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You're a Good Man, Lester Brown

An interview with the founder of Worldwatch and Earth Policy Institute


By David Roberts

There are few titans remaining in the environmental world -- figures that command respect not only inside the movement but in the larger global political milieu as well.

Lester Brown is one of them. In 1974, he founded the Worldwatch Institute, one of the first think tanks to focus on the global environmental situation (its agenda-setting yearly reports, State of the World, remain required reading among the green set). In 2001, he left Worldwatch to start the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), a small outfit dedicated to envisioning an "eco-economy" and figuring out how to get there.

In 2003, EPI released Plan B, a book synthesizing research on the earth's multiple converging ecological crises and laying out a step-by-step plan (including a budget -- if you're curious, it's $161 billion) for how to transition to a sustainable path. Reception was enthusiastic; mogul Ted Turner was one of many influential figures to buy dozens of copies to send to friends.

Late last year saw Plan B 2.0, a revised, expanded edition incorporating the many developments -- good and bad -- of the intervening two years. In addition to your local bookstore, the book is available in its entirety as PDF or HTML on EPI's website.

Brown's been globe-trotting since the book's release, promoting the plan. Weeks before I met with him, he spoke to world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, at the invitation of founder and executive director Klaus Schwab. He and I met in a small cafe in Seattle and, over omelets, discussed biofuels, plug-in hybrids, China, the Bush administration, and sudden, unpredictable social change.

Q: What was the genesis of Plan B?
Our goal was to give a sense of what an environmentally sustainable economy would look like. If you don't know where you want to go, there's a good chance you won't get there. And within the environmental community there was no global vision.

Q: Do you envision regular two-year updates?
Things are happening fast enough now, in terms of new opportunities, new technologies, new success stories, new problems developing, new understandings of climate change, and so forth. So I'm beginning to think this is going to be an every-two-year effort.

Even since this book came out, Goldman Sachs got in the wind-energy business big time. A year ago it bought Horizon Wind Energy, which was a small company building wind farms, and now that company has 5,000 megawatts of generating capacity under construction or in the planning stage. That's equal to 17 typical coal-fired power plants.

Q: What trend in the world is most alarming?
One is climate change and the other is population growth.

On population growth, close to 3 billion people will be added between now and mid-century, the vast majority in countries where water tables are already falling and wells are going dry. That's not a happy situation.

China's growth is illuminating, but it's just that they're growing faster than most of the rest of the world. In that sense they're doing us a favor: they're telescoping history so that we can see what the future looks like.

Q: You discuss nuclear energy very little in the book. What are your thoughts on it?
I've tried to love nuclear, but I haven't been very successful. I don't think it can get beyond the economics. If we insist that utilities bear the full cost of nuclear power -- and that's something we need to do -- they have to set aside money for decommissioning and include that in the rates. That would cost as much or more than construction. They have to deal with the waste issue. And they have to find an insurance company that will insure them.

There are other questions as well. If we decide to go nuclear, do we mean all countries can have nuclear power? Do we have an A-list and a B-list? If so, who makes that list? Who enforces it? Looking at Iran and North Korea right now, I'm not sure we're very good at that.

What is Lester Brown's preferred source of renewable energy? And what does Brown think about the political climate around the world, and how that will affect environmental issues? See page 2.

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