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Worldchanging Interview: Lester Brown

by Worldchanging Canada local blogger, Mark Tovey

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In Canada right now, we're looking at what some might consider a sea-change in public opinion about Climate Change. According to a new poll of 1,500 Canadians conducted by McAllister Opinion Research and Globe Scan Inc, the environment now tops Canadians' political concerns, "even more than health care at its peak" (Ottawa Citizen, January 31st, 2007, A1-A2). Yesterday's Ottawa Citizen had a front-page photo entitled "Great Barrier Reef: The Latest Victim of Climate Change". On the same day, The Globe and Mail's front-page lead was: "The fallout of global warming: 1,000 years."

Should we be encouraged by this kind of trend? Lester Brown thinks so. The influential founder of WorldWatch, and author of Plan B 2.0, gave a talk at the Global Environmental Taxation conference, where I caught his keynote, and sat down with him for half an hour of fascinating conversation, distilled below. Brown talked about the educational challenge that we're facing as a society, and suggested that the media is the only institution capable of meeting that challenge. I asked him for his thoughts on solutions to the twin themes of his talk, global warming and the peaking of oil production. He noted the strong wind resource in Canada, and the value in developing non-environmentally disruptive biofuels. He sees developing the necessary political will, moving towards a "social tipping point", as the key to developing the necessary technologies and policies. - MT

Mark Tovey: So one of the things that I'm wondering is how big a problem is it that so much of our infrastructure that runs on oil right now (combines for farms, trucks to ship things, individual automobiles, industrial machinery to actually make things), was designed with petroleum in mind, and doesn't necessarily run on biofuels, or at least not out of the gate. Do you know of technologies that allow those kinds of things to be retrofitted without scrapping that infrastructure and rebuilding it fom scratch, or if we did have to scrap portions of it are there ways of doing that that we can re-use a substantial amount of that?

Lester Brown: A large share of the world's oil is used for transportation and we know that a good part of that can be substituted -- we can substitute, as I mentioned using plug-in hybrids with, we can substitute wind for example, any source of electricity, but wind, because it's clean, or -- for automotive fuel, for gasoline, or for diesel. So that takes care of a large part of our use of oil. But there's still a lot more. And the more difficult ones to substitute are construction machinery -- heavy duty construction machinery -- some farm implements, jet aircraft. They're more difficult. But what we can begin to do with, I mean jet aircraft can run on ethanol as well as jet fuel. So that's entirely do-able. The trick is to develop sources of liquid fuel that are not environmentally disruptive -- and are not socially competitive with, for -- the food supply. And that means developing cellulosic ethanol as a form of liquid fuel that can be used in the place of gasoline and biodiesel.

But that's a smaller, a relatively small part of the total -- it's automobiles -- but we can look at urban transport systems that are almost entirely electricity driven with light rail, begin to substitute light rail more and more for buses for example, and, so, much of our passenger transport is fairly easy. Some farm implements, I mean, farm implements can also operate on ethanol, tractors and combines and those sort of things. So we will need something other than electricity for a piece of the automotive fuel and transport fuel use, but we can begin to see how to get most of that energy from renewable sources, importantly wind.

MT: And what do you make of the argument that we as a civilization don't have enough cheap energy to build all of those wind turbines, for instance? Are those kinds of arguments based on assumptions that are sort of submerged or invisible, or should we be taking them seriously, or what is a good way of looking at those arguments?

LB: The fortunate thing is that it does not take a lot of energy to build wind turbines, and they last for a long time, and produce an extraordinary amount of energy. But it is important that we start this sooner rather than later, because the longer we wait, the less energy we'll have, and the more difficult it will be to get enough energy to build the new system. The exciting thing about gas electric hybrid cars and wind energy is that they operate with the existing infrastructure. We have the gasoline service stations in place, we'll be using a lot of that ... and we also have grids in place, electrical grids. Now we'll have to strengthen them in some places, but that's entirely do-able. I mean one of the things I didn't mention this morning is what's happening in Texas with wind energy. There's been a lot of focus on California and the new program there that Governor Schwartzenegger has introduced and so forth but what's happening in Texas may be even more important because a group of wind-farm developers, plus local utilities, plus the state government of Texas, with a Republican governor by the way, have come together to develop an agreement to build some transmission lines from West Texas, which is sparsely populated, and very wind rich, and carry the electricity east into central Texas, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and parts further east. The plan is to develop 7000 megawatts of wind-generated capacity. This would be a total investment by these companies and utilities of close to 11 billion dollars. But it will supply the residential electricity needs of 2.1 million homes, or 5 million people. This is just one project. But it's an example, and that incidentally is equal to at least -- 7000 megawatts -- 15 coal-fired power plants. So I mean we're talking big time now in terms of potential structural changes in the energy economy.

MT: In terms of, and this is a bigger problem in Canada possibly than in the United States, although the eastern seaboard also has issues with heating, and now that we're seeing a peaking of natural gas in North America, and the cost of heating homes is going to be increasingly expensive, do you see a move there to electricity for heating homes, or to oil, and if it is to electricity, to what extent do we need to factor that energy charge into the equation of how much energy we need?

LB: Right. Well, for example just as Iceland has gone from using heating oil to heat homes almost entirely to geothermal energy -- almost 91% of all homes in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy, so Canada could go from using heating oil to using wind generated electricity. 'Cause it's so abundant. I haven't looked at the per capita wind energy resources, but Canada must be near the top in the world, given the enormous wind resources and a relatively small population. Another possibility is just investing in more energy-efficient buildings and homes and energy renovations in some cases. So there are a lot of things that can be done, but the US and Canada both have an abundance of energy resources -- a combination of wind and solar, and geothermal, and tidal, and wave energy. Wave energy for country with their own coastlines could become a major source of energy in the future. There's a lot of energy in those waves, it's a matter of converting it into [electricity]. And it's coming in engineering terms. It's definitely going to emerge as an important energy source.

MT: What are the features beyond tax neutrality that you think are likely to play best both in terms of convincing governments and offering common cause on both the right and the left for something they can all buy into?

LB: Well, one of the interesting things about conservatives is that I think they realize that we've reached the point where the market is no longer telling us the truth. I mean they sort of worship the market, and I mean the market is a remarkable institution. But we have a serious problem with it now because it's not telling the truth any more. And as I mentioned in the talk we're running much the same risk that Enron did, except on a much larger scale. So we gotta ... once you go through the economics, then it's pretty convincing, and I would point out that the emerging support for plug-in hybrid cars in the United States is coming from two sources. It's coming from environmentalists, and neo-cons. Neo-cons because they see the United States losing its political independence because of its dependence on imported Middle Eastern oil. And that, you know, we're at the end a, they're pulling the strings, and we can't do much about it. So it's interesting, and in some of the sessions of the Hill, the neo-cons have been even more outspoken than environmentalists on this issue.

MT: Are there ways that you can see that there is political will building on all sides of the political spectrum?

LB: I think Americans are more concerned about the future than any time that I can remember.

Two of the things they're concerned about: One is oil. They realize, in the Middle East, it's a mess right now, and to count on oil from there is really a high risk proposition. And also, that our reserves are being depleted. That's pretty clear. I mean, peak oil may be imminent. A world very different, when oil production is declining. Very different from any we've known. We've spent our lifetimes in an environment where global production was rising: there are temporary interruptions, but basically ... not.

I think concerns with oil are one thing, and concerns about climate change are another thing. And fortunately, they both have the same solution, or solutions. What reduces our dependence on oil also helps to reduce carbon emissions.

MT: What would you say is the piece which is distorting the market the most?

I think fossil fuels may be as big as they come, both in terms of scale and in terms the difference between them in terms of of prices and costs. How do you calculate costs of climate change -- I mean, the costs go up -- and the real question is whether civilization will be able to manage the kinds of problems that will develop. There's another way of looking at this, and I haven't really thought about it much or written about it yet, but what we have seen in recent decades is the emergence of serious threats, or problems, that are difficult to manage. For example, the HIV virus. Most industrial countries have succeeded in holding adult infections rates under 1% of the population. A lot of developing countries, especially in Africa, were not able to. And those societies are being decimated, today. I mean some villages are almost missing a generation. The grandparents, the kids, and not very many in-between. Food security is suffering in those countries.

Now, another problem that's emerged is the over-pumping of aquifers. In the last half-century we've built pumping capacity with powerful electrically-driven, or diesel-powered pumps, to pump water from underground faster than aquifers recharge. And one would think that when that happens, you know, that red lights would go on, the bells would ring, and someone would say, hey, you know, our water table's beginning to fall, we need to do something. I don't know a single country that's done that. And half the world's people now live in countries where water tables are falling. There's not enough pressure to deal with it until it becomes a crisis, by which time it's rather late in the day.

Or consider climate change - I mean it's hard to find a country out of the 200 in the world -- that's really responding effectively to this -- and by effectively, I mean cutting carbon emissions by 70%, not by the Kyoto of 7%. It's just not happening.

The question is, are the problems that civilization are facing becoming so difficult that our institutions, our political institutions, are not capable of managing them? It's a scary question.

MT: It's a very scary question. Thomas Homer-Dixon, for instance, talks about The Ingenuity Gap and suggests that we might be able to use collective intelligence, you know, large scale open source methods, very participatory democracies, to tap into people's abilities to manage things potentially better. What do you think of the potential of that kind of approach?

LB: My model is a bit different. I mean the real question is whether we cross the tipping point in social behaviour, attitudes, first, or whether we cross some of the climate change thresholds first. It's two tipping points, one social, and one environmental.

My model is one based on rising levels of information. I mean the reason for the smoking revolution in the United States is that in 1964 or in 1963, President Kennedy commissioned the first report on smoking and health in the United States. And then it became an annual report, done by NIH almost every year. And the existence of that report itself, reported on all the studies that had been done anywhere in the world linking cigarettes smoking with pancreatic cancer, you know emphysema -- the whole range of smoking related illnesses we now know about.

And what that did in the United States was gradually raise the level of awareness -- and more and more people stopped smoking. And more and more people began to support bans on smoking. Until today it's difficult to find any place in the United States you know inside you know where you can smoke. I mean there are still a few places but not many.

Cigarette consumption per person has dropped by half since 1970. And then suddenly we had this enormous change, beginning in the late 90's, I was talking about earlier. But that was based on a rising public awareness, you know, and suddenly in the late 90's we reached a point where it just overwhelmed the most powerful lobby in Washington, tobacco funding.

And we change behaviour either in response to new information or new events. Pearl Harbour, Katrina -- I think of the Berlin Wall coming down. You know, somewhere we crossed a social threshhold there. It was not like we anticipated it. There's not a single Political Science journal article in the 80's, saying watch Eastern Europe, big change coming. When the Berlin wall came -- what happened was that one morning, people in Eastern Europe woke up and realized that the great socialist experiment was over. A one party political system, a centrally planned economy -- it was history. Everyone knew it, including the people in power. So we had an essentially bloodless political revolution. And it happened very quickly.

So these changes do occur. Sometimes as with cigarette smoking it's a gradual rising level of awareness. In the case of Pearl Harbour it was a very dramatic event that just changed everything. And, so, I am inclined to think it's going to be information.

And interestingly, and the reason I'm always happy to do interviews, is because in the United States beginning of World War II, it was the automobile industry that really held the key to our restructuring quickly.

Today I think the equivalent are the communications media. Because we're faced with an enormous educational challenge. I don't think the formal educational system has the capacity, because of the built-in time lags. I think [that the media is] the only institution that can respond to the educational challenge we face, so that people everywhere are as aware of what's happening -- or almost -- as the people that are in this conference today. And that's going to take an enormous effort. Now, it's encouraging because the media's beginning to give much more coverage to Climate Change, for example.

MT: What might that look like?

LB: It would mean more news coverage, more news analysis of these issues, not just reporting there's flooding someplace, or drought, or an enormously destructive storm, but not reporting it as just weather events, but as quite possibly part of a change in the Earth's climate. And then people, are -- it sort of forces people to think into the future. And say, you know, if it's Katrina today, what might it be tomorrow? And documentaries of course -- analysing these things. And reality shows, that deal with these issues.

Leonado diCaprio, not a media person -- I mean media person in the sense, I mean film is an important medium, obviously -- but he is working on a film, a bit like "An Inconvenient Truth." It's not based on a Power Point presentation, but it's about the environmental challenges that we're facing, including climate change, and I think that is intended to go into theatres next April, or something like that. And also would be on television.

I mention it because here's an actor who is himself directing this, and involved in the production. In fact, next week I'm flying out to California just to do this -- I'm doing an interview for this -- but it's an example of someone who can command some resources and public attention beginning to make a major committment. Now the next thing is that he's thinking about a reality show.

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You have no clue as to how much fuel we are burning.
84 million barrels a DAY! This is 3.5 billion gasoline cans per DAY! Each can is 1 foot wide, would stretch around the world 1.5 times each day.

The corn mash required to replace our fuel would flow horseshoe falls continuously and horshoe falls would have to be raised to boiling as it flows over the falls continuously to distill off the ethanol.

this is the extent and power required to replace our oil consumption with ethanol
utterly impossible.

Posted by: JJ1254 on 4 Feb 07

7000 megawatts is not big time energy. 7000 megawatts is about nothing in the grand scheme of things, One barrel of oil is 1.2 megawatts of power for an hour.
7000 megawatts is 6000 barrels of oil.

we use 84 MILLION barrels a day. not 6000.
How do you say a drop in a bucket?
If you had 1000 of these windmill farms then you have something. What is 10 billion times 1000? That would be ten trillion dollars to equal the generating capacity of our daily use of oil. Cant be done.

Posted by: JJ15279 on 5 Feb 07

That was a nice article. But the one thing that is missing at the core of all these arguments is human over-population and inherent desire and greed.

This world can service only so much human desire. Yet try having a conversation with most women on the subject and receive a blank stare or anger. It is natural for humans to seek ease in life. The lifestyle available to the developed world is a direct result of fossil fuel consumption and this affords the ease that is naturally sought by humanity. I myself have made significant changes to my life to do my share for the environment only to be marginalized by the opportunity cost of my actions not to mention putting my health in jeopardy.

I live in a part of the developed world that is going through the next phase of hyper development as a result of increasing Asia-pacific trade. Every day I see more heavy trucks, more commercial development, more high-rise residential construction, and more influx of people from China, Southeast Asia, and India. I have been seeing this for more than two decades (Jim Pattison's Expo 86) and there is no end in sight. I ride my bike to work 15 km one-way in the spring/summer/autumn and on some days during the winter when the temperature is above 10 deg.C. My bike ride is unpleasant because I have to constantly watch-out for pedestrians, cars, and lumbering trucks. My bike is not cheap. I did start with a cheap bike only to have it break on me regularly. I had to get an expensive more reliable upgrade that cost more than a reliable used car.

At work most people (>50) with the exception of the owner, two other people and myself, never bike to work because it is "just too difficult" or they really live far away (>25 Km). Most of the south asian co-workers deny the over-population issue whenever I bring it up as a reason for the decrease in quality of life as a response to their complaints even though they readily admit that that is why they ran from their countries to live and work here. Most of these co-workers not only own their own condos, but have at least two other condos as investment properties waiting for completion in a year so that they can flip the property at a profit. And to guarantee that they do make a profit, they are members of local special interest groups that actively lobby politicians to increase immigration and actively build channels to facilitate the continuous flow of immigrants. Our politicians are human and are easy prey to greed. Our politicians have large financial interests in all this development. The immigrants that come have cash to take over those properties and then they enter the cycle of investing in properties that they in turn flip in a year. This goes on without end. The immigrants that come here have no interest in bikes. Their tastes are on the side of vehicles with the most powerful engines, the latest in electronic gadgets for their household, the latest in clothing, and are well trained in the art of consumerism.

At universities you have Professor's of Economics that do not consider and are not able to bear the notion that the Economy relies on the very same natural resources that are responsible for sustaining life. And these same Economists have the ear of our politicians who are mainly interested in making money. The police and the armed forces are under the direct command and commission of those self same politicians to protect and preserve their economic/business interests. Any ear the politicians give to the climate change movement is for show only for the voting public.

Our neighbors to the south with their "military attitude" are quick to paint the faces of other peoples black to allow the voting populace to support them in their war on terror while their true intentions are the lucrative natural resources that just happen to exist in the countries they invade and terrorize. The beneficiaries of these wars are the 1% who make up the ultra rich. The spoils of these wars then become inputs for the industries owned by the ultra rich.

I could go on and on. In the end it all comes down to human desire, human greed, available resources, and the number of people on the planet. Arguments about a "one child policy", that usually end such discussions, are to be taken as lip service because each additional person on the planet is one more person to work for "managers" in a chain under the ultra rich.

So now what? Have any ideas?

Posted by: aaaaaaum on 5 Feb 07

JJ I'm afraid its you that can't do the maths. Using your figures:

7000MW = 6000 barrels of oil *per hour*, ie 144,000 barrels of oil per day, 52.5 million barrels per year, 1.3 billion barrels over the project's lifetime which would otherwise have cost the US $90 billion in imported fuel at todays prices.... Granted it is a drop in the bucket but to dismiss it as having no impact is nonsense!

Good to see Lester highlighting the potential of wave energy - a vast untapped energy resource with the potential to displace billions of tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Posted by: Max CC on 5 Feb 07

jj1254 - you seem to feel that it is impossible to replace all our oil usage by wind power.
Denmark currently produces 25-30% of it's electricity from wind and there are huge projects planned for offshore in Europe - If we could provide 30% of the worlds electricity supply from wind it would at least stretch the oil longer.
No-one is suggesting that wind should be the only alternative power source we can move to - there are dozens of alternative fuels, renewable power sources and conservation methods that we need to move towards. Wind just happens to be the first mature technology that is cost efficient that we can take advantage of.
Whether we end up getting our power from wind, solar, biomass, nuclear or geothermal in 30 or 100 years time - it won't be from oil and the soooner we move to these alternatives, the better off we will be.
No one suggests that corn oil/biofuel will replace all the oil we are using today - it will undoubtedly play some part in it and should be tried out and made as efficient as we can make it.

Posted by: Andrew on 5 Feb 07

Hi Lester -

Thank-you for the information. My comment was going to be that bio-fuels are not the answer - the factory farming that goes on to produce our grain is an enormous problem itself. Small, mixed farming is the healthy solution to factory farms, but we'd never produce the volumes needed - i doubt if we have the land base.

As you have conveyed, we need a change in awareness producing a change in lifestyle. We have three major problems of which climate change is but a symptom - overpopulation, a growth-based economy, and a populace that feel that extreme mobility is their entitlement. We have GOT to open the dialogue on these things in the mainstream - to see it on our front pages. To understand that it is NOT a good thing when your shares in Exxon have gone up. That publicly traded companies themselves are NOT a good idea. Sustainability is what we should be aiming for. We need to understand that Growth and Sustainability are mutually exclusive. We can choose one or the other, not both.

These are the concepts we need to embrace.

-Jonathan Wright

Posted by: Jonathan Wright on 5 Feb 07

In 2004 the US Dept of Energy (DOE) reported that we generated 3971 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. In 1991, the DOE published a study that estimated the potential wind energy of Texas, the Dakotas and Kansas, using 1991 technology, had the ability to produce, collectively, 4500 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from the wind. The average commercial wind turbine in 1991 was 300 kilowatts. The average wind turbine today is 1500 kilowatts. If the DOE was even close in it's estimates of potential US Wind Energy, we have more than enough wind energy to produce all the electricity that we can use. The problem lies with the investment in the sources that we now use. Wind Energy competes directly with coal and natural gas. Our political system has been lobbied heavily for years to keep the status quo. This will be hard to change.

Posted by: Jerry Brown on 5 Feb 07

Hi Lester -

Me again - i meant to elaborate on what i feel to be an important point that people need to ponder - that one of the extreme luxuries we'd be wise to give up is all the long-distance travelling we do. Locate yourself somewhere you really like, and be prepared to limit your travels to those places that can be reached using non-impacting transport modes.

Sounds harsh, yes, if only in our present context. Oh yes, that's ANOTHER thing we're going to have to accept - there is NOT going to be any easy way out of this mess, any way of doing it by say, just recylcing newpapers or some similar thing that fits simply into our day and requires no real effort - everyone is going to have accept the abandonment of their present comfort zone until a new one develops - one of a far more modest existence. To me, this is our only choice.

Thank-you, Lester.

Jonathan Wright

Posted by: Jonathan Wright on 5 Feb 07

The preponderance of discussion seems always to be on supplies of energy.

But we would do better to focus on demand ... our demand. Conserve, but also learn to get by with a lot less. Assess your current annual energy use in gasoline, electricity, and natural gas, and set a goal of reducing that total by 10% this next year. Then the next year reduce it another 10%, and then the next year another 10%. It may be painful, but at least it will be on your own schedule, rather than the pain of having it imposed, with a much more drastic cut.

Reduced energy use is inevitable; it's only a matter of when. So we all can decide to make this reduction on our own schedule, or have it imposed on us.

Posted by: Stephen Bach on 6 Feb 07

I must agree with "aaaaaaum" that the overpopulation problem underlies all other issues. Humans must solve this problem, or nature will solve it for us - is arguably doing so already, via wars, diseases, and malnutrition (close to 1 billion people are hungry now). For various reasons, the progressive community, and most environmental organizations, have abdicated their responsibility to speak out on this issue. I refer readers to Garrett Hardin's classic essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," available in several locations online. Hardin argues that the population problem has no technical solution, a point all purveyors of technical solutions to its symptoms need to reflect upon. He points out that overpopulation will destroy all values we hold dear, stating bluntly, "Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all." Paul Ehrlich, a scientist who has written extensively about population issues, told us, about 30 years ago (when there were billions fewer of us), "Whatever your cause, it's a lost cause if we don't solve the population problem."

I'd like to make another comment, regarding Lester Brown's hope for using the media to educate people on the challenges facing us. To some extent, I share this hope. But we should remember that a significant portion of the American population restricts its media intake to sports and celebrity gossip. And 40% or so believe "The Rapture" will soon bail them - not us, of course - out of any global difficulties, and they restrict their media intake (many go so far as to opt out of the public school system) to sources that reinforce this point of view. For these reasons, it's difficult for me to be sanguine about education inducing behavior change on a scale large enough to make much difference.

Posted by: Rebecca Redfield on 7 Feb 07



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