Political tipping points or natural tipping points?


Lester Brown’s book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, asks whether we can cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet, whether we can close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the glaciers in the Himalayas, and whether we can we stabilise population by lowering birth rates before nature takes over and halts population growth by raising death rates. The political imperative looms ever larger as finite resources — long exploited as though they are in infinite supply — become exhausted. Brown makes reference, for example, to Saudi Arabia which, in early 2008, announced that it would no longer be self-sufficient in wheat because the non-replenishable aquifer it has been pumping for irrigation was largely depleted. Production will cease entirely in 2016, meaning a population of 30 million will need to import all its wheat. The problem of over-pumping is far more acute in India where 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced from wells that are running dry, and in China where 130 million are affected. Meanwhile, with the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melting at an accelerating pace, sea level rises are set to inundate much of the Mekong Delta, which produces half of the rice in Viet Nam, the world’s second-ranking rice exporter.

Brown observes that food shortages led to the demise of earlier civilisations such as the Sumerians and the Mayans, and that dwindling food supplies may be the undoing of twenty-first century civilisation as well. “It is decision time,” says Brown. “We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilisation unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilises to save civilisation.”