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Lester Brown


Lester Brown

For the football player of the same name, see Lester Brown (Canadian football).
Lester R. Brown
Born (1934-03-28) March 28, 1934 (age 80)
Bridgeton, New Jersey
Occupation Global environmental analyst, author,
Known for Analysis of global warming,
food shortages, water depletion and energy shortages
Earth Policy Institute

Lester Russel Brown (born March 28, 1934) is a United States environmental analyst, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. BBC Radio commentator Peter Day calls him "one of the great pioneer environmentalists."

Brown is the author or co-author of over 50 books on global environmental issues and his works have been translated into more than forty languages. His most recent book is Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, which was released in September of 2012.[1]

Brown emphasizes the geopolitical effects of fast-rising grain prices,[2] noting that "the biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries," and one that could "bring down civilization."[3] In Foreign Policy magazine, he describes how the "new geopolitics of food" has, in 2011, already begun to contribute to revolutions and upheaval in various countries.[4]

The recipient of 26 honorary degrees and a MacArthur Fellowship, Brown has been described by the Washington Post as "one of the world's most influential thinkers." As early as 1978, in his book The Twenty-Ninth Day, he was already warning of "the various dangers arising out of our manhandling of overfishing the oceans, stripping the forests, turning land into desert."[5] In 1986, the Library of Congress requested his personal papers noting that his writings “have already strongly affected thinking about problems of world population and resources,” while president Bill Clinton has suggested that "we should all heed his advice."[6] In 2003 he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.[7]

In the mid-1970s, Brown helped pioneer the concept of sustainable development, during a career that started with farming. Since then, he has been the recipient of many prizes and awards, including, the 1987 United Nations Environment Prize, the 1989 World Wide Fund for Nature Gold Medal, and the 1994 Blue Planet Prize for his "contributions to solving global environmental problems." In 1995, Marquis Who's Who selected Brown as one of its "50 Great Americans." He was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Italy and was appointed an honorary professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Early life

Brown was born and raised on a farm without running water or electricity in Bridgeton, New Jersey near the Delaware River. He learned to read early and was a voracious reader. He was fascinated by World War II and would borrow day-old papers from the next door farm to follow it. He especially enjoyed reading biographies including those of America’s founding fathers and others such as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver, and Marie Curie. From his earliest years, he worked on the farm, milking cows, pulling weeds, and cleaning the stable. An enterprising youth, he involved his younger brother, Carl, in various businesses, such as growing pheasants and chickens for sale. In 1951, they started a tomato growing business, which eventually grew to become one of New Jersey's largest, with sales of over 1.52 million pounds a year. He later said, "farming is all I ever wanted to do with all my life. You have to know soils, weather, plant pathology, entomology, management, even politics. It's the ideal interdisciplinary profession."[8]


Shortly after earning a degree in agricultural science from Rutgers University in 1955, through the International Farm Youth Exchange Program, he spent six months living in rural India where he became intimately familiar with food and population issues. "His experiences in Indian villages changed his life," wrote biographer David De Leon. "Although he went back to growing tomatoes when he returned to the United States, this no longer seemed like exciting work." [8]

Brown decided that to work on the global food issue, he would need to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). [9] He learned that before they would hire him, he needed to have a degree in agricultural economics. Brown took nine months to earn a masters degree in agricultural economics from the University of Maryland and in 1959 joined FAS as an international agricultural analyst in the Asia branch. A year or so later, he took a nine-month leave to earn a master of public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In 1963, just four years later, he published Man, Land and Food, the first comprehensive projection of world food, population, and land resources to the end of the century. The study was a cover story in January 6, 1963 issue of U.S. News and World Report where it came to the attention of Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman. Freeman appreciated Brown’s bold analysis and offered him a job on his staff, saying "you sketched the problems. Now you have to do something about them." [8] He was soon elevated to being the resident specialist on global issues. In this capacity, he advised the secretary of agriculture on his overseas agricultural policies. He also headed USDA's International Agricultural Development Service from 1966 to 1969. His primary job was to "increase food production in underdeveloped countries." [8]

In early 1969, he left government to help establish the Overseas Development Council. He also became an enthusiastic believer in the promise of a Green Revolution, with the hope of using better seeds and cultivation methods to help solve global problems of poverty and hunger. In his opinion, "this technology was the most crucial historical event since the steam engine."[8] In subsequent years, however, he realized that rapid population growth in undeveloped countries was overwhelming the gains in increased food production.[3]

Career as environmental activist

In 1974, with support of a $500,000 grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Brown founded the Worldwatch Institute, the first research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues. While there he launched the Worldwatch Papers, the annual State of the World reports, World Watch magazine, a second annual entitled Vital Signs: The Trends That are Shaping Our Future, and the Environmental Alert book series. According to De Leon, "he gathered a staff of young idealists just out of college. They were expected to be 'professional generalists,' rather than narrow specialists with advanced degrees."[8]

The institute eventually became noted for being an independent and respected think tank focusing on environmental issues and also a storehouse for a large amount of environmental information. Their goal is to educate the public and government about environmental problems and to recommend actions. The institute has refused to become a lobbying organization, with Brown saying, "the world is filled with specialists who dig deep burrows into the earth and bring up these nuggets of insight, but there's no one up on top pulling it all together. That's our job."[8] As a result, he has been described as "one of the world's most influential thinkers" and was granted a $250,000 "genius award" by the MacArthur Foundation in 1986.

In 2001, he left Worldwatch Institute to establish the Earth Policy Institute, devoted to providing a plan to save civilization. At the Institute, his years of working on global issues through an interdisciplinary lens has enabled him to identify trends those working in specialized areas might not see. They have also allowed him to consider global solutions to the many environmental concerns of today. Some of the more important works Brown has written at the Institute include World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (2011), Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth (2001), and the Plan B series.

"Lester Brown is one of the most important voices in the world, regarding the creation of a new conscience of humanity toward a sustainable society." -Jose Jaime Maussan

"Keep up the good work! Some of us are getting in the habit of relying on you all for valuable information and solid analysis." –Eric Britton, The New Mobility Agenda

"…a small think tank with a knack of spotting new trends…" –Geoffrey Lean, Telegraph [2]

Primary concerns

The following have been consistent themes in Brown's work over the years:[10]

Environmentalist and author

Issuing warnings

After a talk at Catawba College in 2008, the college newspaper referred to him as an "environmental Paul Revere," [as] he warned his audience that "unless civilization changes its ways, its end is truly near... we're in a race between natural tipping points and political tipping points, - 'what we need most of all is for the market to tell the environmental truth.' " He added, "We don't need to go beyond our ice melts to know that we're in trouble. How much are we willing to spend to avoid a 23 foot rise in sea level?" He explained that "indirect costs are shaping our future," and by ignoring these, "we're doing exactly the same thing as Enron- leaving costs off the books. Consuming today with no concern for tomorrow is not a winning philosophy." He spoke of rapid population growth, deforestation, and "two new stresses – rising food and oil prices." "As oil prices go up, grain prices will follow," he said.[11]

Offering solutions

In December 2008, Brown presented ways of creating new jobs by public investment in both the renewable energy industry and in energy efficiency technology. He gave growth statistics along with the calculated number of jobs that would be created:[12]

  • The renewable energy industry - wind, solar, geothermal - are expanding by over 30 percent yearly;
  • There are now, in the U.S., 24,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity online, but there is "a staggering 225,000 megawatts of "planned wind farms";
  • Every billion dollars invested in wind farms creates 3,350 jobs - nearly four times the number created from coal plants;
  • A billion dollars invested in solar creates 1,480 jobs;
  • What is needed is a World War II-type mobilization to produce electric-powered cars that will operate at an equivalent gas cost of $1 per gallon (Replacing each SUV with a plug-in hybrid could save $20,000 of oil imports over its lifetime);
  • "The U.S. goal for Detroit should be not merely to save it but make it the world leader...";
  • A $500 billion investment in clean and renewable energy systems would create 3 million new jobs that would last through 2020;

He notes that "historically, it is rare for so many emerging threats to have a common solution."

Books (selection)

Brown has authored or co-authored over 50 books. which have appeared in some 40 languages. Among his earlier books are Man, Land and Food, World Without Borders, and Building a Sustainable Society. His 1995 book Who Will Feed China? challenged the official view of China’s food prospect, spawning many conferences and seminars.

In May 2001, he founded the .

Who Will Feed China?

In this book, published in 1995, Brown highlights the pressure on world resources as more countries, especially China, become developed. He writes, "To feed its 1.2 billion people, China may soon have to import so much grain that this action could trigger unprecedented rises in world food prices."

Outgrowing the Earth

This book, published in 2004, is a more recent description of "the ways in which human demands are outstripping the earth's natural capacities, and how the resulting environmental damage is undermining food production on a global scale. He documents that the decrease of crop production is due to global warming, water shortages, decreasing cropland in developing countries like China, and population growth that is still increasing world population by 76 million each year.

Plan B 4.0

This book, published in 2009, continues the themes of his earlier books, and is written as a final warning call for the leaders of the world to begin "mobilizing to save civilization" and stresses even more that time is of the essence.

At California State University, Chico, Plan B has become "required reading for all incoming freshmen." The university says that it is being used in many courses in History, English, Philosophy, Communications, Political and Social Science.[13]

Awards and recognition

Lester Brown is the recipient of many prizes and awards, including 25 honorary degrees, and is an honorary professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.[14]

  • 1965 Recipient of Superior Service award, United States Department of Agriculture
  • 1965 Arthur S. Flemming award
  • 1981 A.H. Boerma award, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
  • 1982 UN Environmental Program Leadership medal
  • 1985 Lorax award of the Global Tomorrow Coalition
  • 1989 World Wildlife Fund for Nature - International
  • 1987 UN Environmental prize
  • 1991 A. Bizzozero award, University of Parma
  • 1991 Humanist of the Year award, American Humanist Association
  • 1991 Pro Mundo Habitabili award, King Carl Gustaf XVI, Sweden
  • 1991 Delphi International Cooperation award
  • 1992 Cervia Ambiente prize, Italy
  • 1992 Robert Rodale Lecture award
  • 1993 Certificate of Special Recognition from the Association of American Geographers
  • 1994 Blue Planet prize, Asahi Glass Foundation
  • 1994 J. Sterling Morton Arbor Day award
  • 1995 Public Service award, Federation of American Scientists
  • 1995 Rachel Carson Environmental Achievement award
  • 2000 Bruno H. Schubert Foundation environment award
  • 2001 Natural Business Leadership award
  • 2002 Excellence Advantage award, International Fund for China's Environment
  • 2002 Italian Presidential medal
  • 2003 George and Greta Borgstrom prize, Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry
  • 2005 Claire Matzger Lilienthal Distinguished Lecture award, California Academy of Science
  • 2005, The Works of Lester R. Brown, permanent exhibit, Cook College, Rutgers University
  • 2008, Heifer All-Star (Heifer International Annual Award)
  • 2009, Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Award
  • 2010, University of Maryland Alumni Hall of Fame
Honorable mention
  • 1995 selected: list of 100 people Who Made A Difference by The Earth Times
  • 1998 selected: list of 100 Champions of Conservation, Audubon Society
  • 2000 named one of the People of the Century by The Daily Journal, New Jersey
  • 2003 One of 500 Most Influential People in U.S. Foreign Policy, World Affairs Council of America
  • 2005 One of 30 Global Visionaries by PLANET° Magazine
  • 2005 named to Bridgeton, NJ Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame
  • 2010 One of top 100 top global thinkers, by Foreign Policy magazine[15]
  • 2011 One of top 100 top global thinkers, by Foreign Policy magazine[16]
Literary Awards
  • Christopher Award for By Bread Alone
  • Ecologia Firenze (Italian literary award) for The Twenty-Ninth Day
  • A.H. Boerma Award, FAO, for writings on the world food problem
  • Best Translated Book, award from the Ministry of Culture, Iran, for Full House
  • Top Ten Book award,, for Eco-Economy
  • Top Ten Book award,, for Plan B
  • Best Nonfiction Book award from the Peka Institute, Iran, for Eco-Economy
  • Book of the Week award,, for Outgrowing the Earth
  • Book of the Month award, Omnipedia, for Plan B
  • National Library of China book award for Plan B (Chinese edition)


  • Man, Land and Food (1963)
  • Increasing World Food Output (1965)
  • Seeds of Change (1970)
  • Man and His Environment: Food (with Gail Finsterbusch) (1972)
  • World Without Borders (1972)
  • In the Human Interest (1974)
  • By Bread Alone (with Erik Eckholm) (1974)
  • The Twenty-Ninth Day (1978)
  • Running on Empty (with Colin Norman & Christopher Flavin) (1979)
  • Building a Sustainable Society (1981)
  • State of the World (with others) (1984–2001)
  • Vital Signs (with others) (1992–2001)
  • Eko Keizai Kakumei: Environmental Trends Reshaping The Global Economy (1998) (in Japanese)
  • Saving the Planet: How to Shape an Environmentally Sustainable Global Economy (with Christopher Flavin & Sandra Postel) (1992)
  • Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Carrying Capacity (with Hal Kane) (1995)
  • Who Will Feed China?: Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet (1995)
  • Tough Choices: Facing the Challenge of Food Scarcity (1996)
  • Beyond Malthus: Nineteen Dimensions of the Population Challenge (with Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil) (1999)
  • Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth (2001)
  • Earth Policy Reader (with Janet Larsen and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts) (2002)
  • Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (2003)
  • Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures (2004)
  • Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (2006)
  • Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (2008)
  • Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (2009)
  • World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (2011) ISBN 0-393-33949-1
  • Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (2012)


External links

  • Biography of Lester R. Brown at the Earth Policy Institute
  • Lester Brown speaking at U.C. Berkeley (video 1 hr. 7 min. video)
  • Lester Brown Interview about The Water Crisis - MP3
  • A Conversation With Lester Brown - TreeHuggerTV interview with Lester Brown
  • "If You Like Challenges, There's No Greater Time to be Alive." - Video interview with Lester Brown, from elephant journal.
  • Lester R. Brown in Stockholm, May 7th-8th 2010 | YouTube - Videos from Lester Browns visit in Stockholm and the Swedish Plan B, May 2010
Online books by Lester R. Brown
  • (1995); complete book online
  • (2001); complete book online (html pages and pdf document)
  • (2003); complete book online (html pages and pdf document)
  • (2005); complete book online (html pages and pdf document)
  • (2006); complete book online (html pages and pdf document)
  • (2008); complete book online (html pages and pdf document)
  • (2009); complete book online (html pages and pdf document)
  • (2011)

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