Lester Brown Reflects On His Remarkable Life As An Environmental Leader

There is perhaps no living environmental analyst and writer as prolific and widely known as Lester Brown. The founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, Brown has won numerous accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a United Nations environmental prize. He will publish his 52nd book, an autobiography, on Monday.

Brown was born in southern New Jersey, the son of farmers who had never finished elementary school. He grew tomatoes as a child, went to college at Rutgers University, and participated in an international exchange program with farmers in India shortly after graduation. Brown went on to work as an international analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service and later as the administrator of the USDA's International Agricultural Development Service. After leaving government service, he founded the World Watch Institute in 1974, and the Earth Policy Institute in 2001. His published works include the seminal Man, Land, and Food in 1963 and the Plan B series. His most recent book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, was published in 2012.

Now, at 79, Brown takes a look back at that life in his autobiography, Breaking New Ground. I've known Brown's family my entire life; I grew up on a farm in the same New Jersey county, and his sister and brother-in-law are active in the community there. I've had the pleasure of getting to know Brown as an adult, talking about environmental policy and also running Washington, D.C.'s Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run with him a few years ago ("with" being a relative term, since Brown finished way ahead of me). We spoke in his office last week, Brown dressed in his characteristic blue, button-down Oxford, blue shorts, and blue New Balance sneakers.

What made you decide to write an autobiography now?
My first 51 books were about the world. I kind of narrowed the scope. For a long time I had trouble seeing how one would want to read about this. But then as I thought about it, I've actually had a rather interesting life in some ways and a variety of experiences.

Some young people aspire to be writers. I never did. I just did not want to write, I didn't really enjoy it and I still don't. I don't actually write anything, I dictate everything. My speaking and writing styles are very similar. I enjoy communicating somewhat complex ideas in terms that people can understand, so I enjoy speaking and writing for that reason. If I had to choose between speaking and writing, I would speak. The problem is, if you want to reach large numbers of people on global issues you not only have to write, but you have to do books, because that's the only piece of the information sector where there's translation. Magazine articles occasionally get translated, but it's not systematic. So the reason there are 648 editions of my books now is because they are widely translated.

How do you think growing up on a farm shaped your future path?
It was a great advantage. What we don't appreciate is that it's an education unto itself. You're learning all the time. You see things, you do things, you're involved in things. And it is really a great education. When I look back at Rutgers, I took 24 science classes in 19 fields. It was just great. You learn a lot that we take for granted about crops. Farmers have to be systemic thinkers. They can't just think about plant pathology or soil physics or what have you -- they have to see the big picture. If you're a farmer, you have to think about all of these things, and you have to make decisions based on that. You don't know how big a tomato crop you're going to have, but you have to estimate the number of baskets you're going to need ahead of time.

How have the issues you've focused on changed over time?
In 1962, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson looked at the effect of pesticides on the environment and how it affected various life forms. She got that issue on the table rather dramatically. But then over time other issues have begun to emerge. Water became an issue, climate became an issue, and now we have a whole range of trends that are influencing the future prospects. A number of them are converging in this decade, which makes it a particularly interesting time.

Another thing I realized in looking back is that I've lived during an 80-year period of remarkable change. If you could somehow chart the rate of change in the world from 10,000 years ago up until 1935, it was growing very gradually, and then suddenly it went way up. There's been more change during my lifetime than all history combined.

In the book you talk about an agricultural exchange you did in India right after graduating college. Would you say that inspired you to look globally in your future work?
Well, it certainly helped fuel that evolution in my thinking. But I'd always been sort of interested in the big picture. Neither mom nor dad had graduated from elementary school, so we didn't have discussions on world affairs over the dinner table. So I ended up doing a lot of reading and especially read biographies. All of those people had a major cause or issue they worked on -- whether it was Marie Curie or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson -- and so I began to think of myself sort of in a leadership role. Not necessarily as a politician, but as an analyst of trying to see the big picture. That's what those people did, they worked on the important issues of their time. That's why we're reading their biographies today.

You were one of the few people talking about population growth and the environment very early on. Those issues finally seem to be getting more attention these days. Do you think it has become easier to talk about?
I talk about it all the time -- women's education, population, empowerment, etc. I think we're seeing a resurgence of interest in the issue. And it's been interesting that within the environmental community, the word "population" never came up, I think because they were afraid it might be politically sensitive. I did. For me, it's always been an issue. I did Man, Land, and Food in 1962, and that was about man, land, and food, so it was obviously incorporating population as a central issue. Looking back, I also think that I've been willing to take risks sometimes that others might be reluctant to take.

Early in your career, you worked in government service. But you've spent most of your life working outside of government, but also not at one of the major environmental organizations. How do you think that affected what you were able to do or how it was received?
It's probably given me a freedom that I would not have otherwise had. I guess if I were to describe myself, I'm sort of an analyst of world affairs with an environmental focus and an agricultural background. I'm interested in what's happening in the world, and in anticipating problems and figuring out what needs to be done. How do you deal with water shortages, or climate change, or population growth, or soil erosion, whatever it is?

When I got a job in the Foreign Agricultural Service and had the rice bowl countries, I worked day and night to get to know world agriculture. I mean seven days a week. That set the stage for so many things that happened after that, whether it was writing Man, Land, and Food or anticipating the monsoon failure in India. I've always had a lot of confidence in my analyses on these issues and I think it's because I have a very broad base from which to reach conclusions. I'm not an economist, or an agronomist, or a plant pathologist. I'm looking at the big picture, always.

Would you say that water access is the biggest immediate threat to human civilization going forward?
Well, because it translates into food, and I think food is the weak link in the system. It's soil erosion, it's the loss of cropland — particularly in countries like China, where they're building factories, warehouses, roads and highways. China's losing a lot of cropland in a short period of time while their demand is going up at a record rate. They're moving up the food chain really fast. China's meat consumption now is about half of the U.S.' If they were to catch up to us, which they want to do--I mean, they're moving fast, it's just a matter of time—it's going to take another 240 million tons of grain to get that additional meat. That's more than India produces, so that's not a trivial amount. And it comes at a time when, if you look at the world grain harvest grain-by-grain and country-by-country, you see that in many countries grain yields are plateauing.

What do you hope people take away from reading your autobiography?
One of the things that I don't say explicitly is that we're very fortunate to be born in this country, because there's an openness here that doesn't exist in any other society in the world. I mean, when you think about, if you look at the top 10 information technology companies in the world today, probably eight of them were started by teenage American males. It's amazing. Why didn't this happen in France, or Japan, both of which have better education systems than we do? I mean, the educational system is important, but there's this openness and this social mobility here. What it does is it permits a continual upwelling of talent. It doesn't make any difference where you were born or who your parents are or anything else. That, I think, is a reason for hope about the future of this society. We forget that it's self-renewing. We see all the problems — and there are plenty of them — but there is this upwelling that keeps things going.

So, no plans to retire anytime soon?
Why would one do that, when you're having so much fun? I mean, the reason I worked seven days a week is because it is so much fun. If I could find something that was more fun to do on weekends, I would do it. But except for the occasional long run on a Saturday or playing football when I could get a group of guys together, this is what I really enjoy doing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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