Dr. Doom | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Dr. Doom 

The ozone layer is shot. The rain forests are vanishing. The population bomb has detonated. It's just another day at the office for Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute.

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It's been another bad year for the world, but a decidedly good one for Lester Russell Brown.

The ozone layer is thinning out, our topsoils are eroding, the rain forests are vanishing, and the whole precarious planet--already groaning under the pressure of too many people-is warming up so fast that one day soon the polar ice caps may melt, and the great low-lying cities of the world will be swallowed by the sea.

For well over two decades now, Lester Brown has been keeping a vigilant eye on the earth, and he does not like what he sees. The author of seven less-than-sanguine futurist books and numerous articles, he is the director of the Worldwatch Institute, an uncommonly ambitious little Washington, D.C., think tank that monitors the most pressing global issues of our day. Brown and a crew of 20 self-described "professional generalists" put out an annual planetary report they call, without apology, State of the World. "Each year we give the world a physical," Brown says, "sort of check its vital signs."

The State of the World text reads like a cross between an economics monograph, a John Naisbitt trend treatise, and a passage from the Book of Revelation. Readers from year to year may notice a fair amount of repetition, and you can bet you'll hear from the Four Horsemen of the Worldwatch Apocalypse: acid rain, soil erosion, ozone depletion, and the population explosion.

In addition to State of the World, Brown and his young researchers have published some 80 authoritative studies--on topics ranging from global demographics to decommissioning nuclear power plants. The leitmotif that runs through all of these works is typically one of urgency and imminent crisis. Planet Earth is headed for big trouble. We're living beyond our means. There are too many mouths to feed. We are reckless with our technology. We are arming ourselves far beyond any imaginable threat. And we are making a terrible mess of the earth's natural resources--depleting fisheries, increasing carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere, contaminating aquifers with toxic chemicals, and enlarging deserts. "It's not escapist literature," Brown concedes. "It's pretty heavy stuff."

It is ironic that such a steady stream of gloom should flow from the pen of a man who's been faring so well in recent years. The Washington Post has called Brown "one of the world's most influential thinkers." The Library of Congress has requested his personal papers for its archives. The producers of public television's Nova have signed a $6 million contract to produce a sweeping ten-part documentary series based on the work of Brown's institute. The Worldwatch studies have been selling so well that Brown has doubled the size of the staff and begun publishing a slick new bimonthly magazine, World Watch. And last summer Brown won a "genius award," a $250,000 no-strings-attached grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

And State of the World has been selling extraordinarily well in recent years. Some 200,000 copies of the 260-page book are printed in nine languages and read in more than 120 countries. China alone has published three editions. In Poland, SOTW-'87 is reportedly selling on the black market. Professors at 400 U.S. universities have adopted SOTW as a textbook. And each year Ted Turner, the Atlanta broadcasting tycoon, personally mails copies to every member of Congress and every CEO in the Fortune 500.

"It's the most important document published in the country today," claims Turner, a friend who often visits Brown on trips to Washington. "I want America's leaders to get a glimpse of the uncharted waters we're sailing into."

Lester Brown has an impressive record as a Cassandra. He's successfully predicted at least two major famines. He is a heavyweight in international agricultural-development circles, commanding up to $20,000 an appearance to speak at world conferences from Geneva to Tokyo. He is occasionally mentioned as a possible choice for secretary of agriculture or interior in a future Democratic administration. Policy Brahmins like Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger have praised his writings over the years, and just about any position paper you might read on the global environment ends up quoting a Worldwatch document.

But saving the world from itself can also be a competitive enterprise, and Lester Brown has long been a controversial figure. A lot of influential people in academia and government tend to dismiss Brown as something of a guitar-strumming flake. Reagan officials say he's read too much Thomas Malthus for his own good. Many distinguished economists and scientists say he doesn't have the necessary academic grounding to make the kind of herculean projections he routinely makes.

Some critics believe the man is an outright menace to society.

"The Worldwatch enterprise is destructive--root and branch," argues Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist who has written extensively about world population growth. "I'm sure he believes what he's doing is for the greater good of mankind. But he's been wrong on every point, across the board--oil, land, population, soil. These aren't just little Sunday-school stories that are a bit out of whack. They're the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater and making people panic."

Whatever you make of Lester Brown, he is in many ways the apotheosis of a certain hybrid of the Information Age: the think-tank guru, the protean expert, the free-lance idea man. With uncertain credentials and a shoestring budget, he has carved out his own peculiar niche in the Washington policy game. You might call him the Ralph Nader of the global environment.

There are easily more than 200 think tanks or policy research groups in Washington, and at least 50 organizations that specifically concern themselves with conservation and environmental questions. But few take on a spectrum of issues as wide as Brown's. And there is probably no research institute in the country that is more the product of one man's vision.

Still, it can be a little difficult figuring out just who Lester Brown wants to be, precisely because he has chosen to wear so many hats: economist, ecologist, futurist, scientist, author, agronomist, entrepreneur. He's like a one-man band playing for anyone who'll listen. And what a curious mixture of humility and chutzpah: a shy former tomato farmer who presumes each year to tell the human race about the condition of the planet. He is not a cabinet-level official. He is not a tenured professor. He doesn't speak any foreign languages. The guy doesn't even have a PhD.

A conversation with Lester Brown roams from the future of geothermal energy to the eutrophication of freshwater lakes to the caloric intake of the average Indonesian villager. He knows about kiwi fruit, salmon ranching, and the new French birth-control pill. He talks about growth curves, biospheres, food chains, and socioeconomic thresholds. Things are thinning, declining, accelerating, narrowing, and growing exponentially.

He is a devotee of raw data. He can tell you how many hectares of the Black Forest were denuded last year by acid rain. He can tell you how large Nigeria's cassava harvest will be in 1988. And he knows population figures like the back of his hand. "I follow the birthrate the way some people follow the stock market," he quips.

Brown is the sort of man who talks, and apparently thinks, in complete sentences: no fragments, no dangling participles, no parenthetical asides. He has a somber, quavering voice, and he rarely laughs. He often uses the collective pronoun "we," by which he means not his staff, not the nation--but rather all homo sapiens. He dictates everything he writes: speeches, papers, even entire books. "I never learned to type," he says. "I go for weeks without ever writing a paragraph."

Brown looks like a middle-aged Cupid, with frosty blue eyes and wild scrolls of silvery hair. He pads around the institute wearing Hush Puppies and a polka-dot clip-on bow tie, his sartorial trademark since the 50s. "Efficiency," Brown explains. "You can pop them on in about two seconds."

With an official-sounding name like the Worldwatch Institute, you might expect to find elaborate charts on the walls, maps, banks of computers, clocks set to Greenwich Mean Time--but all you'll find are a few Asian batiks. Brown doesn't even keep a globe of the earth in his office, but he does happen to have a globe of the moon. His office is piled high with galleys and monographs. On a side table in the reception area rests a Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, opened up to a page that reads: "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."

Lester Brown stares out his window and quietly ticks off his list of the five most important issues facing the planet today ("in no particular order"): population growth, soil erosion, the threat of nuclear war, deforestation, and climate change.

"Our political institutions have not come to grips with any of these issues," he argues. "We have to find new ways to cooperate in the international scientific community, mobilizing resources on a scale never seen before."

And where will these resources ultimately come from? "In the end, we will have to drastically reduce the global military budget and systematically shift those resources toward issues affecting the global environment. Two years ago that would have been hard to sell. But things are moving fast enough that people are now willing to consider a dramatic reorientation in their concept of security.

"You see, the traditional military threat is not what's determining our security anymore. The Soviets, for example, are realizing that their immense military expenditures are making the USSR the backwater of the industrial world. And in the U.S. we are seeing that our enormous defense budget--with the diversion of financial and scientific resources required to sustain the SDI program--is undermining our competitive position as a world economic power. We are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with countries like Japan that do not exhaust their national resources on arming themselves.

"And we may soon realize," Brown says, lacing his fingers together and blinking rapidly in concentration, "that the U.S.-Soviet Union ideological conflict has simply become passe."

"Lester is the institute," one Worldwatch researcher says. Brown conceived the institute, he does the lion's share of the writing, and he continues to manage every facet of the office, from directing the research to picking the brand of potato chips served at press luncheons.

He seldom leaves the place. He's in his office by 7:30 AM--having already read and clipped five morning newspapers--and it's understood around the institute that he has the first few hours to dictate. Lunch is usually 15 minutes in the cafeteria of the Brookings Institute, just across the street.

Brown seems to take great pleasure in discovering new ways to shave off a few minutes of wasted time during his day. On his walks to work he has found that if he hits the lights just right, he can cross four lanes at Dupont Circle without having to wait on traffic. "I figure I save six hours a year this way," he says. One time he flew to Stockholm, gave an hour-long talk before a world conference, and then flew back the same day. He ended up missing about five hours of work.

People at the institute say he lives a life of "conspicuous frugality." He doesn't own a car (he once wrote a paper predicting the demise of the American automobile by the early 80s and the rise of the moped). He lives in a simply furnished apartment, where he says he wakes up to the sound of the lions roaring at the National Zoo. Divorced, the father of two grown children, he doesn't seem to have any social life. He cooks for himself--great vats of homemade vegetable soup that he stores in his freezer. "I get about 27 meals from a single day's cooking," he says.

When he won a "genius award" last summer, one of his researchers asked him what he was going to do with a quarter of a million dollars.

"Well," Brown answered, "I was thinking of maybe buying a ten-speed."

The only apparent extravagance in Lester Brown's life, apart from a new bicycle, is the Cosmos Club of Washington, the distinguished society for "men of science and letters" near Dupont Circle on Massachusetts Avenue. At 54, Brown says he is part of the club's "youth group."

As he wanders through the upstairs dining room of the club, where women are off-limits, the ruddy-cheeked gentlemen all turn from their meals and nod their heads. "How do you do, Mr. Brown?" "Good afternoon, Mr. Brown." "Good to see you again, Mr. Brown."

The club is in a handsome Victorian mansion with crystal chandeliers and creaky floors and dapper old men snoozing in overstuffed chairs. A narrow passageway downstairs is crowded with the photographs of the Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners from the ranks of the club--including Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, and a score of lesser-known physicists, chemists, and astronomers. "There are more Nobel laureates from the Cosmos Club itself than from any country except America," Brown points out, with a wistful smile that leaves you with the distinct impression that he intends to be on the wall himself someday.

"How are you this afternoon, Mr. Brown," says the waiter, splashing fresh ice water into crystal glasses. The day's luncheon special, the waiter announces, is broiled catfish.

This triggers a 15-minute monologue from Brown on the catfish-farming industry. Brown can tell you precisely how many pounds of feed it takes to produce one pound of catfish filet versus one pound of beef or pork or chicken. He says that catfish is a "terribly efficient protein source." This, he explains, is because a catfish doesn't burn up much energy as it noodles around on the bottom of a murky pond. "Aquaculture" requires no fertilizer, no pesticides, no veterinarian fees, no tractors, no gasoline, and precious little land. Besides, catfish is low in cholesterol and "doesn't taste fishy." Brown traces the relatively recent rise of the broiler industry, and predicts that catfish may eclipse chicken as "the commercial meat of choice." "I don't know if you've studied the growth trends, but . . ."

He orders the catfish.

Brown was born in 1934 and grew up on a small farm in southern New Jersey along the green edges of the Delaware River, "the garden part of the Garden State," as Brown describes it. He remembers that as a small boy during the 40s, he was particularly influenced by the "great man series"--the large-print biographies of great American heroes published for children. He was pleased to discover that so many of the Founding Fathers got their start in agriculture.

So Brown decided at age 14 that one day he would own the biggest tomato-growing operation in the state. He enrolled in the state land-grant college, Rutgers University, and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural science while raising tomatoes with his younger brother. "Farming is all I wanted to do with my life" he says. "You have to know soils, markets, weather, plant pathology, entomology, management, even politics. It's the ideal interdisciplinary profession."

Soon the Browns were marketing 1.5 million pounds of tomatoes a year, and Lester updated his childhood goal: He now wanted to be the biggest tomato farmer in the world.

But then in 1957 Brown went off to India on an international farming exchange and lived six months in the villages of Asia. For a 22-year-old fresh out of college, the third world was quite an eye-opener. "The prospect of just growing tomatoes the rest of my life didn't seem that exciting anymore," he says.

So Brown headed back to the states with a new career in mind: international development. He picked up a master's in agricultural economics at the University of Maryland and in 1959 joined the Department of Agriculture's foreign branch. He worked his way up through the bureaucratic bowels of Agriculture during the Kennedy years, learning the sweeping language of the Washington policy types in a youthful administration infused with a belief that America--through superior technology and sheer brainpower--could change the world.

Brown earned a second master's degree, in public administration, at Harvard's Littauer School (now the Kennedy School of Government), and then became a kind of global prophet almost overnight. In 1963 he published a USDA study in which he made an elaborate set of projections about the future of the planet's food supply, birthrate, and land resources through the year 2000. A few months later, U.S. News and World Report ran a cover story on Brown's study, portraying him as a new boy wonder of the development world.

In the report, Brown predicted that North America would emerge as the world's breadbasket, that the Soviet Union would become dependent on imported grain, and that all the third world regions that had been surplus producers of grain in the 30s would stiffer from widespread starvation in the late 20th century. "It's almost exactly what's happening," Brown says today, "except things have actually gone further and faster than I had projected."

The report caught the eye of President Johnson's secretary of agriculture, Orville Freeman, and catapulted Brown into the upper echelon of the department. Brown became Freeman's policy adviser in the Foreign Agricultural Development Department. "Freeman pulled me up out of the bureaucracy and said, 'You've sketched out the problems. Now you have to do something about them.'"

One day in 1965, while Brown was on a temporary assignment in New Delhi, an alarming trend caught his eye. Newspapers scattered across the Indian subcontinent were reporting regional drought conditions resulting from an unusually poor monsoon season. Piecing the news clips together in a kind of mosaic, Brown was able to foresee the massive crop failures that would cripple India later in 1965 and 1966. Brown immediately alerted officials in New Delhi and Washington, and then spearheaded a relief effort of unprecedented scale just in time to head off what surely would have been widespread starvation.

"His experience with the Indian famine affected the rest of his life," says Bruce Stokes, a former researcher at Worldwatch who now writes for the National Journal in Washington. "Thousands of lives were saved directly because of what he did. It's got to give you a little messianic feeling."

In 1966 Lester Brown moved on to direct Orville Freeman's newly formed International Agricultural Development Service, where he was afforded, as he now likes to say, "a front-row seat to history." It was the advent of the Green Revolution, an era when many came to believe that science alone could solve the crisis of world starvation.

It had to do with seeds.

Western plant biologists had succeeded in breeding new dwarf varieties of wheat and rice that could produce significantly higher yields. Now Lyndon Johnson's Department of Agriculture was seeking to introduce the new seeds into underdeveloped countries. It was an immense administrative undertaking. Loans had to be arranged. Fertilizer factories had to be built. Village farmers had to be taught. And Brown became the architect for the whole effort--from Mexico to the Middle East to South Asia.

Brown was ecstatic over the possibilities of the new seeds. At one point he went so far as to say that the Green Revolution was the most important historical development since the steam engine. It was perhaps the only time in his career that he was accused of optimism. Brown's detractors still point to those years and say he was naive--not only about the possibilities of the Green Revolution but about the politics of world hunger.

"I never saw the Green Revolution as a panacea," Brown now says. "I was very conscious of the arithmetic of population growth. Countries like China, which have used the new technologies along with family planning, are moving ahead nicely. Yet nearly all of India's agricultural progress has been absorbed by population growth.

Brown left Agriculture when Richard Nixon came to town, and then joined colleague Jim Grant (now the director of UNICEF) to start up a small Washington think tank they called the Overseas Development Council. While at ODC, Brown wrote four books: By Bread Alone, Seeds of Change, In the Human Interest, and "my most ambitious effort," World Without Borders.

With the publication of World Without Borders, Brown had arrived at the catholic sensibilities that would characterize the Worldwatch Institute. He was branching out from agriculture, exploring larger realms. "No one I know possesses the credentials for writing this book," reads the opening line of World Without Borders. "Certainly I do not."

Most Friday afternoons, Lester Brown and 15 Worldwatchers gather for beer and bourbon in the office and chat about the progress of their projects. You get the idea that Brown runs the institute the way he might have managed the family tomato farm if he'd remained in New Jersey. He is very much the father figure here.

"We all have a shared set of values," he says. He only hires young people fresh out of college, presumably because they're energetic and willing to work for less. Brown refuses on principle to consider people with graduate degrees. "They're already set in their thinking," he says.

"I came to Worldwatch expecting a Platonic academy on the hill," says Edward Wolf, a 25-year-old Worldwatch researcher. "It's not exactly that. The emphasis is more on producing than contemplating. But there is a certain cult of personality about the place."

While his assistants all seem to appreciate the direction Brown gives them, there is what one called "the benign tyranny of his intellect."

"Lester's built a wonderful soapbox, but there is only room for one person," says one researcher. "He's the classic good father/bad father. He gives you incredible opportunities at a young age. But he doesn't want you to grow up."

Founded in 1974 with a $500,000 grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Worldwatch Institute has always been an anomaly in the Byzantine world of the Washington think tanks. It's puny, for one thing, a veritable David in a town of Goliaths. The neighboring Brookings Institute boasts 50 full-time fellows, 240 staffers, a $15 million yearly budget, and an $80 million endowment. Worldwatch has just 20 employees and is so spartan that it doesn't even bother keeping a budget. "We just never write checks we cant cover," says Brown.

Unlike other think tanks, Worldwatch doesn't do original research. Rather, it sifts the research of others, distilling esoteric journals into handy reports that are designed to make intricate issues accessible to policymakers and the general media. Worldwatch is hooked up with some 70 think tanks worldwide and shares computer data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the World Bank, and the United Nations. "The world is filled with specialists who dig deep burrows into the earth and bring up these nuggets of insight," says Brown. "But there's no one up on top pulling it all together. That's our job."

Though Brown and his associates sometimes testify as experts before congressional committees on topics like acid rain and ozone, Worldwatch doesn't do any lobbying, strictly speaking. And though most of its policy ideas could be described as liberal, Worldwatch does not exactly have a political agenda or ideology--as does the Heritage Foundation, for example.

Brown seems content to play the role of town crier, leaving the policymaking and problem solving to others. Worldwatch literature tends to be much better at identifying alarming new trends than at prescribing remedies. "Our job," says Brown, "is to help societies cross the perceptual thresholds that lead to action before catastrophe results."

Worldwatch has operated in the black each of its 14 years. It generates more than half its income from the sale of publications, largely avoiding the philanthropic dole. "Les has systematically weaned his institute away from soft money," says William Dietel of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Worldwatch's principal source of outside financial support. "The guy absolutely hates fund-raising."

"There isn't a research institute I know of anywhere in the world that would expose itself to the discipline of the market like we do in determining the validity of our work," says Brown. "I think we're almost an embarrassment to the conservative think tanks who preach the marketplace but aren't willing to internalize their own message."

His critics often point out that, given Brown's keen entrepreneurial sense, it seems a little odd that so many of his prescriptions for change appear to ignore the role of free enterprise altogether, revolving instead around large-scale programs of government intervention. For example, Brown has been a strong advocate of federal legislation to increase energy efficiency in household appliances, to ban smoking on airlines, to control carbon-dioxide emissions, and to maintain the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit on interstate highways. And whenever Brown talks about the population explosion, he almost invariably invokes China's draconian family-planning program as a model for the future.

"Brown has won many prizes by telling us how bad things are going," says Danny J. Boggs, former deputy secretary of energy under President Reagan. "His dominant theme is usually how to make people do what they don't seem to want to do. I simply believe we are more likely to meet the challenge at hand with the tools of the free market."

"The market does a lot of things well," Brown argues, "but it doesn't have any sense of how to head off disruptive climate changes. It doesn't have any sense of how to take care of the long-term energy situation or the AIDS epidemic.

"The Reagan administration seems to believe that the market will take care of everything. The president publicly mentioned AIDS for the first time at a recent conference. The administration has opposed family planning programs in the third world. The United States has lost its leadership role in the world environmental movement. And the administration would have completely ignored the acid rain issue if the Canadians hadn't been pushing us so hard."

Brown is especially critical of Secretary of the Interior Don Hodel, particularly after his much-publicized comment last year that Americans could counteract the effects of a thinning ozone layer by wearing sunglasses and lots of suntan lotion. "That comment betrays a level of ignorance that is simply astounding for a U.S. cabinet member," Brown says. "It indicates that he has no idea what the consequences of an increase in ultraviolet radiation would be for the world economy--for crops, forests, animals, insects. It would quite literally change the rules of life on earth."

So it's been another bad year for the planet, as Brown will quickly tell you. But he bristles at the frequent accusation that he's just another peddler of gloom. "I would love to be able to write a State of the World report that said, 'Morning is here, it's spring again.' But it's not there.

"Oh, there are success stories here and there. The salmon are back in some New England rivers for the first time in a century. The Israelis have reclaimed their deserts. South Korea has been successful in building back its forests. China has done an extraordinary job of getting the brakes on its population growth. And here in the United States we have passed a promising new piece of legislation--the Conservation Reserve component of the 1985 Farm Bill--that will reduce our soil erosion by half over the next five years.

"But the world as a whole, the destruction of the land, the degradation of the environment . . ."

Brown adjusts his bow tie; blinks rapidly, and then stares with a faraway look out his office window past the jumbled rooftops of Washington's think-tank row.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darrow Montgomery.


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