On the verge of retirement, noted environmentalist and celebrated systems analyst Lester Brown has a dire warning for the world he has spent more than half a century advising on issues of food and energy policy: there is no end in sight for the interrelated scourge of climate change, global poverty and hunger.
In fact, according to Brown, in several vulnerable areas around the world, the situation may be about to go from very bad to much worse.
"We are pushing against the limits of land that can be plowed and the land available for grazing and there are two areas of the world in which we are in serious trouble now," said Brown, who founded both the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, in an interview with the Guardian's environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg.
“One is the Sahel region of Africa, from Senegal to Somalia," explained Brown. "There is a huge dust bowl forming now that is actually stretching right across the continent and that dust bowl is removing a lot of top soil, so eventually they will be in serious trouble."
At some point soon, he added, "there will be a reckoning" in those regions.
According to this NPR report from November, based on the work of the Earth Policy Institute, the dust bowl conditions forming in northern Africa and across central Asia are already having dire consequences:
In China, dust storms have become almost an annual occurrence since 1990, compared to every 31 years on average historically. In northern China and Mongolia, two large deserts — the Badain Jaran and the Tengger — are expanding and merging, often swirling together in massive sand storms when strong winds blow through each spring. The Gobi desert is also growing, inching ever-closer to Beijing as the grasslands at its edges deteriorate.
Meanwhile, in the Sahel region of Africa, millions of acres are turning to desert each year in countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Dust from Chad's Bodele Depression been traveling the globe for many centuries — in fact, scientists think it helped make the Amazon fertile. But the amount of dust blowing out of West Africa has increased in the last 40 years. Dust clouds from the Sahara can affect air quality as far away as Houston, and may even harm Caribbean coral reefs.
According to Brown, as the situation worsens in these areas, the impacts will likely be much worse than they were in the United States during the 1930s. "Our dust bowl was serious," Brown explained to Goldenberg, "but it was confined and within a matter of years we had it under control ... these two areas don’t have that capacity."
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The warning over soil erosion and the unsustainable farming practices that currently dominate large swaths of the planet have been on the mind of ecologists and agricultural experts for decades. As the threat of global warming has entered the public debate, the stakes have only intensified. Brown was among the first and most thorough minds to set attention on the threat of planetary climate change, devoting an entire series of books—collectively titled Plan B—which assess and put forth solutions to the approaching crisis. The most recent edition is Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
However, in a statement last month, Brown announced that he would officially retire later this year and wind down the Earth Policy Institute following the publication of his next book, The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy.
"After careful consideration of my life at 80 years," announced Brown in the statment, "and with profound appreciation to my staff, collaborators and supporters, I have decided to step down as president of the Earth Policy Institute and end its work as of July 1, 2015."
Brown continued, "I believe the Earth Policy Institute has accomplished what we set out to do when we began in 2001, and now it is time for me to make a shift and no longer carry the responsibility of managing an organization. I plan to continue to research and write on issues that I believe I can add to in some meaningful way."
Speaking with Goldenberg, Danielle Nierenberg, who joined Worldwatch in 2001 and went on to co-found her own institute, Food Tank, said the world owes much to Brown for his decades of work and unique vision.
"He’s the godfather of merging environmental and food issues," said Nierenberg. "If you are talking about food and the environment, everybody looks to Lester Brown."
As the world continues to grapple with the catastrophes spurred by our own human development, Brown wrote this in the introduction to Plan B 4.0: "The question we face is not what we need to do, because that seems rather clear to those who are analyzing the global situation. The challenge is how to do it in the time available. Unfortunately, we don't know how much times remains. Nature is the timekeeper but we cannot see the clock."
He continued, "The thinking that got us into this mess it not likely to get us out. We need a new mindset."
The last question society should ask, he concluded, is whether or not what needs to be done is considered possible.