Lester Brown and his Worldwatch Institute rarely miss an angle when describing the coming global calamity, the one that is unfolding right before our blinkered eyes. Even the behavior of mosquitoes is worth a melodramatic pause in World-watch's annual book-long jeremiad, the State of the World.
"Rising temperatures also decrease the time between meals, so the mosquitoes bite humans more frequently," State of the World 1996 solemnly warns. And lest anyone suppose that ravenous mosquitoes are merely a specter of a far-off era, please be advised: "We are already feeling the early effects of an altered climate."
Despite such heavy breathing -- or perhaps because of it Worldwatch is one of the environmental movement's most oft-quoted think tanks, with many hundreds of references in Nexis in the past two years alone. But then hyperbolic rhetoric on behalf of the environment has rarely been a deterrent to serious consideration by the mainstream press, a fact conservatives have rediscovered during the past year to their dismay. Not only are they on the defensive on environmental issues -- some might say in chaotic retreat -- but a growing number of Republican officeholders seem inclined to concede to green activists on a whole range of issues in order to mute the charge that they are out to trash and burn nature. It is an understandable election-year impulse, but it can only postpone the inevitable brawls.
In truth, there is no way to accommodate leading environmentalists on many issues short of abandoning good science and economic freedom. Lester Brown, for example, is a utopian of the old school. He seeks to change human nature so we will not want what humans have wanted since time immemorial: to improve our material well-being and that of our descendants. Of course, you too might be pining for a new monastic ethic if you believed that "the effort now needed to reverse the environmental degradation of the planet and ensure a sustainable future for the next generation will require mobilization on a scale comparable to World War II." This is what Brown himself writes in the current State of the World.
This apocalyptic vision, repeated like a mantra at every opportunity, distorts Worldwatch's handling of almost every issue. In their eagerness to detect climate change, for example, Brown and his co-authors breathlessly chronicle an ominous assault of hurricanes and typhoons in recent years, which have inflicted "unprecedented damage." The southeastern United States has been pummeled repeatedly, they say, "after two decades of relative calm," and 1995 was "the most active Atlantic hurricane season since the thirties." Yet as anyone who checks the actual climatological record will discover, the 1990s have been anything but a sensational period for Atlantic hurricanes. Last year was indeed a bruiser, but then so were 1916, 1933, and 1969, to mention but three other rough years. One stormy season hardly establishes a trend. As it happens, the years prior to 1995 were not just unusually mild. According to William M. Gray, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, 1991 through 1994 were the "most inactive" consecutive four years since hurricane records have been kept.
For that matter, even the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly concedes that climate models "give no consistent indication whether tropical storms will increase or decrease in frequency or intensity as climate changes; neither is there any evidence that this has occurred over the past few decades."
Given such easily obtainable data, the wonder is that Worldwatch would dare to raise the issue of hurricanes at all, particularly when its writers admit, in one of their typically muted and passing disclaimers, that "hurricane severity is not definitively linked to climate warming." But that is the modus operandi of Worldwatch: Seize a few indisputable facts, ignore or downplay the larger context, and skillfully spin out a drama of impending calamity. Has the world seen the reemergence of a few old diseases like malaria and the appearance of a few relatively new ones like AIDS? Why, yes. Well then, humanity must be "experiencing an epidemic of epidemics" and a " growing burden of infectious diseases," all brought about, one is led to understand, by ecological disruption. How lengthening lifespans in most places on the globe jibe with this melodrama is never quite made clear. For that matter, the likelihood that cultural problems, as opposed to environmental degradation, largely explain the appalling health crises in such places as sub-Saharan Africa is essentially overlooked.
But then it would be hard to please Brown and his Worldwatch analysts under the best of circumstances. In a typical passage of bewildering inanity, they portentously assert that "a sustainable economy is one with a stable climate," as if climate over the millennia had ever been naturally "stable" and many of the world's most vibrant economies were not thriving already in regions with tremendous seasonal fluctuations in weather.
In Worldwatch's view, the long and short of our condition is this: Humans are in for a very bad time, and soon; many, in fact, could starve, if we don't stabilize our population, reduce our consumption, simplify our lifestyles, swear off an addiction to autos, eat less meat, and start " reusing or recycling every chemical or material that [industry] uses in cyclical processes." This is the message not just of State of the World 1996, but of the previous 12 editions and, indeed, of much of what Lester Brown has written literally for decades. Like a stubborn prophet who keeps miscomputing Judgment Day, Brown is unhumbled by years of frustratingly premature warnings of an environmental reckoning. He merely updates his references and recycles his thesis once more.
Brown's formula certainly hasn't alienated the impressive list of large foundations that shovel money the institute's way -- revenue that helps Worldwatch publish numerous books, "Worldwatch papers," and a magazine. Of all these, State of the World is clearly the Washington, D.C.-based institute's crown jewel. Not only is it published in more than two dozen languages, but admirers such as Ted Turner make sure copies are distributed to hundreds of the world's corporate and governmental leaders.
Ironically, Brown has been most spectacularly wrong and tediously repetitive about the field in which he boasts the most expertise: agriculture. Not only does he hold a B.S. in agriculture from Rutgers (1955), but he served as an expert in international development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1960s before taking a post with the Overseas Development Council -- ideal perches from which to witness the explosion of farm productivity in the post-war era. Yet he remains singularly unimpressed. Virtually every time he sits down to assess the future, Brown spies an imminent crisis in grain supplies.
In a Science article in 1967, for example, he claimed: "The trend in grain stocks indicates clearly that 1961 marked a worldwide turning point. . . . Food consumption moved ahead of production."
In 1974, he updated that thought in his book By Bread Alone:
These events of the early seventies signal a fundamental shift in the structure of the world food economy. Throughout most of the period since World War II, the world food economy has been plagued by chronic excess capacity, surplus stocks, and low food prices. But emerging conditions suggest that this era is ending and is being replaced by a period of more or less chronic scarcity and higher prices, with little if any land held out of production.
Here is that same theme yet again, retooled for 1996:
Rising food prices may be the first global economic indicator to signal serious trouble on the environmental front. . . . The tightening of grain supplies that began in 1995 coudl mark the conversion of the buyer's market of the last half century to a seller's market. . . . As scarcity spreads, exporting countries may try to control food price rises internally by restricting exports, thus exacerbating scarcity in the rest of the world.
For those wondering, food has been on a fairly steady track of increasing abundance since World War II, and its real price in the international marketplace, despite temporary fluctuations, has dropped dramatically as a result. Blissfully unembarrassed by such trends, Brown has ventured into predicting more or less permanent worldwide shortages in other areas as well. In 1979, for example, he issued a book-long tocsin about oil supplies and what he took to be the dimming future of the automobile.
As he and two co-authors of Running on Empty proclaimed, "time already is growing short. With oil price rises in the eighties likely to dwarf those of the seventies," countries must act quickly so that alternatives come on line "as the oil wells go dry." In Sweden, the authors happily reported, "the whole concept of private automobile ownership is being examined."
If Brown had been recklessly preposterous in his forecasts and nothing more, one might dismiss him as a harmless if high-profile crank. Unfortunately, he is also a man enamored of bureaucratic and implicitly coercive solutions to forestall the crisis that is always on the horizon. Not that he is a statist by admission. Quite the contrary. Over the years, State of the World has repeatedly acknowledged that market-based economies are more energy efficient and produce less pollution per capita than their Soviet-style counterparts. In the latest State of the World, a whole chapter is devoted to " Harnessing the Market for the Environment," a plea for shifting taxes from work and investment to consumption and resource depletion.
But what Brown & Co. offer with one hand, they more than take back with the other. How could it be otherwise, given their belief that people in industrial societies "injure each other and their descendants simply by getting up and going to work each day"? If this is true -- if industrial society really hasn't been the boon for humanity that most people who know anything about history assume it has been -- then clearly extraordinary measures are demanded. Hence their perfunctory genuflection toward markets is overwhelmed by their calls for a wartime-like mobilization that only government could direct; their hectoring over the years for a variety of higher taxes and praise for the social democracies, which best approximate their fiscal model; their fear of economic growth; their demand for " restricting" the production of automobiles; their lamentations over our taste for "large houses" and our fondness for meat; and their related conviction that lifestyles and public consciousness must be transformed in order to " save the planet."
Not only does State of the World 1996 restate these themes, it also pleads for an "environmental human rights law" to provide extraordinary legal leverage against "multinational corporations." Most chillingly, the authors' obsession with population growth leads them to repeat more than once their longstanding praise of China's murderous family planning policies, in willful ignorance of the now irrefutable evidence of infanticide, forced abortions, and starvation of children in orphanages. Or perhaps not ignorance, but rather conscious support. What else can explain the following Orwellian statement: "Like China, other governments will have to carefully balance the reproductive rights of the current generation with the survival rights of the next generation."
The most remarkable outline of Lester Brown's vision appeared several years ago, in the March-April 1990 Worldwatch magazine. There, he and two longtime colleagues, Christopher Flavin and Sandra Postel, kicked back and contemplated what an ideal society would look like in 2030. Many details were predictable: virtually no reliance on fossil fuels or nuclear power; a stable or preferably declining population; cities crisscrossed with light rail systems and bike paths; the abandonment of gross national product as an economic indicator; minuscule military budgets. But that was only the warm-up, for Brown, Flavin, and Postel had something more fundamental in mind:
Movement toward a lasting society cannot occur with out a transformation of individual priorities and values. . . . Because of the strain on resources it creates, mate rialism simply cannot survive the transition to a sustainable world. As public understanding of the need to adopt simpler and less consumptive lifestyles spreads, it will become unfashionable to own fancy new cars, clothes, and the latest electronic devices. The potential benefits of unleashing the human energy now devoted to producing, advertising, buying, consuming, and discarding material goods are enormous.
As the amassing of personal and national wealth becomes less of a goal, the gap between haves and have-nots will gradually close, eliminating many societal tensions. Ideological differences may fade as well . . .
The mind simply boggles at such lingering faith in a transformed human consciousness, given this century's catastrophic legacy from similar yearnings. Still, credit Brown & Co. with a unique theoretical synthesis: the melding of Charles Reich and Thomas Malthus with St. Simeon Stylites. For that matter, they seem to have stumbled onto one profoundly plausible forecast -- at last. In such a world as they describe, the differences between haves and have-nots might well disappear, if only because the haves would probably vanish altogether. One somehow doubts this is the future that most environmentally conscious Americans have in mind.
Vincent Carroll is editorial page editor of the Rocky Mountain News.