Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Plan B: Rising to the Challenge: A Call to Greatness

History judges political leaders by whether they respond to the great issues of their time. For today's leaders, that issue is how to deflate the world's bubble economy before it bursts. This bubble threatens the future of everyone, rich and poor alike. It challenges us to restructure the global economy, to build an eco-economy. 

Among national political leaders, none has articulated the new agenda better than U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. He believes that environmental degradation is the issue for our generation, noting that climate change is "unquestionably the most urgent environmental challenge." Arguing that the Kyoto Protocol was not radical enough, he calls for a 60-percent reduction in carbon emissions worldwide by 2050. Summing up, he calls for a "new international consensus to protect our environment and combat the devastating impacts of climate change."47 

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, several world leaders suggested a twenty-first century variation of the Marshall Plan to deal with poverty and its symptoms, arguing that in an increasingly integrated world, abject poverty and great wealth cannot coexist. Gordon Brown, U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, notes that "Like peace, prosperity was indivisible and to be sustained, it had to be shared." Brown sees a Marshall Plan-like initiative not as aid in the traditional sense, but as an investment in the future.48 

French President Jacques Chirac, a political conservative, told the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in early September 2002 that "the world needed an international tax to fight world poverty." He suggested a tax on either airplane tickets, carbon emissions, or international financial transactions. To illustrate his commitment, Chirac announced that over the next five years France would double its development aid, reaching the internationally agreed upon goal of devoting 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to aid. Going beyond economic issues, he also suggested the creation of a world environment organization to coordinate efforts to build an environmentally sustainable economy.49 

Some corporate leaders are also beginning to urge efforts to deal with global poverty. Juergen Schrempp, CEO of DaimlerChrysler, said in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the world needed a new Marshall Plan. The question for the industrial world, he said, was not, Can we afford another Marshall Plan? The question is, Can we afford not to have another Marshall Plan?50 

There is a growing sense among the more thoughtful political and opinion leaders worldwide that business as usual is no longer a viable option, that unless we respond to the social and environmental issues that are undermining our future, we may not be able to avoid economic decline and social disintegration. The prospect of failing states is growing as mega-threats such as the HIV epidemic, water shortages, and land hunger threaten to overwhelm countries on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder. Failed states are a matter of concern not only because of the social costs to their people but also because they serve as ideal bases for international terrorist organizations. 

We now have some idea of what needs to be done and how to do it. The United Nations has set social goals for education, health, and the reduction of hunger and poverty. The preceding chapters have sketched out a restructuring of the energy economy to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, a plan to stabilize population, a strategy for raising land productivity and restoring the earth's vegetation, and a plan to raise water productivity worldwide. The goals are essential and the technologies are available.51 

We have the wealth to achieve these goals. What we do not yet have is the leadership. And if the past is any guide to the future, that leadership can only come from the United States. By far the wealthiest society that has ever existed, the United States has the resources to lead this effort. Economist Jeffrey Sachs sums it up well, "The tragic irony of this moment is that the rich countries are so rich and the poor so poor that a few added tenths of one percent of GNP from the rich ones ramped up over the coming decades could do what was never before possible in human history: ensure that the basic needs of health and education are met for all impoverished children in this world. How many more tragedies will we suffer in this country before we wake up to our capacity to help make the world a safer and more prosperous place not only through military might, but through the gift of life itself?"52 

Unfortunately, the United States continues to focus on building an ever-stronger military as though that were the key to addressing these threats. The $343-billion defense budget dwarfs those of other countries
allies and others alike. U.S. allies, most of them North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, spend $205 billion a year on the military; Russia spends $60 billion; China, $42 billion; and Iran, Iraq, and North Korea combined spend $12 billion. (See Table 11-1.) The United States is spending more than its allies and possible adversaries combined. As retired admiral Eugene Carroll, Jr., astutely observed, "For forty-five years of the Cold War we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union. Now it appears we are in an arms race with ourselves."53 

As discussed in Chapter 10, the additional external funding needed to achieve universal primary education in the 88 developing countries that require help is conservatively estimated by the World Bank at $15 billion per year. Funding for an adult literacy program based largely on volunteers is estimated at $4 billion. Providing for the most basic health care is estimated at $21 billion by the World Health Organization. The additional funding needed to provide reproductive health and family planning services to all women in developing countries is $10 billion a year.54 

Closing the condom gap and providing the additional 9 billion condoms needed to control the spread of HIV in the developing world and Eastern Europe requires $2.2 billion—$270 million for condoms and $1.9 billion for AIDS prevention education and condom distribution. The cost per year of extending school lunch programs to the 44 poorest countries is $6 billion per year. An additional $4 billion per year would cover the cost of assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in these countries.55 

In total, this comes to $62 billion. If the United States offered to cover one third of this additional funding, the other industrial countries would almost certainly be willing to provide the remainder, and the worldwide effort to eradicate hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty would be under way. 

This reordering of priorities means restructuring the U.S. foreign policy budget. Stephan Richter, editor of The Globalist, notes, "There is an emerging global standard set by industrialized countries, which spend $1 on aid for every $7 they spend on defense....At the core, the ratio between defense spending and foreign aid signals whether a nation is guided more by charity and community—or by defensiveness." And then the punch line: "If the United States were to follow this standard, it would have to commit about $48 billion to foreign aid each year." This would be up from roughly $10 billion in 2002.56 

The challenge is not just to alleviate poverty, but in doing so to build an economy that is compatible with the earth's natural systems—an eco-economy, an economy that can sustain progress. This means a fundamental restructuring of the energy economy and a substantial modification of the food economy. It also means raising the productivity of energy and shifting from fossil fuels to renewables. It means raising water productivity over the next half-century, much as we did land productivity over the last one. 

This economic restructuring depends on tax restructuring, on getting the market to be ecologically honest. Hints of what might lie ahead came from Tokyo in early 2003 when Environment Minister Shunichi Suzuki announced that discussions were to begin on a carbon tax, scheduled for adoption in 2005. The benchmark of political leadership in all countries will be whether or not leaders succeed in restructuring the tax system.57 

It is easy to spend hundreds of billions in response to terrorist threats, but the reality is that the resources needed to disrupt a modern economy are small, and a Department of Homeland Security, however heavily funded, provides only minimal protection from suicidal terrorists. The challenge is not just to provide a high-tech military response to terrorism, but to build a global society that is environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and democratically based-one where there is hope for everyone. Such an effort would more effectively undermine the spread of terrorism than a doubling of military expenditures. 

We can build an economy that does not destroy its natural support systems, a global community where the basic needs of all the earth's people are satisfied, and a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized. This is entirely doable. To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt at another of those hinge points in history, let no one say it cannot be done. 

The choice is ours—yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over a global bubble economy that keeps expanding until it bursts, leading to economic decline. Or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that stabilizes population, eradicates poverty, and stabilizes climate. Historians will record the choice, but it is ours to make.


Table 11-1. Military Spending in Key Countries, 2002, and Additional Funding to Reach Social Goals
(billion dollars)
United States
U.S. allies
Iran, Iraq, and North Korea
Total excluding U.S.
Additional annual funding to reach global social goals


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