Lester Brown’s World on the Edge: Mobilizing against Collapse

lester brown world on the edge
Lester Brown's World on the Edge

For a number of years, we’ve used the Apollo project as metaphor for the kinds of transformation we need to create in terms of our energy and resource use. It’s a compelling, aspirational vision that draws on our desire to reach goals that might seem unattainable. No doubt such concepts harness creativity and ingenuity… and inspire us to look beyond constraints we’ve always seen as impassable.

Apollo works if we view such transformation as desirable; if it’s an absolute necessity, however, we may need to draw on other metaphors that inspire other motivations. Agricultural economist, MacArthur fellow, and founder of the Earth Policy Institute Lester Brown does just that in his new book World Β on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.* Arguing that the collapse of natural and social systems on which we rely may be imminent, Brown draws on a very different historical parallel: the mobilization of the entire economy during World War II to defeat the Axis powers. We’re not simply aiming for goals we once saw as unobtainable; rather, we’re fighting against challenges to global security that we’ve never viewed as such.

An Alarm… but not Alarmism

Sound alarmist? No doubt some will throw that label at this book (as they’ve done with others by Brown). Yet, if you’ve read any of the posts by Brown that we’ve published here, or any of his other books, you know that he’s exacting in tying his claims to data derived over long time periods, and from around the globe. From watershed depletion to global warming to food bubbles, Brown’s able to take voluminous data, and demonstrate its revelation of global trends in natural systems… without alienating readers that may not possess the degree of scientific training and study he’s built over a lifetime.

While Brown and EPI are quite generous with their findings (just take a look at the number of posts we’ve published by them), reading World on the Edge brings topics ranging from crop failures to state failures together in a way that no series of blog posts could. So, it may not be readily apparent why, for instance, shrinking water tables may be tied to the political unrest were seeing right now in the Middle East and Africa… but Brown draws these connections with both scientific rigor and the patience of a committed teacher. He draws the connections between economic, environmental, and social issues with clarity and authority.

Drawing Back from the Edge

As with most of Brown’s books, if you read only the first two-thirds or so, you’ll come to the conclusion that we’re doomed: how can we possibly escape the escalating trends of food and soil depletion, poverty, and political unrest that he argues will come to a head in the next few decades? While the picture painted in the book’s first two sections is grim, Brown, as always, argues that we also have the means available to avoid the worst consequences of our current path. Plan B, the framework created by the Earth Policy Institute, does involve dramatic changes in our collective way of life… but is also based on existing technologies and concepts, many of which have already demonstrated their worth. By focusing on mitigating climate change, restoring natural systems, eliminating poverty, and stabilizing population, we don’t have to go over the edge. Rather, we can transform human relationships with the natural world, and, in the process, greatly reduce the stresses we’re placing on the systems that sustain us.

Some will argue the costs Brown lays out are too high, especially as we work to rebuild economic growth and stability. An economist at heart, Brown not only demonstrates that the price tag he puts on Plan B is reasonable, but also a pittance compared to the costs created by the potential calamity that awaits us. His argument for a shift away from income taxes, and towards carbon taxes, not only works with the market system in terms of reallocating costs and the signals they send, but also, with planning, assures that those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder won’t be the hardest hit.

While Brown paints a grim picture of “business as usual” (or Plan A), the consequences of Plan B — low-carbon energy, ample food and water supplies, universal female education, political stability, and others — are certainly worthy of our aspiration. Is Brown’s view of the current world alarming? Yes. But this isn’t a book by an alarmist; rather, it’s ultimately optimistic that we can recognize more sustainable paths towards health, wealth, and security, and exercise the will to take these paths.

As with all of the books published by Earth Policy Institute, you can download a free PDF copy of World on the Edge at the EPI bookstore.

Ready to make an easy, healthy reduction in your carbon footprint? Check out our selection of hybrid bikes from brands like Fuji, Trek, and Columbia.

*Link to a page in the sustainablog Green Choices product comparison engine.

  1. floyd gaines

    great read! lester brown or his publishers should provide every congessman a copy of each book world onthe edge & plan B. they certainly need your help. If you have a newsletter or speaches, I’d be every interested in hearing from you.

    Thank you, floyd gaines

  2. floyd gaines

    If you have a movie i’d like to show it at my lions club meeting or if you have speakers we could use them.


  3. Frank Weigert

    I would like to suggest that your draconian recommendations on how to change our energy infrastructure show a lack of understanding of the global warming issue.

    You say we must cut CO2 emissions by 80% by 2020. Elsewhere, you say we must move to a carbon-free economy. Neither is true.

    The correct statement is that we must eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from burning FOSSIL FUELS. CO2 emissions from burning biomass can be global warming neutral. You are correct to dismiss corn-based ethanol. If Iowa didn’t hold a Presidential beauty contest every four years this silly idea of would not be on the political horizon. Ethanol is a valid solution for Brazil, but not for America. None of our infrastructure can handle this fuel. The investment required to a junk oil refineries and build fermentation plants is astronomical.

    A better source of biomass is the algae Botryococcus braunii. This algae makes hydrocarbons directly, more specifically isoprene oligomers with a degree of polymerization centered around n = 6. I assert they can be fed to existing oil refineries in place of petroleum to produce transportation fuels. They can replace coal in existing electricity generating plants.

    Learn more about the economics of replacing fossil fuels at:


    Learn more about the algae at:


    Click on the link to the PDF file. capital lines relevant section begins on page 15.

    The cover story of the November 2009 issue of Scientific American discusses the economics of Big Physics solutions to the problem. Only toward the end of the article do the authors mention the necessary investment: $100 TRILLION. The world does not have that kind of capital. Ain’t gonna happen.

  4. Chris Hardy

    I need to read more in this subject (environment)as I can see no real attempt by governments to address our inevitable distruction or at least a very troubled future for the next generation. My view, the world is a little more degraded each day that I get out of bed, why should this be the case?

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