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He Ponders Future--and Works for Change : Researcher's Report on 'State of the World' Sees Need for Solutions on a Global Scale

February 19, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For most people, it's difficult enough just to fight the traffic, get to work on time, chauffeur the kids around, work on relationships and try to do all those things we are told are good for us: exercise more, quit smoking, lose weight, floss our teeth and meditate away our stress.

Amid this flurry of daily activity it is a rare individual who has the time, energy or inclination to ask the question, "What will the world be like in 100 years? In 500 years?"

His Life's Work

Lester Brown, who focuses his life's work on this question, admits that only a "small fraction" of people share his concern.

But he is single-handedly helping to enlarge that group. This week he and his staff issued the fourth annual edition of a series of books called "State of the World," assembled by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

Brown, recipient of a $250,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," has been described by the Washington Post as "one of the world's most influential thinkers." He founded the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute in 1974 to follow planetary trends in every area from ecology to economics.

His yearly "State of the World" books have been incorporated into college courses and read all over the world in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Indonesian, German, Polish and other languages. And a PBS television special based on his reports is planned. Brown's books have given the Earth an increasingly grim report card each year. And many of the troubles could affect Los Angeles even more than other places.

"Many of the stresses will affect Los Angeles more directly, more acutely and sooner than other cities, perhaps more than any other major city," Brown said in an interview in his downtown office.

Serious Consequences

Brown, 52, has long been considered a worldwide authority on food problems, working for the Department of Agriculture and the International Agricultural Development Service in the 1960s.

This year's report warns that the staggering growth of the world's population is taxing the Earth's vital resources to the point where some "have surpassed many natural thresholds, including the capacity of forests to tolerate pollution, the ability of the atmosphere to absorb waste gases and of cropland to sustain cultivation."

These trends pose "serious economic consequences and direct threats to the Earth's future habitability," said Brown, who predicted the famine in Ethiopia long before most others did.

Growing up on New Jersey farmland near the Delaware River, Brown always had planned to spend his life growing tomatoes. But in 1956, after his graduation from Rutgers, Brown went to India with an international youth exchange program and spent nearly six months living in Indian villages.

Upon his return, Brown resumed growing tomatoes, but found that the poverty and problems he had seen in India "kept working on me. I think that probably was the experience that separated me from growing tomatoes. I realized that wasn't as challenging as the world food problem."

He started work at the Department of Agriculture in 1959 as an agricultural analyst and in 1964 became an adviser to the secretary of agriculture on foreign agricultural policy.

In his annual books, Brown writes about things people have heard of before: the mysterious hole in the ozone layer, the warming trend or "greenhouse effect," the loss of arable lands and forests--things that seem so invisible and meaningless in most urban dwellers' daily lives. But Brown factors these trends together and concludes, "No generation has ever faced such a complex set of issues requiring immediate attention. Preceding generations have always been concerned about the future, but ours is the first to be faced with decisions that will determine whether the Earth our children inherit will be inhabitable."

Although he hesitates to put the problems in any order of priority, there are a few urgent areas he thought need immediate attention.

"For some time we've been aware that fossil fuel (such as coal, oil and gas) combustion would raise atmospheric carbon dioxide and thus lead to the greenhouse effect," said Brown, meaning that the Earth's temperature rises due to emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases.

Global Effect

"We've known for some time that was a possibility," Brown said, "but now it's beginning to happen. This is the first time we have reported evidence of the global greenhouse effect."

Pointing out that five of the nine warmest years since 1850 have occurred in the last decade, Brown also noted that "the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere over Antarctica is being depleted, apparently by the industrial release of chlorofluorocarbons. . . . The resulting increase in ultraviolet radiation reaching populated areas would cause more skin cancers, impair human immune systems and retard crop growth."

It's easy for the average person to say, "I can't do anything about this," but Brown disagrees with that.

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