Rescue plan for a civilisation in decline

Posted: 12 January 2006

Author: Lester Brown

Lester Brown, influential thinker and president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, has created waves in America with his latest book, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Here, in the first of two articles extracted from the book, he outlines the challenge facing the earth and its people in the coming century. In a second article he will outline his rescue plan.

Lester Brown
Lester Brown
Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, and author of numerous books including Plan B 2.0 - Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble
We recently entered a new century, but we are also entering a new world, one where the collisions between our demands and the earth's capacity to satisfy them are becoming daily events.

It may be another crop-withering heat wave, another village abandoned because of invading sand dunes, or another aquifer pumped dry. If we do not act quickly to reverse the trends, these seemingly isolated events will come more and more frequently, accumulating and combining to determine our future.

Resources that accumulated over eons of geological time are being consumed in a single human lifespan. We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize. These deadlines, determined by nature, are not politically negotiable.

Nature has many thresholds that we discover only when it is too late. In our fast-forward world, we learn that we have crossed them only after the fact, leaving little time to adjust. For example, when we exceed the sustainable catch of a fishery, the stocks begin to shrink. Once this threshold is crossed, we have a limited time in which to back off and lighten the catch. If we fail to meet this deadline, breeding populations shrink to where the fishery is no longer viable, and it collapses.

Leading indicatores of decline

We know from earlier civilizations that the lead indicators of economic decline were environmental, not economic. The trees went first, then the soil, and finally the civilization itself.

Our situation today is far more challenging because in addition to shrinking forests and eroding soils, we must deal with falling water tables, more frequent crop-withering heat waves, collapsing fisheries, expanding deserts, deteriorating rangelands, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers, rising seas, more-powerful storms, disappearing species, and, soon, shrinking oil supplies. Although these ecologically destructive trends have been evident for some time, and some have been reversed at the national level, not one has been reversed at the global level.

Lesser Bird of ParadisePhoto: Greenpeace/Takeshi Mizukoshi
The bottom line is that the world is in what ecologists call an "overshoot-and-collapse" mode. Demand has exceeded the sustainable yield of natural systems at the local level countless times in the past. Now, for the first time, it is doing so at the global level. Forests are shrinking for the world as a whole. Fishery collapses are widespread. Grasslands are deteriorating on every continent. Water tables are falling in many countries. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions exceed CO2 fixation everywhere.

Overshoot leads sometimes to decline and sometimes to a complete collapse. It is not always clear which it will be. In the former, a remnant of the population or economic activity survives in a resource-depleted environment.

As of 2005, some 42 countries have populations that are stable or declining slightly in size as a result of falling birth rates. But now for the first time ever, demographers are projecting population declines in some countries because of rising death rates, among them Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and Swaziland. In the absence of an accelerated shift to smaller families, this list of countries is likely to grow much longer in the years immediately ahead.

The most recent mid-level UN demographic projections show world population increasing from 6.1 billion in 2000 to 9.1 billion in 2050. But such an increase seems highly unlikely, considering the deterioration in life-support systems now under way in much of the world. Will we not reach 9.1 billion because we quickly eradicate global poverty and lower birth rates? Or because we fail to do so and death rates begin to rise, as they are already doing in many African countries? We thus face two urgent major challenges: restructuring the global economy and stabilizing world population.

Oil and biodiversity

Even as the economy's environmental support systems are deteriorating, the world is pumping oil with reckless abandon. Leading geologists now think oil production may soon peak and turn downward. This collision between the ever-growing demand for oil and the earth's finite resources is but the latest in a long series of collisions. Although no one knows exactly when oil production will peak, supply is already lagging behind demand, driving prices upward.

In this new world, the price of oil begins to set the price of food, not so much because of rising fuel costs for farmers and food processors but more because almost everything we eat can be converted into fuel for cars. In this new world of high oil prices, supermarkets and service stations will compete in commodity markets for basic food commodities such as wheat, corn, soybeans, and sugarcane.

Wheat going into the market can be converted into bread for supermarkets or ethanol for service stations. Soybean oil can go onto supermarket shelves or it can go to service stations to be used as diesel fuel. In effect, owners of the world's 800 million cars will be competing for food resources with the 1.2 billion people living on less than $1 a day.

Faced with a seemingly insatiable demand for automotive fuel, farmers will want to clear more and more of the remaining tropical forests to produce sugarcane, oil palms, and other high-yielding fuel crops. Already, billions of dollars of private capital are moving into this effort. In effect, the rising price of oil is generating a massive new threat to the earth's biological diversity.

As the role of oil recedes, the process of globalization will be reversed in fundamental ways. As the world turned to oil during the last century, the energy economy became increasingly globalized, with the world depending heavily on a handful of countries in the Middle East for energy supplies. Now as the world turns to wind, solar cells, and geothermal energy in this century, we are witnessing the localization of the world energy economy.

The globalization of the world food economy will also be reversed, as the higher price of oil raises the cost of transporting food internationally. In response, food production and consumption will become much more localized, leading to diets based more on locally produced food and seasonal availability.

Geopolitics of scarcity

The world is facing the emergence of a geopolitics of scarcity, which is already highly visible in the efforts by China, India, and other developing countries to ensure their access to oil supplies. In the future, the issue will be who gets access to not only Middle Eastern oil but also Brazilian ethanol and North American grain.

A herder tends to his flock at a watering hole, Gobi Desert.© Don Hinrichsen
A herder tends to his flock at a watering hole, Gobi Desert.© Don Hinrichsen
Herding sheep and goats in the Gobi Desert is hard and dangerous work, especially in winter when temperatures can plunge to -40 degrees 0C. Water is essential; here a herder waters his flock of sheep and goats from a communal well.© Don Hinrichsen
Pressures on land and water resources, already excessive in most of the world, will intensify further as the demand for biofuels climbs. This geopolitics of scarcity is an early manifestation of civilization in an overshoot-and-collapse mode, much like the one that emerged among the Mayan cities competing for food in that civilization's waning years.

For many years environmentalists have pointed to the United States as the world's leading consumer, noting that 5 percent of the world's people were consuming nearly a third of the earth's resources. Although that was true for some time, it no longer is. China has replaced the United States as the leading consumer of basic commodities.

Learning from China

Among the five basic food, energy, and industrial commodities - grain and meat, oil and coal, and steel - consumption in China has eclipsed that of the United States in all but oil. China has opened a wide lead with grain, consuming 380 million tons in 2005 versus 260 million tons in the United States. Among the big three grains, China leads in the consumption of both wheat and rice and trails the United States only in corn.

Although eating hamburgers is a defining element of the U.S. lifestyle, China's 2005 meat consumption of 67 million tons is far above the 38 million tons eaten in the United States. While U.S. meat intake is rather evenly distributed between beef, pork, and poultry, in China pork totally dominates. Indeed, half the world's pigs are now found in China.

With oil, the United States was still solidly in the lead in 2004, using more than three times as much as China - 20.4 million barrels per day versus 6.5 million barrels. But U.S. oil use expanded by only 15 percent between 1994 and 2004, while use in China more than doubled. Having recently eclipsed Japan as an oil consumer, China now trails only the United States.

Energy use in China also obviously includes coal, which supplies nearly two-thirds of the country's energy. China's annual burning of 960 million tons easily exceeds the 560 million tons used in the United States. With this level of coal use and with oil and natural gas use also climbing fast, it is only a matter of time before China's carbon emissions match those of the United States. Then the world will have two major countries driving climate change.

China's consumption of steel, a basic indicator of industrial development, is now nearly two and a half times that of the United States: 258 million tons to 104 million tons in 2003. As China has moved into the construction phase of development, building hundreds of thousands of factories and high-rise apartment and office buildings, steel consumption has climbed to levels never seen in any country.

With consumer goods, China leads in the number of cell phones, television sets, and refrigerators. The United States still leads in the number of personal computers, though likely not for much longer, and in automobiles.

That China has overtaken the United States in consumption of basic resources gives us license to ask the next question. What if China catches up with the United States in consumption per person? If the Chinese economy continues to grow at 8 percent a year, by 2031 income per person will equal that in the United States in 2004. If we further assume that consumption patterns of China's affluent population in 2031, by then 1.45 billion, will be roughly similar to those of Americans in 2004, we have a startling answer to our question.

At the current annual U.S. grain consumption of 900 kilograms per person, including industrial use, China's grain consumption in 2031 would equal roughly two-thirds of the current world grain harvest. If paper use per person in China in 2031 reaches the current U.S. level, this translates into 305 million tons of paper-double existing world production of 161 million tons. There go the world's forests. And if oil consumption per person reaches the U.S. level by 2031, China will use 99 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 84 million barrels a day and may never produce much more. This helps explain why China's fast-expanding use of oil is already helping to create a politics of scarcity.

The inevitable conclusion is that there are not enough resources for China to reach US consumption levels. The western economic model - the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centred, throwaway economy - will not work for China's 1.45 billion in 2031. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India either, which by 2031 is projected to have even more people than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the "American dream." And in an increasingly integrated world economy, where countries everywhere are competing for the same resources - the same oil, grain, and iron ore - the existing economic model will not work for industrial countries either.

The politics of scarcity

The first big test of the international community's capacity to manage scarcity may come with oil or it could come with grain. If the latter is the case, this could occur when China - whose grain harvest fell by 34 million tons, or 9 percent, between 1998 and 2005 - turns to the world market for massive imports of 30 million, 50 million, or possibly even 100 million tons of grain per year. Demand on this scale could quickly overwhelm world grain markets. When this happens, China will have to look to the United States, which controls the world's grain exports of over 40 percent of some 200 million tons.

This will pose a fascinating geopolitical situation. More than 1.3 billion Chinese consumers, who had an estimated $160 billion trade surplus with the United States in 2004 - enough to buy the entire U.S. grain harvest twice - will be competing with Americans for U.S. grain, driving up U.S. food prices. In such a situation 30 years ago, the United States simply restricted exports. But China is now banker to the United States, underwriting much of the massive U.S. fiscal deficit with monthly purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds.

Within the next few years, the United States may be loading one or two ships a day with grain for China. This long line of ships stretching across the Pacific, like an umbilical cord providing nourishment, will intimately link the two economies. Managing this flow of grain so as to simultaneously satisfy the food needs of consumers in both countries, at a time when ethanol fuel distilleries are taking a growing share of the U.S. grain harvest, may become one of the leading foreign policy challenges of this new century.

The way the world accommodates the vast projected needs of China, India, and other developing countries for grain, oil, and other resources will help determine how the world addresses the stresses associated with outgrowing the Earth. The most imminent risk is that China's entry into the world market, combined with the growing diversion of farm commodities to biofuels, will drive grain prices so high that many low-income developing countries will not be able to import enough grain. This in turn could lead to escalating food prices and political instability on a scale that will disrupt global economic progress.

Failed states and terrorism

The stresses in our early 21st- century civilization take many forms. Economically we see them in the widening income gap between the world's rich and poor. Socially they take the form of the widening gap in education and health care and a swelling flow of environmental refugees as productive land turns to desert and as wells go dry. Politically we see them manifest in conflict over basic resources such as cropland, grazing land, and water. And perhaps most fundamentally, we see the stresses the world is facing in the growing number of failed and failing states.

The term "failed states" is now part of our working vocabulary, describing countries where there is no longer a central government. Recognizing this increasingly common phenomenon, various groups concerned with economic development and international affairs have begun to identify failing or failed states and the indicators associated with their failure. The World Bank, for example, has constructed a list of 30 "low-income countries under stress."

Motivated by a similar concern, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development has identified 46 "fragile" states. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has constructed a list of 20 failing states. Most recently, the Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have worked together to identify a list of 60 states, ranking them according to "their vulnerability to violent internal conflict."

This analysis is based on 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators. It puts Côte d'Ivoire at the top of the list of failed states, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Chad, Yemen, Liberia, and Haiti. Next in line are three countries that have been much in the news in recent years: Afghanistan, Rwanda, and North Korea.

Five oil-exporting countries make the top 60 list, including the two largest exporters and producers - Saudi Arabia (45 on the list) and Russia (59) - plus Venezuela (21), Indonesia (46), and Nigeria (54). Two countries with nuclear arsenals are also on the list: Pakistan and Russia.

The three top indicators used in constructing the scorecard are uneven development, the loss of governmental legitimacy, and demographic pressure. Uneven development typically means that a small segment of the population is accumulating wealth while much of the society may be suffering a decline in living conditions. This unevenness, often associated with political corruption, creates unrest and can lead to civil conflict.

Fast-growing populations

Governments that fail to effectively manage emerging issues and provide basic services are seen as useless. This often causes segments of the population to shift their allegiance to warlords, tribal chieftains, or religious leaders. A loss of political legitimacy is an early sign of state decline.

Young children, Ghana
Young children, Ghana
Young children, Ghana. Photo © Nancy Durrell McKenna
The third top indicator is demographic pressure. All the countries in the top 20 have fast-growing populations. In many that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades, governments are suffering from demographic fatigue, unable to cope with the steady shrinkage in per capita cropland and fresh water supplies or to build schools fast enough for the swelling ranks of children.

Foreign investment drying up and a resultant rise in unemployment are also part of the decline syndrome. Another characteristic is a deterioration of the physical infrastructure - roads and power, water, and sewage systems. Care for natural systems is also neglected as people struggle to survive. Forests, grasslands, and croplands deteriorate, creating a downward economic spiral.

Among the most conspicuous indications of state failure is a breakdown in law and order and a related loss of personal security. In Haiti, armed gangs rule the streets. Kidnapping for ransom of local people who are lucky enough to be among the 30 percent of the labor force that is employed is commonplace. In Afghanistan it is the local warlords, not the central government, that control the country outside of Kabul. Somalia, which now exists only on maps, is ruled by tribal leaders, each claiming a piece of what was once a country.

Some of these countries are involved in long-standing civil conflicts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, occupying a large part of the Congo River basin in the heart of Africa, has been the site of an ongoing civil conflict for six years, a conflict that has claimed 3.8 million lives and driven millions more from their homes. According to the International Rescue Committee, for each violent death in this conflict there are 62 nonviolent deaths related to it, including deaths from hunger, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, and other diseases.

Some potential sources of instability are taking the world into uncharted territory. In sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV infection rates sometimes exceed 30 percent of all adults, there will be millions of orphans in the years ahead. With the number of orphans overwhelming society's capacity to care for them, many will become street children. Growing up without parental guidance and appropriate role models, and with their behavior shaped by the desperation of survival, these orphans will become a new threat to stability and progress.

Failing states are of growing international concern because they are a source of terrorists, drugs, weapons, and refugees. Not only was Afghanistan a training ground for terrorists, but it quickly became, under the Allied occupation, the world's leading supplier of heroin. Refugees from Rwanda, including thousands of armed soldiers, contributed to the destabilization of the Congo. As The Economist notes, "Like a severely disturbed individual, a failed state is a danger not just to itself, but to those around it and beyond."

In many countries, the United Nations or other internationally organized peacekeeping forces are trying to keep the peace, often unsuccessfully. Among the countries with UN peacekeeping forces are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Other countries with multinational peacekeeping forces include Afghanistan, Haiti, and Sudan. All too often these are token forces, not nearly large enough to assure stability.

Countries like Haiti and Afghanistan are surviving today because they are on international life-support systems. Economic assistance - including, it is worth noting, food aid - is helping to sustain them. But there is not now enough assistance to overcome the reinforcing trends of deterioration and replace them with state stability and sustained economic progress.

Cover of book, Plan B by Lester Brown.
Cover of book, Plan B by Lester Brown.
Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble is published by the Earth Policy Institute at US$17 (pb)and W.W. Norton at $16.50 or £10. For more details and to order see the website at: