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Sam Burcher joins the audience to hear Lester Brown explain what the climate meeting in Copenhagen should really be about.

lester brownLester Brown is a prolific figure of the modern environmental movement. He is the president of the Earth Policy Institute, an advisor to former US president Bill Clinton, the holder of 23 honorary degrees, an author, and a self-effacing and captivating public speaker.

At a recent lecture in London [1] he amused the crowd by saying that his late friend and colleague Paul Simon said, 'Lester has written the kind of book that once you put it down you can't pick it up again.' The book he was referring to is Plan B Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Now in its fourth edition, Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization reflects on the collapse of earlier societies such as the Sumerians and the Mayans whose decline is thought to be due to shrinking harvests and food supplies.

He cites the main trends that undermine our current crises in declining food security and food economies as; soil quality - both the salination and erosion of soil - the depletion of once abundant aquifers and falling water tables, the collapsing fisheries, and grassland deterioration. He said that the failure to turn these trends around is compounded by our 21st Century global civilization that is still struggling to connect socio-economic and environmental decline with climate change.

Water makes food

The most pressing example of our failures is the effect on the future of food by falling water tables. Many important sources of water are stored in natural underground aquifers. This is fossil water, which like oil, once it is over-pumped cannot be recharged. In India and China 175 and 130 million people respectively are currently being fed by over-pumping fossil aquifers. The prospect of these finite aquifers drying out in the long term is truly terrifying. However, according to Plan B 4.0, this is already a reality in Saudi Arabia where their Government has announced that there will be no more fossil water left to grow wheat with by 2016.

Too much water is also a problem. He indicates that our recent understanding is that the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting at an accelerated rate. If, in a couple of centuries, the entire ice sheet has melted, sea water level will rise by 22 feet, he warned. If the Greenland and Western Artic ice sheets melt the resulting rise in sea levels would threaten half the rice growers in Asia as well as half the rice growers in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Just a rise of 1 metre in sea level would put Bangladesh 's rice lands underwater. This, he said, is an indication of the interconnections between climate events and future threats to food harvests.

Shrinking Glaziers

The World Glazier Monitoring System in Switzerland has recorded a shrinking of mountain glaziers around the world for the eighth consecutive year in a row. This means that the future of the important mountain regions such as the Alps, the Andes, the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas hangs in the balance. The glaziers on these mountain ranges feed the major river systems on which the world biggest wheat producers such as China, India and the Mid-west of America depend.

There is no doubt that Lester Brown is deeply concerned about the consequences of the disappearing glaziers and he choked back the tears as he talked about the melting ice sheets. The audience could only admire someone that expressed so much feeling for our future. And, as he observed, it is humanity's future at stake, not the planet's, as he brought home the important points and the urgency of the action that we all must take.

What Copenhagen should know

He then talked about the imminent UN Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen. He said that it has lost sight of the main issue of cutting CO2 emissions fast. Instead, the talks have been reduced to trivial bickering about who is going to concede the most and who is going to favour what. In fact, he believes that the talks should be renamed The Copenhagen Conference on Food Security because that ultimately is what it is going to be about – saving the ice sheets and the glaziers.

The demand for food has increased in tandem with three major trends in consumption; population growth, the increase of grain based animal protein and the recent conversion of grain to fuel cars. In addition, there are huge demands on grain from the fish farms that have taken over from the fishing industry that hauled around 94 million tonnes of fish every year during 1950-1996 from the sea.

Just as the sea has limits, so too does the land. The relentless deforestation, overgrazing, and over-ploughing of land has resulted in the dusty advance of deserts. This has encroached on croplands in Africa, Asia, China, the Middle East, Algeria and Morocco. Farmers are hit twice by the loss of cropland and of irrigation water. In China, India and the US, the still fertile land and its water is being taken for industrial and residential construction, to build roads, highways and parking lots where vast fleets of cars sit like the silent sentinels of the automobile trade.

Therefore, the fierce competition between people and cars intensifies over finite resources such as land and water. As a result, the effort to sustain high agricultural productivity to meet human demand is increasingly challenged by the rising price of oil and the decline of its supply.

The politics of food scarcity and land acquisitions

By far the most worrying trend in the politics of food scarcity is the modern day version of the land grab. In order to secure a long term supply of precious grains many countries that have outrun their own resources are crossing transnational boundaries to invest directly into other country's resources for their own gain. The Saudi Arabians are one of the biggest buyers and have so far acquired 2 million hectares in Indonesia and are growing rice for their own market in Ethiopia, a country desperate to meet its own food needs.

These land acquisitions force indigenous people off their land so that it can be sold. Pakistan currently has 100 000 troops guarding recently acquired land by direct foreign investors, presumably to protect it from the people who used to farm it. This practice also raises concerns about hungry people whose nutritional standards had started to improve, but are now in decline again.

It has become clear that food and nutrition standards should be the priority of a successful nation. Similarly, a nation that neglects its nutrition does so at its peril. Lester asks the pertinent question: How many failing states before we have a failing civilization? To avoid the calamity of a collapsed civilization we must abandon Plan A, or the business as usual model and instead adopt Plan B, which is as an opportunity to change our direction away from destruction, he said.

Plan B to Save the Climate and Civilization

lester brown bookTo save civilization we should all have to have our say and take the initiative in lowering CO2 emissions.  Apart from the obvious adjustments of eating less meat, stabilizing the population, eradicating poverty and closing down coal power stations, Lester Brown believes in a quick shift from fossil fuels to renewables. For example, the re-design of public transport towards electrification, which is already happening in the form of plug in hybrid cars that run off electricity for short journeys and can then, be switched to petrol or diesel for the occasional and longer out of town journey.

We can take collective action to stop deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere. An average 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon are released annually as a result of shrinking forests. On the other hand, the expansion of temperate forests is contributing to the absorption of 700 million tonnes of carbon. Lester warns that we are in race against environmental tipping points and that the key question is: Can we cut carbon emissions in time? Education must be an important key to addressing all of these major issues.

He also commented on the solar initiatives in the North African deserts that could provide enough solar energy to power the world. He praised the efforts of America and China in their determined push for wind power. And, he heralded the return of the bicycle and looked forward to smart sensors that turn off electrical appliances when not in use. Finally, he urged personal changes in lifestyles that we all must face if we are to rise to the challenge of saving ourselves and the Greenland Ice sheets, and the Tibetan Plateau.

Photo of Lester Brown by Sam Burcher (c) 2009

    The Compassion in World Farming Lecture 2009. “How can we feed the world and protect the environment?" 29th October, London .