What We’re Reading: World on the Edge How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse

Written by: Alyssa Mahoney

Our Seaside Sustainability Book Club is back to bring you this month’s What We’re Reading book selection, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, by Lester R. Brown. As an environmentalist analyst, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and former president of Earth Policy Institute, Brown recognizes the urgency to sustain civilization’s economic future, and what way to do this other than to develop an environmental plan, which includes individual and global responsibility.


The environmental collapse has been described by environmental scholars as a “tipping point”, or has been represented as an increasing exponential trend graph (rate over time). From this graph, if no structural changes are made to prevent detrimental environmental impacts, these trends will become finite to the point of no return and an unsustained civilization becomes Earth’s future.


What and when could be our tipping point of no return? Our Seaside Sustainability Book Club would like to present these takeaways to consider in your sustainability endeavors:


Continuing with the mindset of “business as usual” creates a ticking time clock on Earth’s ability to sustain civilization. Brown warns of the consequences of eliminating Earth’s natural support systems as a result of mass consumption from a growing world population. World demand for grain grew to the point where aquifers, which transmit groundwater, can’t handle the rate in which irrigation wells are drilled, leading to falling water tables and shrinking harvests. It takes as much as 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain.


Brown also emphasized the thin layer of topsoil to be the foundation of civilization. If productive topsoil is lost, organic matter in the soil and land vegetation become lost as well. The soil also loses its ability to retain carbon, therefore, emissions grow further. As demands for livestock increases and grassland expectations increase while grassland capacity decreases, desert land becomes the new norm. Harvests are faced with detrimental heat waves, while the rising temperatures will cause areas either to get wetter or dryer, leaving a drastic change in climate. Our natural landscapes are shifted, then damaged to the point of no return.


What happens to a growing world demanding materials at a higher rate than which they’re conserving? The world is reaching high food scarcity, poverty, carbon emissions, and economic infrastructure deterioration. An uncertain future. Brown proposes a Plan B action step. He states:


“We need an economy for the twenty-first century, one that is in sync with the earth and its natural support systems, not one that is destroying them. The fossil-fueled, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that evolved in western industrial societies is no longer a viable model—not for the countries that shaped it or for those that are emulating them.”


Our current lifestyle is dependent on the exponential growth of our economy. It is also dependent on the exponential growth of increasing climate change. Brown makes a compelling argument for both to be addressed - in unison - before time runs out. The world is either on the edge of environmental collapse, or, with the help of the individual and nations, on the verge of flourishing.


Comment below your thoughts and any suggestions for books we should read next!


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