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.