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Review - Plan B 2.0 - Lester R. Brown  


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The world's resources aren't going to last forever, and if world civilization doesn't want to follow some of the local civilizations that have died out through exhaustion of resources, it better do something. This is the hardly radical, but powerful message of Lester Brown's longish polemic on "rescuing a planet under stress and a civilization in trouble."

There's plenty of detail on the state of affairs that should make us all seriously worried about the environment - this forms the first part of the book, while the latter half is Brown's solutions. Without giving too much away, these are broadly the large scale "solutions" you might expect, the problem being, and something he's not so clear on, how you get from where we are now to where Brown wants us to get. It's like the old evolution argument about wings - no one can doubt their benefit once you've got a working pair of wings, but it's hard to see why pre-birds went through the stage of something on the way to a wing, without the benefit. Similarly, in the real world, even though Brown's solutions are highly desirable, it's hard to see how we get from here to there.

Sadly, the solutions themselves are not always very imaginative. This is very standard eco-fare. For instance he gives short shrift to nuclear energy based largely on an economics argument, but using economic arguments is why we're in the mess we're in now - and he doesn't even mention the future possibilities of fusion. Similarly, wind and wave power are presented as great saviours of our energy problems, at the same time as green groups are protesting against a possible tide barrage on the River Severn in the UK (because of impact on wildlife), and without presenting any of the disadvantages of using wind.

Equally, though he presents us with the balance of growing population and shrinking resources, most of the ideas are concentrated on reducing the use of those resources, while managing population by (for instance) improved birth control, gets relatively little coverage. Similarly, while the impact of HIV/AIDS is sensibly highlighted, there is little mention of the deliberate actions of some African countries to make things worse by not supporting anti-AIDS campaigns, or by putting tribal loyalties above the interests of the country and population at large. Again, he is happy to criticize the (admittedly scandalous) EU agricultural subsidies at great length, but not the destruction of Zimbabwe's farming infrastructure by the regime there. Because such criticism implies politically incorrect "imposed" culture change, it doesn't fit the agenda.

It's also true that unlike Dave Reay's excellent Climate Change Begins at Home, Brown's book has all the humourlessness and dullness of the brown rice diet we expect from eco-polemics. Perhaps the biggest concern, though, is that Brown fails to grasp the difference between the small civilizations he uses as parallels and the world economy. In a small civilization, a country or tribe can change its ways, and change its future. In the world economy, it is much harder for an individual country to do anything alone - and almost impossible to get them to do things together (which is why Reay focuses on what we can do as individuals). It's not that solutions are impossible, but to compare the world to the Mayans or the Easter Island people totally misses the point.

Overall, not a bad picture of the ecological disaster we teeter on the brink of, with a good summary of the non-lateral-thinking solutions available if only we could all pull together, but rather dull, over long and hard to see it's going to make any difference.

Note this is an updated version of the 2003 Plan B.

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Reviewed by Peter Spitz


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Last update 05 June 2007