing at $240 per ton. Though this proposal would be offset by a reduction in income taxes, it is unlikely to be a popular initiative. Another politically controversial measure that Brown sees as necessary is a gasoline tax increase of forty cents per gallon per year for the next twelve years in the United States. To be fair, Brown asserts at the beginning of the book, “Plan B is shaped by what is needed to save civilization, not by what may be considered politically feasible.” The only solution Brown offers to surmount such political obstacles is a request for readers to lobby their elected representatives, write op-eds, and share this book with others. It remains to be seen whether these efforts will be sufficient, especially given the tight time frame in which Plan B must operate.

The final element of Plan B recognizes that the world is rapidly approaching a point of no return from which it will be unable to recover. Consequently, Brown explains that Plan B must be implemented at “war-time speed”, recalling the speed with which the United States restructured its economy during World War II to produce equipment necessary to fight. Wartime speed will be difficult to achieve considering the lobbying efforts that will be necessary to have all actors on board. Thus, the strength of the book, in that it offers a comprehensive plan that is aimed at a variety of actors, becomes its weakness. More targeted plans, perhaps Plan B 3.1 for politicians, Plan B 3.2 for the energy sector, Plan B 3.3 for farmers and so on may be more hard hitting and result in increased collective action, rather relying on a groundswell of concerned academics and researchers, who are likely to be among the first to read Plan B 3.0. However, until Brown can be torn away from his busy work trying to save our planet to write more targeted plans for specific actors, we would do well to listen to former President Bill Clinton, whose quote appears on the front cover of the book, “we should all heed Brown’s advice.”

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