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Forecast: High and Dry

Eco-guru Lester Brown sounds a water warning



It's easy to understand why the Vermont Council on World Affairs would invite Lester Brown to be the keynote speaker for a symposium entitled "The Global Water Crisis." The puzzle is how Brown managed to squeeze it into his schedule. World-renowned as the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute -- a nonprofit aimed at providing a vision and road map for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy -- he also travels the Earth. A lot. A critical part of the message he delivers worldwide is essentially this: You think we have an oil crisis? Look at what's happening to water.

Brown does more than just sound the alarm, however; he's got real ideas about how to address the staggering depletion of water tables, rivers and lakes. He's written some 50 books on this and related eco-topics. And he does something that a number of scientists and "sky-is-falling" activists often fail to do: step back and look at the big picture.

For example, in his latest book, Outgrowing the Earth, Brown delineates how human demands are surpassing available natural resources, including water, and how this in turn leads to diminished food production. "There are substitutes for oil, but there are no substitutes for water," Brown points out. Then he takes it a step further, outlining what policymakers should do to ward off worldwide food shortages -- a.k.a., famine. The most politically unpopular suggestion is that whatever degrades natural resources should be heavily taxed, while Earth-friendly enterprises such as wind power should get substantial tax breaks.

In other words, the prices of our goods and services should reflect their true environmental cost to the planet we inhabit. It's a logical idea, but flies in the face of the way markets, and governments, now work. Consider all the grumbling at the gas stations recently, and imagine if the price of fuel was $11 a gallon -- as Brown says it should be. What would happen to a politician who dared suggest as much?

Brown understands the economics of food production firsthand: He grew tomatoes in southern New Jersey while in high school and college. The latter was Rutgers University, where he graduated in 1955 with a degree in agricultural science. But rather than go back to the farm, Brown went to India, where he got an eye-opening education about the effects of population on food production.

After returning to the U.S. to earn Master's degrees in agricultural economics and public administration, Brown then became an advisor, in 1964, to Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman on foreign ag policy. He spent five years in government, then left to found the Overseas Development Council. In 1974, he founded the Worldwatch Institute; the first organization devoted to analyzing global environmental issues, it issued an annual "State of the World" report, a magazine and a series of "environmental alert" books. In 2001 Brown launched the Earth Policy Institute.

Throughout this career, he has continued to write, in a straightforward, accessible style, and to traverse the planet for speaking engagements. And along the way, he's collected numerous prizes, awards, fellowships and honorary degrees. Nearly everything published about Brown makes reference to a Washington Post assessment that he is "one of the world's most influential thinkers." On deadline for yet another book, the grandfather of the environmental movement took the time to speak with Seven Days last week. He proved to be as gracious as he is serious.

SEVEN DAYS: The symposium at St. Michael's is called "The Global Water Crisis." Could you start by giving me a little preview of what your talk will address there?

LESTER BROWN: I haven't thought about it yet (chuckles). No, we've been concerned about population over the last century; the population is doubling, but the water demand is tripling. The results are: lower water tables, rivers running dry before they reach the sea, disappearing lakes. As water tables fall, the seed lakes disappear -- we've seen thousands of lakes disappear around the globe.

And I will talk about the connection between water and food. I don't think most people realize how water-intensive food production is. We drink 4 to 8 liters a day in one form or another -- water, juice, beer, pop and so on. But the food we consume requires 2000 liters a day to produce.

I did an article on this many months ago, and the editor circled "2000 liters a day." He said, "Don't you mean 2000 liters a year?" I find that a typical reaction. Most of us who read The New York Times know we're facing water shortages, but not everyone has connected the dots, that water shortages will lead to food shortages. Seventy percent of the water we use worldwide is for irrigation.

SD: What are the biggest causes of dwindling Earth resources?

LB: Aside from population? Rising incomes. To stay with the food and water analogy: In India the average grain consumption is roughly a pound a day . . . here it's four times as much -- therefore the average American requires four times as much water.

SD: Solutions to nonsustainability and other ecological issues are obviously mitigated by both political and corporate policies. Do you direct your influence toward those arenas?

LB: Yes, I do this quite a bit in Plan B [Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, 2003]. The big problem we face in the world -- this is another set of issues -- is that the market does not tell the ecological truth. It doesn't include all the indirect costs; that is, the environmental costs far exceed the costs of the products we use. The challenge is to get the market to tell the truth by changing the tax system. We should increase taxes on destructive [carbon-based] products and lower income taxes. We should lower taxes for initiatives such as wind power . . .

SD: Wind energy is a controversial topic in Vermont. A lot of people don't want to see turbines on mountains. Is it just people who live in pretty places who have this view, or do you encounter this elsewhere?

LB: People who live in pretty places -- it's probably people who've moved up from New York and want to protect Vermont (chuckles). The NIMBY response is out there, but there's also a PIMBY response -- "put it in my backyard" . . . When the local utility near the southern Wyoming/ northern Colorado border announced it wanted to build wind farms, there was a scramble [by local ranchers] to get them -- they generate a lot of income. They can contribute to the tax base, the school budgets . . . A lot of ranchers on the Great Plains will someday be making a lot more money from selling wind power than from selling beef.

When I look at a wind turbine, I see something that can contribute a lot of energy without destroying the environment. It will last as long as Earth itself. I also think they look rather elegant.

SD: What should government's role be, in your view, to arrest and, one could hope, reverse environmental devastation?

LB: The government's role should be to get the market to tell the truth; a gallon of gasoline should cost $11.

SD: The Earth Policy Institute has as a goal -- I'm paraphrasing here -- to raise public awareness to the point where it will support an effective public response to trends that are adversely affecting the Earth. How are you raising that awareness? How do you disseminate information to the public?

LB: By talking with people like you. Recently I did three interviews on programs on Chinese television.

SD: Certainly a lot of information comes directly from your lips: Two weeks ago you were in China; next week you're in Vermont; next month you're speaking in Florida; and the one after that in Japan. Do you find yourself needing to deliver much the same message to people worldwide?

LB: More or less. I adapt it sometimes to local conditions. The basic message is the same. . . In China I met Premier Wen Jaibao at a reception. He had read my book Who Will Feed China? [Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, 1995] and considered it a very positive contribution. I've been told most political leaders there have read it. Books do sometimes reach people. Bill Clinton was asked a few weeks back what his top five books were this summer, or something like that; he said Plan B was one of them.

SD: Do we have to be in crisis to pay attention?

LB: We may be closer to that than people think.

SD: The Buddhist -- and quantum physics' -- view is that we are all interconnected. Yet the problems we humans face are not distributed equally, and therein lies a challenge in terms of environmental consciousness. For example, we have fairly abundant water here in Vermont, and so we may not pay any attention to the declining water table in the Midwest, or soil erosion in India. Is it necessary for people to think globally, or is it enough to simply address the ecological issues in our own back yards?

LB: We have to think globally. Vermonters may not see a water problem, but we have to keep in mind that water scarcity crosses boundaries. Water scarcity would drive up food prices for everyone. So a shortage of water in Africa is a problem in Vermont.

SD: The weight of the issues you're addressing is enormous. What inspires you to keep up the fight, and to not get depressed?

LB: I think because I know that social change comes very quickly sometimes. I can remember World War II. If one had taken a poll on December 6, 1941, on whether we should get involved in the war, my guess is that 85 percent would have said, "Nothing doing." But 24 hours later that ratio would have been reversed.

SD: What is your most personally satisfying accomplishment?

LB: Finishing third in my age group [70-74] in the Cherry Blossom 10-mile race. I'm now a seeded runner . . .

SD: What does that mean?

LB: I get to line up out front with the Kenyans (chuckles). You know, I'm being somewhat facetious . . . But the difference between this and the other awards I get is, I had to work for this one.

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