"Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Chapter 13. Plan B: Building a New Future: Introduction
As we look to the future, two questions loom large. Is civilizational decline under way? And how can we tell? Among the early social signs of possible decline are a widespread drop in life expectancy, growing numbers of hungry people, and a lengthening list of failed and failing states. For the first time in the modern era, life expectancy for a large segment of humanity—the 750 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa—has dropped precipitously, falling from 61 years to 48 years as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 1
Over the last half-century, the number of people suffering from hunger was declining, but recently this progress was reversed as the number rose from 826 million in 1998 to 852 million in 2002. With business as usual, the number of hungry will likely continue to rise, reinforcing concerns about food security. And now we have a new wildcard in the food security deck, the fast-growing conversion of foodstuffs, such as wheat, corn, soybeans, and sugarcane, into automotive fuel. As the number of ethanol distilleries and biodiesel refineries multiplies, this threat will expand. Could food supply be the weak link in our modern civilization, as it was for the Sumerians, the Mayans, and the Easter Islanders? 2
Perhaps the most disturbing recent development is the growing list of failed states. The Foreign Policy article discussed in Chapter 6 lists some 60 countries that have failed, are failing, or are at risk of failing. Governments are being overwhelmed by demographic and environmental forces. After decades of rapid population growth, many governments are suffering from demographic fatigue. With leaders unable to cope with ever-growing populations, environmental life-support systems are disintegrating and social services are breaking down. 3
How many states have to fail before our global civilization fails? Each additional failed state further weakens the capacity of the international community to maintain stability in the monetary system, to control the spread of infectious diseases, and to deal with local famine threats. At some point, as the number of failing states multiplies, global systems begin to fail.
We know that sustaining progress depends on restructuring the global economy, shifting from a fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy to one based on renewable energy sources, a diverse transportation system, and a comprehensive reuse/recycle materials system. This can be done largely by restructuring taxes and subsidies. Sustaining progress also means eradicating poverty, stabilizing population, and restoring the earth’s natural systems. Securing the additional public outlays needed to reach these goals depends on reordering fiscal priorities in response to the new threats to our security.
In this mobilization, the scarcest resource of all is time. The temptation is to reset the clock, but we cannot. Nature is the timekeeper.
1. United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision (New York: 2005).
2. 1998 data from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2000 (Rome: 2000); 2002 data from FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004 (Rome: 2004).
3. Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2005, pp. 56–65.
Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute