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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Review: Plan B 2.0

Apparently, Lester R. Brown is a big shot in the environmental movement, but when he came to Google for a talk I didn't know any better, so I went and sat in and got a copy of the book. The talk was lackluster, but I hoped the book would be better.

The book unfortunately, is a litany of the environmental disasters facing us. Divided into 3 parts, Part I covers the problems facing us, part II provides a plan for getting us out of trouble, and Part III waxes rhapsodic about what a brave new world it's going to be.

I'm a card carrying environmentalist, and I don't disagree with any of the problems Lester Brown covers in Part I. But I have a hard time considering many of the problems he delineates really solvable. For instance, I don't believe 3rd world poverty is solvable through 1st world intervention. All our history indicates that 1st world intervention does nothing but exacerbates the problems. All 3rd world countries that have bootstrapped themselves into becoming developing countries and then developed countries have done so without a lot of help from 1st world countries. I am therefore skeptical of any effort placed into the humanitarian corner of Lester Brown's plan.

Brown points out, in Part II, how cheap it is to save the world. All it takes is 10% of the world's military budget. He neglects to point out that the biggest problem is that while everybody benefits from having the world saved, only the ones who voluntarily chose to pay the costs of doing so pay the cost. That makes it a classic tragedy of the commons problem, which means that the chief job of an environmentalist is really to try to convince the public that it's in their self-interest to clean up. Brown does not go over this, and it is clear that he lacks the necessary training as an economist to propose real systems that can solve this problem.

Part III's call to action sounds a bit idealistic to me. He waxes rhapsodic about gas taxes. I'm a cynic because I've seen over and over again how one woman after another would tell me she's an environmentalist, but then refuse to ride her bike to work because it would screw with her hair, because she considers cycling dangerous, or simply because it would take an act of god to pry the steering wheel from her cold dead hands. I don't believe that people are willing to put their money where their mouth is, so the only hope, I guess is for there to be a politician willing to exercise true leadership.

All in all, this book isn't really worth your time to read. The plan is plausible but likely ineffectual and unlikely to gain traction, and the description of the problems at too high a level and too shallow for you to truly learn anything.

Not recommended, even at the price I paid for it ($0). Go buy yourself a copy of Jared Diamond's Collapse instead. (Capsule Review)

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