Tipping Points: Environmental Trends to Destroy or Save Civilization

With civilization standing at multiple self-generated tipping points, a renowned environmentalist outlines 10 environmental trends of grave concern and 10 trends that give us reason for hope.
By Lester R. Brown
February/March 2010
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Spreading hunger, a consequence of environmental stress, is one of 10 troubling environmental trends humanity faces. The government of Bangladesh had to subsidize rice in 2008 when the cost of food skyrocketed.

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To mark our 40th anniversary, we asked our longtime contributing editor and sustainable development expert, Lester Brown, to look ahead and share his assessment of the most significant environmental trends that are affecting our world today. MOTHER EARTH NEWS

The Bad News: 10 Troubling Trends

I’ve been studying global environmental issues for decades, and for perspective, I read about ancient civilizations that declined and collapsed. Most often, shrinking food supplies were responsible for their demise. For the Sumerians, rising salt levels in the soil — the result of a design flaw in their irrigation system — brought down wheat and barley yields, and eventually the civilization itself. For some other early civilizations that have collapsed, it was soil erosion that triggered their decline.

Does our civilization face a similar fate? We are rapidly approaching if not at a number of tipping points. Unless we can reverse the environmental trends that are undermining the world food economy, the answer may be yes. Here are the 10 greatest environmental threats I think we face today.

1. Soil Erosion. Erosion now exceeds new soil formation on about 30 percent of the world’s cropland. In some countries, it has reduced grain production by half or more over the past three decades. Kazakhstan, for example, has abandoned 40 percent of its grain land since 1980. Space photos of continent-sized dust storms coming out of the Sahelian region of Africa and northwestern China show us that the loss of topsoil is expanding.

2. Falling Water Tables. Water tables are now falling in countries that together contain half the world’s people. A World Bank study shows that 175 million people in India are being fed by overpumping aquifers. The comparable number for China is about 130 million people. As the wells go dry, the food supply will tighten in both countries.

3. Population Growth. Since 1950, world population has more than doubled. Stated differently, population growth from 1950 to 2009 exceeded that during the preceding 11,000 years since agriculture began. Today’s world population of 6.7 billion is growing by 80 million per year. In many countries, populations have simply outrun their resource base. The result is soil erosion, falling water tables, deteriorating grasslands, collapsing fisheries and shrinking forests. No civilization has ever survived the destruction of its natural support systems, nor will ours.

4. Melting Ice Sheets. The melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets, combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, could raise sea levels by up to 6 feet during this century. Every rice-growing river delta in Asia is threatened. Even a 3-foot rise would devastate the rice harvest in the Mekong Delta, which produces more than half the rice in Vietnam, the world’s No. 2 rice exporter. A World Bank map shows that a 3-foot rise in sea level would inundate half the rice land in Bangladesh, home to 160 million people.

5. Shrinking Mountain Glaciers. As the Earth’s temperature continues to rise, mountain glaciers are vanishing. Nowhere is this of more concern than in Asia, where the annual melting from glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau sustains the major rivers of India (the Indus and Ganges) and of China (the Yellow and Yangtze), and the irrigation systems that depend on them during the dry season. China is the world’s leading wheat producer. India is the second largest. (The United States is the third.) China and India also dominate world rice production. The potential shrinking of the glaciers in the mountains of Asia represents the largest threat to food security humanity has ever faced.

6. Destruction of Forests. Since 1990, the developing world has lost about 32 million acres of forest a year. Meanwhile, the developed countries are actually gaining nearly 15 million acres of forestland each year, principally from abandoned cropland returning to forests and from the spread of commercial forestry plantations. Some marginal cropland is allowed to revert to trees because it isn’t economical to farm, because of conservation incentives, or a combination of those two factors. Still, worldwide, forests are shrinking by 17 million acres per year.

7. Environmental Refugees. Mounting population densities, once generated solely by population growth, are now also fueled by the advance of deserts and by rising seas. If we continue with business as usual, there will be millions of environmental refugees in the decades ahead.

8. Disappearing Species. The fossil record shows five great extinctions since life began, each representing an evolutionary setback. The last of these mass extinctions occurred some 65 million years ago — most likely because an asteroid collided with our planet, spewing vast amounts of dust and debris into the atmosphere. The resultant abrupt cooling obliterated three-fourths of the Earth’s living species, including the dinosaurs. We are now in the early stages of the sixth great extinction. Unlike previous extinction events, this one is man-made — caused by habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution.

9. Spreading Hunger. As a result of rising food prices, hunger is spreading. By the mid-1990s, the number of hungry people had fallen to 825 million. Instead of continuing to decline, the numbers started to edge upward, reaching more than 1 billion in 2009. Several trends, including the projected growth in population, the diversion of grain to produce fuel for cars, and spreading shortages of irrigation water could combine to push the number of hungry people to an estimated 1.2 billion or more by 2015.

10. Failing States. States fail when national governments lose control or can no longer provide basic services such as education, healthcare, and food security. Recent examples include North Korea, Sudan, and Somalia. Each year, the list of failing states grows longer. How many failing states can we tolerate before we have a failing global civilization?

The Good News: 10 Hopeful Trends

We are in a race between tipping points: natural tipping points and political tipping points. Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau? Can we arrest the deforestation of the Amazon before land clearing for grazing cattle and farming so weakens the forest that it dries out and becomes vulnerable to natural fires? Yes, I think we can. But we have to take action to reverse these threats, while increasing the momentum of positive trends such as utilizing renewable energy and rethinking food production. Here are 10 encouraging trends that suggest dramatic change — for the better — is on the horizon.

1. Turning to the Wind. Wind power is emerging as the centerpiece of the new energy economy. Wind energy is abundant, low-cost and widely distributed. While oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, the Earth’s wind resources cannot be depleted. Three states (North Dakota, Kansas and Texas) have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy our national energy needs. The harnessable wind energy in China is seven times the country’s electricity consumption.

2. Solar Power Shines. Energy from sunlight can be converted into electricity with photovoltaic (PV) cells. Worldwide, annual solar installations are doubling every two years. Until recently, PV production was concentrated in Japan, Germany, and the United States, but now it has spread into China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. For nearly 1.6 billion people living in villages that are not connected to an electrical grid, it is often cheaper to install solar cells rooftop-by-rooftop than to build a central power plant and an electric grid.

3. Intensifying Solar Power. This form of solar power has become one of the world’s fastest growing sources of energy. It uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a vessel containing a liquid to produce steam and generate power. Fifteen large concentrating solar power plants are under development in the U.S. Southwest. Plans are evolving in Europe to harness solar energy in the deserts of North Africa. Studies show that these desert power plants could supply up to half of Europe’s electricity.

4. Energy from the Earth. The Earth’s geothermal energy resources far exceed the world’s current energy needs. Engineers are devising ways to unlock this vast energy source more easily. For many years, U.S. geothermal energy was confined largely to a project north of San Francisco. Now the United States is experiencing a geothermal renaissance. The 132 plants currently under development are expected to triple U.S. geothermal generating capacity.

5. A Lighting Revolution. The world is in the early stages of a revolution in lighting technology. We know that compact fluorescent light bulbs use 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs. But there is still a more advanced lighting technology — the light-emitting diode (LED). If LEDs are combined with motion sensors that turn off lights in unoccupied spaces, the combination can reduce electricity used for lighting by 90 percent. Using the most efficient technologies would save enough electricity to close 700 of the world’s 2,700 coal-fired power plants.

6. Electrifying Transportation. This century will see the electrification of transportation as the world shifts from gasoline-powered automobiles to plug-in hybrids, all-electric cars, and high-speed intercity rail. And for long-distance freight, the shift will be from diesel-powered trucks to electrically powered rail-freight systems.

7. The Bicycle is Back. From 1990 to 2002, world bicycle production averaged 94 million units per year. In 2007, that number climbed to 130 million, far outstripping automobile production of 70 million units per year. Bicycle sales are surging in many countries as governments devise incentives to encourage bicycle use. The bicycle alleviates congestion, lowers air pollution, reduces fuel use and obesity, and increases physical fitness. (I estimate that I get 7 miles per potato on my bicycle.)

8. Fish Farming Takes Off. Even while oceanic fisheries are collapsing, fish farming is expanding rapidly worldwide and may soon overtake world beef production. China has developed a fish polyculture system that uses four types of carp that feed at different levels of the food chain, in effect emulating natural aquatic ecosystems. Today, more than 60 percent of the world’s farmed fish is produced in China. China’s aquacultural output, at 31 million tons annually, is double that of poultry, making it the first large country where fish farming has eclipsed poultry farming.

9. India Leads World in Milk Production. Mounting pressures on land and water resources have led to the evolution of a flourishing dairy industry in India that is based on crop residues (principally wheat straw and rice straw, rather than grain) thereby increasing production of food without using more land. Since 1970, India’s milk production has increased fivefold, jumping from 21 million tons to 106 million tons, boosting the value of milk output above that of the rice harvest. In 1997 India overtook the United States, becoming the world’s leading producer of milk and other dairy products.

10. Localization of Food Production. Localization of the food economy is being driven by a passion for fresh, safe, and local food. And as the cost of shipping fresh produce from distant markets rises with the price of oil, even more people will appreciate the benefits and economics of local food. The combination of reducing the food miles in our diets and moving down the food chain can dramatically reduce energy use in the food economy.

The choice is ours. We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that destroys its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can adopt Plan B and become the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on Earth for many generations to come.

Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates. He is recognized worldwide for his global perspective on environmental issues and for his development of Plan B, a plan to save civilization through stabilizing population, cutting carbon emissions, and restoring the earth’s natural support systems. Find him on .

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Post a comment below.


2/4/2010 12:35:58 PM
The problems are vast in size. As a conservative Republican/Constitutionalist, I see the promise and the foundation for human development that the Founding Fathers left in place. They saw a nation of "200-300 million freemen and not a noble among them"(quote by John Adams). The overriding problem is that people are inherently selfish, greedy, and somewhat bad. They care for solutions to their problems first. We have become dependent on the .gov and the ability to get food around almost every street corner. We have forgotten the past where people HAD to store food, plan for hard winters, scrimp and save every dime, all to survive and perhaps lift up their children to a more carefree lifestyle. Well, all that sacrifice DID lead to a more prosperous life for the overwhelming majority of us. Most USA's poor people have TV, AC, a car or 2,cd players,xbox',cell phones, etc, hardly Haitian/or 3rd world impoverished. What to do? We become more self-sufficient. More -egads- green. We use the sun and available renewable resources for power. We allow for nuclear development. We drill at home and protect what resources we have from theft through slant drilling. People hold the key. If we reclaim personal responsibility, ethics, and morals, then alot of the vast problems will fade away. Solutions will be found if gov't gets out of the way. But THAT comes with a catch. The PEOPLE then would need to be more ethically aware and responsible.

Jennifer Spring_7
2/3/2010 3:43:08 PM
Dear George, You sound like you're doing everything you can, not throwing in the towel. Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree that civilization does seem to be plowing forward heedless of where overconsumption in every sense of the word leads. I hope we have begun a decade of cooperation, not competition. As Gaiatechnician describes, there are many tools out there we have not tapped.

Fran Tracy
2/2/2010 9:45:55 AM
I grow a garden and have pecan, apple, pear, and peach trees in my yard. I also have some grapes. I think we need todo what we can but Idonn't think this global warming thing is fact. Just look at the record lows in temperature and the amazing snow falls this year. They had the global warming summit and lookat the number of giagantic planes and fancy limosines that went to transport all those people for nothing. If they really believed in global warming, they should have plane pooled and sent as few ploanes as necessary and usesd electric cars to get around or public transportation. THIS WHOLE THING IS JUST A FARCE TO ROB THE MAJORITY AND ENRICH A FEW. How about the millions of dollars this country is spending each month to fly Nancy Polaisi back and forth in a giant jet with her family all llpaid for by the US tax payers.

Fran Tracy
2/2/2010 9:40:24 AM
I grow a garden and have pecan, apple, pear, and peach trees in my yard. I also have some grapes. I think we need todo what we can but Idonn't think this global warming thing is fact. Just look at the record lows in temperature and the amazing snow falls this year. They had the global warming summit and lookat the number of giagantic planes and fancy limosines that went to transport all those people for nothing. If they really believed in global warming, they should have plane pooled and sent as few ploanes as necessary and usesd electric cars to get around or public transportation. THIS WHOLE THING IS JUST A FARCE TO ROB THE MAJORITY AND ENRICH A FEW. How about the millions of dollars this country is spending each month to fly Nancy Polaisi back and forth in a giant jet with her family all llpaid for by the US tax payers.

George Works
2/2/2010 6:35:36 AM
I fear that my comment was misunderstood. My house is powered with solar photovoltaic panels, and my water heated by a solar water heater. I retired and started a small farm raising food for local consumption. I bought several copies of Lester Brown's book "Plan B" and gave them to my friends. I try to do everything that I can for the environment and urge others to do the same. But I'm an engineer, and I look at the numbers. And, to me, they show a grim future. There are too many people, and we are living too well and consuming far too much to be sustainable.

2/1/2010 7:42:54 PM
I have the new 2 hour clam shaped solar cooking dish (The power of parabolic solar cookers without the danger or constant attention) almost ready to go but people act as if their arms are broken when I ask for them to test it. (And it is community commons licensed). What stops the environmentalists from testing new environmentally friendly stuff? It seems to me that they are just as stuck in a rut as the mainstream. If it comes from the leaders of the movement it is good. But if it comes from me, forget it! The scientific community has not tested the pulser pump on a large scale in over 20 years. Money has to be invested in appropriate technology research before people will use it. I made a mini working model of it and it worked for 20 years. A pump with no moving parts is of course useful to people around the world. But first the scientists have to find its best parameters for use and they have not done it. Brian

Jennifer Spring_4
2/1/2010 5:50:05 PM
I greatly appreciate Mary Saunder's comments. To the despondents writers who follow, I say that if we all dare to do our best to support life, heroically persevering in the face of disasterous appearances, who knows what the results will be? At least we will come to the end of our days at peace, knowing we did our best for the world we have loved and the children who inherit it. And perhaps we will actually tip the balance the other way, and save our world. The answer is in taking action. Physically going out into your yard and planting a pot of greens. Making that call to volunteer to help with a cause you admire. The mind is a problem solving tool that helps us decide on a course of action. If we do not act, the mind restlessly creates more problems to solve, even if that's making ourselves miserable. We all know that in dire times people are glad to work hard and heroically to save others. Now is that time. It's just in slow motion. Let's all be heros to the ones we love, the ones right nearby who will benefit from our optimism and courage. Let's look atthe good news, get the training we need, and pitch in.

Mary Saunders_3
2/1/2010 2:24:27 PM
Geoff Lawton's videos, Greening the Desert I and II, which I believe you can see on YouTube, demonstrate a hopeful project that produced figs on salted, miserable land far sooner than locals thought possible. I go back and watch it again as a kind of medicine. He used a meter's depth of mulch and got mushrooms in the desert in the mulch. Composting humanure, above ground so as not to taint aquifers, is also simmering along, under the radar if not underground. Geoff greened the desert in Jordon, but there is another example in Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden, in New Mexico. There are other examples in Africa, where just drilling holes in hardpan has been enough to create microclimates where plants can get a start. In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka pioneered in using daikon radish to till hard pan. In Oregon, Frank Morton, Wild Garden Seeds, grows an incredible amount of seeds on a limited number of acres. The Amish get great production with few inputs from off the land. We need to share the good information widely because it is not a time to overwhelm people to the point where they sit around hand-wringing. Examples of tended food forests, such as that re-planted in Indonesia by Willie Smits (TED) to save an orang baby, these are heartening stories that can help motivate constructive change. To counter Larry Santoyo, who facetiously says to obstructions, "OK, let's just die." Let's just do stuff anyway, even if the Man wants to keep all the money to himself.

George Works
2/1/2010 10:01:58 AM
I'm afraid I agree with Mr. Taylor. We should encourage the good trends of course. But the fact is, the CO2 level in the atmosphere is already too high and is still increasing. And it has a half-life of 200 years. We are still building coal plants and at an increasing rate. The population is reportedly already billions more than the earth can sustain and it's still rising exponentially. Wind power, solar power and electric cars make up an insignificant part of the total picture. It takes decades and lots of CO2-producing industrial production to replace an infrastructure. We have almost certainly waited too long.

Sean Taylor
1/20/2010 2:00:44 PM
The answer is almost certainly no. Your good news looks rather insignificant compared to the incredibly vast scale of the bad news. In particular, there is no realistic solution to human overpopulation other than nature's original method of war, famine and disease. Now, if people really want to make a long-term difference on this planet, perhaps some clever molecular biologists could engineer super-viruses and "birth control rice" that quickly reduce the global population to a sustainable level. The alternative, it seems to me, is a nightmarish descent into Malthusian chaos, and I don't think plan B, C or D is going to stop it. Maybe it's time to move to plan Z?

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