Friday, November 24, 2006

People Feature: Lester Brown Breaks it Down

that's Beijing, November 2006

Getting China and the world to tell the "ecological truth"
text by Alex Pasternack

In 1995, a little book about food security and the environment entitled Who Will Feed China made him an enemy of the state. American economist and head of the Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown’s demand for “ecological truth” left him lambasted by scientists and officials for his “anti-China stance.” But as the country’s environmental crises became harder to deny, Brown could no longer be ignored. When he visited last autumn, Premier Wen Jiabao requested a meeting; months later, Wen reportedly quoted Brown in a speech. His last book earned him a book award from the National Library of China and an honorary professorship at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. When leaders ask him if the world can afford to carry out his recommendations – which, in his latest book, Plan B 2.0, are estimated to cost USD 161 billion – his response is simple: “The question shouldn’t be can we afford it; rather, can we afford not to do these things?”

tbj: You’ve gone from pariah to hero in China. What happened?
Lester Brown: China’s grain production peaked in ‘98 and has declined since then. At first they were amazingly critical [of my views on Chinese agriculture]. I hadn’t realized at the time how sensitive food security was. No one in an official position could say the grain supply would decline because that would mean China would have to become dependent on the outside world – and that was simply anathema. So they attacked [my] analysis.

It took about a year. They were forced to redefine what self-sufficiency was. Soon it became [acceptible among government officials to say], “It’s okay to import a little bit of your food, a small share of our grain supply.” The first publisher who wanted to publish me, from Guangdong, was denied. Now the People’s Publishing House publishes all my books.

tbj: What’s the biggest environmental problem facing China now?
LB: Water pollution is a big problem, especially when it reaches a point where underground water supplies are being polluted. Surface water flows fairly fast. But it’s difficult because we don’t have many measurements, we don’t know the concentrations of pesticides or heavy metals, and we don’t have enough data to know what kinds of health problems are likely to result. We know that certain types of pollutants cause certain types of health problems. But we don’t have the data on the pollutants themselves to reach any conclusions. We know that three million people die each year from air pollution, but we don’t have a comparable number for the number of deaths from toxic water supplies.

A much more visible problem is the loss of vegetation in the west and north, and the formation of a huge dust bowl there. The expansion of deserts is getting worse year by year. [The resulting sandstorms] are clearly affecting the Koreas and Japan and, to a much lesser degree, the US. One of the things happening at the ground level is that a lot of villages are being abandoned – we’re talking about thousands of villages, not a dozen. According to Wang Tao [Director of the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute], 24,000 villages have either been abandoned entirely or partly depopulated. In this war against the deserts, China is losing. And with the degradation of the land comes environmental refugees, which means even more people moving to the cities.

tbj: You’ve written before that China’s grain woes may mean it could soon compete with America for the US grain harvest, driving up food prices and leading to potential food shortages. How pressing is China’s food situation now?
LB: Grain production has dropped since ’98, recovering a bit in the last few years. Meanwhile, China’s soybean production hasn’t increased much at all in the past few decades, though consumption has. Ten years ago the country was self-sufficient. Now it’s importing 60 percent of its total annual supply of 29 million tons. Japan by contrast imports only five million tons of soybeans a year. It’s ironic because China gave the world the soybean.

It’s been partly a loss-of-resource problem and partly an incentives problem. They’ve strengthened incentives – that’s why we‘ve seen an upturn in production that puts China in a much better place than it was three years ago. But it’s still losing cropland each year, and still losing water resources. At what point the loss of underground water under the north China plain will directly affect food production remains to be seen.

tbj: Even as arable land is decreasing, China has reported an increase in its grain supplies. And the new five-year plan calls for more farming protections. Do you think the Chinese government is approaching the food problem in the right way?
LB: I think the government has to assume a strong leadership role on that issue and devise some way of buying out herders or paying them to reduce the size of their herds, in order to systematically reduce the pressures on grasslands to a level that is sustainable. Otherwise, the dust bowl will continue to get bigger, dust storms will get worse and deserts will continue to expand. Aside from the government asking herders to reduce herds by 40 percent, I’m not sure what they’re going to do.

tbj: These days, China is depicted as an environmental nightmare by the West. At the same time, the West has been criticized for outsourcing its carbon emissions along with its manufacturing. How should the world be thinking about China’s environmental woes?
LB: In some areas the US gets a lot of blame too. China is only doing what the rest of us did earlier. It’s so big and it’s doing it so fast, that it kind of overwhelms the ability of natural resources and the ability of the environment to deal with waste and carbon emissions. I see China as providing a wake up call for the world.

The US is now no longer the world’s major consumer of resources. Only in oil [consumption] does the US still lead. That gives us license to ask the next question: What if China catches up to the US in terms of resources per person? If China does reach the US’s current income level, which it’s supposed to do by 2031, and if they spend their money more or less the same way, they would consume twice as much paper as the world now produces – there go the world’s trees; they would drive 1.1 billion cars (the world currently has 800 million) and consume 99 billion barrels of oil a day. The world is producing 84 billion barrels right now and it may never produce much more.

The Western economic model of consumption – the fossil-fuel-based, auto-centered, throwaway economy – is not going to work for China. It’s not going to work for India or the other industrializing countries that are dreaming the American dream. And it won’t work for any other country either. We’re all competing for the same oil, grain, and steel. China is making it clear that we have to build a new economy, with renewable sources of energy and a much more diversified transport system – an economy that reuses and recycles everything.
Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0 is readable online at

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