Lester Brown asks for a window seat whenever he flies so that he can look down at the earth. That’s one more vantage point from which to view the evolving environmental panorama he has been examining for almost half a century. He spends a lot of time in the air, heading to audiences in all corners of the planet where his controversial predictions have gained attention.
Over the years Brown, who founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, both in Washington, D.C., has often seemed a gloomy prophet. The subtitles of his most recent worldwide best sellers, the Plan B series, attest to this impression: Rescuing a Planet under Stress, A Civilization in Trouble and, with added urgency, Mobilizing to Save Civilization. He has warned of potentially destabilizing and costly food shortages, populations outstripping dwindling natural resources, water tables falling precipitously and glaciers retreating, bringing drought and floods. Critics have told him to lighten up: humanity has a way of adapting.
Lately, however, Brown has found a new optimism that profoundly moves him, based on the steady growth of alternative energy sources, perhaps most significantly in the U.S. He senses that people at local levels are grasping and acting on the immensity and urgency of climate change, an environmental issue his detractors have said he was late in recognizing. For example, Brown sees more and more communities challenging carbon-emitting coal-fired power plants. He also sees start-up entrepreneurs advancing wind farming and other renewable technologies at a rapid pace, promising even once depressed areas of the U.S. both new sources of income and cheaper electricity.
Many Americans put their hopes in the Obama administration’s political and financial support for new energy sources and in international efforts to confront and attempt to reverse climate change. Although Brown welcomes the new emphasis, he thinks it is too late to pin too many hopes on global pacts, which take years to negotiate and even more years to implement. Most politicians, he says, merely ask themselves what sort of a carbon cut is politically feasible.
Americans are, without much publicity, already moving ahead on their own, changing the face of energy production and consumption, community by community, Brown said in a recent interview in his office at the Earth Policy Institute. Piles of books and papers fill shelves, cover his desk and migrate to any open floor space. He is clothed in his signature casual sportswear, down to the running shoes. For him, dressing up is adding a bow tie and jacket. “We’re beginning to see, not only in this country but elsewhere, thinking on a scale that we’ve never seen in energy before,” Brown says. “The challenge is not so much to find the energy—it’s there: solar and wind and geothermal. The challenge is how to harness it economically and get it to people who can use it.”
Brown still has work to do on other issues he has been hammering at for nearly half a century: to convince people that global food supplies could become catastrophically short and that population pressures are hastening the day when resources of all kinds begin to run out. Never modest in his pronouncements, he sees nothing short of a collapse of civilization if governments do not pay attention to disturbing overlapping planetary trends: plunging water tables, depleting and eroding soil, and dwindling grain stocks, with global warming in the background quickening the slide.
Although to supporters Brown has become something of an icon or touchstone, his most persistent critics have faulted him for decades of sounding (and skillfully publicizing) alarms on such threats, at least some of which never materialized in time frames he envisioned, costing him credibility. Former colleagues who credit him with being a wide-ranging visionary in the 1970s, at a time when “environmentalism was mostly about saving pandas,” as one described it, and remember him as a generous and encouraging mentor nonetheless often came to find him stubborn and inflexible in his convictions and often unwilling to gain from criticism.
Because Brown is not an academic and has not been subject to peer review in books that, though commercially published, were produced within organizations he founded and largely controlled, he has not infrequently been attacked by research scholars and journalists who discounted him as a perennial Jeremiah, the prophet of doom. Yet he is not much troubled by those who ask why some of his predictions have not come true. His response tends to be: Give it time. He began to cite the danger of population pressures in poor countries long ago, and the issue is now a focus of development experts in the United Nations, the World Bank and voluntary organizations working to reduce intractable poverty. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, speaks of a “poverty-fertility cycle” that stymied progress, especially for women, in Africa. South Asia fits the same category.
Still, Amartya Sen, the Nobel economics laureate from India, where Brown first observed the press of population on limited resources, has argued that famines do not occur in democracies, because political pressures correct poor policies. Brown replies that “while this may be true historically, what does it mean now?” Even established democracies, when weakened by corruption and poor governance, are falling into dependency, he argues. The U.N. World Food Program, designed as an emergency responder, is feeding citizens in dozens of countries in normal times because elected governments have let them down.
Lester Russell Brown was born in March 1934 in Bridgeton, a rural town in southern New Jersey founded by Quakers in the 17th century. His parents were hardworking farmers with only 40 acres of land to their name. He began toiling close to the earth at a very young age. At age 14, he and his younger brother, Carl, started their own commercial tomato farm, ultimately producing 1.5 million pounds of tomatoes a year. Brown, the first family member to finish high school and go to college, always assumed that he would be a farmer, too. He studied agriculture at Rutgers University; a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Maryland followed, then a master’s in public administration from Harvard University.
Half a century later most of the wall space in the Earth Policy Institute’s small suite of offices is covered with honorary degrees from 23 universities and numerous plaques recording other awards, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” Italy’s Presidential Medal of Honor and a U.N. Environment Prize. He is an honorary professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Brown says he still thinks like a farmer, although home is now a condominium in Washington, D.C., where he lives alone. The Rutgers courses, he says, set him up for a life in ecological and environmental activism: “There were no environmental science majors at that time. But you probably couldn’t get much better grounding in the environmental sciences than what was available in general agricultural science. I probably think like a farmer because that’s what I am in a sense.”
The New Jersey tomato farmer met the wider world in 1956 in rural India, where he spent six months on an international farmer exchange program. The crunch coming between people, land and water “seemed pretty clear to me then,” Brown states. It was the topic of his first book, Man, Land and Food, which warned the developing world, then in the heady days of anticolonialism, that without forward-looking policies, hunger loomed.
Brown spent the late 1950s and 1960s in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he became head of the international agricultural development service. In 1974 he founded Worldwatch Institute, which, through its annual State of the World reports and other publications, was soon a leading global watchdog.
Restless after retiring as president of Worldwatch in 2000, Brown made a transition from monitoring the earth to thinking about ways to save it, he says. His parting with Worldwatch, where some staff members found him resistant to ideas about moving the organization in new directions, according to one account, was not entirely a happy transition, and his relations with his former colleagues apparently remain frosty. Thus began the Earth Policy Institute and his Plan B books. They range over energy policy, climate change and threats to natural resources. They look at the perils and possibilities of mushrooming urban societies and how city life can be made more livable, from more urban gardening to better mass transit (complete with budget estimates). After a global tour in 2008 to launch international editions of Plan B 3.0, he has started on Plan B 4.0, which will have a strong emphasis on food. He is also mulling a long-standing request from W. W. Norton, his publisher, to write an autobiography.
“I never wanted to be a writer,” Brown notes. “And I still don’t. The problem is, if you have ideas that you want to communicate, you don’t have much choice.” The books, he says, “focus on what to do. It seems that the world needs some sort of a conceptual framework within which to look at the problems and then what to do about them. One would think that someone would be doing a plan—the World Bank or the U.S. government or the U.N. They’re not even close. And you have to incorporate a wide range of issues because there are no partial solutions.”
Brown senses that the absence of a holistic approach to the global environment reflects a breakdown of connections as life becomes more complex. “It has to do with advancing knowledge and specialization. You see it in the universities, you see it in governments, you see it in the U.N. with the specialized agencies—many of them hardly ever talking to each other.” He refers to a book by Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies: “His thesis was that societies evolve and become more and more complex until the complexity overwhelms the capacity of the civilizations to deal with it, and then they decline and collapse and disappear or shrink dramatically.” Tainter pointed to food shortages as the weak link, when it should be the linchpin holding society together. Brown is steadily moving back toward that position: “I don’t think everyone recognizes how much trouble the world is in today.”
Government departments, in particular, are not sufficiently integrated to understand the broader effects of decisions they make, Brown argues. In China in June 2008 he told officials that the two countries planning to build most of the coal-fired power plants in the years ahead—China and India—are the ones whose food security will very likely be affected most by those plants. Carbon emissions hasten the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, reducing the water they supply to Asian rivers on which farms depend.
“I sort of suggested that they needed to build a phone line from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Energy so they could talk with each other,” he explains, “because decisions made in the Ministry of Energy would likely have a far greater effect on the future of China’s food supply than those made in the Ministry of Agriculture.” The leaders listened with uncommon interest, Brown maintains, because nearly all of them had lived through the great famine of 1959 to 1961, when 30 million people starved to death.
Brown’s relations with China have occasionally been rocky, however. His 1995 book Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call for a Small Planet made him persona non grata for more than a year. The South China Morning Post said the book caused “near panic in the Communist Party” for predicting that the Chinese will be heavily dependent on food imports to feed a more demanding population. “I doubt that the political leadership in any other country is as sensitive to the political fallout of having to import so much food,” Brown says. “And to have to buy exports from the U.S.?!”
The book also provoked criticism in the West from scholars who couldn’t accept that a rising China, with many millions of people aspiring to better diets, will inevitably tax world food supplies. Brown’s calculations were challenged in the journal Foreign Affairs by a reviewer who asserted that statistics had been misused or misinterpreted and were then extrapolated too pessimistically.
And yet, although the book was at first withheld from commercial publication in China, the government’s own printing office ultimately printed it. “A lot of Chinese came to me and said, ‘Thanks for this wake-up call.’ Among them was Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who called the book ‘helpful’ and said he was surprised an outsider could have written it.” Today Brown is welcomed to the country by high-ranking officials.
Despite his criticisms of China’s reliance on coal-fired power plants, Brown is upbeat about the country’s alternative energy development. “Probably next year China will overtake the United States in manufacturing wind turbines and building wind farms,” he notes.
Then he digresses into the story of a young engineer who started working with a state oil company a decade ago. The man’s real passion was solar energy, and he designed his own rooftop solar water heater. It worked so well that relatives and friends wanted their own. Today he has a factory and 5,000 sales outlets in China—“and he’s done it without any government assistance. This technology has leapfrogged into the countryside where there’s no electricity. People are for the first time taking a hot shower. At the end of 2008, 40 million homes were getting their hot water from rooftop solar water heaters. That means probably 150 million people. This is probably going to triple by 2020. And, by the way, China has already overtaken the U.S. in solar cell manufacture.”
Brown totes up innovations across Asia, North Africa and Europe. Turkey is planning a 50 percent jump in electricity generation through wind farms. Scotland is negotiating with Middle Eastern investors to develop an offshore wind-generating capacity almost equal to the total electricity-generating capacity of the U.K. Algeria is developing solar-generated electricity to sell to Europe by undersea cable. “The sunlight that strikes the earth in one hour is enough to run the world economy for one year,” Brown claims.
Then there is Indonesia, where the government has contracted Pertamina, the national oil company, to develop 6,800 megawatts of geothermal-generating capacity. “They have 500 volcanoes, 131 of which are active. Pertamina could be the first oil company, state or independent, to become a renewable energy company,” Brown asserts. The thought of how far the world has come could not be more satisfying to this once unappreciated soothsayer.
Even though pockets of successabroad are good news to Brown, the progress Americans are making in reducing fossil-fuel dependence is the most heartening. He starts with the movement against coal-fired power plants: “It is an extraordinary thing, and most people don’t even know about it, because it happens locally for the most part.”
Two years ago the U.S. Department of Energy predicted a resurgence of coal-fired power plants because of the rising price of oil and natural gas. “That study had a list of 151 planned or proposed plants. As of today, 82 of those plants are off the list. Another 48 are being challenged in the courts and being challenged very successfully.” Brown says there are some 270 small organizations advocating against the burning of coal; he describes them as “the fire in the belly” of the movement.
Brown, characteristically off with enthusiasm on a new tangent, is a vocal promoter of wind power, in part because he links it to helping facilitate the wider use of hybrid or all-electric cars. He doesn’t have a car; he walks the mile between his home and office. But he likes to count the hybrids he sees on the road. “Wind is going to be the new workhorse of the energy economy. North Dakota, Kansas and Texas have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs,” he declares, adding that the Dakotas alone could power Chicago and the industrial Midwest.
He acknowledges the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome that skeptics assume will limit wind farming: “There clearly is the NIMBY problem. But far more important is the PIIMBY problem: ‘put it in my backyard.’ When a utility in Colorado announces it wants to draw 750 megawatts of wind power and is looking for bids, the competition among the ranching communities is pretty intense. If you can get those turbines in your community, it creates jobs; it’s a source of tax revenue. For the ranchers, one of those turbines can earn royalties from $5,000 to $10,000 a year, and they don’t have to invest a penny. There are thousands of ranchers on the Great Plains who a decade from now will be earning far more from wind than from cattle sales.” Brown draws these views from personal experience along the Colorado-Wyoming border, where he married into a ranching family and where his ex-wife returned to live after they were divorced. Brown, who never remarried, still travels frequently to that region, where his son, Brian, and daughter, Brenda, have also settled.
Brown is adamantly, even dogmatically, against ethanol made from plant material. He has both economic and humanitarian reasons, drawn from his global perspective. “Over the longer term I don’t think there is going to be much of a place for biofuels. Example: in northern Iowa, a corn grower can lease a quarter acre of land to the local utility to install a wind turbine. That wind turbine can produce up to $300,000 of electricity a year. That same quarter acre would produce 40 bushels of corn—100 gallons of ethanol, worth maybe $300. Corn doesn’t seem to be a winner.” He also rules out soybeans and grasses and even sugarcane in places such as Brazil because rain forests are being destroyed solely to grow the fuel crop.
In human terms, he says, U.S. efforts to reduce oil insecurity “have created world food insecurity. This competition between people and cars for grain supplies is not a healthy development.” Especially not when the world is adding 80 million people a year, grain reserves are shrinking and food shortages are pushing prices above the reach of millions. “What we’re seeing with renewable energy in this country, whether it’s wind or geothermal or solar-thermal or solar cells, is that the growth curves that have been going up very slightly have suddenly become almost vertical.”
For all the adulation showered onhim, Brown has never sought the life of a celebrity, although he did attend several Obama inauguration balls this year. People who have known him say he limited his dating to Friday nights, leaving weekends for thinking.
“I don’t spend a lot of time in public, and I don’t accept a lot of invitations, partly because they are time-consuming,” Brown says. “I’ve tended to remain focused pretty much on research. If I were somewhat more socially inclined, I think it would be a net detraction in terms of what I’m able to do.”
Put more bluntly, Brown is a workaholic. He reads voraciously, seven days a week. Come Sunday night, he says, he often finds he hasn’t finished last week’s work, and a new week is about to begin. In line with his belief that the world needs a coherent framework for tackling a disintegrating global environment, he absorbs as much material from as many disciplines as he can and delights in the knowledge that when he may be making a speech on one issue, he can field questions on half a dozen others.
Brown is not apologetic about his wide horizons, eclectic curiosity or bold predictions. It makes good sense to him to stay ahead of the curve in as many fields as he can master. His MacArthur grant cited him for, among other attributes, a “capacity for self-direction.” To that Brown would add the intellectual joy of discovery, the thrill of making connections that come from tireless self-education. “It’s very exciting to put these things together,” he says, “and to be able to see things that others who work on smaller pieces of the puzzle can’t so easily see.”
Away from his books, Brown is a runner. “I started running competitively 60 years ago when I was a 14-year-old sophomore in high school.” He’s been running ever since. “Finally last year I was ranked nationally for the first time ever. It took 59 years.” His ranking is in 10-mile runs for his age group, and in 2007 he placed fourth in the prestigious Cherry Blossom Ten Mile in Washington, D.C. The trophy has a prominent place on a table in his office.
His running career has given him a title for one chapter in that autobiography he may one day write: “Persistence Pays.”
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "The Persistent Prophet."