Monday, October 28, 2013

1175. Book Review: "Plan B 4.0 – Mobilizing to Save Civilization" by Lester Brown

By Max Wilbert, Fertile Ground, December 27, 2011

Lester Brown’s exhaustively researched book, Plan B 4.0 – Mobilizing to Save Civilization, is a bold and impressive effort to chart a course to ecological sustainability, one of very few books that attempts this worthwhile goal. Brown lists 4 steps that Plan B 4.0 focuses on to achieve sustainability:

Step 1.             Stabilize climate by cutting emissions by at least 80% by 2020

Step 2.             Stabilize population at 8 billion or lower

Step 3.             Eradicate poverty

Step 4.             Restore natural earth systems (soil, aquifers, forests, grasslands, oceans)

These are excellent goals to begin with, and show that Brown is extremely serious about his mission, and is truly concerned about justice and the welfare of the human population. They also show that he understands one of the fundamental obstacles to true change – the interlocking relationship between environmental destruction and human exploitation. For example, Brown calls for debt relief for poor nations – an admirable position against the interests of international financiers and for the interests of poor and exploited people. Few analysts truly understand this relationship at both a theoretical and real-world level, and Brown moves beyond the average call for sustainability by acknowledging the seriousness of this issue.

Plan B lays out a compelling and comprehensive vision of the converging crises that are threatening life on earth – from oceanic collapse and peak oil to soil erosion and food instability. Brown understands that the collapse of global civilization is likely if business-as-usual continues. The undermining of the biological life-support systems of the earth has left life as we know it teetering on the brink. For many species and communities around the world, it is already too late.

The fundamental basis of Brown’s approach is that it is a social change approach. Brown understands that social problems require social solutions. While personal lifestyle changes (to transport, diet, and other consumption) are an important and moral way to address these problems, they are not sufficient to solve ecological and social injustice by themselves. This is an important step – a foundation for serious political work. From here, we can analyze each of the goals of Plan B 4.0 for strategic soundness, moral rigor, and good scholarship.

Step 1: Stabilize Climate

Brown’s approach to solving the climate problem relies on several strategies. First, he advocates massive adoption of alternative energy. Second, he calls for replanting of billions of trees to sequester carbon and rehabilitate habitat. Third, he describes an efficiency revolution centering on recycling, reusing, and refining urban planning and architecture and material flows throughout global society. 

The focus on replanting of forests and restoring habitat around the world is extremely important and is an admirable goal, as is the elimination of coal and gasoline as energy sources. However, the fundamental failure of Brown’s approach to solving climate change is the insistence on maintaining an industrial way of life. Efficiency in cooking, housing, and production is doubtlessly important, but too many of Brown’s solutions call for centralized industrial production instead of local self-sufficiency – the maintenance of privileged lifestyles.

In short, while Brown's plan is truly radical, he does not go far enough. In advocating massive production of solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars and trains, a “smart grid,” and other industrial technologies, Plan B 4.0 does not question the fundamental system of resource extraction and industrial production. It does not question global capitalism, which will continue to get rich by feeding on human and non-human communities.

The industrial products sold within the capitalist economy are created through a complex global system of mining, refining, production, distribution, and trashing/recycling. In each stage of this process, natural communities of humans and non-humans are exploited, poisoned, and destroyed for the sake of luxury goods like cars and electricity.

Electric cars and alternative energy do not address this fundamental destruction that is required for industrial technology to exist. Wind turbines, to use one example, still require mining for bauxite, the ore refined into aluminum. In central India (and other regions around the world) mountains containing bauxite are blown up and strip-mined to extract bauxite. About six tons of bauxite and a thousand tons of water a required to produce one ton of aluminum. There is no sustainable way to do this – most rich countries have exported this process to poor nations. The pollution is hidden.

This process not only destroys or displaces the non-human life on these mountains, but leads to runoff, pollution, and extirpation of indigenous communities. Smelting bauxite requires extremely high temperatures – usually provided by big dams – and leads to vast amounts of carbon emissions and other air pollution. And the entire system of distribution depends on vast ocean-going ships that burn bunker fuel, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. It is estimated that one container ship releases as much carbon dioxide as 50 million cars.

Another example: the Toyota Prius, widely praised by environmentalists (including Brown), requires 5 times as much energy to produce as an average car due to the complex process of creating electric motors, circuitry, and batteries. Accounting for production energy and transportation fuel and average over the lifetime of the car, a Prius actually uses 1.4x as much energy per mile as the average American car.

Solar panels provide another example. The average solar cell requires the mining of about 2,000lbs of earth material for Silicon. The production process is extremely dangerous – in China, workers at a solar panel factory went on strike in 2011 because of the pollution released by the plant had toxified a lake nearby that was causing respiratory problems and cancers in the community.

This is just touching the surface of the devastation that is wrought by these “environmentally friendly” technologies. These technologies also require rare earth minerals like cadmium and tellurium, which simply do not exist in sufficient quantities to allow mass adoption of alternative energy. 

This reliance on technological solutions is one the major failings of Plan B 4.0. Brown has bought into the hype surrounding these alternative technologies, when in reality they only represent more of the same – more resources extracted from poor nations, more money flowing to corporations and rich nations, more pollution, more destroyed communities. While the standards of research and scholarship in Plan B 4.0 are generally very high, Brown does not apply the same rigorous research methods to the technological solutions he advocates.

A better model for halting global warming would revolve around the creation of land-based communities that are able to take their sustenance from within healthy, flourishing ecosystems that they coexist with. This model is the way of life practiced by humans for 99% of our existence, so it is clearly not impossible, but it would require addressing the serious issue of population, to which Brown turns next.

Step 2: Stabilize Population

In addressing overpopulation Brown is facing an issue before which many have balked, with good reason. There is a history of racism, eugenics, and forced sterilization that makes population reduction a touchy issue to deal with directly.  But Plan B 4.0 takes the right tact. Brown’s plan calls for massive programs of education and empowerment of women, combined with government incentives for small families, widespread family planning programs, and universal birth control availability. This humane and effective model has been used around the world in places like Iran with great success.

While this approach is laudable, Plan B 4.0 could use a slightly more radical feminist analysis. While Brown does call for the education of women, he does not explicitly state that empowered women rarely chose to have large numbers of children. High birth rates usually occur in patriarchal arrangements where women have few rights and little power of their own. Acknowledging this fact and working to dismantle patriarchal social forms will be a much more difficult task than the more straightforward path that Brown presents, but will lead to more lasting and fundamental change in birth rates and the overall direction of society.

Step 3: Eradicate Poverty

By acknowledging the fundamental connections between global poverty and environmental degradation, Brown goes further towards truth than many of his contemporaries. He advocates for debt relief for poor nations, which would go a long way towards relieving the pressures on “developing” nations. He calls for an increase in small gardens and other simple techniques that reduce burdens on poor people around the world, such replanting forests and allowing degraded lands to fallow. 

However, without access to land, poor people have no chance for survival. The critique of contemporary lands grabs is an important part of Plan B 4.0. Here Brown details how food importers, nations that cannot grow enough food to support their population, are purchasing and leasing arable land in poor nations to grow food for export. Many times these poor nations cannot even feed their own population, so these vast foreign-held farms must employ armed guards to ensure that the food is not taken back.

Brown understands that agriculture, logging, and overgrazing are devastating much of the land around the world through salinization, soil erosion, and desertification, and that this process is destabilizing populations and leading to poverty and social breakdown. 

However, Brown is lacking a fundamental critique of industrial agriculture as a practice. He advocates the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which are overwhelmingly toxic and derived from fossil fuels. He advocates for increased efficiency in irrigation, while acknowledging the fact that 70% of the fresh water used worldwide is used for irrigation. And he advocates for the use of genetically modified and high-yield varieties, which is a gamble with the genetic code. This is also leading to a narrow range of varieties, which are more vulnerable to future disease of plague. The result has been an arms-race between GMO and pesticide companies and the constantly evolving creatures that feed on monocropped fields. 

Even more fundamentally, Brown does not appreciate the fact that annual monocrop agriculture is the practice that has enabled rampant overpopulation. Population tracks food supply, and it has been well documented is recent years that many creatures (including humans) regulate their own population based on the food available. When humans began farming the land and stopped getting their food from within biodiverse, perennial ecosystems, they stopped paying attention to these natural limits. They were not sharing their food anymore.

This lack of sharing is also the foundation of modern ecological devastation. After all, agriculture is the practice of clearing natural ecosystems and replanting them for human use. The forests and grasslands that have fallen before the plow are the primary location for species loss worldwide. Ninety-eight percent of old-growth forests and 99% of native grasslands are gone. Human population has grown in direct proportion to the decline in non-human populations worldwide, because they have been consumed by civilization, by agriculture.

Brown’s failure here is the same as above – he has no fundamental critique of capitalism (the dominant economic system) and civilization (the dominant form of social organization – a way of life based on annual monocrops and life in cities). These systems are a major reason why people are poor.

By extracting resources in destructive ways and exploiting workers for less than the full value of their labor, capitalism impoverishes people around the world. A large class of poor people is required for the functioning of the global economy – it is structurally mandated. And civilization is a social form that inevitably leads to overshoot of natural limits, colonial expansion, wars of conquest, further environmental damage, and finally collapse (for a further explanation of these ideas, see Sources). Any efforts to address poverty will have to first deal with the stifling influence of capitalism and civilization.

Step 4: Restoring Earth

The final goal of Plan B 4.0 is to restore natural ecosystems around the world – oceans, grasslands, soils, and forests. In order to protect biodiversity and the range or natural services provided by these ecosystems, Brown advocates massive replanting of forests (as previously mentioned), soil conservation measures, and the creation of protected marine zones in the ocean, as well as a program of parks and other measures to protect biodiversity.

Replanting forests is an important way to restore the life-support systems of the planet, and Brown is right advocate for it. However, he also advocates for an increase in plantation style forests to be grown for timber and pulp products. While the US Forest Service is a division of the Department of Agriculture, forests are not fields, and few soils can sustain more than three consecutive harvests of timber before soils are too depleted to continue. An imposition of human standards upon a natural system decreases the health of the system, and as such, plantations are not a long-term solution.

Restoring soils is perhaps the most critical task in this section. Terrestrial life as we know it is only possible because of a thin layer of topsoil – without it, plants cannot grow. Brown’s tactic of allowing steeper slopes and other marginal farmland to fallow and return to forest is a good one, but he still lacks a full critique of agriculture as a practice. Annual monocropped fields lead to erosion and loss of soil fertility – this type of agriculture kills the soil. This is true around the world, except in small river valley regions where alluvial soils are constantly replenished.

However, these natural wetlands are also biodiversity hotspots, which means the one place where agriculture can be practiced somewhat sustainably is also the place where it will lead to the biggest loss of habitat for other creatures. Brown’s plan for protecting biodiversity is not elaborate – there are almost no details in the book. But any course of action that does not challenge the human appropriation, destruction, and toxification of land, water, and atmosphere will not lead to substantial progress in the conservation of biodiversity.


Plan B 4.0 is a unflinching attempt to chart a course for sanity, but Lester Brown and his researchers fail to apply the same rigor to human society and proposed solutions that they apply to environmental problems. Brown states that in 1950 the world economy was based on “sustainable yield, the interest of natural systems.” This is simply not true. Europe was deforested before industrialization. So was the Middle East. The forests and soils of North Africa fueled the Roman war machine until they were exhausted, and now support only goats and olives – ecological poverty food that can survive on desiccated, impoverished soils. The forests of the United States were felled largely before the mechanical saw. While industrialism greatly accelerated in the 1950’s, the problem goes much deeper than that.

Brown’s approach, along with the approach of many other environmentalists, is fundamentally anthropocentric and short sighted. He does not account for the experience of prehistory, that span of 99.7% of human existence when the natural world flourished alongside us. He does not even mention indigenous people, the only communities that have truly lived in a sustainable manner. Any understanding of environmental sustainability must advance from the basic position that humans have the ability to coexist with the natural world. These model societies exist, but they are being destroyed by the very industrialism that Brown supports with his calls for alternative technology (for example, the Dongriah Kondh of the central Indian foothills).

Instead of exploring how human societies may better conform themselves to the needs of the land, Brown falls into the trap of reform – how can we adapt nature to better fit our needs? How can we maintain the energy grid, industrial production, a high population, and the conveniences of globalized capitalist civilization while simultaneously addressing environmental problems? The fundamental answer to this question is that such a solution is not possible. In failing to see this point, Plan B 4.0 stumbles and falls along with the vast majority of the environmental movement.


Against The Grain by Richard Manning

Collapse by Jared Diamond

Columbus and Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes

Deep Green Resistance by Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen

Endgame by Derrick Jensen

Overshoot by William Catton

Solar panel factory protests tarnish China's clean-tech efforts. Guardian UK. September 18th 2011.

The Final Empire by William Kotke

The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann

The Original Affluent Society by Marshall Sahlins

The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith

Walking With The Comrades by Arundhati Roy

Max Wilbert is a member of Fertile Ground Environmental Institute's Board of Directors

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