Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Plan A is leading us to catastrophe

Yes, this post is a long one. It is also important. Please read it, link to it, and pass it around.

I've finished the book Plan B 4.0; Mobilizing to Save Civilization by Lester R. Brown. As far as I can tell, the "4.0" business only means this is the 4th edition of the book, "substantially revised" from earlier editions so that all the research and proposed solutions are current as of 2009. It is definitely a scholarly book with 268 pages of text, more than 70 pages of source notes, and more than 20 pages of index.

The first chapter lays out the severity of our current situation:

* We are reaching the limits of being able to feed the world's population. The improvements in crop yield have been flat for decades and already approach the limits of photosynthesis efficiency.

* Soil erosion is reducing the amount of land that can be farmed and reducing yields on other plots. Deserts are advancing. A lot more land is being turned into suburbia.

* Many countries (including America) are depleting aquifers faster than they are naturally replenished. Farmers are finding it pays more to sell their water rights to nearby cities than to grow crops. As glaciers melt we are planning as if that increased water flow will continue, but that water will stop when the glaciers are gone. We're running out of water.

* Hotter temperatures reduce crop yield.

* Rising sea levels will inundate many coastal farming areas.

* As countries develop its citizens want to move up the food chain and eat more meat the way Americans do.

* We are foolishly diverting food to feed our automobile energy needs. I recently read that American law mandates that all gasoline must now contain a certain percentage of ethanol.

* Worldwide fish catch is declining.

The most important consequence of global warming will be hunger.

Because of these pressures several countries, notably China, are buying up land in other countries. This displaces local farmers and means the host country has less ability to feed itself.

The world economy cannot be sustained at this rate. We are selling our future.

As food insecurity increases more countries are becoming failed states. These are countries without effective central government and essentially cannot feed themselves. Failed states are the breeding ground of terrorists. At the top of the list of failed states (as of 2008) are Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Guinea, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, and Haiti.

There is hope. Plan B is ambitious, requiring more work and urgency than any war. However, all of the proposed technology currently exists. The major parts of the plan are:

* Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2020.

* Stabilize the world's population at 8 billion (it is coming up to 7 billion now).

* Eradicate poverty. Poor people, in their desperation, do not care for the environment. Poverty breeds terrorism.

* Restore the natural environment.

Chapters 2 and 3 spend 50 pages to go into the problems mentioned above (in detail!). These chapters add one more area of concern -- there could be as many as a half-billion environmental refugees. That's one in 16 worldwide.

On to the solutions. Much of this work has already started. There are several cities and countries around the world that can be used as a model for various solutions.

Chapter 4: Reduce energy needs.

* Reduce energy needed for lighting. CFLs and LEDs are making that revolution happen. Some countries (including America) are phasing out incandescent bulbs.

* Reduce energy needed by appliances. The law in Japan says that a couple years after an appliance builder makes a breakthrough in efficiency that new level is required by all appliances of that type. Set limits on the power consumption of idle appliances (otherwise known as vampire electronics).

* Build new and retrofit old buildings to be zero-carbon.

* Electrify the transportation system. This is more than electric cars. It includes more accessible public transportation, more accommodation of bicycle use, more shipping by rail which is electric powered, and more high speed rail travel to reduce the use of planes.

* Reduce the amount of virgin material in everything we make. Manufacturing for ease of recycling uses lots less energy than creating new materials.

* Make the electrical grid smarter so that generating plants don't have to be built to cover such a high peak usage. I've gotten a brochure from my own electric company on their plans to make this happen. With smarter grids come smarter appliances.

* Stop making useless things. And what is useless? Disposable shopping bags and bottled water. Another useless thing surprised me: gold jewelry. Most gold is made into jewelry and it takes 200,000 tons of ore to get one ton of gold (a ton of iron needs only 2 tons of ore) with a huge cost in energy and pollution.

The easiest way to make all that happen? Carbon tax. Yeah, in this political climate. Sigh.

Chapter 5: Shift to sustainable energy.

* Move away from oil and especially coal. A lot of what drives China's ventures into green energy is the realization of how damaging coal is to human health.

* The amount of wind farm development (completed and planned) worldwide is quite impressive.

* Solar photovoltaic cell installations have also grown rapidly. This allows electrification of rural areas without extending the power grid. Once the installation cost is taken care of the cells provide essentially free power. Solar water heaters are also becoming standard for new construction in many parts of the world.

* Some countries can harness geothermal energy.

* Energy can also be extracted from forest industry waste, crop waste (not crops), livestock waste, urban waste, and suburban yard waste. It is much more efficient to turn these sources into electricity and use that to power cars than to turn them into liquid fuel for cars.

* Energy from rivers (not necessarily from dams), tides, and waves.

All of these sources can provide enough energy for the whole world. However, conversion to them must be made with haste.

Chapter 6: Design cities for people.

Many cities are foul places and designed for the car, not the person. Tremendous amounts of energy are required to get huge amounts of water and food into a city and get the waste out.

* Improve urban transportation systems. Some cities add rail and bus systems. Some tax cars in the central area. Many work to be more bicycle friendly (which are a lot cheaper and healthier than cars).

* A toilet based on water only pollutes the water that flows through it. It also spreads disease. Composting toilets and waterless urinals are available and gaining use.

* Urban farming reduces the amount of energy needed to get food into the city and is great for individual an community health. It also uses up the product of those composting toilets.

* Upgrade the squatter settlements that spring up in many cities in developing countries.

Chapter 7: Eradicating poverty and stabilizing population

As noted above, poverty breeds terrorism. The sheer number of people affects how easy it is to feed everyone. Steps toward these goals:

* Educate everyone. The best way out of poverty is education. There are also other benefits. As female education rises, fertility falls and fewer infants die. Education boosts agricultural production. Education reduces the spread of behavior based disease, such as HIV. The best way to keep kids in school and to keep them learning is to provide lunch. In addition, adult literacy programs are needed.

* Provide basic health services, including vaccinations, instruction on how to care for common health issues such as diarrhea, sex education, and smoking cessation.

* Stabilize population through family planning services. Many poor women live in fear of their next pregnancy. When services are available family size drops quickly. Education through soap operas is quite effective.

* Rescue failed states. This will take a great deal of international effort and the rejuvenation of such programs as the Peace Corps.

Cost of these poverty eradication efforts: $77 billion a year.

Chapter 8: Feeding 8 billion people well

The population of the world is expected to pass 7 billion by the end of this year. If the population is stabilized it should level off at about 8 billion. We should be able to feed them all. Though crop yields haven't risen much in the last 20 years (after huge increases earlier in the last century. There are still things to be done.

* Raise land productivity through several techniques still not fully used. Breed crops more tolerant to drought and cold (corn in North Dakota). Where moisture permits grow multiple crops each year, such as winter wheat and corn. Grow both grain and trees that produce legumes. Give farmers clear title to their land so they have incentive to make long term improvements to it.

* Raise water productivity through efficiencies such as using sprinkler or drip technology, shift planting time to the rainy season, give water management to local boards who have an economic stake in doing it right, price water accurately according to its availability, reduce the amount of water used for livestock.

* Produce protein more efficiently. As economies become more affluent their citizens add more meat and dairy products to their diet. Alas, fish catch is leveling off. Beef raised in feedlots takes 7 kilograms of grain for one kilogram of meat. This is grain that could be eaten directly. The calculation is different for range-fed beef because that doesn't use grain that could be eaten and much of USA beef is range-fed. A kilogram of pork needs over 3 kilogram of grain. For poultry it is just over 2, for many farmed fish it is under 2. Alas, farmed salmon is inefficient because they feed on other fish. The more efficient the protein source the more grain is available for other uses. Grain efficiency is also a factor. It can be more efficient to feed corn to poultry than to grow soybeans instead of corn. Feed cattle with crop residue rather than grain.

* Localize agriculture. Make it more efficient for small producers to get their products to market. Plant a garden, even in the city. Let school children help tend the crops that feed the school.

* Reduce demand for food. US citizens eat 800 kilograms of grain a year (only 100 kg eaten directly). Italians eat 400 kilograms, Indians eat 200 kilograms. The healthiest are Italians (Indians don't get enough protein).

* Stop using food to power cars.

* Since food security is based on many issues (see everything above) the minister of agriculture should be head of state to coordinate it all.

Chapter 10: Can we mobilize fast enough?

The importance is urgent. Time is short. What must be done to get there?

* Adjust markets to tell the truth. Mr. Dahle of Norway said, "Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth."

* Shift taxes away from income (we want people to work) and onto environmentally destructive activities. Tax coal and oil according to the cost of their environmental damage. The true cost of a gallon of gas is $15. Thankfully, consumption drops quickly at about $4 a gallon. So start raising the gas tax by 40 cents a year with a matching reduction in income taxes. Even raise taxes on new cars. Taxes are better than cap-and-trade because we already have a tax infrastructure in place and the cost of the tax in the future can be known today.

* Stop subsidizing destruction. We currently subsidize fossil fuel burning, overpumping aquifers, clearcutting forests, overfishing, and airplane flights.

* Coal is already on the way out. The threat of carbon taxes and EPA regulation means there have been no new coal plants in the USA in the last couple years. As we use less electricity and more wind farms come online existing coal plants will be closed.

* Shift transportation to electricity. This includes replacing long-haul trucks with electrified rail.

Shifting away from fossil fuels, electrifying transportation, and sequestering carbon can give us the goal of 80% reduction in carbon emissions.

The best method of prompting social change is strong grass-roots movements coupled with strong political leaders. We need a mobilization similar to what got us through World War II. But we're working not just to save the Free World, but worldwide civilization.

The cost? About $187 billion a year. Sounds like a lot? Compare it to some other things we spend money on and it begins to look like peanuts. Then compare it to the cost of doing nothing.

This amount is less than a third of the current USA defense budget. But don't we need that much for protection against terrorists? If the current situation continues the conditions that breed terrorists will increase, so it makes sense to improve those conditions. Solving population, education, and food issues worldwide reduce the conditions that breed terrorists. A budgetary diversion well spent.

But the USA doesn't need to shoulder the entire amount itself. The cost of Plan B is about an eighth of worldwide defense spending.

The amount of money for Plan B is puny compared to what is being spent in Iraq and what will be spent on caring for soldiers mentally and physically damaged by the war. That total is about $3 trillion, about 16 times the cost of saving civilization. Not only did the war not fulfill it's stated reasons (because they were lies) the whole mess has distracted us from the looming environmental catastrophe.

I've heard the tax cut windfall for the rich in the last tax bill is about a trillion dollars over two years. The cost of Plan B is under two trillion over 10 years. The money needed for Plan B is hiding in the pockets of the rich. Again, American rich shouldn't have to pay for the whole thing ourselves.

Compared to numbers thrown around Washington these days the cost of Plan B is amazingly cheap.

The obvious question at this point is what is the average citizen to do? Recycling, composting, reducing meat consumption, driving an electric car, and even putting photovoltaic cells on the roof -- as important as they are -- isn't going to make it. Funding Plan B and changing the tax system to stop funding our destruction is going to, alas, require a political solution. And this at a time when a good chunk of Washington is doing all it can to turn its back on the problem.

Both federal and local representatives need to hear from us. The city council needs to hear about our desire for a city for people instead of cars. I did that this past fall when our city government hosted a picnic and I had a discussion with a city planner about making it possible to get all over the city on bicycle. I'm sure there are more ideas to share with him in the future.

As for your senator and representative, they need to hear about restructuring taxes so that the environmental costs of fossil fuels is included and that funding Plan B needs to be a priority. To do that one must be aware of the issues. So buy the book. And read it (it isn't dry).

And then look here for other things to do.

I will only ask you to do something I am doing myself. So, below is a sample letter that I sent to my own senators and representative. Feel free to copy it and send to your own Congresscritters. Find them through House and Senate websites. Parts of it should be sent to state legislators too.

To my non-American readers: This isn't just an American problem (even if we are the biggest part of it). There are things for you to do too. Please do your part.

Time is short.

Dear ________;

I am urgently concerned about the very real likelihood of an environmental catastrophe if we humans don't change our destructive ways. Because of that I have changed my light bulbs to CFLs, bought canvas shopping bags to avoid the paper/plastic choice, reduced my meat consumption, and started composting. I drive a high mileage car and my next one will be a hybrid or electric. I have also read the book "Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization" by Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.

Alas, the issue is too great for me to do it on my own. There need to be political solutions as well. Here is a list of them:

* Raise environmental taxes, coupled with a reduction in income taxes. Capitalism, as currently practiced, does not take into account environmental damage. If it did, gasoline would be $15 a gallon instead of $3.

* Promote funding of wind and sun electrical generation, coupled with mandated improvements in appliance efficiency and smart grid technology.

* Change policies to urge the adoption of electric vehicles, electrified mass transportation, and electrified rail cargo systems.

* Support earth restoration through poverty eradication, education, family planning, reforestation, and conservation. The annual cost is $190 billion, which sounds tiny compared to the defense budget (or the tax cuts given to the rich) and leads to greater security.

* Block new nuclear power plants until the environmental impact of their waste is accounted for in the price of the electricity they produce.

* Tax bottled water (or at least the bottle). We shouldn't waste resources on something useless.

* Assist in redesigning cities for humans instead of cars and promote mass transit.

* Stop subsidizing the use of food for automobile fuel. Hungry people need all the food we can produce and the diversion to fuel only drives up prices.

* Urge recycling and rebuilding our economy around recycled material.

* Assist the shift from flood irrigation to drip irrigation to save water and also price water according to its availability, not just the cost of transporting and purifying it.

* Urge lawmakers around the world to do their part.

An environmental catastrophe will likely mean a half billion refugees and a severe food shortage. The cost of doing nothing is too high.

I highly recommend the Plan B book, where these ideas are from. It thoroughly explains the problems the whole world will face if we do nothing and lays out an action plan for us to follow. I urge you and your staff to read it and build a partnership with Mr. Brown and the Earth Policy Institute at


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