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PLANET EARTH:OUR LOVING HOME Lester Brown on Global Ecological Destruction and Imminent Civilization Collapse - P1/2    
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Intelligent viewers, welcome to this week’s episode of Planet Earth: Our Loving Home, the first in a two-part series where we feature the thoughts of famed American environmental advocate Lester Brown on global ecological destruction and the serious consequences to communities worldwide.

When I think about national security today, I think we need a new definition, a definition for the 21st century. When I sit with a pad of paper and ask myself, "What are the threats today?" Number one: climate change. Number two: population growth. Number three: spreading water shortages. Number four: rising food prices. Number five: a growing number of failing states. These are the threats to our security today.

Mr. Brown holds a masters degree in agricultural economics from the University of Maryland, USA, and in public administration from Harvard University, USA. For over 40 years he has dedicated himself to work in environmental conservation and economic sustainability. Mr. Brown has authored and co-authored more than 50 books, including the best-selling “Plan B” series and his 2011 release, “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.” His books have been translated into approximately 40 languages.

Regarded as the father of modern grassroots environmentalism, the Washington Post says he is “one of the most influential thinkers in the world” and the Telegraph of Calcutta calls him “the guru of the environmental movement.” He has also received numerous honorary degrees and prizes such as the MacArthur Fellowship, the United Nations Environment Prize, and the World Wide Fund for Nature Gold Medal.

I’ve been working with environmental NGOs for more than 40 years. When I left the US Department of Agriculture in 1972, I worked for a group called the Overseas Development Council. And it worked on development issues including environmental issues, though they were not yet well defined. And then in 1974, I began to see a need for a research institute that would focus on global environmental issues. There was none at the time.

With the help of the Rockefeller Brothers fund, and a half-million-dollar start up grant, I started The World Watch Institute. And then a decade ago, I started the Earth Policy Institute, an organization that focuses on the “what to do” part of the problem. We know pretty much what the problems are now. The question is what to do. And we developed the Plan B series in response to that.

The book “World on the Edge” was written to convey a sense of urgency, not only talking about what we need to do, but the urgency of doing it. I don’t think we have a lot of time left. The question is how much time do we have before the destruction of the economy’s environmental support systems begins to translate into negative global economic trends. The answer to that question is we don’t know. But I think we have perhaps less time than most people realize.

Climate change is putting our civilization in tremendous peril. Archeologists assert that, based on historical records, environmental decline always occurs before economic and societal collapse. Thus the current rate of worldwide ecological devastation is an alarm for humanity to take action now.

Our forests are shrinking. Our soils are eroding. Our aquifers are being depleted. Grasslands are turning into desert. . These are very clear trends now. What we know from studying earlier civilizations, who were destroying their environmental support systems, is that no civilization can do that indefinitely without eventually declining and collapsing. That’s what happened to the Sumerians. That’s what happened to the Mayans.

The Mayans, it was deforestation and soil erosion and shrinking food supply, and eventually the civilization disappeared. The Sumerians, it was salt levels building in the soil. As the salt levels went up, yields went down, and then the civilization itself went down. So, we’re doing all the wrong things environmentally. Whether it’s climate change or falling water tables, deforestation, soil erosion, all these things are going to undermine civilization unless we can reverse them.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague states that crop production depends heavily on a steady-state climate: “You cannot have food, water, or energy security without climate security. They are interconnected and inseparable. They form four resource pillars on which global security, prosperity and equity stand.” Russia’s heat wave of 2010, which was induced by global warming, is one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory and had a very large impact on the international food market, since Russia, the world’s third largest grain exporter, prohibited exports during the crisis to ensure sufficient food for its citizens.

If at the beginning of last year, someone had said to me that the average temperature in Moscow in July will be 14 degrees Fahrenheit, eight degrees Celsius, above the norm, I would have said, "I'm not a climate denier, but that's beyond reason." But it happened, and now that we've seen such a dramatic rise in temperature in one place in the world for a sustained period for a month, we now know it can happen somewhere else.

We saw night after night, week after week, smoke-filled streets in Moscow, because things were burning throughout Western Russia. Russia was literally burning out of control in a heat wave that started in late June, lasted through July, and went into August. In the end, it did an estimated US$300-billion worth of damage.

By comparison, Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 did about US$100-billion worth of damage. The heat wave in Russia claimed 56,000 lives with a combination of heat, stress and breathing smoke-filled air, which exacerbated respiratory illnesses. The grain harvest dropped from 100-million tons, which is what they were hoping for, to 60- million tons. They lost 40% of their grain harvest. If that heat wave had been centered in Chicago, and if the United States had lost 40% of its grain harvest, that’s 40% of 400-million tons. The United States and the world would have lost 160- million tons of grain.

If that had happened, there would have been chaos in world grain markets by late summer and early fall of last year. Grain prices would have gone to levels we’ve never seen before. Food prices would be rising throughout the world. Exporting countries would be restricting exports to try to keep their food prices under control.

Mr. Brown notes that the overt signs of imminent civilization collapse are large-scale food shortages, growing numbers of environmental refugees and failing states.

The food crisis that occurred between early 2007 and 2008 when the world’s wheat, rice, soybean, and corn prices jumped dramatically, is being repeated in 2011. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank thus cautioned in April 2011 that the world is just “one shock away from a full-blown [food price] crisis.”

If I were asked to identify three indicators that will tell us more about our future and, where civilization is headed, the first would be an economic indicator. It would be grain prices, and world grain prices today are double what they were five years ago, and they're probably going to go higher in the next few years. How much higher, we don’t know. The world food-price index set an all-time high. And it’s still very close to that. It has not subsided.

This was to be a year in which we rebuilt world grain stocks after they were depleted as a result of the heat wave in Russia last year. The price at harvest time, at planting time was very good. It encouraged farmers. They planted more grain. They used more fertilizer, but they were not able to expand production fast enough to keep up with the growth in demand. So this year, once again, we’re going to see a reduction in world grain stocks. The earliest relief we can hope for now, is next year (2012), next fall’s grain harvest.

So we’re literally living on the edge right now. And the difficulties in restoring stable food prices and food security for the world are substantial. It used to be that the only source of additional demand for grain was basically population growth. And then some decades ago, people started moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products.

And the third thing is that we are now converting grain into fuel for cars. We’ve set up a competition between automobile owners and people for the grain supply. In the United States last year we harvested 400- million tons of grain. Of that, 124 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.

Approximately 70% of available global freshwater is being used for agriculture and over-pumping of water for irrigation is significantly draining the world's groundwater reserves. Saudi Arabia announced in 2007 it was giving up wheat production due to total depletion of its fossil aquifer.

Deprived of the three-million tons of wheat it once produced annually, the country now has to import grain from abroad. Animal agriculture consumes huge volumes of water, and it has been demonstrated by numerous studies that producing animal products is enormously inefficient as it puts a large, unsustainable burden on our natural resources like water.

For example, the Twente Water Center in the Netherlands estimates it takes up to six times more water to grow a kilogram of animal protein as plant protein and that producing beef consumes 20 times more water per calorie than grain or potatoes.

We have spreading shortages of irrigation water. Half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as a result of over-pumping for irrigation. These countries, 18 in total, include China and India. The World Bank estimates that 175-million people in India are being fed with grain produced by over-pumping, by depleting their aquifers, which by definition is a short-term phenomenon.

I estimate that in China 130-million people are being fed with grain produced by over-pumping. So the water issue that was mostly underground and out of sight, is becoming a serious stress on the world food economy and making it more difficult to expand production as fast as we would like.

Global adoption of a plant-based diet can halt 80% of global warming, end world hunger, and free up the Earth’s freshwater as well as many other precious natural resources. It offers a sustainable and secure lifeline for our planet and humanity. In short, it will quickly solve the most serious environmental issues facing the world today. Our heartfelt thanks Lester Brown for your excellent insights on the current global environmental crisis and the resulting dangers posed to the world community. Leaders like you are awakening governments and individuals to the fact that immediate action is required to halt the widespread abuse of our planet’s gifts to humanity.

For more information on Lester Brown, please visit www.Earth-Policy.org
Hard copies and free-to-download PDF versions of Lester Brown’s books including “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse” are available at www.Earth-Policy.org/books

Eco-wise viewers, please join us again next Wednesday on Planet Earth: Our Loving Home for the conclusion of our two-part program featuring Lester Brown’s expert perspectives on the global environment. Thank you for watching today’s program. May all humans receive abundant, everlasting love and grace from Heaven.
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