Lester Brown

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Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, and a founder of the modern environmental movement, sits down with Bill Moyers to discuss a wide range of topics including nuclear power, soil erosion, deforestation and world health.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] There is more air pollution this year than last. There is more water pollution, more toxic waste, more poisoned wildlife. There are fewer trees this year than last, and that means more desert and less land to grow food to feed a world population that keeps growing. As one of the founders of the environmental movement, Lester Brown has drawn our attention to the daily deterioration of our planet. As founder of the Worldwatch Institute, he has suggested solutions for a wide variety of environmental problems. The institute has published over 90 papers on such topics as nuclear power and the potential of the bicycle, on deforestation and soil erosion, on tobacco and world health. This year they issues the seventh State of the World, an assessment of the planet’s health. I talked with Lester Brown in New York.

[interviewing] The environmental movement’s been an astonishing propaganda success, but what has it actually achieved, by your own measure, between the first Earth Day in 1970 and the most recent Earth Day in 1990? The world’s population increased by over 1.5 billion people, the Earth lost 500 million acres of trees, 480 billion?

Lester Brown

(Photo: 1990 Charles-Henri-Sanson)


BILL MOYERS: -tons of topsoil. Carbon dioxide in the air increased by nine percent. Thousands of plant and animal species have disappeared. I mean, what do you really have to show for the last 20 years?

LESTER BROWN: If we look at the condition of the planet, every major indicator shows deterioration since 1970, no question about that. What we see as the gap between what we need to do and what we are doing to reverse the degradation of the planet and continuing to widen.

BILL MOYERS: What’s your explanation for why the environmental leaders have not been able to persuade the politicians to do more, given the almost indisputable character of so much of the evidence that has been marshaled?

LESTER BROWN: Well, for one thing, enough people have to understand an issue in order to bring about changes in policies. And we change our perceptions and our behavior in response to new information and new experiences. The scientists have told us that the ozone layer is being depleted and, as a result of that information, we actually have an international accord to begin phasing out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, the family of chemicals that’s doing the damage. That’s an important step in the right direction. People respond to information. Much of what is happening is happening so fast that we literally are having difficulty absorbing and understanding the consequences of our actions. For example, you mentioned that, since 1970, the world has added 1.5 billion people, to be precise, 1.6 billion people. That’s more people than we added during the 20 centuries preceding this one. It’s very difficult to understand.

BILL MOYERS: Because I don’t look out and see all those people. I still see just the same number of people who are in my circle of daily habit and in my neighborhood, or in my community. I don’t see that exponential growth.

LESTER BROWN: And you don’t see so many of the consequences. As one who’s been very much involved in international agriculture over the years, I travel a lot in Third World countries and have been since 1956. And what I see is not only the population growth, the villages with two or three times as many people in them today as, say, 30 years ago, but also the deforestation, the land degradation and the soil erosion and desertification. MO~RS: You can actually see the loss of those 500 million acres of trees.

LESTER BROWN: You can see a lot of it.

BILL MOYERS: Five hundred million acres-that’s equivalent to the United States east of the Mississippi.

LESTER BROWN: It’s a lot of trees, it’s a big area of forest. And we’re continuing to lose forest now, each year.

BILL MOYERS: And the consequence is?

LESTER BROWN: The consequence is increased flooding, soil erosion and land degradation. I think it was a French philosopher who said the forests precede civilization and the deserts follow, and in a sense, that’s true.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, you conclude that we are losing the battle to save the planet.

LESTER BROWN: We are. And what we have to hope -and I think Earth Day ’90 provides at least some basis for being hopeful -is that we can get-that enough of us will become concerned about what’s happening to the planet, enough people will be concerned about the future of the planet, we can begin to turn some of these trends around.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, but there’s still a limited appeal. The National Review, the conservative journal published by Bill Buckley, recently ran an article in which it said that the environmental movement remains altogether too elitist, and it took certain satisfaction, I think, in polls that show that middle-and working-class Americans are either indifferent to or ignorant of these environmental concerns.

LESTER BROWN: The issue has often been presented as the economy or the environment, and so working-class people, the blue-collar people that were interviewed for this poll, often see it that way. But the-that’s almost a trivialization of the issue. The real issue is can we protect the environmental support systems on which the global economy depends? If we cannot, then we’re obviously in trouble. And one of the interesting sort of contradictions that we see today is that if you read the economic pages of any major newspaper or business magazine, you get the feeling that the world is doing reasonably well. I mean, we have problems with debt here and there, in some countries inflation, but overall, the world output of goods and services is increasing, international trade is expanding. But if you look at the environmental indicators, they all show. that the world is heading for serious trouble. I mean, if the environmental trends that we’ve been discussing, such as deforestation or ozone depletion or soil erosion, climate change, continue, they will undermine the economic system.

BILL MOYERS: Those are indisputable. But there is conflict in some of the scientific advice. Just recently, Science magazine came out with a report by two acknowledged and reputable scientists saying that they’ve studied the satellites that have been the most reliable source of gathering information about the warming of the Earth. And they said that there is no long-term trend evident for the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. And so a lot of people who have not yet joined the environmental movement look at that and say, “Well, I don’t know what to get alarmed about, I can’t believe the scientists.”

LESTER BROWN: Right. What this article said was that they now have satellite data which are the most accurate-accurate data that we have on global average temperatures. Now they said was that they now have that database established for the 1980s. We have 10 years of data. And what they said was that 10 years does not show a long-term trend. And that is certainly true. You can’t determine a long-term trend based on 10 years. And what the scientists were trying to do was to be cautious in presenting the data, so that people wouldn’t read too much into it, and as a result, the headlines began-almost without exception, in the newspapers that I read, said, “Scientists say global warming trend not in evidence,” or something to that effect. That’s not what the scientists intended to say. What they were trying to warn against was not to look at the 10 years and say this represents a trend. But what we have seen, and this is not disputable, is that six of the 10 warmest years of the last century occurred during the 1980s. And that suggests -it does not prove scientifically, but it suggests, at least -that the warming is underway. And if one were to take a poll of the world’s meteorologists, my guess is that almost all of them would say that it is likely that the warming has begun.

BILL MOYERS: Where would you bet your bottom dollar if you were president, having to choose between conflicting evidence?

LESTER BROWN: Yeah, I don’t think the evidence is so conflicting, for those who are prepared to be objective. For those who don’t want to do anything, there is enough uncertainty that it can be seized upon to avoid doing anything, and that’s what I think we are seeing with a lot of political leaders. And I think we’re clearly seeing that in the White House. But there’s not much doubt in my mind but that the warming is underway. I think the odds are at least 10 to one that that’s the case. And if the ’80s are the beginning of the warming, and if the hot summers of the ’80s-if that trend continues into the ’90s, then we could be facing a food emergency in the world within the next few years.

BILL MOYERS: You say that the politicians seem reluctant to act, and I suggest that they are so because the constituency, despite the publicity around Earth Day, the constituency isn’t mobilized, because a lot of people still say, “Look, I like the way of life that creates the problems that Lester Brown and other environmentalists deplore. I like my cars, I like my clothes, I like throwaway containers, I like this way of life.”

LESTER BROWN: I think most of us have at least that inclination. Most of us, certainly I, don’t like to change. I have established behavior and it takes some effort to get me to change. And I think that’s true for most people. I think the thing that’s going to change behavior dramatically is when people begin to see that the lifestyles that they now enjoy are not sustainable. I mean, we are, in fact, part of an environmentally unsustainable global economy.

BILL MOYERS: How can you say that with such certainty? Because we’ve all-we all know that it could be, but we also know human behavior changes trends and diverts them in other directions. Why do you say that with such certainty?

LESTER BROWN: If we change trends, then I think we can-then I think we’ll be all right. But that’s the point. We have to make some dramatic changes, in a very short period of time. For example, there’s no question but that if we continue to burn fossil fuels and increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it will lead to global warming. Now, there is debate about how fast the warming will occur, whether it’ll be three degrees or eight degrees hotter a generation or two from now. There’s a question about what the specific effects will be in various parts of the world. But there’s no disagreement on the basic physics. If you put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it traps the heat going out from the Earth. And as I look at the world economy and ask the question, you know, what if these trends continue? What if we continue to deforest the Earth? What if we continue to deplete the ozone layer? What if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? What will happen? And what I think we’re already beginning to see is a slowdown in world food production during the late ’80s that is likely to continue into the ’90s.


LESTER BROWN: Because of soil erosion-I mean, for example, the world’s farmers are losing about 24 billion tons of topsoil a year from the cropland. That’s about the amount of topsoil in Australia’s wheatland. It’s not inconsequential.

BILL MOYERS: And that means we can’t grow as much wheat.

LESTER BROWN: You can’t grow as much wheat. So each year the world’s farmers are now trying to feed 88 million more people with 24 billion fewer tons of topsoil than they had the year before. You don’t have to be an agronomist to understand that those two trends cannot both continue indefinitely, and I am as convinced as I can be that the trends of environmental degradation that we are now seeing and that .,. we’ve been talking about cannot continue much longer without the world economy being in trouble.

BILL MOYERS: But how do you reach-how do you reach the masses of people if the environmental movement remains in this country, as it is, essentially lily-white and composed mainly of people who are socially secure? I mean, we’re living in a non-white world, and the Indians in Brazil say they don’t appreciate white Europeans coming down here and white Americans and telling us-appointing themselves guardians of our land. ”We want an economy that’s going to produce a way of life for our children not unlike that which you have had in Europe and America.” How do you reach people? How do you reach the coal miners in West Virginia who are disaffected by the recent Clean Air Act? It’s going to put their sons out of jobs, sons who would normally have expected to take on the life of the coal miner and carry it forward into the next generation. How are you going to reach those people?

LESTER BROWN: A lot of people are being reached by environmental indicators, environmental conditions that are deteriorating already. For example, in the-in Louisiana there’s a so-called chemical or cancer corridor.

BILL MOYERS: “Odor Alley,” it’s called, because you can just smell the odors from [crosstalk].

LESTER BROWN: Right, right. A lot of low-income people, a lot of black communities, are really up in arms protesting this, because they see the health effects on their children and themselves. It’s not too different than eastern Europe, where they’re now beginning to realize that they’ve got serious, serious environmental problems, air pollution, water pollution, to a degree that it’s actually reducing life expectancy in many of the cities in eastern Europe, in East Germany, in Czechoslovakia, Poland. Male life expectancy in both Poland and the Soviet Union has fallen in recent years, and apparently partly because of environmental pollution and workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals. So a lot of people are being affected in one way or another. But the thing that I think is really going to rally people, what I think is likely to be the Pearl Harbor in the battle to save the planet, will be the next year in which we have severe heat and drought in the United States. At that point, I think we’ll begin to realize that we have to make some course corrections.

BILL MOYERS: Perhaps it will take the equivalent of a Pearl Harbor. What if it takes some major-I mean, grave, ecological strike before we wake up?

LESTER BROWN: If I had to guess now, I would guess that we’re not more than a few years from a world food emergency, one where food prices would increase to the degree that they would lead to political instability in many countries in the world, including industrial as well as developing, creating a situation, for example, where American consumers would be competing with Japanese consumers for our grain, with the American consumers having only a weak dollar to compete in the world marketplace against a strong yen, for example. Imagine the political problems that would arise from that? Or consider what happens to the international monetary system, the international banking structure, if Third World countries faced with soaring world grain prices used all their foreign exchange to try and import food to avoid starvation and maintain political stability. They’ll forget, literally forget debt payments. We could be only one year away from a situation in which these issues would have to be considered gauged their success on materialism, on the production of goods. Self-worth is often determined by one’s possession of goods, just as national greatness is determined by the gross national product, is composed of all of those goods. And you’re really challenging the materialistic life that we have developed in the West. Are you opposed to materialism?

LESTER BROWN: I’m not challenging it, nature is challenging it. And I think what nature is saying is that we cannot continue the trends of destruction of our life support systems that have been underway now for the last few decades. I mean, you can create your own scenario. Ask yourself what happens if we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the temperature of the Earth keeps rising over time. What happens if summers get hotter and hotter in North America, for example? What happens to agriculture? What happens if we continue deforesting the Earth? What happens if we continue to accumulate toxic wastes in the environment? What happens to the health of people everywhere? You don’t have to be terribly imaginative to run these scenarios through. And I’m not saying that disaster is inevitable, but I’m saying that if we don’t act quickly to begin reversing some of these trends, then the world is in trouble.

BILL MOYERS: What if the survival of the human species is not intrinsically a part of the laws of nature? What if God, nature, assigned to our interest no greater claim than that given to dinosaurs? I mean, what happens-the assumption is that human beings must survive. Why?

LESTER BROWN: I think most of us have an innate desire to want to maintain ourselves as a species, to maintain civilization. But it seems to me as one who spends most of his waking time trying to analyze what’s happening in the world that the trends of the last few decades cannot continue without jeopardizing our future. We’re not saying that we’re going to make it. But what we are saying, that if we do make it, there are certain things that we have to do. And it’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy because it’s going to require a change in behavior, a lot of change in behavior in a very short period of time. If we’re going to stabilize population growth in time, it’s going to require, quite literally, a revolution in human reproductive behavior. If we’re going to stabilize climate, then we’ve got to get on with phasing out fossil fuels.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any society that is now-has achieved a sustaining economy?

LESTER BROWN: No country has an environmentally sustainable economic system. There are a number of countries that have pieces of it, but no country that has all the pieces. And we will not have all the pieces in place until we get a cooperative international effort to stabilize climate, protect biological diversity, protect the ozone layer, for example.

BILL MOYERS: That kind of doomsday talk does frighten some people, but it-

LESTER BROWN: I’m not sure it’s doomsday talk. I think it’s a realistic scenario, based on a very detailed analysis of what’s happening in the world. ”

BILL MOYERS: We’ve had a long time now in which societies have ample. So no national economy today, even if it’s doing all the right things at the national level, can have an environmentally sustainable economic system unless the entire world is working together.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that in the eastern bloc, the Communist bloc, where the state was dominant, wealth was not permitted, there was a centralized economy, pollution has been worse than it has been in the capitalist countries? What does that say to you?

LESTER BROWN: One of the things it says is that the socialist planners, I think, are somewhat naive in their judgment of human nature, and the assumption was that people who were socially motivated when they were building factories and managing them would be concerned about pollution. But we in the western world, in the capitalist world, have not made that assumption. We know that people are-that there’s a certain amount of greed in any population. And so what we’ve done is try to build in safeguards to respond to that. And so we have controls on pollution, for example. And what they’re beginning to realize in eastern Europe is that man is not yet quite as perfect as the-as they assumed. And so they’ve discovered that production quotas can create at least as much pollution as the profit motive. But there’s a more fundamental lesson, I think, from eastern Europe. What I think we’ve seen over the last year, in this year of political transformation, a transformation that none of us could have imagined a year ago, is that suddenly it became clear to almost everyone in those societies that not only was the economic system not working, but that it was an inherently unworkable system. And when they realized that, then it was only a matter of time. I think Gorbachev himself realized that, and that really set things in motion. So there was an inherent contradiction in that system, and they finally recognized it and responded to it. The parallel at the global level is that there is an inherent contradiction between the economic indicators, the economic trends that we read about in the daily press, and the environmental trends. The economic system of which we are a part is sowing the seeds of its own demise. And as that contradiction becomes more apparent, I think we may see social change and economic change as a result on a scale that we’ve not seen during our lifetimes.

BILL MOYERS: In the meantime, where most of us live, what can we each do to contribute to this change that leads to the actual, as opposed to the perceived, rescue of the environment? Individual things?

LESTER BROWN: There are limits to how much we can do. We’re now faced with a need for systemic changes. You and I can conserve energy in every way we can think of, but as long as the economic system is based on fossil fuels that are driving the warming of the planet, then we won’t solve the problems. And we have to become politically active in pushing our governments, at various levels, to begin to phase out fossil fuels and to move toward alternatives. If more of us do not become politically active, we’re not going to make it. There’s too much inertia in the system, too many vested interests. We’re faced with a need for an enormous amount of change in a very short period of time. The only historically similar mobilization that I can think of would be that which occurred during the early ’40s as we mobilized for war.

BILL MOYERS: I don’t quarrel with that, but it does seem to me that the environment is not just the moral equivalent of war, as Henry James said, but that it might be the economic equivalent of war. And that there are some things the market can do that coercion cannot do.

LESTER BROWN: The market has much to be said for it. And it behaves with an intelligence that essentially planners can never match. The question is not whether we want to harness the energies of the marketplace and the intelligence, the rationality of the marketplace. We do. If we don’t, we won’t make it. But at the same time, we have to provide guidance to the marketplace. The market on its own will not protect oceanic fisheries. The market on its own will not stabilize climate. The market on its own will not protect forests. And so we have to get a balance between letting the market do well the things that it does best, but recognizing that public policy has to fill the gaps if we’re going to bring about change-bring about change, comprehensive change, in the time that’s available.

BILL MOYERS: The next decade will get us to the year 2000. Do you think we can change that fast?

LESTER BROWN: We may. We have done it before, when the threat has become clear. We mentioned earlier that Pearl Harbor mobilized this country, galvanized energies. I mean, one day men were working in offices and factories, the next day they were in military training camps. Women who had been at home were out working on assembly lines. One day Chrysler was making automobiles; the next day it was making tanks. Suddenly we were rationing scarce commodities. We literally restructured the economy in order to support the war effort, and that’s the kind of restructuring that we’re going to have to think about if we’re going to protect the environmental support systems on which our economic future depends.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From New York, this has been a conversation with Lester Brown. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 19, 2015.

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