Unprecedented rate this summer of levels of sea ice

During the late summer of 2007, the news of accelerating ice
melting arrived at a frenetic pace. In early September, the
Guardian in London reported, “The Arctic ice cap has collapsed
at an unprecedented rate this summer, and levels of sea ice in
the region now stand at a record low.” Experts were “stunned”
by the loss of ice, as an area almost twice the size of Britain disappeared in a single week.1
Mark Serreze, a veteran Arctic specialist with the U.S.
National Snow and Ice Data Center, said: “It’s amazing. If you
asked me a couple of years ago when the Arctic could lose all of
its ice, then I would have said 2100, or 2070 maybe. But now I
think that 2030 is a reasonable estimate.”2
A few days later, the Guardian, reporting from a symposium
in Ilulissat, Greenland, said that the Greenland ice cap is melting so fast that it is triggering minor earthquakes as pieces of ice
weighing several billion tons each break off the ice sheet and
slide into the sea. Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate
Impact Assessment, reported that “we have seen a massive
acceleration of the speed with which these glaciers are moving
into the sea. The ice is moving at 2 meters an hour on a front 5
kilometers [3 miles] long and 1,500 meters deep.”3
Entering a New World
from Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, by Lester R. Brown
© 2008 Earth Policy Institute
increases bring crop-withering heat waves, more-destructive
storms, more-intense droughts, more forest fires, and, of
course, ice melting.
We can see from ice melting alone that our civilization is in
trouble. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level rises 7 meters
(23 feet). If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet breaks up, and many
scientists think it could go before Greenland, it adds another 5
meters to the increase, for a total of 12 meters (39 feet).9
The International Institute for Environment and Development has studied the likely effects of a 10-meter (33-foot) rise.
Their 2007 study projected more than 600 million refugees from
rising seas. More people than currently live in the United States
and Western Europe combined would be forced to migrate
inland to escape the rising waters.10
Now that we are belatedly recognizing these trends and the
need to reverse them, time is running out. We are in a race
between tipping points in the earth’s natural systems and those
in the world’s political systems. Which will tip first? Will we
reach the point where the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is
irreversible? Or will we decide to phase out coal-fired power
plants fast enough to avoid this wholesale ice melting?
A rise in temperature to the point where the earth’s ice sheets
and glaciers melt is only one of many environmental tipping
points needing our attention. While the earth’s temperature is
rising, water tables are falling on every continent. Here the challenge is to raise water use efficiency and stabilize population
before water shortages become life-threatening.11
Population growth, which contributes to all the problems discussed here, has its own tipping point. Scores of countries have
developed enough economically to sharply reduce mortality but
not yet enough to reduce fertility. As a result, they are caught in
the demographic trap—a situation where rapid population
growth begets poverty and poverty begets rapid population
growth. In this situation, countries eventually tip one way or the
other. They either break out of the cycle or they break down.
Over the last few decades, the world has accumulated a
growing number of unresolved problems, including those just
mentioned. As the stresses from these unresolved problems
accumulate, weaker governments are beginning to break down,
leading to what are now commonly referred to as failing states.
Entering a New World 5
Corell said that when flying over the Ilulissat glacier he had
“seen gigantic holes (moulins) in it through which swirling
masses of melt water were falling.” This melt water lubricates
the surface between the glacier and the land below, causing the
glacier to flow faster into the sea. Veli Kallio, a Finnish scientist
who had been analyzing the earthquakes, said they were new to
northwest Greenland and showed the potential for the entire ice
sheet to break up and collapse.4
Corell noted that the projected rise in sea level during this
century of 18–59 centimeters (7–23 inches) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was based on data that were
two years old. He said that some scientists now believe the
increase could be as much as 2 meters.5
In late August, a Reuters story began with “a thaw of
Antarctic ice is outpacing predictions by the U.N. climate panel
and could in the worst case drive up world sea levels by 2 meters
(6 feet) by 2100, a leading expert said.” Chris Rapley, head of
the British Antarctic Survey said, “The ice is moving faster both
in Greenland and in the Antarctic than the glaciologists had
believed would happen.”6
Several months earlier, scientists had reported that the Gangotri glacier, the principal glacier that feeds the Ganges River, is
melting at an accelerating rate and could disappear entirely in a
matter of decades. The Ganges would become a seasonal river,
flowing only during the monsoon season.7
Glaciers on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau that feed the Yellow
and Yangtze rivers are melting at 7 percent a year. Yao Tandong,
one of China’s leading glaciologists, believes that at this rate,
two thirds of these glaciers could disappear by 2060.8
These glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibet-Qinghai
Plateau feed all the major rivers of Asia, including the Indus,
Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers. It is the water
from these rivers that irrigates the rice and wheat fields in the
We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and
violating deadlines that we do not recognize. Nature is the time
keeper, but we cannot see the clock. Among the other environmental trends undermining our future are shrinking forests,
expanding deserts, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, disappearing species, and rising temperatures. The temperature
4 PLAN B 3.0
sound decisions, the markets must give us good information,
including the full cost of the products we buy. But the market is
giving us bad information, and as a result we are making bad
decisions—so bad that they are threatening civilization.
The market is in many ways an incredible institution. It allocates resources with an efficiency that no central planning body
can match and it easily balances supply and demand. The market has some fundamental weaknesses, however. It does not
incorporate into prices the indirect costs of producing goods. It
does not value nature’s services properly. And it does not respect
the sustainable yield thresholds of natural systems. It also favors
the near term over the long term, showing little concern for
future generations.
One of the best examples of this massive market failure can
be seen in the United States, where the gasoline pump price in
mid-2007 was $3 per gallon. But this price reflects only the cost
of discovering the oil, pumping it to the surface, refining it into
gasoline, and delivering the gas to service stations. It overlooks
the costs of climate change as well as the costs of tax subsidies
to the oil industry (such as the oil depletion allowance), the burgeoning military costs of protecting access to oil in the politically unstable Middle East, and the health care costs for treating
respiratory illnesses from breathing polluted air.16
Based on a study by the International Center for Technology
Assessment, these costs now total nearly $12 per gallon ($3.17
per liter) of gasoline burned in the United States. If these were
added to the $3 cost of the gasoline itself, motorists would pay
$15 a gallon for gas at the pump. In reality, burning gasoline is
very costly, but the market tells us it is cheap, thus grossly distorting the structure of the economy. The challenge facing governments is to restructure tax systems by systematically
incorporating indirect costs as a tax to make sure the price of
products reflects their full costs to society and by offsetting this
with a reduction in income taxes.17
Another market distortion became abundantly clear in the
summer of 1998 when China’s Yangtze River valley, home to
nearly 400 million people, was wracked by some of the worst
flooding in history. The resulting damages of $30 billion exceeded the value of the country’s annual rice harvest.18
After several weeks of flooding, the government in Beijing
Entering a New World 7
Failing states are an early sign of a failing civilization. The
countries at the top of the lengthening list of failing states are
not particularly surprising. They include, for example, Iraq,
Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic
of the Congo, and Haiti. And the list grows longer each year,
raising a disturbing question: How many failing states will it
take before civilization itself fails? No one knows the answer,
but it is a question we must ask.12
A Massive Market Failure
When Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World
Bank, released his ground-breaking study in late 2006 on the
future costs of climate change, he talked about a massive market failure. He was referring to the failure of the market to
incorporate the climate change costs of burning fossil fuels. The
costs, he said, would be measured in the trillions of dollars. The
difference between the market prices for fossil fuels and the
prices that also incorporate their environmental costs to society
are huge.13
The roots of our current dilemma lie in the enormous
growth of the human enterprise over the last century. Since
1900, the world economy has expanded 20-fold and world population has increased fourfold. Although there were places in
1900 where local demand exceeded the capacity of natural systems, this was not a global issue. There was some deforestation,
but overpumping of water was virtually unheard of, overfishing
was rare, and carbon emissions were so low that there was no
serious effect on climate. The indirect costs of these early
excesses were negligible.14
Now with the economy as large as it is, the indirect costs of
burning coal—the costs of air pollution, acid rain, devastated
ecosystems, and climate change—can exceed the direct costs,
those of mining the coal and transporting it to the power plant.
As a result of neglecting to account for these indirect costs, the
market is undervaluing many goods and services, creating economic distortions.15
As economic decisionmakers—whether consumers, corporate planners, government policymakers, or investment
bankers—we all depend on the market for information to guide
us. In order for markets to work and economic actors to make
6 PLAN B 3.0
Environment and Civilization
To understand our current environmental dilemma, it helps to
look at earlier civilizations that also got into environmental
trouble. Our early twenty-first century civilization is not the
first to face the prospect of environmentally induced economic
decline. The question is how we will respond.
As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse, some of
the early societies that were in environmental trouble were able
to change their ways in time to avoid decline and collapse. Six
centuries ago, for example, Icelanders realized that overgrazing
on their grass-covered highlands was leading to extensive soil
loss from the inherently thin soils of the region. Rather than
lose the grasslands and face economic decline, farmers joined
together to determine how many sheep the highlands could sustain and then allocated quotas among themselves, thus preserving their grasslands. The Icelanders understood the
consequences of overgrazing and reduced their sheep numbers
to a level that could be sustained. Their wool production and
woolen goods industry continue to thrive today.22
Not all societies have fared as well as the Icelanders. The
early Sumerian civilization of the fourth millennium BC had
advanced far beyond any that had existed before. Its carefully
engineered irrigation system gave rise to a highly productive
agriculture, one that enabled farmers to produce a food surplus,
supporting formation of the first cities. Managing Sumer’s irrigation system required a sophisticated social organization. The
Sumerians had the first cities and the first written language, the
cuneiform script.23
By any measure it was an extraordinary civilization, but
there was an environmental flaw in the design of its irrigation
system, one that would eventually undermine its food supply.
The water that backed up behind dams built across the
Euphrates was diverted onto the land through a network of
gravity-fed canals. As with most irrigation systems, some irrigation water percolated downward. In this region, where underground drainage was weak, this slowly raised the water table.
As the water climbed to within inches of the surface, it began to
evaporate into the atmosphere, leaving behind salt. Over time,
the accumulation of salt on the soil surface lowered the land’s
Entering a New World 9
announced a ban on tree cutting in the Yangtze River basin. It
justified this by noting that trees standing are worth three times
as much as trees cut: the flood control services provided by
forests were far more valuable than the lumber in the trees. In
effect, the market price was off by a factor of three.19
This situation has occasional parallels in the commercial
world. In the late 1990s Enron, a Texas-based energy trading
corporation, may have appeared on the cover of more business
magazines than any other U.S. company. It was spectacularly
successful. The darling of Wall Street, it was the seventh most
valuable corporation in the United States in early 2001. Unfortunately, when independent auditors began looking closely at
Enron in late 2001 they discovered that the company had been
leaving certain costs off the books. When these were included,
Enron was worthless. Its stock, which had traded as high as $90
a share, was suddenly trading for pennies a share. Enron was
bankrupt. The collapse was complete. It no longer exists.20
We are doing today exactly what Enron did. We are leaving
costs off the books, but on a far larger scale. We focus on key
economic indicators like economic growth and the increase in
international trade and investment, and the situation looks
good. But if we incorporate all the indirect costs that the market omits when setting prices, a very different picture emerges.
If we persist in leaving these costs off the books, we will face the
same fate as Enron.
Today, more than ever before, we need political leaders who
can see the big picture, who understand the relationship
between the economy and its environmental support systems.
And since the principal advisors to government are economists,
we need economists who can think like ecologists. Unfortunately they are rare. Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of
Atlanta-based Interface, a leading world manufacturer of
industrial carpet, is especially critical of economics as it is
taught in many universities: “We continue to teach economics
students to trust the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, when the
invisible hand is clearly blind to the externalities and treats massive subsidies, such as a war to protect oil for the oil companies,
as if the subsidies were deserved. Can we really trust a blind
invisible hand to allocate resources rationally?”21
8 PLAN B 3.0
While the economy is growing exponentially, the earth’s natural capacities, such as its ability to supply fresh water, forest
products, and seafood, have not increased. A team of scientists
led by Mathis Wackernagel concluded in a 2002 study published
by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity
around 1980. Today, global demands on natural systems exceed
their sustainable yield capacity by an estimated 25 percent. This
means we are meeting current demands by consuming the
earth’s natural assets, setting the stage for decline and collapse.30
In our modern high-tech civilization, it is easy to forget that
the economy, indeed our existence, is wholly dependent on the
earth’s natural systems and resources. We depend, for example,
on the earth’s climate system for an environment hospitable to
agriculture, on the hydrological cycle to provide us with fresh
water, and on long-term geological processes to convert rocks
into the soil that has made the earth such a biologically productive planet.
There are now so many of us placing such heavy demands on
the earth that we are overwhelming its natural capacities to
meet our needs. The earth’s forests are shrinking. Each year
overgrazing converts vast areas of grassland into desert. The
pumping of underground water exceeds natural recharge in
countries containing half the world’s people, leaving many
without adequate water as their wells go dry.31
Each of us depends on the products and services provided by
the earth’s ecosystems, ranging from forest to wetlands, from
coral reefs to grasslands. Among the services these ecosystems
provide are water purification, pollination, carbon sequestration, flood control, and soil conservation. A four-year study of
the world’s ecosystems by 1,360 scientists, the Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment, reported that 15 of 24 primary ecosystem services are being degraded or pushed beyond their limits.
For example, three quarters of oceanic fisheries, a major source
of protein in the human diet, are being fished at or beyond their
limits, and many are headed toward collapse.32
Tropical rainforests are another ecosystem under severe
stress, including the vast Amazon rainforest. Thus far roughly
20 percent of the rainforest has been cleared either for cattle
Entering a New World 11
As salt accumulated and wheat yields declined, the Sumerians shifted to barley, a more salt-tolerant plant. This postponed
Sumer’s decline, but it was treating the symptoms, not the
cause, of their falling crop yields. As salt concentrations continued to build, the yields of barley eventually declined also.
The resultant shrinkage of the food supply undermined this
once-great civilization. As land productivity declined, so did the
Archeologist Robert McC. Adams has studied the site of
ancient Sumer on the central floodplain of the Euphrates River,
an empty, desolate area now outside the frontiers of cultivation.
He describes how the “tangled dunes, long disused canal levees,
and the rubble-strewn mounds of former settlement contribute
only low, featureless relief. Vegetation is sparse, and in many
areas it is almost wholly absent….Yet at one time, here lay the
core, the heartland, the oldest urban, literate civilization in the
The New World counterpart to Sumer is the Mayan civilization that developed in the lowlands of what is now Guatemala.
It flourished from AD 250 until its collapse around AD 900. Like
the Sumerians, the Mayans had developed a sophisticated, highly productive agriculture, this one based on raised plots of earth
surrounded by canals that supplied water.27
As with Sumer, the Mayan demise was apparently linked to
a failing food supply. For this New World civilization, it was
deforestation and soil erosion that undermined agriculture.
Changes in climate may also have played a role. Food shortages
apparently triggered civil conflict among the various Mayan
cities as they competed for something to eat. Today this region
is covered by jungle, reclaimed by nature.28
The Icelanders crossed a political tipping point that enabled
them to come together and limit grazing before grassland deterioration reached the point of no return. The Sumerians and
Mayans failed to do so. Time ran out.
Today, our successes and problems flow from the extraordinary growth in the world economy over the last century. The
economy’s annual growth, once measured in billions of dollars,
is now measured in the trillions. Indeed, just the growth in the
output of goods and services in 2007 exceeded the total output
of the world economy in 1900.29
10 PLAN B 3.0
As wells go dry, as grasslands are converted into desert, and as
soils erode, people are forced to migrate elsewhere, either within
their country or across national boundaries. As the earth’s natural capacities at the local level are exceeded, the declining economic possibilities generate a flow of environmental refugees.
While the continuing erosion of the economy’s environmental support systems has convinced environmentalists, natural
scientists, and others of the need to restructure the global economy, many others are not yet convinced. What is happening in
China may change their minds.
China: Why the Existing Economic Model Will Fail
For almost as long as I can remember we have been saying that
the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s people, consumes a third or more of the earth’s resources. That was true. It
is no longer true. Today China consumes more basic resources
than the United States does.38
Among the key commodities such as grain, meat, oil, coal,
and steel, China consumes more of each than the United States
except for oil, where the United States still has a wide (though
narrowing) lead. China uses a third more grain than the United
States. Its meat consumption is nearly double that of the United States. It uses three times as much steel.39
These numbers reflect national consumption, but what
would happen if consumption per person in China were to
catch up to that of the United States? If we assume that China’s
economy slows from the 10 percent annual growth of recent
years to 8 percent, then in 2030 income per person in China will
reach the level it is in the United States today.40
If we also assume that the Chinese will spend their income
more or less as Americans do today, then we can translate their
income into consumption. If, for example, each person in China
consumes paper at the current American rate, then in 2030
China’s 1.46 billion people will need twice as much paper as is
produced worldwide today. There go the world’s forests.41
If we assume that in 2030 there are three cars for every four people in China, as there now are in the United States, China will have
1.1 billion cars. The world currently has 860 million cars. To provide the needed roads, highways, and parking lots, China would
have to pave an area comparable to what it now plants in rice.42
Entering a New World 13
ranching or soybean farming. Another 22 percent has been
weakened by logging and road building, letting sunlight reach
the forest floor, drying it out, and turning it into kindling. When
it reaches this point, the rainforest loses its resistance to fire and
begins to burn when ignited by lightning strikes.33
Scientists believe that if half the Amazon is cleared or weakened, this may be the tipping point, the threshold beyond which
the rainforest cannot be saved. We will have crossed the tipping
point, with consequences that will reverberate around the
world. Amazonian ecologist Philip Fearnside says “with every
tree that falls, we increase the probability that the tipping point
will arrive.” Geoffrey Lean, summarizing the findings of a symposium on the Amazon in the Independent, says that the alternatives to a rainforest in the Amazon would be “dry savannah
at best, desert at worst.”34
Daniel Nepstad, an Amazon-based senior scientist from the
Woods Hole Research Center, sees a future of “megafires” sweeping through the drying jungle. He notes that the carbon stored in
the Amazon’s trees equals roughly 15 years of human-induced
carbon emissions in the atmosphere. If we reach this tipping
point we will have triggered yet another climate feedback, taken
another step that could help seal our fate as a civilization.35
The excessive pressures on a given resource typically begin in
a few countries and then slowly spread to others. Nigeria and
the Philippines, once net exporters of forest products, are now
importers. Thailand, now largely deforested, has banned logging. So has China, which is turning to Siberia and to the few
remaining forested countries in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar and Papua New Guinea, for the logs it needs.36
A similar situation exists with fisheries. At first only a few
fisheries were under excessive pressure, mostly in the North Sea,
off the east coast of North America, and off the coast of East
Asia. Now with fishing fleets replete with factory processing
ships and modern technologies, overfishing is the rule, not the
exception. In the absence of intervention, the decline in scores
of fisheries will culminate in collapse. Some, such as the cod
fishery off the coast of Newfoundland and the Atlantic tuna
fishery, may never recover. The Chilean sea bass fishery in the
Southern Ocean and the sturgeon fishery in the Caspian Sea
may also be approaching the point of no return.37
12 PLAN B 3.0
health care services, weakened states can become a source of
infectious disease, as Nigeria has for polio.45
In failed states, where governments are no longer in control,
power is typically assumed by other elements in society. In
Afghanistan, it is local warlords; in Somalia, tribal chiefs; in
Haiti, street gangs. New governing groups may also include
drug rings or organized crime.
In the past, governments have been concerned by the concentration of too much power in one state, as in Nazi Germany,
Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. But today it is failing
states that provide the greatest threat to global order and stability. As Foreign Policy magazine notes, “World leaders once
worried about who was amassing power; now they worry about
the absence of it.”46
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates the number
of failing states at 20 or so. The British government’s international development arm has identified 46 so-called fragile states.
The World Bank focuses its attention on 35 low-income countries under stress, which it also describes as fragile states.47
The most systematic ongoing effort to analyze failed and
failing states is one undertaken jointly by the Fund for Peace
and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is
updated annually and published in each July/August issue of
Foreign Policy. This invaluable service, which draws on thousands of information sources worldwide, is rich with insights
into the changes that are under way in the world and, in a broad
sense, where the world is heading.48
In this analysis, countries are graded on 12 social, economic,
political, and military indicators, with scores that range from 1
to 10. Scores for each indicator are aggregated into a single country indicator: the Failed States Index. A score of 120, the maximum, means that a society is failing totally by every measure.49
In the first Foreign Policy listing, based on data for 2004 and
published in 2005, 7 countries had scores of 100 or more. In
2005 this increased to 9 countries, and in 2006 it was 12—nearly doubling in two years. This short trend is far from definitive,
but both the rise in country scores near the top and the near
doubling of countries with scores of 100 or higher suggest that
state failure is increasing.50
Most of the top 10 countries in 2006 (see Table 1–1) were
Entering a New World 15
By 2030 China would need 98 million barrels of oil a day.
The world is currently producing 85 million barrels a day and
may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s
oil reserves.43
What China is teaching us is that the western economic
model—the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway
economy—is not going to work for China. If it does not work
for China, it will not work for India, which by 2030 may have an
even larger population 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 global economy, where we all depend on the same grain,
oil, and steel, the western economic model will no longer work
for the industrial countries either.44
The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new
economy—one that is powered largely by renewable sources of
energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and
that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to
build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress. Can we build it fast enough to avoid a
breakdown of social systems?
Mounting Stresses, Failing States
States fail when national governments lose control of part or all
of their territory and can no longer ensure the personal security of their people. When governments lose their monopoly on
power, law and order begin to disintegrate. When they can no
longer provide basic services such as education, health care, and
food security, they lose their legitimacy. A government in this
position may no longer be able to collect enough revenue to
finance effective governance. Societies can become so fragmented that they lack the cohesion to make decisions.
Failing states often degenerate into civil war. As warring
groups vie for power, they become a threat to neighboring countries when internal conflict spills over national borders. They
provide possible training grounds for international terrorist
groups, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, or they become
sources of drugs, as in Myanmar (formerly Burma) or
Afghanistan (with the latter accounting for 92 percent of the
world’s opium supply in 2006). Because they lack functioning
14 PLAN B 3.0
them expanding at close to 3 percent a year or 20-fold per century. In 5 of these 17 countries, women have an average of nearly seven children each. Viewed in terms of the demographic
transition, these 17 countries are caught in the demographic
trap. They have progressed far enough economically to reduce
mortality but not far enough to create the economic and social
conditions for fertility decline.52
In all but 6 of the top 20 failing states, at least 40 percent of
the population is under 15. Such a large share of young people
often signals future political instability. Young men, lacking
employment opportunities, often become disaffected, making
them ready recruits for insurgency movements.53
Not surprisingly, there is also often a link between the degree
of state failure and the destruction of environmental support
systems. In a number of countries on the list—including Sudan,
Somalia, and Haiti—deforestation, grassland deterioration,
and soil erosion are widespread. The countries with fast-growing populations are also facing a steady shrinkage of both cropland and water per person. After a point, as rapid population
growth, deteriorating environmental support systems, and
poverty reinforce each other, the resulting instability makes it
difficult to attract investment from abroad. Even public assistance programs from donor countries are often phased out as
the security breakdown threatens the lives of aid workers, forcing their withdrawal.
State failure is not neatly contained by national boundaries.
It often spreads to neighboring countries, much as the genocide
in Rwanda spilled over into the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, eventually drawing several other countries into the war
that claimed some 3.9 million lives in the Congo over several
years. More recently, the killings in Darfur have spread into
As the number of failing states grows, dealing with various
international crises becomes more difficult. Actions that may be
relatively simple in a healthy world order of functioning nation
states, such as controlling the spread of infectious diseases,
could become difficult or impossible in a world with many disintegrating states. Even maintaining international flows of raw
materials could become a challenge. At some point, spreading
political instability could disrupt global economic progress,
Entering a New World 17
near the top of the list in the two preceding years. In reviewing
the data for 2006, Foreign Policy noted that “few encouraging
signs emerged in 2006 to suggest the world is on a path to
greater peace and stability.” The one bright spot was the
improvement in Liberia, which moved from ninth in 2004, on
the verge of state failure, to twenty-seventh in 2006. When
Liberia, after years of turmoil, held an election that brought
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the presidency in late 2005, it restored
both a measure of political stability and hope for the country’s
Ranking on the Failed States Index is closely linked with key
demographic and environmental indicators. Of the top 20 failing states, 17 have rapid rates of population growth, many of
16 PLAN B 3.0
Table 1–1. Top 20 Failing States, 2006
Rank Country Score
1 Sudan 113.7
2 Iraq 111.4
3 Somalia 111.1
4 Zimbabwe 110.1
5 Chad 108.8
6 Ivory Coast 107.3
7 Democratic Republic of the Congo 105.5
8 Afghanistan 102.3
9 Guinea 101.3
10 Central African Republic 101.0
11 Haiti 100.9
12 Pakistan 100.1
13 North Korea 97.7
14 Burma 97.0
15 Uganda 96.4
16 Bangladesh 95.9
17 Nigeria 95.6
18 Ethiopia 95.3
19 Burundi 95.2
20 Timor-Leste 94.9
Source: Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
expect that governments in affected countries would quickly
raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to
stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial
or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping and security-threatening water shortages loom large
are Pakistan and Yemen.
Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident
for some time, not one country—industrial or developing—has
succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved
too difficult politically for even the most technologically
advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the
atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twentyfirst century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for
the Sumerians in 4000 BC?
Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has
exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20
years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that
remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking
supply of oil.58
This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems,
but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we
fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added
to the list. The risk is that these accumulating problems and
their consequences will overwhelm more and more governments, leading to widespread state failure and eventually the
failure of civilization.
Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps
most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak
point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed. Several converging trends are making it difficult for the world’s farmers to
keep up with the growth in food demand. Prominent among
these are falling water tables, the growing conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses, and more extreme climate events, including crop-withering heat waves, droughts, and floods. As a result,
world grain production has fallen short of consumption in
seven of the last eight years, dropping world grain stocks to
their lowest level in 34 years. Corn prices nearly doubled and
wheat prices nearly tripled between late 2005 and late 2007.59
Entering a New World 19
suggesting that we need to address the causes of state failure
with a heightened sense of urgency.
A Civilizational Tipping Point
In recent years there has been a growing concern over thresholds
or tipping points in nature. For example, scientists worry about
when the shrinking population of an endangered species will
fall to a point from which it cannot recover. Marine biologists
are concerned about the point where overfishing will trigger the
collapse of a fishery.
We know there were social tipping points in earlier civilizations, points at which they were overwhelmed by the forces
threatening them. For instance, at some point the irrigationrelated salt buildup in their soil overwhelmed the capacity of the
Sumerians to deal with it. With the Mayans, there came a time
when the effects of cutting too many trees and the associated
loss of topsoil were simply more than they could manage.55
The social tipping points that lead to decline and collapse
when societies are overwhelmed by a single threat or by simultaneous multiple threats are not always easily anticipated. As a
general matter, more economically advanced countries can deal
with new threats more effectively than developing countries
can. For example, while governments of industrial countries
have been able to hold HIV infection rates among adults under
1 percent, many developing-country governments have failed to
do so and are now struggling with much higher infection rates.
This is most evident in some southern African countries, where
up to 20 percent or more of adults are infected.56
A similar situation exists with population growth. While
populations in nearly all industrial countries except the United
States have stopped growing, rapid growth continues in nearly
all the countries of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. Nearly all of the 70 million people being added to
world population each year are born in countries where natural
support systems are already deteriorating in the face of excessive population pressure, in the countries least able to support
them. In these countries, the risk of state failure is growing.57
Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of
the more advanced countries, however. When countries first
detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to
18 PLAN B 3.0
We face an extraordinary challenge, but there is much to be
upbeat about. All the problems we face can be dealt with using
existing technologies. And almost everything we need to do to
move the world economy back onto an environmentally sustainable path has already been done in one or more countries.
We see the components of Plan B—the alternative to business as usual—in new technologies already on the market. On
the energy front, for example, an advanced-design wind turbine
can produce as much energy as an oil well. Japanese engineers
have designed a vacuum-sealed refrigerator that uses only one
eighth as much electricity as those marketed a decade ago. Gaselectric hybrid automobiles, getting nearly 50 miles per gallon,
are twice as efficient as the average car on the road.62
Numerous countries are providing models of the various
components of Plan B. Denmark, for example, today gets 20
percent of its electricity from wind and has plans to push this to
50 percent. Some 60 million Europeans now get their residential
electricity from wind farms. By the end of 2007, some 40 million
Chinese homes will be getting their hot water from rooftop
solar water heaters. Iceland now heats close to 90 percent of its
homes with geothermal energy. In so doing, it has virtually
eliminated the use of coal for home heating.63
With food, India—using a small-scale dairy production
model that relies almost entirely on crop residues as a feed
source—has more than quadrupled its milk production since
1970, overtaking the United States as the world’s leading milk
producer. The value of India’s dairy production now exceeds
that of its rice harvest.64
Fish farming advances in China, centered on the use of an
ecologically sophisticated carp polyculture, have made this the
first country where fish farm output exceeds the oceanic catch.
Indeed, the 32 million tons of farmed fish produced in China in
2005 was equal to roughly a third of the world’s oceanic fish
We see what a Plan B world could look like in the reforested
mountains of South Korea. Once a barren, almost treeless country, the 65 percent of South Korea now covered by forests has
checked flooding and soil erosion, returning environmental
health and stability to the Korean countryside.66
The United States—which over the last two decades retired
Entering a New World 21
Just when it seemed that things could not get much worse,
the United States, the world’s breadbasket, is planning to double the share of its grain harvest going to fuel ethanol—from 16
percent of the 2006 crop to 30 percent or so of the 2008 crop.
With this enormous growth in the U.S. capacity to convert grain
into fuel, the world price of grain is moving up toward its oilequivalent value. This ill-conceived U.S. effort to reduce its oil
insecurity has helped drive world grain prices to all-time highs,
creating unprecedented world food insecurity. Under this stress,
still more states may fail.60
State failure can come quickly—and often unexpectedly. In
looking back at earlier civilizations, it was often a single environmental trend that led to their demise. But countries today
are facing several simultaneously, some of which reinforce each
other. The earlier civilizations such as the Sumerians and
Mayans were often local, rising and falling in isolation from the
rest of the world. In contrast, we will either mobilize together
to save our global civilization, or we will all be potential victims
of its disintegration.
Plan B—A Plan of Hope
Plan B is shaped by what is needed to save civilization, not by
what may currently be considered politically feasible. Plan B
does not fit within a particular discipline, sector, or set of
Implementing Plan B means undertaking several actions
simultaneously, including eradicating poverty, stabilizing population, and restoring the earth’s natural systems. It also involves
cutting carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020, largely
through a mobilization to raise energy efficiency and harness
renewable sources of energy.
Not only is the scale of this save-our-civilization plan ambitious, so is the speed with which it must be implemented. We
must move at wartime speed, restructuring the world energy
economy at a pace reminiscent of the restructuring of the U.S.
industrial economy in 1942 following the Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor. The shift from producing cars to planes, tanks,
and guns was accomplished within a matter of months. One of
the keys to this extraordinarily rapid restructuring was a ban on
the sale of cars, a ban that lasted nearly three years.61
20 PLAN B 3.0
fired power plants. This “ban the bulb” movement could
become the first major win in the battle to stabilize climate.70
Participating in the construction of this enduring new economy is exhilarating. So is the quality of life it will bring. We will
be able to breathe clean air. Our cities will be less congested, less
noisy, less polluted, and more civilized. A world where population has stabilized, forests are expanding, and carbon emissions
are falling is within our grasp.
Entering a New World 23
one tenth of its cropland, most of it highly erodible, and shifted to conservation tillage practices—has reduced soil erosion by
40 percent. At the same time, the nation’s farmers expanded the
grain harvest by more than one fifth.67
Some of the most innovative leadership has come from cities.
Curitiba, Brazil, a city of 1 million people, began restructuring
its transport system in 1974. Since then its population has
tripled, but its car traffic has declined by 30 percent. Amsterdam
has developed a diverse urban transport system, where nearly 40
percent of all trips within the city are taken by bicycle. Paris has
a transport diversification plan that also includes a prominent
role for the bicycle and is intended to reduce car traffic by 40
percent. London is relying on a tax on cars entering the city center to attain a similar goal.68
Not only are new technologies becoming available, but some
of these technologies can be combined to create entirely new
outcomes. Gas-electric hybrid cars with an enhanced battery
and a plug-in capacity, combined with investment in wind farms
feeding cheap electricity into the grid, permit most daily driving
to be done with electricity, and at a cost equivalent of less than
$1-a-gallon gasoline. In much of the world, domestic wind
energy can be substituted for imported oil.69
The challenge is to build a new economy and to do it at
wartime speed before we miss so many of nature’s deadlines
that the economic system begins to unravel. This introductory
chapter is followed by five chapters outlining the principal environmental, demographic, and economic challenges facing civilization. Then there are seven chapters that outline Plan B, the
roadmap of where the world needs to go and how to get there.
Our civilization is in trouble because of trends we ourselves
have set in motion. The good news is that momentum is building in efforts to reverse damaging environmental trends. Just to
cite one example, in early 2007 Australia announced that it
would ban incandescent light bulbs by 2010, replacing them
with highly efficient compact fluorescents that use only one
fourth as much electricity. Canada quickly followed with a similar initiative. Europe, the United States, and China are expected to do the same soon. The world may be approaching a
tipping point on a political initiative that can drop world electricity use by nearly 12 percent, enabling us to close 705 coal22 PLAN B 3.0

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