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Craig K. Comstock

Craig K. Comstock

Posted: March 4, 2011 02:32 PM

World on the Edge

It's okay to warn or complain, but one of the attractive habits in American civilization is to ask: well, what's your plan? In his recent book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, Lester Brown offers one.

While watching the global life-support system for a few decades, Brown warned us about specific gathering troubles, and more recently he articulated a plan that has gone through several iterations. Now he proclaims that our world is "on the edge" and it will take a "massive mobilization at wartime speed" to prevent economic and environmental collapse. The cover of his latest book shows a glacier calving a hunk into the sea, a sight that I once witnessed in Alaska: a tad awesome if you're in a kayak.

The chapters on particular troubles are familiar to anyone who has been reading books and reports from World Watch, which Brown founded in 1974, or from Earth Policy Institute, which he started in 2001. I will focus instead on his solutions.

So what does Brown want us to do? After chapters on dealing with failed states and environmental refugees, seeking energy efficiency and alternative sources to replace fossil fuels, trying to feed eight billion stomachs, alleviating (or even "eradicating") poverty, he ends with a chapter on "saving civilization." Here, in just 20 pages, Brown delivers his plan in brief:

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 reuses and recycles everything.

How do we get there?

Brown starts by proposing a market that would "tell the truth through full-cost pricing." At present, despite squawks in favor of free markets, many of the costs of burning fossil fuels are not paid by those selling the fuels or doing the burning. Economists call these costs "externalities," which is a fancy way of saying "paid by somebody else, off the radar screen, and not brought up in polite company." In the case of fossil fuels, these externalities include but are not limited to (as a lawyer would say) challenges to good health, environmental effects of "mountain-top removal" (for example), the portion of the "defense" budget devoted to assuring a flow of fossil fuels, tax breaks and subsidies for energy corporations. Above all, externalities include the effect of CO2 on producing, with a time lag, climate change.

Brown calls for a carbon tax "to reflect the full cost of burning fossil fuels." This tax would somehow be offset by a reduction in income tax. Offset in whole or in part? The game is revealed by one of the first President Bush's economists, who wrote that such a tax shift would lead to "less traffic congestion, safer roads." How? Drivers would be reducing our miles on the road (and perhaps our speed). In other words, most of us would become less affluent, at least in terms of mobility. In other words, poorer, at least in terms of what's now for sale.

Poorer: this is the word few dare to utter. As the British journalist George Monbiot explains, nobody ever demonstrated for austerity. But if the price of oil is going to rise as world production reaches the downslope and especially if demand, as in Asia, rises, then we are going to have less mobility, at least in the form of what James Howard Kunstler satirically calls "happy motoring."

Brown has watched as the real costs of burning gasoline or coal, of deforestation, of over-pumping aquifers or of overfishing, of all these elements of economic growth are undercounted. Including the externalities is his formula for a rational economics. "If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world energy economy."

The problems are two: energy companies may praise and even see themselves as engaged in, and gain by using the rhetoric of, a "free market," but they benefit from diverting attention (like magicians) from all the "externalities" that distort the markets they're actually in. Also, their customers don't want to pay more for gasoline, say, or electricity from fossil-fuel-powered generating stations. The net result is the markets remain distorted, we pay disguised costs, and debts are transferred to the future.

Brown likens our economic system to Enron which, he says, "devised some ingenious techniques for leaving costs off its books."

The author has adopted free market rhetoric, while asking that all the excluded actual costs of the system be brought into the price. For example, if all the external costs of gasoline were to be added to the roughly $3 per gallon price in the U.S., "gas would cost $15 a gallon." (You were concerned about $4 or $5?) Even if part of this increase were offset, and even if the offset included people who don't pay much or any income tax, most people couldn't drive as much as we do. However, as Brown says, "these are real costs. Somebody bears them. If not us, our children."

The real issue is, excluding some so far unknown technological miracles, the peak of oil production means we are going to become poorer in terms of goods and services we can buy, a decline that might be masked by monetary inflation. This is the hard truth almost nobody wants to face. (I don't.) A decline is tolerable in case of war or a business cycle or some brief emergency, but even in a civilization not based on "the American dream," a long-term decline might be unwelcome or even devastating.

How we deal with a decline, if it occurs, will define us. Will we try to hold on and pretend that the graph of "living standard" is just temporarily pausing before its inexorable rise? In terms of purchasing power, the income of many people has been on a plateau for as much as 30 years. The illusion of growth can be maintained by borrowing, by importing cheap goods, and by increasing the number in a household who are working. But a decline that wasn't just a brief recession, what about that?

This would bring to the top of the agenda the fairness and effects of the wealth distribution in the U.S., the subject of a separate blog. Back to Brown, who gently excoriates our economic system which, he says, "neither recognizes nor respects sustainable yield limits of natural systems" (a fault famously shared with Soviet communism and whatever system the Chinese have developed).

Brown devotes more than a quarter of his plan for saving civilization to coal-fired power plants, perhaps because they have a long life and, once built, would be pumping CO2 into the atmosphere for decades. This is as much the case in China as in the U.S., but can we even start talking internationally as long as we don't set an example?

Remember that a mobilization would have to be not only massive but speedy. "Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet?" asks Brown. If it melted, the sea level would rise about 23 feet and, as a result, "hundreds of coastal cities will be abandoned. The rice-growing river deltas of Asia will be under water."

But Brown is not discouraged, with his long experience of looking the monster in the face. Yes, we have to mobilize, he says, but we did that after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Alas, if something that dramatic were to happen in the natural world, "by then we might be over the edge." Brown places his hopes on a grassroots movement, like the one for civil rights, a kind of movement that he calls "ideal."

What would the movement demand? The civil rights protesters demanded to be treated as first-class citizens (and in the later stage, to have the same economic advantages as other Americans). In the last pages of his book, Brown presents a rough budget for universal basic health care, the protection of biological diversity and of topsoil, reproductive health and family planning, restoring fisheries, universal primary education, and other initiatives, which together would total only 28% of the U.S. military budget. He would redefine national security in these terms, rather than only or even mainly in terms of ability to coerce and destroy enemies. He says that in 2009, the U.S. military budget was 43% of everything spent on the planet in this category.

Brown ends by pointing out that individual decisions about what the buy for the household will not be enough. I recall seeing Al Gore's film about "inconvenient" environmental trends and my disappointment that the suggested remedies were so timid: as if we could save the world by installing compact fluorescent bulbs! Brown says "restructuring the global economy means becoming politically active." In favor of what? Who and what in the system is diverting us from steps that, based on his analysis, so clearly need to be taken?