09/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Have We Reached Our Civilization's Tipping Point?

In a new article adapted from his book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization , famed environmentalist Lester R. Brown worries that our society may now have reached a "Tipping Point" for civilization. Like many in green circles, he has become convinced that the cutting edge of the environmental movement is political, social and even psychological. Changing human behavior is critical to any solution to the multiple problems involved in continued human survival on the planet at anything resembling a "civilized" level of culture.

We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems... We have the technologies to restore the earth's natural support systems, to eradicate poverty, to stabilize population, and to restructure the world energy economy and stabilize climate. The challenge now is to build the political will to do so. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. Each of us has a leading role to play.

Brown explores the tipping points that overwhelmed previous civilizations reveals clues about our present situation.

For instance, at some point the irrigation-related salt buildup in their soil overwhelmed the capacity of the Sumerians to deal with it. With the Mayans, there came a time when the effects of cutting too many trees and the associated loss of topsoil were simply more than they could manage.

So how close are we to a tipping point that will destroy even the most "advanced" societies on our planet?

Brown warns that "The social tipping points that lead to decline and collapse when societies are overwhelmed by a single threat or by simultaneous multiple threats are not always easily anticipated." He explores the differences between how the wealthier countries are dealing with the various environmental, social and political threats and concludes that even advanced countries are not immune to danger.

The risk is that these accumulating problems and their consequences will overwhelm more and more governments, leading to widespread state failure and eventually the failure of civilization. The countries that top the list of failing states are not particularly surprising. They include, for example, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti. And the list grows longer each year, raising a disturbing question: How many failing states will it take before civilization itself fails? No one knows the answer, but it is a question we must ask.

To read the whole article or order Brown's book, click here.