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Lester R. Brown, a hero of our time, and a man with a plan

Updated on September 21, 2014
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An environmental enthusiast and activist her entire adult life, Kathryn shares her secrets to reducing waste and living greener.

Lester Brown in Beijing, provided by Earth Policy Institute for use in this article, used with permission
Lester Brown in Beijing, provided by Earth Policy Institute for use in this article, used with permission | Source

Who is Lester R. Brown?

A hero of our time, Lester R. Brown is a man of uncommon foresight, courage and perseverance. True, he did not fall on a grenade for a soldier in Iraq. Nor did he rescue five kids from a burning building.

But saving lives? Oh yes. Not five. Not fifty. Millions. As a young man studying grain futures in Asia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1960s, Brown almost single-handedly predicted, then later helped to forestall, a massive famine in India, saving perhaps a hundred million lives and untold suffering.

That was the beginning. Brown never once stopped digging. Unwaveringly pursuing the interconnections between food scarcity, water scarcity, the then impending oil scarcity now lacing the world in an ever-tightening net, global warming and massive climate change, Brown continued on his life-saving, now civilization-saving, trajectory.

He is, perhaps, one of the world's great heroes for his unrelenting pursuit of truth as we face, worldwide, one preventable calamity after another, all due to our reckless demand for more and more oil, gas and coal to fuel our economies and our lives.

Indeed, Brown may be the man who can help us all save our children and grandchildren from an agonizing fate of catastrophic proportions. because Brown has a plan, a doable plan, a plan with a workable budget.

Brown speaking at Cambridge on How We Can Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse

U.S. 2015 Military Budget Tops $756 Billion

According to economist Kimberly Amadeo, the United States military budget for 2015 totals $756.4 billion.

Yes! We Can Do This!

One of the most exciting aspects of Brown's work is that, despite the bleak prospects for humankind, we have the means to turn our situation around, perhaps completely.

With about $200 billion, he says, we could eliminate hunger and preventable diseases worldwide, eliminate air and water pollution, provide for long-term food, water and energy security, and build a sustainable economy.

Considering how much money the United States alone spends on its military each year, that $200 billion seems cheap.

In this video, speaking before an audience in Cambridge, Brown outlines the worst problems we face: Oil scarcity, water wars, global warming, one climate-change catastrophe after another.

Our weakest link: food security. Citing the rapid decline and demise of one great civilization after another, all due to food shortages, Brown says that we are far more vulnerable than we realize.

But he does not stop at bell ringing. As I mentioned, he has a plan.

We have time, he says, if we ramp up an all-out, World War II-like effort, to solve these seemingly insurmountable problems before they destroy civilization as we know it. We have time to mitigate the unspeakable suffering that the majority of the world's now nearly eight billion people face. Just barely, we have time.

The answer lies in part with you and me.

Don't let the rather tedious introduction stop you from watching the entire video. Don't let Brown's quiet, uneffacing manner stop you. Listen to what he says. Then listen to the questions and answers from the audience. If you're like me, you may find yourself fist-pumping the air and shouting, "Yes! We can do this!"

A budget and a road map to saving civilization

The Plan

In 2001, Brown left the Worldwatch Institute he had founded in 1974, to found the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). His mission: "To provide a vision of what an environmentally sustainable economy will look like and a plan [emphasis added] for how to get from here to there."

Boy, did he deliver. Through his work at EPI, Brown not only developed a plan, but set it down in a rapidly revised series of books that at times take one's breath away with their clarity.

Few can make boring data sets interesting, but Brown fascinates, turning hard facts into all-too-chilling reality any reader gets right away.

"Plan A, business as usual, isn't working," says Brown. Sussing the data, the timeline, and the money, Brown developed Plan B and laid it all out in a book he made freely available for download to anyone with an Internet connection. You don't have to buy the book to read it.

Plan B is a workable plan, a plan with a budget, and one that can solve many of the world's problems. What we need, Brown says, is the will to do it. He likens that will to the muscle for action we found during World War II, after Pearl Harbor.

We did it then. We are no less threatened now. We can do it again.

The Plan B Books

As each year passed and more data came in, Brown revised Plan B, updating, refining, adding new relevant information as our world population expanded and our planet heated up.

You can read all four of his Plan B books for free on the Earth Policy Institute web site. Click on the book cover you want to read and look for the downloadable pdf file.

If you can read only one, I recommend the last, Plan B 4.0.

Here are all four Plan B titles, each a revision of the last, incorporating rapidly changing data and adaptive plans, including an incredibly doable budget.

  • Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble
  • Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, Updated and Expanded
  • Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization
  • Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Substantially Revised

Brown's latest book to help us save ourselves

As time runs out for human kind, Brown continues to publish. His latest work, World on Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse is shown here.

Optimistic that, with a world-class, all-out war-time-like response, we can prevent environmental catastrophe that sounds the death-knell for human life and much of the flora and fauna that make this planet so beautiful, World on Edge gives us hope, but just barely.

Without immediate action from world leaders, our children and grandchildren have little hope of enjoying anything like the world you and I grew up in and enjoy today.

It is time that you and I demand action from our civic leaders first, then from our state leaders, and finally from our national leaders. Are you in? Start by getting informed.

One of the best ways to do that is to read at least one of Brown's books. Then share it with your friends. Discuss it. Pick an area that matters to you and work on it.

Maybe you are concerned about drought and water shortages in your area. Perhaps GMOs are high on your list. Does fracking in your back yard threaten your water supply and your family's health?

Pick the issue that strikes a chord in your heart. Start making a difference where you are.

A young Lester Brown with then Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman at the White House to discuss food shortages in India
A young Lester Brown with then Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman at the White House to discuss food shortages in India | Source

More about Brown

Brown's trajectory climbed fast and steady, from a twenty-something potato farmer to a bureaucratic analyst to a world leader in the truest sense of the word.

Step by step, building on what he already knew, he developed what some have termed an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's economic and agricultural landscape.

Highlights of his career and a few of his most celebrated books follow.

Lester Brown testifying before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee on biofuels, 2007
Lester Brown testifying before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee on biofuels, 2007 | Source

Celebrated visionary

Hailed as a genius and venerated as an impeccable researcher, Brown is most often celebrated as a leading-edge environmentalist.

Depending on which news story you're reading, Brown's contributions to agriculture, environmental science, and global problem-solving have earned him between twenty and forty awards and numerous honorary doctorates.

A prolific author, he has written or collaborated on more than fifty books and has seen his work translated into more than forty languages.

Organic through and through, he himself counts a much more humble achievement among his most noteworthy: Third Place, Men's 70-74, Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run.

Physician to the Earth

He's been called 'Physician to the Earth' and 'God's Scorekeeper" for his groundbreaking analysis of global environmental issues.

Green Print Alumni Edition, p.3 (pdf)
Rutgers University

One of the best articles I've found on Brown, the Rutgers University article quoted above shows how his experience as a teenage tomato farmer informed nearly every decision he made thereafter.

We like to think of tomato farming as humble work and academia and writing as somehow elevated. Brown's life gives us another image: A grounding in the earth is essential to anything we may accomplish.

Founder Worldwatch Institute

Brown founded Worldwatch Institute in 1974, with the help of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, and launched the widely quoted annual reports titled, State of the World.

Those reports continue to this day. The last in which Brown played a major role is the 2001 State of the World report, shown here.

The eyes of the Worldwatch Institute may be on the world, but they offer plenty of practical everyday tips and advice for developing a sustainable lifestyle, plus the research to back it up.

If you share a deep interest in changing the status quo, living greener and more mindfully, you will find plenty of resources on their site. I recommend it.

Vital Signs

Worldwatch Institute publishes a new state of the world report each year and periodically publishes Vital Signs: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future. The 2000 edition is the last that Brown co-authored.

Soon after its publication, he went on to found the Earth Policy Institute and concentrate on the work of Plan B.

Hailed as a peacemaker

"In recognition of his tireless efforts to promote global environmental awareness and a sustainable and equitable world," the Goi Peace Foundation selected Lester Brown as their 2005 prize winner.

Take a look at some of the peacemaking activities the foundation is supporting. While you're there, watch for ways to create and participate in similar events in your hometown.

Brown gracefully narrates one of the most beautiful books of our time - A birds-eye view of the world

In Earth from Air, Brown teams with world-renowned photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand on page after breathtaking page. His germane vignettes deepen the context of Arthus-Bertrand's fascinating images of Earth. Destined to become an heirloom, this exquisitely bound collection will be a family treasure for generations to come.

The Earth from the Air
The Earth from the Air

Quite possibly the most beautiful book I've ever seen. Difficult to put down, once you've gazed on the first photograph, it changes not only your understanding of our world, but your heart as well.


Finally! His memoir!

At last, we get an autobiographical account of the people and events that shaped Brown's life and led him from a small farm he worked with his brother after his father's untimely death to one of the world's most respected problem solvers.

It is a testament to Brown's communication skills that he can make what might otherwise seem boring bureaucratic events into page turners.

We learn a lot about the man and his relationship with bureaucracy in the first chapter, "Breakthrough," when he tells the story of appropriating a discarded carpet for his office. He and another junior staffer, thinking the nearly new carpet being replaced in their boss's office will be thrown out, drag it to the office they share with several other juniors and install it over their lunch hour.

The workmen come hunting the carpet and demand its return. For the next two weeks, Brown and his colleague refuse to give it up, citing the pressure of deadlines. Eventually the workmen move on, leaving Brown and his colleagues to their bounty, a coup for such low-level wonks.

Brown fan?

What do you think of Brown's work? Do you know of a good Brown story or web site you didn't see on this page? I'd appreciate your taking the time to share it.

© 2007 Kathryn Grace

I invite you to share your thoughts about this man and his work

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    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

      @SheGetsCreative, thank you! So glad you found him interesting.

      @AcornOakForest, the best part about the Plan B series is that Brown gives us practical steps we can take to do our part, AND he gives practical steps to the world's leaders a well. Thank you for your kindly compliment. Made me smile from ear to ear.

      @Paula Atwell, thank you for taking a look. Much appreciated.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      To say he is a man with a vision is an understatement. Very interesting hub!

    • AcornOakForest profile image

      Monica Lobenstein 3 years ago from Western Wisconsin

      I am excited to read Plan B 4.0. Thanks for the link to the EPI web page! I feel like I do a lot to help the environment/world and I know there is always more I can do. I always learn more from your pages and I appreciate that so much!

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      I have heard of this book but not read it yet. This article was very informative.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      I can see I have some important reading to do. Thank you for introducing me to this substantive body of work. I know I will benefit from absorbing this holistic approach to global sustainability. You always publish articles/web pages that matter in the bigger picture. I have a true appreciation and respect for that... for you.

    • whiteskyline lm profile image

      whiteskyline lm 6 years ago

      I have heard his name on occasion. I had no idea of the scope of his contributions, very interesting.

    • EMangl profile image

      EMangl 6 years ago

      if only more people would listen and open their eyes ..

    • profile image

      poutine 6 years ago

      No, I haven't read his work yet...but he seems like an interesting man.