Lester Brown is the oracle of environmentalism. Through his work over more than half a century, especially in the fifty-plus books he has authored or co-authored, Brown has been particularly prescient about food, water, and energy.
Brown grew up on a farm with no running water or electricity in New Jersey. As a young man, he spent six months living in the villages of India as part of a farm youth exchange program. In 1959, he joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where he played a pivotal role in helping India combat famine a few years later. He helped create in the 1970s the Worldwatch Institute, a leading source of global environmental statistics and trends. He left Worldwatch in 2001 to set up the Earth Policy Institute, which sought to set a course to a sustainable future. The institute closed when Brown retired last summer.
Brown’s memoir, Breaking New Ground, was published in 2013. His latest book, published in April, is The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy. His awards include the United Nations Environmental Prize and a MacArthur fellowship. Bill Clinton and Ted Turner are among his admirers. The Library of Congress is storing his personal papers, while Rutgers University, his alma mater, is building a reading room in his honor.
I interviewed Brown, a competitive distance runner at the age of eighty-one, in September at his Washington, D.C., apartment in a quiet area of town overlooking Rock Creek Park and the national zoo. We bonded over a personal connection, since my granduncle hosted Brown for the better part of a month during his stay in India decades ago. An affable, gracious man, Brown showed me various editions of his many books in an array of languages. Chapters of his upcoming book on water were laid out all over the living room. Over coffee, we chatted about his life and work and the environmental challenges facing our planet.
Q: What are the greatest challenges facing global society?
Lester Brown: The two big issues we are facing are climate change and water shortages. Water shortages are more imminent. They’re here now. We suddenly look around and realize that water tables are falling everywhere: throughout the high plains of the United States, for instance, in the Ogallala Aquifer. This is a huge source of water, but it has already been pumped out in Texas-Oklahoma.
Much of the water used in the world comes from aquifers. There are thirty-seven major aquifers. More than twenty of them have no major recharge at all. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
Over the last thirty years, numerous lakes and rivers have disappeared in the world, and that’s going to continue. Some of the larger rivers no longer make it to the sea, such as the Colorado River or the Yellow River. We’ve got to reshape the economy to make it much more water-efficient than it now is.
We know that there are already a number of countries that are running out of water. They’ve pumped their aquifers dry or they’re getting very close to it. This includes Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. And in India, water tables are falling everywhere. The question is: What happens when wells start to run dry?
Q: So what should we do?
Brown: We can’t keep on adding eighty million people every year and keep on getting thirstier and thirstier all the time. Governments are going to have to address the population issue. It’s doable. Western and Eastern Europe and Japan have either decreasing or very slightly increasing populations. China is going to be at zero population growth in a matter of years.
And we’ll have to deal with the refugee problem. That’s going to be a pressure point. The whole of the Middle East and North Africa is going to be severely affected by this.
Q: What needs to be done in terms of energy transition?
Brown: Coal and oil have to go, partly because of their water usage. Most people don’t realize how much water it takes to mine coal: from the mining itself to control the dust to the cooling facilities in the power plant. So, coal, which already had a major strike against it because of carbon emissions, now has a second strike against it because of water, one that may be more imminent. The great thing about solar and wind is that they don’t require a drop of water. The limits on supply of water are going to shape the future in ways we can’t even easily imagine now. One of the things is that it is going to force a restructuring of the energy economy. Wow!
Q: With the Republicans in control of Congress, can we even start to address these challenges?
Brown: Their constituents have not been much affected by climate change, but they are going to be affected and are being affected by water shortages. You’re going to have to ration water and charge exorbitant rates. If anything will get you voted out of office, this will.
Q: What would your ideal society look like?
Brown: The principal difference between the economy now and the new economy would be the restructuring of the energy sector. Wind is going to increase very fast as an energy source. There is so much of it in the world.
We’re going to see provincial governments be much more involved because they’re closer to the ground and can move faster. It’s the state governments in China that are very aggressively closing coal-fired power plants because of the pollution problem. The Chinese Communist Party realizes that the one thing that could pose a threat is uncontrolled air pollution because you’d have demonstrations and riots due to people concerned about their kids not being able to breathe. It’s a very sensitive and important political issue.
The good news is that we can see what the new economy would look like: solar and wind energy replacing fossil fuels. The great thing about solar energy is how much you use today has no effect on how much is available tomorrow. You can’t say that with coal and oil. Just recognizing that simple fact is going to be a driver in and of itself.
In the future, there will be much more biking and walking, and communities will begin to restructure themselves so that people can bike and walk to work. The idea of driving a car to work will fade. You can see it in young people today. We were part of the car generation. Where I grew up, getting a driver’s license was a rite of passage. A lot of young people today aren’t even thinking about it. So we’re seeing a cultural shift that will play an important role in this, along with economic and environmental changes.
We must also take a look at our diets. In India, an average person consumes 440 pounds of grain a year—a pound a day, the minimum required to keep body and soul together. In this country, we consume 1,700 pounds a year, on average, mostly in the form of meat and dairy. We have animal protein in every meal. That’s one big thing we can do: Move down the food chain. That’s the kind of thing we’ll have to begin thinking about. It becomes a matter of political stability.
Q: Tell me about some of the formative experiences in your life.
Brown: Some people say, “I was the first in my family to graduate from college.” I was the first in my family to graduate from elementary school. [Tears up.] My parents could read and write, but that was about it. My maternal grandfather took a special interest in me and taught me to read and write when I was four. I just ran with it from there. When I reported for kindergarten, they didn’t know what to do with me.
Another thing that has been very helpful to me is that I never wanted to specialize in a particular discipline. When I was at Rutgers, I took twenty-four science courses in seventeen fields. What a great education that was!
I started in the Asia branch in the Foreign Agricultural Service. My goal from day one was to get to know world agriculture better than anyone. I spent days and nights seven days a week reading and absorbing. At the end of the year, I was satisfied that I knew world agriculture as well as anyone. That broad, big-picture approach has been one of the keys that has enabled me to do what I’ve done.
Q: You’ve spoken about your time in India as a young man and how it shaped your thinking.
Brown: It did encourage me to create a global perspective for myself. It’s difficult to measure all the impacts that living half a year in Indian villages had, but it clearly gave me a sense of the world. It gave me confidence that my peers did not have the opportunity to have.
Q: You’ve been such a prolific voice over the past fifty years. What’s been the driving force?
Brown: I had never aspired to be a writer. It’s just that I had a lot of ideas and perspective that no one else had. And so, I wanted to share that. The way to do it is to write books. The reason I write books is because it is the only segment of the information sector where there is widespread translation. It is a way of reaching out to a global constituency. Books are great because of the books themselves, translations of the books, reviews of the books, excerpts from the books, and so forth—all contribute to the discussion.
Q: What is your advice to young people who want to change the world?
Brown: Avoid becoming a specialist. We need specialists; they play an important role. But we need many more generalists who can see the bigger picture. Take courses in school that will broaden your base. Don’t let the system squeeze you into narrow specialization.
And become politically active at the local level, since a lot of the change happens there. Washington takes forever to get things done. Individual cities with strong committed mayors can often do things on a scale that national governments can’t do.
Amitabh Pal, author of “Islam” Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today, is the managing editor of The Progressive.