Saving Civilization is Not a Spectator Sport

By Lester R. Brown

Given the enormous environmental and social challenges faced by our early twenty-first century global civilization, one of the questions I hear most frequently is “What can I do?” People often expect me to talk about lifestyle changes, recycling newspapers, or changing light bulbs. These are essential, but they are not nearly enough. We now need to restructure the global economy, and quickly. It means becoming politically active, working for the needed changes. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.

How to Take Political Action on Big Environmental Issues

Inform yourself, read about the issues. If you want to know what happened to earlier civilizations that found themselves in environmental trouble, read Collapse by Jared Diamond or A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright or The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. My latest book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, can be downloaded free of charge from Earth Policy Institute’s (EPI’s) Web site, www.earthpolicy.org, along with complementary data sets and a slide show summary. If you find these materials useful in helping you think about what to do, share them with others.

Pick an issue that’s meaningful to you, such as tax restructuring, banning inefficient light bulbs, phasing out coal-fired power plants, or working for streets in your community that are pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, or join a group that is working to stabilize world population. What could be more exciting and rewarding than getting personally involved in trying to save civilization?

You may want to proceed on your own, but you might also want to organize a group of like-minded individuals. You might begin by talking with others to help select an issue or issues to work on.

And communicate with your elected representatives on the city council or the national legislature. Aside from the particular issue that you choose to work on, there are two overriding policy challenges: restructuring taxes and reordering fiscal priorities. Write or e-mail your elected representative about the need to restructure taxes by reducing income taxes and raising environmental taxes. Remind him or her that leaving costs off the books may offer a false sense of prosperity in the short run but that it leads to collapse in the long run.

Citizens at a local town hall meeting in New Orleans
Citizens at a local town hall meeting in New Orleans

Let your political representatives know that a world spending more than $1 trillion a year for military purposes is simply out of sync with reality, not responding to the most serious threats to our future. Ask them if the Plan B budget—an additional $187 billion a year for eradicating poverty, stabilizing population, and restoring the earth—is an unreasonable expenditure to save civilization. Ask them if diverting one eighth of the global military budget to saving civilization is too costly. Remind them of how the United States mobilized during World War II.

And above all, don’t underestimate what you can do. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

How to Couple Your Political Action with Individual Changes

It doesn’t hurt to underpin your political efforts with lifestyle changes. But remember they supplement your political action; they are not a substitute for it. Urban planner Richard Register recounts meeting a bicycle activist friend wearing a t-shirt that said “I just lost 3,500 pounds. Ask me how.” When queried he said he had sold his car. Replacing a 3,500-pound car with a 22-pound bicycle obviously reduces energy use dramatically, but it also reduces materials use by 99 percent, indirectly saving still more energy.

Dietary changes can also make a difference. The climate footprint differences between a diet rich in red meat and a plant-based diet is roughly the same as the climate footprint difference between driving a large fuel-guzzling SUV and a highly efficient gas-electric hybrid. Those of us with diets heavy in fat-rich livestock products can do both ourselves and civilization a favor by moving down the food chain.

Beyond these rather painless often healthily beneficial lifestyle changes, we can also think about sacrifice. During World War II the military draft asked millions of young men to risk the ultimate sacrifice. But we do not need to sacrifice lives as we battle to save civilization. We are called on only to be politically active and to make lifestyle changes. During the early part of World War II President Roosevelt frequently asked Americans to adjust their lifestyles. What contributions can we make today, in time, money, or reduced consumption, to help save civilization?

The choice is ours—yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that continues to destroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.

For more inspiration about What You Can Do, see Earth Policy Institute’s Action Center. To connect with others interested in taking action, join EPI’s Facebook page.

Adapted from Chapter 10, “Can We Mobilize Fast Enough?” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at www.earthpolicy.org/index.php?/books/pb4.

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Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/ / CC BY 2.0

  1. Steven Earl Salmony

    After more than ten years of trying to raise awareness about certain overlooked research, my focus remains riveted on the skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population and scientific evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel that the size of the human population on Earth is a function of food availability. More food for human consumption equals more people; less food for human existence equals less people; and no food, no people. This is to say, the population dynamics of the human species is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other living things.

    UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan noted in 1997, “The world has enough food. What it lacks is the political will to ensure that all people have access to this bounty, that all people enjoy food security.”

    Please examine the probability that humans are producing too much, not too little food; that the global predicament humanity faces is the way increasing the global food supply leads to increasing absolute global human population numbers. It is the super-abundance of unsustainble agribusiness harvests that are driving population numbers of the human species to overshoot, or explode beyond, the natural limitations imposed by a relatively small, evidently finite, noticeably planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.

    The spectacular success of the Green Revolution over the past 40 years has “produced” an unintended and completely unanticipated global challenge, I suppose: the rapidly increasing supply of food for human consumption has given birth to a human population bomb, which is exploding worldwide before our eyes. The most formidable threat to future human wellbeing and environmental health appears to be caused by the unbridled, corporate overproduction of food on the one hand and the abject failure of the leaders of the human community to insist upon more fair and equitable redistribution of the world’s food supply so that “all people enjoy food security”.

    We need to share (not overconsume and hoard) as well as to build sustainable, human-scale farming practices (not corporate leviathans), I believe.

    For a moment let us reflect upon words from the speech that Norman Bourlaug delivered in 1970 on the occasion of winning the Nobel Prize. He reported, ” Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.” Plainly, Norman Bourlaug states that humanity has the means to decrease the rate of human reproduction but is choosing not to adequately employ this capability to sensibly limit human population numbers. He also notes that the rate of human population growth surpasses the rate of increase in food production IN SOME AREAS {my caps}. Dr. Bourlaug is specifically not saying the growth of global human population numbers exceeds global production of food. According to recent research, population numbers of the human species could be a function of the global growth of the food supply for human consumption. This would mean that the global food supply is the independent variable and absolute global human population numbers is the dependent variable; that human population dynamics is most similar to the population dynamics of other species. Perhaps the human species is not being threatened in our time by a lack of food. To the contrary, humanity and life as we know it could be inadvertently put at risk by the determination to continue the dramatic, large-scale overproduction of food, such as we have seen occur in the past 40 years.

    Recall Dr. Bourlaug’s prize winning accomplishment. It gave rise to the “Green Revolution” and to the extraordinary increases in the world’s supply of food. Please consider that the sensational increases in humanity’s food supply occasioned by Dr. Bourlaug’s great work gave rise to an unintended and completely unanticipated effect: the recent skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population numbers. We have to examine what appear to be potentially disastrous effects of increasing, large-scale food production capabiliities (as opposed to small-scale farming practices) on human population numbers worldwide between now and 2050. If we keep doing the “big-business as usual” things we are doing now by maximally increasing the world’s food supply, and the human community keeps getting what we are getting now, then a colossal ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort could be expected to occur in the future.

    It may be neither necessary nor sustainable to continue increasing food production to feed a growing population. As an alternative, we could carefully review ways for limiting increases in the large-scale corporate production of food; for providing broad support of small-scale farming practices; for redistributing more equitably the present overly abundant world supply of food among the members of the human community; and for immediately, universally and safely following Dr. Bourlaug’s recommendation to “reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely.”

  2. Craig Shields

    Bravo, Lester R. Brown, for a valiant and valuable effort, and I like the holistic approach you’ve taken in addressing both the outside and the inside – political action and lifestyle changes – both are definitely needed.

    If I may, I’d like to suggest the addition one aspect in future works and discussion that I consider of prime importance: The elimination of legitimized bribery from our election processes.

    All the most rational and evidence-based strategies the best of us can muster will never make it off the drawing board and into enforceable policy in time to make a difference while the political actors involved have their daily bread buttered by the opposition.

    The recent SCOTUS decision in “Citizens United” vs. Federal Elections Commission only solidifies the grip that entrenched financial interests have on our political sphere – and hence upon the globe that supports all life. Our leadership must take office as a result of a contest of ideas, not a contest of cash.

    The level of pandering and corruption in our state and federal capitals has long been intolerable and strict measures to clean up are long overdue – the challenge is getting the foxes out of our henhouse when they now make the rules.

    So I encourage people at every opportunity to work toward a national referendum and constitutional amendment to potently circumscribe the “rights” of corporations (known in law as “fictitious persons”) and to establish a system of candidate selection, debate, platform structure and election funding that provides all candidates a completely equal and mandatory opportunity to explain their qualifications and their ideas and goals. Such a system must also utterly forbid private financial contribution of any kind by threat of prison for both the giver and the taker of bribes.

    History has shown that Ms. Mead was right, and I also like to keep in mind Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s observation, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.” A million small acts will bring a sea change, but they require a million small actors – let’s each be one.

    Craig Shields, 2GreenEnergy.com

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