The World on the Edge – a book review

  

One of my assignments in Harvard -Extension School- for the last fall term course on Sustainability (November 2011). A book review which brings a pessimistic but very interesting view of the world and its current trends on consumption, frivolous values, and depletion of resources.

(Almost no time to update my web site but enjoying the Harvard’s challenge… with lots of reading and writing. It has been a great journey into the Sustainable World and the Green Consulting).

The World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown

 

1. Book review: Human civilization, as we know it, may come to an end if we keep our current unsustainable life styles, social values, and voracious economic systems. We are “on the edge”, and the call to implement radical changes to save the earth is a “now or never” alarm message. The new path for a sustainable planet is called “Plan B” by the author, Lester Brown. The book, published in 2011, presents an impressive collection of statistics from many countries, industries, regions and nature depleting trends that are threatening our planet in different ways, most of them interrelated with food and climate risks. “The threats to our future now are not armed aggression but rather climate change, population growth, water shortages, poverty, rising food prices and failing states.” In simple terms, the author gives the reader a clear idea of the magnitude and urgency of the situation citing specific cases and then linking them with global issues, simulated scenarios or past statistics.

The situation presented, and the catastrophic consequences deducted, are counterbalanced with a vision of hope based on specific goals and proposals, which Brown keeps monitoring as an institution: The Earth Policy Institute. At the center of the plan, two “cornerstone policies” are described, one aimed at restructuring taxation to include indirect costs in fossil fuels and punish carbon emissions, and the other redefining priorities for security on global scale, on a dynamic risk change scenario. To follow the plan, further details and projections are explained: massive global reforestation, new agricultural and land use trends, mega scale projects based on renewable energies (wind, solar, and geothermal at the top), global commitment to fight poverty through family planning, education, and effective support and monitoring for failing states, among others. Concluding, Brown remarks the importance of our decisions as individuals and families. The estimated budget for social and earth restoration of Plan B is calculated in USD185 billion per year (12% of current global military expenditures).

2. Concept or issue raised in the book to expand discussion: Biofuels in Brazil.

The World on the Edge presents a non promising view about biofuels, blaming on them for growing land acquisitions and deforestation, all of that driven by the demand for automotive fuel. On the other side, here in Brazil, biofuels (and ethanol in particular) are seen as a solution and a powerful resource for development and independence for the country.

Getting energy by growing it instead of drilling it out from the earth seems to be a very promising path for the future on a quick view, though when all the related environmental and social problems ignite the debate, with food scarcity, oil business, and global policies involved, then the apparently clear perspective requires in-depth analysis. And that is the case for Brazil, which biofuels history has interesting points to highlight (Plummer 2006):

  • It is an old technology that was around “since the 1920s, but no country had employed it on such a scale.”
  • “state-run alcohol fuel programme was set up for patriotic, not financial or environmental reasons.”
  • It was a national policy set by “The Military Government that ran the country from 1964 to 1985” in an attempt to “reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum during the 1970s oil crisis.”

Brazil has been an innovator on scale and regulations, “In the mid-1980s – before any other country even thought of the idea – Brazil succeeded in mass-producing biofuel for motor vehicles: alcohol, derived from its plentiful supplies of sugar-cane.” (Plummer 2006). The Socio economical impact of that decision and further investments are stated in this terms by Almeida (2007)  “Thirty years ago, when one liter of ethanol was worth three times more than one liter of gasoline, most nations would not have considered investing in it as a biofuel. But Brazil took this path, and now produces the cheapest ethanol in the world”, “it was the government’s massive investment in infrastructure and research between 1975 and 1989 that allowed the country to become a leader in the ethanol market.” From that conclusions, and thinking on a developing country, it is interesting that research is recognized as one of the driving factors for success. Several authors also cite the market size, area of arable land, and the well developed agribusiness as key aspects on this industry.

The process, despite its continuous growth, has had several circumstances against, like oil market variations, sugar prices picks and new offshore oilfields discovered by Petrobras, making Brazil more self-sufficient in oil (Plummer 2006). On the Study from Garten Rothkopf for the Inter American Development Bank (2009), the changing issues on biofuels are mentioned:

“when we started, they were a subject for specialists. When the book came out, they were at the center of a worldwide frenzy of interest. In the months that followed, they were subject to a backlash because of some reasonable concerns (that they needed to be produced sustainably, and that some biofuels feedstocks and technologies were neither efficient nor ready for prime time), and some unreasonable ones (a widespread view—that later turned out to be undercut by events—that the biofuels boom was playing a primary role in pushing up food prices). Today, finally, a more reasoned and rational view of the substantial promise of biofuels (when handled responsibly and with appropriately measured expectations) is emerging.”

And the analysis is introduced stating that “Biofuels and bioenergy are not a panacea for fossil fuel displacement, but they can provide a means of energy diversification, economic growth, and rural development, provided that policies are balanced with sound sustainability criteria, agricultural best practices, appropriate technology, and provisions for food security in mind.” One of the objectives of that study was to find development opportunities for countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean region.

Attacks in one direction; improvements on sustainability or regulations in response, with analysis and data supporting each view. This has been a common scenario along these years. On the environmental side, “Biofuels have been widely touted for their potential to reduce greenhouse gases, since the carbon dioxide released upon combustion is equal to the amount sequestered during the growth of the feedstock used to produce it, making it carbon-neutral.” However, when there is a converting land to biofuel feedstock production, “that can dramatically affect the life-cycle greenhouse emissions of a given project.“ (Garten Rothkopf  2009). Considering the socio-economic impacts and in contradiction with Brown’s analysis, Garten Rothkopf (2009) summarizes the “Food vs. Fuel” issue in this way: “The coincidence of booming global biofuels production from grain and oilseed crops and rising food prices has led critics, from Fidel Castro to global food-processing conglomerates to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, to draw a direct correlation between the two. In reality, rising food prices are attributable to several factors, including increasing demand for meat and dairy products in developing countries due to rising incomes and high energy prices that have driven up costs throughout the food supply chain.” Concluding, Garten Rothkopf (2009) declares that “Brazil remains the world’s most efficient ethanol producer,” and warns that “though market fundamentals remain strong in the Brazilian ethanol industry, several near- and long-term key issues are confronting the sector. While international enthusiasm for ethanol has somewhat subsided due to sustainability concerns, volatile oil prices and the financial crisis have challenged the sector even further.”

3. Background, objectives, and potential for biases of the author: Lester Russel Brown.

Lester Brown has an impressive history of books published, with more than 50, translated to many languages. Born in Bridgeton, New jersey, Brown was involved with farming and related business an important part of his life, in close contact with nature and knowing first hand, the common challenges of agro business, his major in Agricultural Science and the following experience in rural India in 1955 seems to be the beginning of his growing concern on food and population issues (World News 2011) (Earth Policy Institute 2011). Brown’s background has an interesting mix of environmentalist, farmer, and policy leader, with experience in government at the scale of the US Department of Agriculture or the International Agricultural Development Service, among other institutions. He received a McArthur fellowship, and many other awards.

Brown was the founder of the World Watch Institute, NGO that claims to be “the first independent research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental concerns”, and that publishes the annual “State of the World” report, which along with other papers and books, made Brown well know for his pessimistic vision of environmental world trends, even though he is recognized as a pioneer on the concept of Sustainable Development. Rogers, Jalal, and Boyd (2008) mentioned him in this way: “Another leading Malthusian, Lester Brown, has over the years regaled us with many jeremiads of gloom and doom predicting dire consequences within the next few years, which never seem to be quite fulfilled, but which are plausible based upon projecting trends. An expert on crop production, Brown set up the prolific World Watch Institute in 1974, which has provided much-appreciated summaries of the global use of natural resources and the environment, usually accompanied by warnings of imminent collapse.” Now leading the Earth Policy Institute and recognized as an influential thinker, the author don’t hide his Americanism and is also known for his proposals on immigration reduction.

REFERENCES

Almeida, Carla (2007, December). Sugarcane ethanol: Brazil’s biofuel success, Science and Development Network. Retrieved November 10, 2011, from http://www.scidev.net/en/features/sugarcane-ethanol-brazils-biofuel-success.html

Plummer, Robert (2006, January). The rise, fall and rise of Brazil’s biofuel,” BBC NEWS. Retrieved November 12, 2011, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4581955.stm

Earth Policy Institute. Lester Brown Biography. Retrieved November 15, 2011, from http://www.earth-policy.org/about_epi/C32/

Garten Rothkopf (2009). A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas. Vol. 1 and 2. Strategic Analysis of opportunities Prepared for the Inter-American Development Bank

Rogers, Peter, and Jalal, Kazi, and Boyd, John (2008). An Introduction to Sustainable Development [Electronic version]. USA: Earthscan.

World News Inc. web site. Lester Brown’s Biography. Retrieved November 11, 2011, from http://wn.com/Lester_Brown

WorldWatch Institute web site. History. Retrieved November 11, 2011, from http://www.worldwatch.org/mission