Other sources describe more specific (but still immense) problems that will affect the stability of markets, populations, and governments. Large segments of the world’s population depend on fish for protein, for instance, but many of the world’s fisheries are collapsing, and oxygen-starved “dead zones” are spreading across frighteningly large areas of the oceans. A soil crisis threatens the viability of farming across the globe; the United Nations estimates that 25 million acres of farmland per year are lost to erosion, desertification, and salinization. A water crisis also threatens farming production in many parts of the world, especially in northern China, northern Vietnam, India, and the Sahel of Africa. Meanwhile, the environmentally inspired move toward biofuels is driving up food prices and threatening malnutrition in many nations. No one source covers the full scope of the problem, but there is a body of work, in print and online, that in concert can explain the situation and provide a basis for action.
For instance, Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation seminar “City Planet” details the difficult-to-imagine effects of the extraordinarily rapid urbanization of the world — a profound and little-understood change in the environmental future. (Also see “City Planet,” by Stewart Brand, s+b, Spring 2006.)
The problem of collapsing fisheries is covered in Fen Montaigne’s “Still Waters: The Global Fish Crisis,” an article in the April 2007 issue of National Geographic; the technical discussion can be found in the 2004 World Resources Institute report “Fishing for Answers: Making Sense of the Global Fish Crisis,” by Yumiko Kura et al.
To understand the extraordinary size and complexity of the water crisis, see Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, by Jacques Leslie (Picador, 2006). The details of the fight to save the world’s soil are in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery (University of California Press, 2007). The best quick summary and gathering of resources I have seen is a blog post by my son Noah Flower. The group Biofuelwatch maintains a watchdog site on the impact of biofuels. Each one of these problems can in itself destabilize both the political and the natural environment, and they all feed into other problems: Water and soil crises help drive urbanization, rising urban populations strain energy resources, and each connection drives the next.
These problems are almost irreducibly complex, yet managers have to arrive at answers that are simple enough to produce actions: policies, programs, investments, strategies, things that business organizations can do differently. Six books have tackled this challenge, each helpful in its own way.
Plan B’s Impolitic Pragmatism
Lester R. Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, is a living treasure. He has churned out more than 50 books, which have been translated into more than 40 languages, on how to set the world right. His most comprehensive guide, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, originally published in 2003, is now in its third edition. Never afraid to think big and tackle the whole problem, Brown lays out the crises: global warming, soil erosion, energy scarcity, and urban poverty. Then he outlines exactly what to do about all of it. No one, not even Brown, could say whether his analysis or his prescriptions are correct in every detail, but his is the most comprehensive and readable road map to the global crisis and possible solutions.
Brown writes as if he doesn’t care about what is politically feasible, marketable, or easy to fund. He argues convincingly that humanity is rapidly circling the drain of the end of civilization, and compares the current situation to the much simpler task of defeating global fascism in World War II. Nothing less than a similar effort — and certainly not “business as usual” — can stave off the looming disaster.