Monday, October 12, 2009

Lester Brown: Our Global Pyramid Scheme - A Food Bubble About to Burst?

I've always admired Lester Brown because he is a man with a plan for fixing our global sustainability issues, from the climate crisis to the crisis in global land use.

Here, promoting his new 'Plan B 4.0' on Grist, Brown talks about 'Our Global Pyramid Scheme' -- how we are boosting our quality of life today by cheating our children of theirs.

Although the functioning of the global economy and a Ponzi investment scheme are not entirely analogous, there are some disturbing parallels. As recently as 1950 or so, the world economy was living more or less within its means, consuming only the sustainable yield, the interest of the natural systems that support it. But then as the economy doubled, and doubled again, and yet again, multiplying eightfold, it began to outrun sustainable yields and to consume the asset base itself.

In a 2002 study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists concluded that humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. As of 2009, global demands on natural systems exceed their sustainable yield capacity by nearly 30 percent. This means we are meeting current demands in part by consuming the earth’s natural assets, setting the stage for an eventual Ponzi-type collapse when these assets are depleted.

As of mid-2009, nearly all the world’s major aquifers were being overpumped. We have more irrigation water than before the overpumping began, in true Ponzi fashion. We get the feeling that we’re doing very well in agriculture—but the reality is that an estimated 400 million people are today being fed by overpumping, a process that is by definition short-term. With aquifers being depleted, this water-based food bubble is about to burst.

What I like about Brown's work is that  although the above scenario sounds pretty dire, the part about "The Problem" is only the first half of Plan B 4.0.  The whole second half details a range of policy, land management, water efficiency and other solutions.  They're not necessarily perfect, but they are a very good plan.  And that kind of vision is tremendously important for driving the quest to figure out how humanity can live more in balance with our planetary home.

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