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Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble
By Lester R. Brown
W. W. Norton & Co., 285 pp., $27.95

Plan B

The 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

Private Property and the Common Good
By Eric T. Freyfogle
Island Press/Shearwater, 324 pp., $25

The Land We Share

Nothing concentrates the mind on property law so well as the prospect of your neighbor setting up a 960-acre industrial hog farm next door. It was just that possibility that drove two Iowa couples to court in 1995, and their case serves as a compelling launching point for environmental law professor Eric Freyfogle's examination of the general notion of property rights: the lengths to which government can go in regulating a landowner's rights, the evolution of property law in the United States, and how we might intelligently reshape the law for the benefit of everyone -- and everything -- that lives on the land.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that a basically agrarian property system, which urged landowners "to use their property so as to cause no harm to others," came to favor intensive industrial land use with little concern for its impact beyond an owner's property lines. The Iowa statute that would have permitted a landowner to set up a giant hog farm with no regard for his neighbors precisely reflected this view of the law -- and was overturned by the state's supreme court only a decade ago.

As Freyfogle chronicles the evolution of property law in the United States, he introduces us to the theories of John Locke and Henry George; to Aldo Leopold's concept of "the land community," an organic whole of which humans are a part; and to Wendell Berry's call for a vision of private property with a "new mix of landowner rights and responsibilities." In the end, Freyfogle makes a convincing case for an "ecologically and ethically guided attitude toward private land," a welcome idea in an era of unchecked sprawl with vistas of redundant golf courses.
-- Jon Swan

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OnEarth. Fall 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council