Accessibility links

Breaking News

Saving the Planet is No Spectator Sport

Lester Brown is an environmental analyst who has spent a lifetime trying to build support for policies to save the planet. Brown says he honed his management skills early in life on the family farm in New Jersey. "My brother and I had to milk cows before we went to school and after we came home from school at night."

By the time he was a teenager, Brown and his younger brother had their own farm, which Brown says his father accepted as long as the boys did the family chores first. "[We] kept expanding that over about a decade and by 1958, the last year that we worked we [harvested] over a half-million pounds [450,000 kilos] of tomatoes. We had everyone working for us, our classmates and migrant workers."

Brown figured he would farm tomatoes his whole life and so studied agriculture in college. But in 1956, the year after he graduated, he took a farm-youth exchange trip to India that turned him onto another career path. "I spent a half year living in Indian villages and then came back and realized that just growing tomatoes for the next 40 years wouldn't be that satisfying."

Brown wanted to work on the world food population problem. In 1959 he got a job as an international analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency head recognized his talents and later appointed him to administer the department's International Development Service.

Brown tells the story about how he was sent to India to review the country's five-year agriculture plan. He concluded that India was in big trouble. With support from then president Lyndon Johnson, Brown was charged to help India avoid the impact of a major famine. "The Indian government agreed to reverse their food price policy to encourage farmers to invest." The fertilizer industry was moved to the private sector and India agreed to use new drought resistant seeds. Brown says India doubled its wheat crop in seven years. "No major country had done that before. And we [the U.S.] shipped one-fifth of our wheat crop to India in 1965."

Brown left government in 1969. Over the next five years he helped create the Overseas Development Service and a private environmental organization, Worldwatch Institute. He says Worldwatch stood out among environmental groups because it analyzed problems from a variety of disciplines.

He introduced the yearly State of the World report to assess the health of the planet. Brown says from the beginning, the publication has appealed to policymakers and citizen activists. "And before long we were printing 100,000 copies in English, and it was being published in 20-30 languages around the world."

Critics have long charged that many of Brown's projections of worsening water shortages or food scarcity have been overly pessimistic. But Brown has also been celebrated — and honored with many awards — for his skill in thinking across disciplines and linking seemingly unrelated ideas in his effort to identify important global trends.

Since leaving Worldwatch in 2001 and forming a new organization, the Earth Policy Institute, he has written a series of books focused on global warming and what to do about it. In Plan B 3.0, he lays out a blueprint to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2020. Brown advocates closing all coal fired power plants and installing 1.5 million 2-megawatt wind turbines. He says, "[Wind] will supply 40 percent of the world's electricity,"

Brown says the idea is not far fetched. During World War II, the U.S. mobilized the auto industry to produce bombs, tanks and planes. Brown asks, "Why not use the same model in the battle against global warming? We build 65 million cars each year. We could take the idled automobile assembly plants in the United States and produce all the wind turbines the world needs to reach this goal."

Brown hopes his writings help raise awareness about shared environmental problems and serve as a prod to public action. "And the bottom line is that saving civilization is not a spectator sport. We all have to get involved. It is our civilization. It is our future."

At 74, Lester Brown has no plans to slow down. When asked what he does for fun, he says that while he likes sports and runs every other day for exercise, he can't think of anything more fun than his current line of work — trying to save the planet.

Previous American Profiles