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Lester Brown Celebrates 80, but He’s Not Done Yet

One of the world’s foremost environmental thinkers continues work begun decades ago.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY US-ENVIRONMENT-FOOD-CLIMATE-BOOK BY KARIN ZEITVOGELLester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute speaks during an interview with AFP at his office in Washington,DC on January 10, 2011. Like many environmentalists, Lester Brown is worried. In his new book 'World on the Edge,' released this week, Brown says mankind has pushed civilization to the brink of collapse by bleeding aquifers dry and overplowing land to feed an ever-growing population, while overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
April 10, 2014, 2:19 p.m.

If there’s any doubt that Lester Brown is still primed to con­tin­ue his work as one of the world’s lead­ing en­vir­on­ment­al­ists at age 80, con­sider these res­ults from last week­end’s Cherry Blos­som Ten Mile Run in Wash­ing­ton:

“There were only three in the 80-and-over group, and I was second,” Brown said Thursday. His time was 2:23:37, ac­cord­ing to the un­of­fi­cial res­ults pos­ted on the event’s web­site.

On Fri­day even­ing at the Na­tion­al Press Club, Brown and more than 200 of his friends and fam­ily will cel­eb­rate his oc­to­gen­ari­an status, which was reached on March 28. And on Sat­urday morn­ing, Brown will get right back to his lifelong quest to find a path to a sus­tain­able plan­et.

Brown — who foun­ded the World­watch In­sti­tute in 1974 and now leads a smal­ler think tank in Wash­ing­ton that he es­tab­lished in 2001, the Earth Policy In­sti­tute — has been de­scribed by The Wash­ing­ton Post as “one of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial thinkers” and by his crit­ics as a “pro­fes­sion­al alarm­ist.”

His résumé speaks for it­self, with hon­ors ran­ging from the United Na­tions En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­gram Lead­er­ship Medal in 1982 to in­duc­tion in­to the Earth Hall of Fame Kyoto in 2012. He is the au­thor or coau­thor of more than 50 books, start­ing with Man, Land and Food in 1963. His most re­cent, in 2012, was Full Plan­et, Empty Plates: The New Geo­pol­it­ics of Food Scarcity.

It star­ted for Brown grow­ing up on a farm in south­ern New Jer­sey, where he es­pe­cially loved tend­ing the ve­get­ables. “I knew I could grow to­ma­toes all my life, but I began to real­ize that just grow­ing to­ma­toes wouldn’t be ac­com­plish­ing very much,” he said.

He pur­sued a de­gree in ag­ri­cul­tur­al sci­ence at Rut­gers Uni­versity and after gradu­ation spent six months in In­dia, where he learned first-hand the dif­fi­culties provid­ing ad­equate food sup­plies in un­developed coun­tries. Brown joined the U.S. De­part­ment of Ag­ri­cul­ture in 1959 as an in­ter­na­tion­al ana­lyst and took it upon him­self to write his first book on the side, which pro­jec­ted sup­ply and de­mand for food around the globe through the end of the cen­tury.

Asked this week how his pro­jec­tions turned out, Brown ex­claimed, “Sur­pris­ingly close!” The re­search also made him un­der­stand that “erad­ic­at­ing hun­ger was not go­ing to be a simple thing,” he said.

His work caught the at­ten­tion of Ag­ri­cul­ture Sec­ret­ary Or­ville Free­man in 1963 and Brown was el­ev­ated to a top ad­viser on in­ter­na­tion­al ag­ri­cul­ture at USDA headquar­ters. He left gov­ern­ment in 1969 to help es­tab­lish the Over­seas De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil.

In 1974, Brown said, he was sit­ting in a swim­ming pool in As­pen, Colo., with Wil­li­am Deitel, a top man­ager of the Rock­e­feller Broth­ers Fund, dis­cuss­ing the fact that there wasn’t a single en­vir­on­ment­al-re­search in­sti­tute any­where in the world. Shortly after that con­ver­sa­tion, the fund provided Brown with $500,000, and the World­watch In­sti­tute was born in Wash­ing­ton.

Over the years, the in­sti­tute be­came renowned for its ana­lyt­ic­al re­ports on food, pop­u­la­tion, and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues and its an­nu­al State of the World books be­came must-read pro­gress re­ports on glob­al de­vel­op­ment.

Brown also con­tin­ued re­search­ing and writ­ing, and at one point ex­ploded myths about the pro­spects for ag­ri­cul­ture in the world’s largest na­tion in a 1995 book, Who Will Feed China?

After turn­ing 67 in 2001, Brown de­cided to es­tab­lish a new think tank, the Earth Policy In­sti­tute, which has a simple but lofty mis­sion: “Provid­ing a plan to save civil­iz­a­tion.” Later that year he pub­lished a book, Eco-Eco­nomy: Build­ing an Eco­nomy for the Earth, that laid out his vis­ion for a sus­tain­able plan­et.

A world of work re­mains to be done, Brown said. “We’re already over­us­ing wa­ter in the Great Plains, in In­dia, in China,” he said. “Wa­ter tables are fall­ing in every state of In­dia.”

Pop­u­la­tion growth may be slow­ing, but only be­cause there won’t be enough food to sus­tain an­oth­er 2 bil­lion people, he said. “We’re go­ing to see in­creased mal­nu­tri­tion and rising mor­tal­ity,” he said.

It’s just one more reas­on Brown wants to get back to work after his birth­day cel­eb­ra­tion Fri­day.

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