he latest work by Lester Brown, founder of both the Worldwatch and Earth Policy institutes, begins with a 110-page catechism of planetary woe that is both exhaustive and, frankly, exhausting. With a style akin to a carpenter pounding nails, Brown chronicles the tattered state of the global environment: its warming climate, falling water tables, eroding soils, shrinking farmland, growing population, and burgeoning epidemics.
This is the result of what Brown calls Plan A, or "business as usual." The numbing litany could easily cause readers to abandon the book before the second half. That would be a shame, for Brown's vision, Plan B, is provocative in both its boldness and simplicity. He believes many of the world's problems, including our national security, could be solved through logical, even obvious measures: universal family planning, increased water efficiency, greater literacy, and a commitment to a hydrogen economy as bold as Kennedy's program to put a man on the moon.
Of course, the word "plan" implies not only objectives but a way to achieve them, and Brown sometimes demonstrates the big thinker's pro-pensity to leave the details to others. Some of his strategies sound eminently sensible, such as implementing taxes that penalize bad behavior and encourage good behavior (think cigarette taxes). Others seem fatally idealistic. Brown proposes "simply restructuring global energy subsidies" by "shifting" the $210 billion spent annually on hydrocarbons to renewable energy sources -- something far from simple, given the political climate in Washington. He also calls for an "unprecedented degree of international cooperation" at a time when our national leaders often seem contemptuous of world opinion.
But ideas, especially big ones, don't always have to be practical to be powerful. In the face of so many environmental threats, Brown insists that government should actively defend the common weal. Not a bad message to promote as we gear up for another election year.
-- Hal Clifford