Earth Policy Institute (1350 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 403, Washington, DC 20036), 2012. 141 pages, paperback. $15.00.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Publicity materials for Full Planet, Empty Plates credit Lester R. Brown with producing more than 50 books, including the annual Worldwatch reports he edited for 30 years as founder of the Worldwatch Institute.
Leaving the Worldwatch Institute in 2001, Brown formed the Earth Policy Institute to continue amassing and evaluating economic data that helps to predict environmental trends.
Full Planet, Empty Plates updates ideas that Brown expressed earlier in titles including In The Human Interest: A Strategy to Stabilize World Population (1974), The 29th Day (1978), Who Will Feed China? (1995), Beyond Malthus (1999), Outgrowing the Earth (2005), and World on the Edge (2011)–and this is just a partial list. Brown’s consistent theme is that the combination of human population growth and depleted resources threaten global famine.
Barbara Ward made the same case in Spaceship Earth (1966), as did Paul Erlich in his 1968 blockbuster bestseller The Population Bomb and many sequels, and Frances Moore Lappé, in Diet for a Small Planet (1971), also plus many sequels.
Over time, their shared Malthusian vision has evolved. Ward, who died in 1981, anticipated that food scarcity might trigger regional conflicts which could explode into nuclear war. Nuclear war might permanently diminish the capacity of the earth to sustain life. Erlich saw population growth itself as having an ecological effect comparable to nuclear war–and expected apocalyptic mass starvation to occur more than 30 years ago. Instead, the world is feeding nearly twice as many people as then, with less starvation than when it fed a third as many.
Both Erlich and Brown were already vegetarians by the mid-1960s, but Lappé, twelve years younger than Erlich and ten years younger than Brown, was first to clearly and emphatically identify grain-fed meat production and warfare as the leading causes of hunger right then and there, not years into the future.
Lappé was also first to promote vegetarianism, ahead of birth control, as the easiest and perhaps only way to buy time until poverty and ignorance could be addressed effectively enough that most people would voluntarily choose to have fewer children.
Brown often expressed similar thoughts during the next several decades, but seemingly in passing. Brown for most of the next 25 years remained focused on the pollution, energy, and transportation aspects of population growth.
Post-1995, however, Brown has put the growth of animal agriculture first among his concerns.
Full Planet, Empty Plates focuses on the nexus of meat consumption, population growth, and global warming.
Brown warns, like Erlich and as in his own past books, that humans are increasing in number faster than we are expanding our capacity to grow food. In the past, prophecies of famine have been belied by agricultural innovation, but dramatic advances appear to be less frequent lately.
Global warming is meanwhile drying topsoil, altering the oceanic food web, and melting the glaciers that supply much of the world’s irrigation water. Recent droughts have cut global grain reserves to a fraction of what
they should be to assure food security. The use of grain to produce biofuels exacerbates the risk–just filling the gasoline tank of a sport utility vehicle consumes enough grain, Brown points out, to feed a person for a year.
U.S. per capita meat consumption has dropped 7% in five years, but Chinese meat consumption, though half as much per capita, is cumulatively more than twice as large, and is already unsustainable due to water scarcity, even if stoked mostly with imported feedstocks.
Worldwide famine may yet occur, if decades later than Erlich expected. Brown’s warnings in Full Planet, Empty Plates, reinforced as in all of his works by a wealth of data, deserve to be heeded.
Yet there is reason to suspect that global warming, despite having catastrophic effects on some regions, could boost rather than decreasing net food-growing capacity. Growing seasons in Russia, Canada, and parts of the U.S. will be longer; warmer air will increase evaporation over the oceans as well as the land, bringing more rainfall to some regions rather than less; and more carbon dioxide may be accessible to plants.
In short, we do not know yet whether we are facing worst-case scenarios. What we do know is that we are facing change, and Full Planet, Empty Plates offers ways to reduce the risks associated with it, among which eating less meat–or none–comes out as easiest and most beneficial in Brown’s cost/benefit analysis.