The Defining Moment: The Point Of No Return

If you woke up one morning only to discover that civilization has been on a roaring oil binge and in its catatonic consuming stupor had unceremoniously launched itself into the pit of despair, you’d want to know about that, right? It would be a leading news story on the front page of every prestigious newspaper like the NY Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times, etc., right? Yet, I couldn’t find a drop of ink that suggests that life as we know it has already ended and real estate on the North Pole will be available soon. But did you see the latest eye-popping candy on the front cover of Victoria’s Secret catalogue suggesting that if we “buy more we save more” printed on paper from a forest near you? No, you didn’t read the print, silly me.

Seriously, “Late summer 2007, an area of Arctic sea ice almost twice the size of Britain disappeared in a single week.” Overall, about 50% of the Arctic ice has thinned out over the last fifty industrial years as a result of fossil fuel driven economies. Last years shrinkage broke the record for ice melt and 2008 is on pace to obliterate that record.

No, let’s be casual, I mean its only a leading climatologist from Washington State University who recently proved that the tipping point has been breached, and, like it or not, the euphemism shop to till you drop, has the drop on an overly distracted civilization. And it’s not like the issue hasn’t been heating up since “Inconvenient Truth” aired world-wide and every other climatologist in the business not employed by Bush has alluded to the fact that carbon emissions trap heat, and well, hot planets melt ice. No ice, no Malibu, inland properties can speculate new coastlines and build piers or set-up post-industrial villas for the likes of Bush, Cheney and the Wall Street gang.

A recent airing of Exploration hosted by Michio Kaku featured world-renown environmentalist Lester Brown, whose recent release, Plan B, 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, details the folly of a fossil fuel-based industrial economy and its impact on climate, ecosystems, economy, food production, forest, and population. All of which seems rather important, in my view, to the quality of life. Hello Hillary, Hello Obama, Hello McCain? Is anybody home?

Now, if you’re wondering, who’s Lester Brown and why should I trust his data over the governments? Brown is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington D.C. and the World Watch Institute and has been tracking carbon emissions and global climate patterns for the past thirty years and has the ear, apparently, of most world leaders. Bush, whose personal climatologist exists in the mythical space between his ears, answers only to higher authorities unavailable to common folk.

Brown’s four overriding goals are to “stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s damaged ecosystems. Failure to reach any one of these goals will likely mean failure to reach the others as well.” Now there’s a days work. After setting the stage for massive climate change, Brown defines a way out. Albeit, not a family vacation but the notion of living within planetary means has a comforting ring to it. Don’t you think? Let’s consider some of his findings.

In a climate nutshell, for every one foot rise in sea level one hundred feet of land mass is swallowed by the sea due to the shallow slope of coast lines. When the Greenland ice sheet melts, and it is faster than expected, sea levels rise 23′. When the West Artic Ice sheet breaks up, sea levels rises another 16′ totaling 39′ of sea rise, a real boon to mapmakers. Most coastal cities worldwide will be under water displacing 600 million people — sea-rise refugees migrating inland — overwhelming inland infrastructures ill-prepared to house, feed, or employ them. Hurricane Katrina, disaster writ small, pales in comparison to the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage and hundreds of millions fleeing inland with little prospect for a life.

Aside from the loss of polar ice and Polar Bears migrating tentatively north to stay within the reaches of remaining ice flows, inland areas aren’t sitting too sweet either. Inland mountain glaciers are nature’s way of collecting, storing and slowly releasing water. They pack snow during the precipitation season and slowly release water flows during the off-season to maintain year round river systems critical to natural and industrial food systems. The glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas feed the major rivers of Asia including the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yellow, and Yangtze Rivers. When upper elevation temperatures warm, snow elevations are driven ever higher and snow begins melting sooner and faster.

Once year round rivers will be rendered seasonal without the glaciers to hold and slowly release stored water and floods will be wide spread throughout the region followed by droughts. These river valleys feed billions of Asians including India, Pakistan, and China who rely on year round flows to irrigate staples like wheat and rice. Wheat, rice, corn, sorghum, and barley represent more than 50% of the world’s food stores — all will be impacted.

Closer to home, Lassen, Shasta and the entire north/south Sierra snow-belt range that feeds the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Klamath, Stanislaus, Kings, Kern, Trinity, Feather, American, Tuolumne, Mokelumne, Merced, and the Owens River, will face similar problems affecting not only the bread basket regions that largely feed the nation but domestic water supplies for tens of millions as well.

The major dams of both the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project represent the most hydrologically altered and most complex systems on the planet. They serve as water supply and flood control mechanisms timing vast flows of runoff. That mechanism depends entirely on leaving reservoir capacity to absorb large pulses of water until the threat of flooding passes before filling up for storage. That mechanism will be shot to hell with less snow pack and earlier melting characteristics to negotiate. The resulting problem will be too much water too soon and not enough flood control damaging critical crops, property and livelihoods. Again, followed by its twin, drought.

Most people don’t fully understand the relationship between our food supply and somewhat predictable snowfall and rainfall in both quantity and frequency and how a major disruption in either can bring down a vulnerable centralized mega agribusiness specializing in monocultured food systems such as the one the global community depends on.

According to Brown, food system disruptions stress a state’s ability to govern as evidenced by modern genocides in sub-Saharan Africa. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse argues that the centerpiece of all previous civilization collapses has been an undermined food supply. Brown argues the link between poverty and population growth noting that “rapid population growth begets poverty and poverty begets rapid population growth.” Brown notes that states either break this trend or are broken by it. Developing countries that have access to food, clean water, shelter, jobs, and personal security experience dramatically reduced family sizes: from seven children to three per family. No small wonder.

China, at nearly 1.5 billion, has surpassed the U.S. in consumption of basic resources and presents a challenge so improbable, that one doesn’t no where to end let alone begin. Knocking on Beijing’s front door is a desert that’s gaining the size of West Virginia each year. China has more livestock than the U.S. has humans and by 2030 is expected to be on pace with Americans income level. Translating income into consumption paints a picture of 1.1 billion cars, more than all the world’s cars. By 2030, they will consume 98 million barrels of oil a day which is more than the world’s current consumption. Brown articulates that an auto-centered, throwaway economy doesn’t work for the U.S. It won’t work for China nor for India which is on pace to surpass China’s population.

The growing aggregate of unresolved problems ultimately send marginal states towards failure and weakens more stable states. The number of failing or failed states is on the rise and Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Chad are among the top twenty with the balance in sub-Saharan Africa, Malaysian Peninsula, and South West Asia. States fail when they can no longer feed, employ, and protect their populations so evident in today’s failed states of Iraq and Afghanistan. Failed states like endangered species have a tipping point. At that critical point when enough states fail, civilization fails.

What’s the good news? Brown’s data contends that a massive, war-time-speed production of 1.5 million wind turbines with integrating transmission lines be built and installed throughout the Midwest. Coupled with plug-in hybrids, this will reduce carbon emissions by 80%. Texas is cutting a path to develop 23,000 mega watts of wind turbine capacity. Brown notes that the U.S. currently builds 65 million cars per year and that this project is doable and needs to be completed by 2020 to have any chance of arresting warming trends into the future. As well, Brown’s plan bans deforestation coupled with a broad tree planting project with the goal of planting billions of trees balancing carbon sequestration.

Brown’s analysis connects the dots between water shortages and food production as it relates to energy consumption. Most local governments don’t consider water for food production in their analysis of water capacity and demand. Apparently, local governments sleep well on two to seven days of local food supply in supermarkets without concern for either predicted spiraling food prices or a breakdown in the food systems resulting from water shortages.

This point cannot be overstressed. Most people don’t realize how much water they consume in their daily diets. At a minimum, 500 gallons per person per day and a red-meat rich diet with highly processed foods can climb to 1,400 gallons per person per day. That would stretch local water budgets unimaginably. Brown and every other researcher in the field all stress replacing monopolized agribusiness with locally grown food systems.

Eating local and shifting to a plant based diet lower on the food chain reduces energy consumption by a factor of four. Equally, trading your SUV for a Prius reduces energy consumption by a factor of four. Shifting to a plant based diet represents the same savings as shifting from a SUV to a Prius — saving energy, saving water, and saving land.

Taking a break from writing this article, I went to Ardella’s in Willits, CA for breakfast. There, I sat next to a pleasant, mature, intelligent man named Irving who had just finished breakfast. In the course of chatting, he shared that global warming was a hoax and a ploy to give governments more reason to throttle our rights and liberties. That environmentalists are responsible for perpetuating the warming myth and stand in the way of real progress. Progress? Stampeding civilization over the edge? I can only guess at what progress he referred. When I inquired as to his sources, he couldn’t name one and brushed it off with they don’t write, indeed.

Although I wondered why the government was being so stubborn about embracing the global warming myth to propel its rights-robbing agenda — noting they’re doing quite well with the terrorism game. I wondered more about what forces shape this view. It apparently has nothing to do with intelligence just a cultural predisposition well-marinated in the industrial revolution.

Let’s say Irving is right that all these environmentalist and climatologist import Mendocino Gold and are so stoned they wouldn’t notice a melting ice cube in their Margaritas, they’re supporting hedonistic lifestyles with meaty books and lecture tours. What I see in Lester Brown’s plan to save civilization is a lot of jobs, oodles of jobs and an economy that thrives on sun, wind, and local economies — a boon to humankind and nature alike.

Brown’s saving civilization options are based in restructuring the economy through education, ending poverty, efficiency, renewable technology, reducing population trends, and banning deforestation with a massive multi-billion tree planting campaign. His book, Plan B, 3.0 can be purchased for as little as $12 or can be downloaded or read on the internet for free — yes, no charge. Lester Brown isn’t a very good hedonist, apparently. Read it — I did.

Rachel Olivieri is an independent researcher/writer from Northern California. Read other articles by Rachel, or visit Rachel's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Dawson said on February 26th, 2008 at 11:31am #

    Lester Brown is deluded and dangerous, actually. He understands the crisis and proposes the war-time economic transformation we need, yet wants to continue to manufacture automobiles? Why? And how does he propose that will do anything but delay the collapse by a decade or two?

    Making and using cars as the core mode of personal mobility is ecologically unsustainable. It is wasteful to provide everybody with that much machinery to accomplish the simple task of moving them around town, and even the best possible cars will still get ridiculously bad MPG, compared with other uses of the energy inputs.

    What we need is to build modern railroads within and between towns reconstructed to favor walking and bicycling.

    Why can’t Lester Brown figure this out?

  2. Don Hawkins said on February 26th, 2008 at 12:52pm #

    A little secret China will not consume 98 million barrels of oil a day by 2030. 95 million a day right now that is pretty much it. Rachel that was well done good stuff. In December 2007, a massive fracture of the Beaufort Ice pack was observed west of Banks island. What does that mean well the ice is starting to break up. There is still time to slow this down. Let’s see how September looks a few more minds maybe on the same page.

  3. DavidG. said on February 26th, 2008 at 2:40pm #

    The automobile has been so cleverly integrated into the human psyche and it’s such a money-maker that it will be hard to get of. It has been made into an expression of what we think we are and that is why it is so dangerous and why people will strongly resist its demise!

  4. Max Shields said on February 26th, 2008 at 3:06pm #

    Some of the best work on this topic has been done by Richard Heinberg. While he has been mostly associated with his work on peak oil, he did a very interesting lecture for E. F. Schumacher Society called Fifty Million Farmers.

    Food is the central issue. Land and other natural life sustaining gifts have been and will continue to be the means of continuing life on this planet. In fact all of our environmental predicaments are of a piece. The Environment is not an issue – it’s absolutely everything. Everything else is just Disney Land. There are no greater issues. And yes, we’re looking the other way as it’s about to come crashing down around us. Cause and effect are rarely temporal in these matters and so most of us just think its an alarmist cry. But the facts are there and plain to see, if we look.

    As far as cars, I don’t think Brown is promoting cars. He talks about a simple sustainable way to reduce the carbon footprint of autos by converting them to electric and then using windturbines to supply the energy for local commutes. Frankly, I agree that we need to greatly reduce this mode of transportation. It produces excess of 50,000 deaths a year and many more in injuries which are frequently quality of life debilitating. They also create a nation of isolated individualist who have no particular care in doing what will become the most important human trait and basis for commerce – SHARING.

  5. HR said on February 26th, 2008 at 5:07pm #

    Suggesting that California is the bread basket for the country is a little nonsensical. Ever hear of the Midwest? That’s where the cereal grains, the mainstay of our food supply is grown. California grows a little, and I mean a little, rice, and does supply a fair amount of fruit and vegetables, and some meat, but is hardly the nation’s bread basket, despite all the Farm Bureau propaganda and publicly subsidized water.

  6. Rachel Olivieri said on February 26th, 2008 at 11:24pm #

    I wonder if our time is well spent arguing how many barrels of oil China might consume by 2030 and whether they would ever reach a consumption rate of 98 million barrels a day. Far more important is the reality that oil production has peaked – for one country to consume more oil, another country will have to consume less. Inherent in that reality is the ongoing resource wars of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

    No matter how you project China or India’s resource numbers relative to U.S. consumption, the earth finds all of these future prospects unimaginable and beyond reach.

    Much of this issue from the perspective of people and change, at least as it relates to bridging the divide between what is truly sustainable (as some comments note) and what is not, seems more challenging than arresting climate change itself.

    The Disneyland Life as one commenter put it, cannot feed itself, warm itself, shelter itself, transport itself, transmit itself, distract or entertain itself, or even fabricate a way out without oil in a supporting role through that transition. How do you deflect the modern global juggernaut from that path in a timely fashion? – Is it even possible? A path that nearly 7 billion depend on.

    At first, I shared and supported the localization movements to develop their bioregions resources and setup local distribution systems in defiance of global models. But they too, mostly, apparently, like the organics and green industry before, have been co-opted by greed, ego, elitism, and exclusion – marking time with the proper slogans and a large pot to stew their non-profit grant dollars.

    Nature is the timekeeper and we can only guess of her melting deadlines. Economic and environmental collisions are occurring throughout the world – the dynamics of failing states and tipping points cannot be ignored or dismissed. Some of us realize that this one will likely to “go to mattresses” and all that implies. Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia and an ever growing list are windows into that disturbed future.

    I think Brown has centered the target as it relates to a mostly peaceful way out. It will take a war-time speed effort by the stronger nation states of North America and Eurasia. The sooner the financial house of cards collapses, the better. The only problem is locating the leadership with the courage and wherewithal to pull it off. Germany, Norway and Finland demonstrate encouragement. Rachel

  7. Brad Arnold said on February 26th, 2008 at 11:45pm #

    As this article points out, the current trajectory is unsustainable, which most people and the mass media seem oblivious to. What is more pertinent is the imminent end to this party. We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them-Albert Einstein. I accuse the above article of advocating the same thinking. A new paradigm is needed, instead of the usual prescription of disipline and austerity. “Plan B” (i.e. restructuring the economy through education, ending poverty, efficiency, renewable technology, reducing population trends, and banning deforestation with a massive multi-billion tree planting campaign) is unfeasible due to political/social/economic inertia, so a new feasible plan must be concieved and implimented based upon “what is,” rather than “what ought to be.” Obviously, the first step is to remove the excess CO2 from the air. I advocate the low cost, highly scalable, and technically feasible method of biosequestration.

  8. Rachel Olivieri said on February 27th, 2008 at 7:50pm #


    “Plan B” (i.e. restructuring the economy through education, ending poverty, efficiency, renewable technology, reducing population trends, and banning deforestation with a massive multi-billion tree planting campaign) is unfeasible due to political/social/economic inertia, so a new feasible plan must be conceived and implemented based upon “what is,” rather than “what ought to be.” Obviously, the first step is to remove the excess CO2 from the air. I advocate the low cost, highly scalable, and technically feasible method of biosequestration.

    My question is three-fold. One, if planting a billion trees, which is not only doable (See Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai), but is the purest form of bio-sequestration including reducing soil erosion, sponging and maximizing groundwater infiltration, cleaning both air and water – reducing evaporation – providing a renewable resource, etc. – if that’s unfeasible on the one hand why is it feasible on the other hand as a “low cost, highly scalable, and technically feasible method of biosequestration?” If you’re talking about mechanical sequestration, you will not researched costs and nothing comes close to the benefits of a natural forest.

    Further, if Brown’s plan is “unfeasible due to political/social/economic inertia” where will the inertia come from to activate your plan which is semantically similar? You do not articulate why the one plan requires inertia and your plan, apparently, doesn’t.

    If the first step is to “remove the excess CO2 from the air, what purpose does that serve if we continue to put ever growing quantities of CO2 into the air? Doesn’t one need to work both ends?

    As to Albert Einstein and the comment: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them-Albert Einstein.” I couldn’t agree more. I see that “old tool box” thinking in nearly every approach to proposed solutions these days. What’s being proposed is a paradigm shift, writ large – in brief – a shift that represents stepping into a stride that parallels the natural cycle rather than opposing it.

    As I understand the development of civilization with the onset of plant and animal domestication, water diversions, sedentary lifestyles and hierarchical centralized governments, the industry of mining resources has been the centerpiece of that movement thereafter. That mining those resources came to use predominately fossil fuels and that all of those natural resources have been thoughtlessly over-mined to overproduce populations and destroy natural systems is both the consequence and challenge we face. To approach that problem with a reverse mining mentality, or, to develop a relationship with nature where there is no such thing as waste, and nutrient cycles are maintained throughout living systems, and we consume only what we need is by any measure, including Al Einstein’s measure, a paradigm shift of proportions heretofore unknown to civilized man. Rachel

  9. Don Hawkins said on March 1st, 2008 at 5:52am #

    85 million barrels a day that’s pretty much it for oil. Not 95 million.

  10. Max Shields said on March 1st, 2008 at 11:14am #

    “At first, I shared and supported the localization movements to develop their bioregions resources and setup local distribution systems in defiance of global models. But they too, mostly, apparently, like the organics and green industry before, have been co-opted by greed, ego, elitism, and exclusion – marking time with the proper slogans and a large pot to stew their non-profit grant dollars.”

    That sounds a tad cynical, Rachel.

    Here’s the problem: first anything and everything can be coopted – including Lester Brown’s Plan B.

    But more importantly is understanding the nature of the problem you’re addressing. Living systems take corrective action to sustain a state of dynamic stability. But here’s the catch, every correction can exaserbate the problem. There are no exceptions. So correction requires vigilance and a systems thought process which is, yes, organic.

    There is no one and done solution. Human scale can best match up with the natural order which is the only sustainable order. Jiggering with the system, creating technologies to “overcome” can divert, perhaps prolong the inevitable, but frequently leads to a deadend. In no way am I disagreeing with Lester Brown’s ideas, just that no master plan will suffice. Not his, not anyone’s. Human beings will incubate ideas which may sustain us, and we’ll need to constantly re-evaluate, correct and correct the corrections, etc. etc. etc.

    I’d suggest a reading of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma if you haven’t already. I don’t think you’d be so jaded about the local approach if you had – particularly the second part on GRASS. It’s a struggle, but such is life.