EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 13. Plan B: Building a New Future: Listening for Wake-up Calls

We are entering a new world. Of that there can be little doubt. What we do not know is whether it will be a world of decline and collapse or a world of environmental restoration and economic progress. Can the world mobilize quickly enough? Where will the wake-up calls come from? What form will they take? Will we hear them?

In the eyes of many, Hurricane Katrina was just such a wake-up call. Until recently, the most costly weather-related events on record were Hurricane Andrew, which struck Florida in 1992, and the flooding in China’s Yangtze River basin in 1998, each causing an estimated $30 billion in damage. When Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in late summer 2005, devastating New Orleans, its estimated cost was $200 billion—nearly seven times the previous record. Higher surface water temperatures helped make Katrina one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall in the United States. 4

In 1995, an intense heat wave in Chicago claimed more than 700 lives, focusing U.S. attention on climate change, but it was a minor event compared with the record 2003 heat wave in Europe that claimed 49,000 lives. France reported 14,800 deaths; Italy more than 18,000. Unfortunately this tragic loss of life was never adequately reported simply because the death toll numbers dribbled out over several months and at different times for each country. Just as the destruction from Hurricane Katrina was several times the previous record, so too the fatalities from this heat wave broke all previous fatality records by severalfold. 5

Could a wake-up call take the form of a flood of environmental refugees? As noted earlier, political leaders in sub-Saharan Africa are talking about planting a 5-kilometer-wide and 7,000-kilometer-long belt of trees across the continent in front of the desert in an effort to stop its advance. Whether the African countries can establish a Great Green Wall, and do it quickly enough to halt the desert’s advance, remains to be seen. If they fail, we are looking at millions of refugees as productive land turns to desert. 6

In September 2005, scientists reported that the melting of ice in the Arctic may have reached a “tipping point.” We may have unknowingly crossed one of nature’s thresholds. According to one article, the team of scientists “believe global warming is melting Arctic ice so rapidly that the region is beginning to absorb more heat from the sun, causing the ice to melt still further and so reinforcing a vicious cycle of melting and heating.” If the ice in the Arctic Sea melts and the region’s climate continues to warm, the ice sheet covering Greenland, in some places a mile and a half thick, will eventually disappear. It would raise sea level by 23 feet, inundating many of the world’s coastal cities and rice-growing river floodplains. 7

If it becomes clear that we have set in motion a rise in sea level that we cannot arrest or reverse, how will this affect the way we think about ourselves as individuals and as a society? Will we face a social fracturing between generations, between those who caused the rise in sea level and those who must deal with its consequences?

Climate change, whether it is natural or human-induced, is a source of social stress. Jared Diamond notes that drought figured prominently in the collapse and disappearance of the 600-year-old Anasazi civilization in the southwestern United States shortly after 1150. A shrinking food supply led to conflict and cannibalism in this earlier New World civilization. Three centuries later, the Norse settlement in Greenland collapsed and disappeared during a period of extreme cold. For our modern civilization, it is the rise in temperature that is generating social stress in the form of crop-shrinking heat waves, ice melting, rising seas, and more-destructive storms. 8

Is the record price of oil in late 2005 an aberration or does it reflect something more fundamental—a failure to plan for the depletion of the world’s oil reserves? Is it a result of system failure? If so, can the international community pull itself together to stabilize oil prices and avoid both a possible oil-based global economic depression and spreading conflict over access to remaining oil reserves? 9

Are these wake-up calls? If so, they have not yet awakened us. Have we pushed the snooze button so we can sleep a while longer? Or are these issues just too complicated to comprehend? Are we being overwhelmed by complexity, as Joseph Tainter postulates in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, that some earlier civilizations were? 10

This chapter is frustratingly difficult to write because it is not about what we need to do or how to do it, but rather about how to mobilize support to do it. How do we convince ourselves of the gravity and urgency of the situation we face? It is partly a matter of overcoming vested interests and social inertia, and partly a matter of raising public understanding of the threats facing civilization.

Facing many threats simultaneously means setting priorities. Terrorism is one of those threats. No question. But it is not even close to being the top threat facing our early twenty-first century civilization. Population growth, climate change, poverty, spreading water shortages, rising oil prices, and a potential rise in food prices that could lead to unprecedented political instability are the leading threats.

New threats call for new priorities and new responses. Old priorities are hopelessly outmoded. Heavy investments in military power and sophisticated weapons systems, for instance, are of little use in dealing even with terrorism, much less climate change or aquifer depletion. Historically, it was aggressor nations building and concentrating military power that threatened the rest of the world. In contrast, today it is failing states, those that are disintegrating internally, that threaten future progress and stability.

In our new world, 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 governments 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 being taught in many universities, noting that “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?” 11

Some point out that neo-classical economics does recognize external costs as something to be avoided. True. But do economics instructors tabulate those costs and analyze their effects on the earth’s ecosystem and its capacity to sustain the economy? For example, how many economic courses teach that our fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy is simply not a viable economic model for the world? And that the biggest challenge the world faces is to build a new economy that will sustain economic progress?

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4. Munich Re, Topics Annual Review: Natural Catastrophes 2001 (Munich, Germany: 2002), pp. 16–17; “Katrina May Cost as Much as Four Years of War: Government Certain to Pay More than $200 Billion Following Hurricane,”Associated Press, 10 September 2005; P. J. Webster et al., “Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment,” Science, vol. 309 (16 September 2005), pp. 1844–46.

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Heat-Related Deaths—Chicago, Illinois, 1996–2001, and United States, 1979–1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 4 July 2003; estimate
of deaths across Europe compiled in Janet Larsen, “Record Heat Wave in Europe Takes 35,000 Lives,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 9 October 2003), updated with
Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Bilancio Demografico Nazionale: Anno 2003 (Rome: 15 July 2004).

6. Silvia Aloisi, “Senegal Mulls ‘Green Wall’ to Stop Desert Advance,” Reuters, 1 August 2005.

7. Richard Black, “Arctic Ice ‘Disappearing Quickly,’” BBC News, 28 September 2005; National Snow and Ice Data Center/University of Washington, “Sea Ice Decline Intensifies,” press release (Boulder, CO: 28 September 2005); Steve Connor, “Global Warming ‘Past the Point of No Return,’” Independent (London), 16 September 2005; R. Warrick et al., “Changes in Sea-Level,” in J. T. Houghton et al., eds., Climate Change, 1995: The Science of Climate Change (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 359–405, cited in Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, “The Greenland Ice Sheet Reacts,” Science, 21 July 2000, pp. 404–05.

8. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

9. Record oil prices in U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration, “This Week in Petroleum” press release, (Washington, DC: 28 September 2005).

10. Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

11. World Business Academy, “Interface’s Ray Anderson: Mid-Course Correction,” Global Reconstruction, vol. 19, issue 5 (2 June 2005); Ray Anderson, “A Call for Systemic Change,” speech at the National Conference on Science, Policy, & the Environment: Education for a Secure and Sustainable Future, Washington, DC, 31 January 2003.


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