In Paris this week, leaders of the world's seven largest industrial democracies ended an economic summit with their first-ever call for concerted action to save the environment.
In Washington, Worldwatch Institute's Lester R. Brown, who long has been preaching cooperative global action, applauded the political progress at the "green summit" but emphasized that the planet's survival depends on more than talk.
"The fact that these key political leaders discussed such issues as climate change and pollution is, I think, encouraging," he said in a telephone interview.
But that's just a start, he said. "The gap between what needs to be done to save the planet and what we are actually doing, is widening. There is little precedent for the scale of action needed over the next decade."
Without radical mobilization, Brown foresees an Apocalyptic Age awaiting. Summer heat waves will bring water shortages, power blackouts and crop failure; the hunger and malnutrition that has engulfed much of Africa and parts of Latin America will spread; food riots and famine will become more commonplace; and, as the chasm between the haves and have-nots widens, social and political institutions will begin to unravel.
This is the worst-possible scenario envisioned by the quiet-spoken Brown, who, with a team of Worldwatch researchers, monitors the planet's air, water, soil and population conditions.
The institute, which issues a yearly "State of the World Report" examining the world's ecological health, has been compared to an Old West scout moving in front of the wagon train, feeding back warnings of trouble ahead.
Its report, which was launched in 1984 with a total printing of 27,000 copies and will reach an international readership of 250,000 this year, long has warned of increasing ozone depletion, deforestation, climate change, overpopulation and other ravages.
And Brown, sometimes sounding like a voice in the wilderness, has continually emphasized the need for a "massive global mobilization" to safeguard the earth before time runs out. Outlining a global action plan in the final chapter of "State of the World 1989," he emphasizes that "It is now clear we are moving into a new age, for the current situation simply will not prevail much longer."
This week provided something of a turning point. Not only did he hear his message finally acknowledged as an international priority, he also delivered it in person to an influential audience of futurists. Brown was a keynote luncheon speaker Tuesday at the general assembly of the World Future Society at the Sheraton Washington.
Speaking to the futurists, a mix of planners, policy-makers, academics and technocrats, Brown made some predictions of his own, saying: "For many national governments, food security is going to replace military security as the principal preoccupation during the 1990s."
Elaborating in a later interview, he explained: "I think food scarcity is going to be the first global indication that we are in serious trouble. Rising grain prices will be the first sign. Droughts and climate change will bring it into focus. I think we have to get the brakes on population growth. Family planners may have a greater role to play than farmers in the next decade."
Though the environment was not a central theme for George Bush in last year's presidential campaign, Brown foresees a period of environmental activity paralleling the first Administration of Richard Nixon.
"When Nixon campaigned in 1968, environment was not an issue--he may not have even used the word in his campaign. Yet there had been a steadily rising public concern since Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' (an indictment of planet poisoning) was published in 1962. People were concerned about fish kills, Lake Erie dying, all sorts of issues."
Another Level of Concern
The first Nixon term saw the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality and passage of both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
"The danger then was defined as pollution," Brown said. "Now we've reached another level of concern--ozone depletion, deforestation, climate change--issues that are going to shape the entire human prospect."
These problems will not be solved by society conducting business as usual, he emphasized, saying: "It's going to take an enormous amount of money to protect the environment. I think that President Bush's only option is, in effect, to redefine security and shift resources away from the military to the new threats. I don't think most Americans are worried about Soviet aggression these days. I think they \o7 are \f7 worried about garbage on the beaches and landfill shortages.
"Is it practical to spend $70 billion on the B-2 stealth bomber we might not have any use for? I think Congress is beginning to think about this, too."
Certainly many ordinary citizens are thinking about it, he added. "Worldwatch Institute gets letters from everywhere, and the four words that come across my desk most often are: 'What can I do?' It tells me that people are ready for changes."
Like other environmentalists monitoring the Paris summit, Brown wishes that the communique issued by the President and the leaders of West Germany, Japan, Britain, France, Italy and Canada had been more specific on sustainable policies to reverse deteriorating global trends. But, he added philosophically, it's a first step: "You have to be hopeful or you wouldn't be in this business."