Review: Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization In Trouble

Apologies in advance for the long post, but with a holiday coming up most of you should have the time to read a bit more 😉

My latest finished book is “Plan B 2.0” by Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. Non-fiction books are always a bit difficult to review as the reviews tend to become summaries; this is no exception. In this case a simple “Read it!” would be quite sufficient as a review and a summary is impossible, but some points are worth raising anyway.

The book is divided into three main parts; the first goes into some depth on all the burning issues facing mankind and the planet – while the climate change obviously plays a major role here, we’ve got a host of other issues to deal with also. The second part focuses on outlining the measures – and costs – needed to reverse the harmful trends on all the fronts. At first “Plan B 2.0” seems to have a lot in common with Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but by reading on it goes in a way further than Collapse did; Collapse explained the situation of several past and present civilizations in quite some detail and got us to acknowledge that we are facing a very real possibility of a societal collapse. Plan B 2.0 provides a much shorter glimpse into that territory but instead goes further and into some detail on how to fix things, complete with budgets, change proposals and detailed reasoning.

While I would love to summarize everything that’s in there, the text is already quite condensed and I’ll have to bring out just a few points from here & there.

Part I: Civilization in trouble

As already mentioned, part I shares a lot of the same topics as Collapse did – however it only focuses on issues that we currently are facing and skips detailed handling of past civilizations. The issues discussed are life beyond peak oil, water shortages, rising temperatures & sea levels, shrinking forests, soil loss, collapsing fisheries and a lot more. One of the interesting discussed topics is the fact that soon, with the rising demand of biofuels, food and fuel production will be competing for the same resources. It’ll come with a whole new set of ethical issues – should a producer produce food for the people or fuel for the cars?

Artificially cheap fuel has created lots of bizarre situations and setups – things that will inevitably unravel with the realization of peak oil, and that unraveling will not be pretty. For us in “rich” but northern countries, it’ll be the end of fresh fruit airlifted from halfway around the world. For others, though, the problems will be more fundamental. Like for countries like Egypt; they currently import 40% of their grain supply.

The unsustainable state of farming in many countries is also brought up – water tables are falling in many countries and the crop yields are rising only due to water mining; essentially, drawing unsustainable amounts of water. Not only will it eventually lead to collapse, the recovery may be very slow indeed due to soil salination. And the scale of the problem? Countries overpumping their aquifers in 2005 had a combined population of over 3 billion, half the worlds population. Artificially and temporarily rising yields by mining water essentially creates a food bubble economy. And bubbles tend to burst.

Some people often say that rising temperatures will be good for the crops with rising yields – only it won’t. The majority of the worlds crops are quite specific in the temperatures they thrive at, and a “small” increase of 1 degree Celsius in temperature has the effect of decreasing the yields by 10-20%.

Part II: The Response – Plan B

With the list of imminent crisis seemingly unsurmountable, what can be done? A lot, in fact. But only by action – a discouraged attitude is something that we must avoid. Incredible changes can be made at “wartime” speeds as witnessed by the rapid change of industrial production in US during WW II – one interesting proposal is to retool some of the struggling US car manufacturing facilities to produce wind turbines in order to rapidly raise production capacity for wind power. Another interesting suggestion was that as wind power is essentially free once the initial investment has been made, the off-peak hours of wind-generated electricity could be used to generate hydrogen.

When you add the fact that farmers can, with no investment from their part, earn $3,000 – $5,000 per year in royalties from utility companies from a single large wind turbine (the total electricity production from a single turbine is worth $100,000 per year with current prices), the case for wind power becomes very strong indeed. Compare this to the $120 a year that the same amount of land would produce with, say, corn, and you’re talking of a potentially major drift from the “not in my backyard” to “put it in my backyard” approach to wind power. Within a matter of years, thousands of farmers could be earning more from electricity sales than from cattle or crop sales. While energy planning is just a small part of the whole equation, Brown makes a convincing case for wind power as well as other renewable energy sources.

Another topic that I’m highly interested in is city planning – cars are simply not an option in future cities. With traffic jams polluting the air and clogging up most major cities on a daily basis, city planning needs to focus on optimizing mobility of people instead of planning for more roads. This calls for increased usage of bicycles and mass transportation. Not only is biking more environmentally friendly, it’s a remarkably efficient mode of transportation and also fights obesity which is a major problem in many western countries. And it, along with efficient mass transportation, can dramatically reduce the need for cars, the source of much of the unhealthiness of the cities:

Another cost of cities that are devoted to cars is a psychological one, a deprivation of contact with the natural world – an “asphalt complex”. There is a growing body of evidence that there is an innate human need for contact with nature. Both ecologists and psychologists have been aware of this for some time. Ecologists, led by Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson, have formulated the “biophilia hypothesis”, which argues that those who are deprived of contact with nature suffer psychologically and that this deprivation leads to a measurable decline in well-being.

Meanwhile psychologists have coined their own term – ecopsychology – in which they make the same argument. Theodore Roszak, a leader in this field, cites a study that documents humans’ dependence on nature by looking at the rate of recovery of patients in a hospital in Pennsylvania. Those whose rooms overlooked gardens with grass, trees, flowers and birds recovered from illness more quickly than those who were in rooms overlooking the parking lots.

In addition to making cities more livable places, food production needs to move closer to the cities, up to the point of utilizing rooftops for tiny-scale farming. The logistics of many cities are incredible – Los Angeles gets its water from almost a thousand kilometers way from the Colorado river and Beijing is planning on drawing water from the Yangtze river, nearly 1,500 kilometers away.

Part III: An Exciting New Option

So what do we need to do and how much would fixing the problems cost? A lot, but surprisingly little. One of the biggest problems with the current economical structure is the lack of externalities, particularly the ecological cost of doing business. Encouragingly, some in the “bad” industries also realize the problems as the following quote from VP of Exxon indicates:

Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.

So what does the budget look like? Below is an overview table (much more details in the book):

With billions flying here and there, it’s good to find something to compare the costs to. $161 billion may sound like a lot of money, but in the scope of world economics, it’s peanuts. The US wars in Iraq and Afganistan is costing the country in $170 billion – this year alone. Compare this to the Plan B budget and what do you get? Then compare the benefits that would come from “Plan B” being implemented (i.e. saving the planet) and the “benefits” that we get out of the Iraq war.

In addition to, for example, shifting money from the world military budgets to environmental needs, we need to fix the global economic model to make it tell the ecological truth. We need to shift taxes (which can be an extremely powerful force) from income taxes to raising levies on environmentally destructive activities. For example, “honest” calculation of the true cost of goods would put gas prices at about $11 per gallon or €2.4 per liter – “only” doubling the gas price in Finland.

And it’s not just the environmentally oriented people who think tax shifting is urgently needed:

Some 2,500 economists, including eight Nobel Prize winners
in economics, have endorsed the concept of tax shifts. Harvard
economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw wrote in Fortune
magazine: “Cutting income taxes while increasing gasoline
taxes would lead to more rapid economic growth, less traffic
congestion, safer roads, and reduced risk of global warming—
all without jeopardizing long-term fiscal solvency. This may be
the closest thing to a free lunch that economics has to offer.”

Conclusion?

With the numbers and the evidence out there, one can only come to the conclusion that people are simply not aware of the big picture and that’s why nothing is being done. That, however, is an unacceptable excuse and the situation needs to be fixed.

Seriously.

If you care about our planet at all, you need to read this book to know where we stand – and take in not only the signs of doom and collapse, but also the very real possibility of fixing things if we just did something about them. Plan B 2.0 completely debunks the myth that saving the planet would somehow be too expensive, lead to an economic disaster or anything of the sorts; quite the contrary, that’ll happen if we don’t implement this plan.

Plan B 2.0 is easily one of the most important books of our time. It’s relatively short so even people pressed with time should be able to digest it; yet it’s thorough and provides plenty of background & backup material for those who want that; it also offers many practical things everyone can do to help the plan being implemented. My opinion of it can indeed be summarized by a simple “read it”.

NOTE: If you can’t find the book from your local bookstore, I’ll be happy to borrow it. What’s more, the entire book is also available online. There are also bulk discounts available if you buy multiple copies from their site.

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2 Responses to Review: Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization In Trouble

  1. heather says:

    ok now you have successfully convinced me about the book.. i shall check it out at the bookstore.

  2. sim says:

    Wouldn’t count on it being available from most bookstores here.. (Even Akateeminen says the order time is 2-3wks). But if you’re coming this way, I can borrow my copy.

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