Book Review: World on the Edge


Lester Brown has for years been unwavering and persistent in drawing attention to the gathering environmental dangers humanity faces and pointing to the alternative practices which might yet save us from the worst effects. His widely read Plan B books have appeared at regular intervals throughout the last decade. I reviewed the fourth of them on Celsias in 2009. A new book now published is shorter but no less urgent, as its title indicates: World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

He points to three areas where the foundations of human civilisation are under severe threat, particularly because of the effects on food production. Water is being overpumped from aquifers and the world’s farmers are losing the water war, with dangerous consequences for food production as harvests consequently shrink. Soils are eroding and deserts expanding on an alarming scale, resulting in lowered soil fertility and contraction of land available for farming. Global warming is bringing a climate instability to which agriculture is not adapted, the threat of sea level rise which will shrink rice harvests in vulnerable areas, and changes to water supply from mountain glaciers already affecting farming negatively in some places.

Some consequences are selected and highlighted for a world where the human population continues to soar. The first is the emerging politics of food scarcity. We are adding 80 million people a year. Three billion of us who are already here are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The massive ethanol distillery investment in the US has added an epic competition between cars and people for grain. Some of the more affluent food importing countries are now buying or leasing large blocks of land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves. The countries doing the buying or leasing include Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, India, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Brown writes of an unprecedented scramble for land that crosses national boundaries. A dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is in the making.

The second consequence Brown dwells on is the phenomenon of environmental refugees, people displaced by rising seas, more-destructive storms, expanding deserts, water shortages and other environmental factors. As the impacts of climate change begin to bite it will be rising-sea refugees who will likely dominate the flow. The book details some of the places where people are already moving as refugees within their own countries and warns of the potentially massive and chaotic movement of people across national boundaries as the pressures intensify.

The third consequence he considers is the increase in the number of failing states. Virtually all of the top 20 of them are depleting their natural assets – forests, grasslands, soils and aquifers – to sustain their rapidly growing populations. Failing states not only cause misery to their citizens but also threaten the international cooperation necessary in an age of increasing globalisation. It is in all our interests that the causes of state failure are addressed with urgency.

This is the world at the edge to which our environmental heedlessness has brought us. We don’t have to go over that edge, but to avoid doing so we need a monumental effort undertaken at wartime speed. This is Plan B. It has four components: the stabilisation of the climate, the restoration of Earth’s natural support systems, the stabilisation of population, and the eradication of poverty.

To stabilise climate we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2020.The first step is raising energy efficiency. This can entirely meet the projected growth in energy use between now and 2030. The second step is replacing all coal- and oil-fired electricity generation with that from renewable sources, meaning wind, solar and geothermal. Nuclear is too expensive if full-cost pricing is applied. Carbon capture and sequestration from coal-fired plants is also excluded, given the costs and lack of investor interest within the coal community itself. Brown sees wind as the early leader and calls for a crash programme to develop 4000 gigawatts of wind generating capacity by 2020. That’s 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts over the next ten years. Not really an intimidating target when compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces every year. The third step is to end deforestation and engage in a massive campaign to plant trees and stabilise soils.

Brown’s writing is never just exhortation. He looks everywhere for evidence of movement in the directions we need to take, and details it. It is not the case that Plan B solutions are untried. There is a great deal to encourage the concerned reader as Brown points to hopeful developments already taking place. Whether it be Scotland announcing in September that it was adopting a new goal of 80 percent renewable electricity by 2020 and expecting 100 percent by 2025, or the explosive growth in solar cell production in recent years, or the seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land in South Korea since the end of the Korean War so that nearly 65 percent of the once denuded country is now covered by forest, or the rapid reduction in fertility rates some developing countries have shown achievable, there are many signs that Plan B is not pie in the sky.

But we have to move with speed. Brown insists that the key to restructuring the economy is to get the market to tell the truth through full-cost pricing. An honest market will reflect the full cost of burning gasoline or coal, of deforestation, of overpumping aquifers, and of overfishing. If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world’s energy economy. Wind, solar and geothermal will be revealed as much cheaper than climate-disrupting fossil fuels. At present we are being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that will lead to bankruptcy.

When Brown is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the scale and urgency of the needed changes he reminds himself of the economic history of the US during the war, when within three years from 1942 the US turned out an astonishing 229,000 aircraft and added more than 5000 ships to the American Merchant Fleet. The conversion to a wartime economy happened within months. But it took a Pearl Harbour to motivate the turnaround. He trusts a cataclysmic event on the climate front, such as the break-up of the West Antarctic ice sheet, will not be needed to galvanise action, since it might also unfortunately indicate that we were too late. He hopes rather that the rapid changes needed can result from a dedicated grassroots movement pushing for change that is strongly supported by political leadership as, for example, civil rights change in the 1960s was achieved in the US.

Brown understands well the precariousness of human civilisation as the time of environmental reckoning draws ominously closer. He expresses it in patient and telling detail that addresses the intelligence and humanity of the reader. He equally buttresses his outline of the solutions with solid information as to how and why they can work. Whether sanity and clarity carry weight in the halls of power may be moot, but Brown well represents the thinking of the substantial body of people who see the perils ahead and want their governments to mobilise to avert them.

Article by Bryan Walker, appearing courtesy Celsias.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.


  1. Everyone who cares about this life on earth please put a copy on facebook of Mr. Walker’s article of Mr. Brown’s new book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. Mobilizing governments and the public to prevent disaster is entirely possible. It has been accomplished before. During World War II and World War I, there was an enormous push by governments worldwide to invest in the development of petroleum-based technology. The public was offered an opportunity to be patriotic and to save money at the same time by buying war bonds. The American and the Canadian governments (and other governments) engaged in massive marketing and publicity campaigns to convince people to buy war bonds. Famous artists and movie stars like Errol Flynn, Al Jolson, Elsie Janis, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin were employed in this marketing campaign to make posters and host bond rallies.

    A rapid jump in petroleum-based technologies during those war years was a result of this investment, education and concentrated mobilizing of the public and of industry. It is reflected in everything around us today. Our ability to travel the globe by air, the fabrics that make up our clothing, furniture, food packaging, pens, the paint on our walls – look around the room for things made of plastic or that have petroleum components in their make-up. You will see plenty.

    When the resulting global warming places the future of so many species, including our own, is at stake, why can’t we market and invest in green technology in the same manner now? I am sure that there are no shortage of movie stars, artists, or musicians today who would happily be spokespeople and useful warriors in this Worldwide Battle for the Environment.

    As costs come down, more profit will be seen in these new technologies; rapidity of development and investment will increase manifold.

    I offer the idea of Green Savings Bonds. Call them Mother Earth Manifesto Bonds or something similar. Offer a chance to grow savings by investing in the new technology. Use the funds to develop cost-effective green technology that will be attractive to the business community. Offering a chance to grow savings and do something really worthwhile for the environment at the same time is an opportunity that people will embrace.