I received an invitation last week from Marilyn Weiner, the co-producer of the PBS series Journey to Planet Earth (and several other series that she co-produced with her husband Hal), to attend the premiere screening of the film, Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, based on the book Plan B 4.0 by Lester Brown, author and founder and President of Earth Policy Institute. I took the trip down to DC, not just to see the film, but to attend the panel discussion following, which included Brown, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, Heinz Center Bio-diversity Chair Tom Lovejoy, journalist and author Eugene Linden as well as the filmmakers.
The film was essentially focused on the topic of climate change and specifically on Brown’s efforts to raise awareness of the issue, by undertaking a marathon global tour, wherein he addressed large audiences and met with numerous political leaders.
There are, of course, numerous angles from which to come at this issue and the need for urgent action. In the film, Brown focuses largely on something that has not received a lot of attention: the issue of impending food shortages and the number of political states that are likely to fail as the result of the unrest that will surely follow such calamity. The intensifying global embrace of “the American way of life” in the face of rising populations and dwindling resources, will make many societies, particularly in the developing world, much more vulnerable, to the point where if they don’t collapse of their own accord, a stiff prod from a catastrophic event, will finish the job. The disaster in Haiti is offered as an example, where deforestation and the resulting soil erosion, impaired their ability to grow their own food, leaving them extremely vulnerable when the earthquake hit. The film seems almost prescient, in this regard, given the events of just the past few weeks both in the Middle East and Japan. “At what point do failed states,” the film, via Brown, asked at several junctures, “lead to a failed global civilization?”
I found the film quite comprehensive in its treatment of the subject, with some breathtaking photography, from literally all across the globe. The pace was a bit stately, with perhaps a few too many shots of Brown, in his navy blazer and sneakers, traversing yet another airport concourse, but these are minor quibbles about an otherwise impressive film. From a content perspective, I would have liked to see a bit more mention of not just renewables, but of the truly sizable opportunities in efficiency, considering the fact the 57% of all the energy consumed by our society is wasted. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I was gratified to hear Brown mention efficiency during the panel discussion.
The film, which is narrated by Matt Damon, includes contributions from other notables including Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman, will premiere tomorrow night, March 30 at 10 PM EST as part of the Journey to Planet Earth series.
During the panel discussion, the parallels with recent developments were clearly drawn. Gene Linder talked about failed states in the Middle East. Bruce Babbit spoke of grassroots movements, connecting the dots between Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement here and the US and Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit and vegetable vendor who martyred himself to spark the revolution in Tunisia. Tom Lovejoy said that if we want to limit the warming to 2º C, emissions need to peak by 2016. Brazil is emerging as a environmental power, bringing some 57% of their portion of the Amazon region under protection. Lester Brown noted that tipping points are sometimes difficult to see coming. He gave examples of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, and now the Arab world. He spoke about how Russia, last July saw temperatures that were 14º above normal, leading to a loss of 40% of their grain harvest. If that had happened in the American Midwest, it would have been an international catastrophe. He then went back to earlier civilizations that collapsed as the result of food shortages. Water is a critical link. In Peru, 90% of their drinking water comes from Andean glaciers which could disappear in the next 50 years. We need to redefine security. What does it mean to be secure? What are the principal threats to our existence these days? Enemy combatants are not that high on the list. When asked about the use of GM crops to address food shortages, Brown said, it certainly has increased herbicide use, but there is little evidence of increased yields.
How do we reconcile these ideas with economists sacred notion of growth? Tom Lovejoy talked about two different kinds of biological growth: one where the organism gets bigger, and the other where it becomes more complex. Maybe that could be our model. When asked for an example, he said, “How about when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly?”
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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