Physician To The Earth

Each year Worldwatch Institute examines the planet's health, and Lester Brown is the chief consulting physician

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 18
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute


In the final chapter of
State of the World 1990, "Picturing a Sustainable Society," Lester Brown and his colleagues present a clear and eloquent description of a world that could work – a world powered by the sun, efficient in all senses, reusing and recycling materials, with a restored biological base and a new set of values. Such sensible yet far-reaching prescriptions are being read by ever larger audiences, as Les explains below in this interview – conducted between television appointments with the BBC and CBS News.

For information on State of the World 1990 and the Institute’s other publications, write to Worldwatch at 1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Alan: Every year you publish the State of the World report, which many have come to depend on for an overview of the key trends in sustainability. How do you account for its wide acceptance?

Les: It’s difficult to find good integrated global analyses, because our academic and governing institutions are organized according to specialized fields of knowledge. Unfortunately, the world’s problems don’t fit within these compartments. With State of the World, we don’t just look at population growth, for example. We also look at how population affects environmental support systems, and how changes in the environmental support systems affect economic trends, and so on.

So what’s happening is that the State of the World report is becoming semi-official. Everyone is using it, because there is no official report.

Alan: Did you envision that happening from the beginning?

Les: No – we’d hoped the report would be useful, but we hadn’t really thought of it in quite these terms. We also did not anticipate that within seven years it would be translated into all of the world’s major languages, as well as a number of minor ones. This year, for the first time, we passed the Reader’s Digest in the number of languages in which we publish. They’re publishing in fifteen, we’ve actually reached twenty.

Alan: That’s wonderful! How did the report, and the Institute, originally get launched?

Les: In the early 1980s, a few of us felt a need for something more comprehensive on what was happening in the world – a kind of report card, if you will. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund said they would help put together the funding if we would launch it. We agreed, and the first report to come out was State of the World 1984.

Alan: How did you personally get interested in doing this kind of integrated analysis?

Les: Well, my roots and early training are in agriculture. A farmer has to worry about plant diseases, weather, markets, soils, how the biological and meteorological systems interact, and how markets affect the farm prospect. So by nature, a farmer is an integrated thinker. Because my roots are in agriculture, I tended always to think in this way and have never been attracted to pursuing a specialized field of knowledge for any amount of time. That’s probably why I have three degrees in three fields: Agricultural Science, Economics, and Public Administration. I’m spread out between the natural and social sciences.

Alan: What is your sense of the state of the sustainability movement in general? What next steps do we need to take?

Les: There’s a great deal of attention now being paid to "what you can do to save the planet." A number of books in that genre are doing very well, but they’re almost entirely about lifestyle changes – things like recycling newspapers, or taking a shower instead of a bath. Those are important, but I think we have to go beyond that and deal with the question of fundamental changes in such things as the structure of the world economy and human reproductive behavior. And that depends on governments.

We won’t be able to cut world population growth in half within a decade – which is what I think we need to do – unless governments play a leading role. We won’t be able to phase out fossil fuels unless governments get serious about doing so. So the next step is to go beyond the lifestyle changes that many of us have done or are contemplating, and begin to focus on how we can change the system. In effect, we all need to become environmental activists.

Alan: Are lifestyle changes, then, mostly about creating the political will at the popular level to support the more systemic changes?

Les: I think so, because it’s a quick and easy way for people to get involved. Once that happens it may only be a matter of time until they see the need to become politically active.

My sense is that the next stage is to begin to develop a rather precise political agenda. In the United States, for example, we need to mobilize environmental groups in support of new automobile fuel efficiency standards, or a carbon tax.

Alan: Earth Day has been shining a bright light on many environmental issues. But from your vantage point, what issues relating to sustainability are not getting sufficient attention?

Les: One thing that seems very much missing from most of the Earth Day, "fifty things you can do to save the planet" materials is the population issue. While urging people to use low-flow shower heads and recycle newspapers, we also need to be limiting the number of children to two per couple. The question no longer is "how many children can Americans afford?" The question is "how many can the planet afford?" The answer is, not more than two.

We can do all the conservation work we can think of, but if we don’t put the brakes on population growth, it will all eventually be washed away. This is particularly important for America, since each of us is such a consumptive being, as it were.

Alan: How would you describe the state of the world now, in capsule terms?

Les: In our annual State of the World reports we essentially give the world an annual physical. The results are not particularly reassuring, because all of the major indicators show increasing environmental degradation. Each year the forests are getting smaller, the deserts are getting larger, the topsoil is eroding, the ozone layer is being depleted, the number of plant and animal species on earth is diminishing, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is rising, the amount of toxic waste in the environment is continuing to accumulate – these and other indicators show that environmental degradation on the planet is continuing and in some cases accelerating. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that more and more people are concerned. The thing that distinguishes Earth Day 1990 from Earth Day 1970 is that twenty years ago it was mostly Americans, and Americans worried mostly about air and water pollution. Today, it’s the entire world, worried about the future of the planet.

The other encouraging and potentially exciting development is that as the level of public concern is rising, the Cold War is coming to an end. That provides at least the possibility for recognizing that the real threats to our future are not so much from military aggression, but from the environmental degradation of the planet. If we can redefine security in that way, then we can reorder priorities and begin focusing not only our fiscal resources, but the time and energies of leaders everywhere, on the restoration of the planet. If we do that, then we have a chance of moving to an environmentally sustainable economic path.

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