We rode Amtrak to Washington, D.C., last Friday, to attend the 80th birthday celebration for one of world’s leading environmental thinkers over the last 40 years.
Lester R. Brown has racked up enough accomplishments for several lifetimes. He grew up on a struggling South Jersey farm lacking indoor plumbing, but by his mid-20s was producing 1.5 million pounds of tomatoes annually, and was one of that state’s leading tomato growers.
Brown learned to read at four and went on to earn degrees in agricultural science, agricultural economics and public administration. Working in India for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brown noticed signs of a gathering drought and warned of a nationwide famine. Convinced by the case Brown made, President Lyndon Johnson launched the largest food-relief effort in history to avert disaster in India and persuaded that nation’s leaders to modernize farming practices.
During the last four decades Brown’s founded two environmental think tanks, the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, which he still leads; wrote or co-wrote more than 50 books translated into 40 languages, and helped pioneer the concept of environmental sustainability, which he defines simply as meeting the current needs of humanity without jeopardizing the needs of future generations.
And on Sunday April 7, Brown competed in DC’s Cherry Blossom 10-Mile run.
Among the 230 attending Brown’s birthday bash – mostly colleagues, publishers, journalists, friends and family – was Ted Turner. The Atlanta-based media mogul has donated to Brown’s efforts and calls him “an environmental leader and great thinker” who “continues to inspire us with his brilliant thoughts and ideas.”
Farming with his younger brother Carl in New Jersey, Brown envisioned a different life for himself. “I grew tomatoes and expected to grow tomatoes my entire life.” But a college education and a young-farmer exchange program that sent him to India changed his direction. “I took 24 different science courses in 19 fields and that led me to be a big-picture person.”
His latest book, Breaking New Ground: A Personal History, is an autobiography that lays out a remarkable life. Like many great people, Brown seems to have learned lessons from everything he did, with his early life as a farmer playing the essential ingredient. As a farmer he learned the ways of nature; saw the advantage of being a generalist able to converse in business and science; and developed an entrepreneurial bent, adapting to changing conditions.
One result was that the Worldwatch Institute was far less reliant on foundations for support than similar organizations. It covered a little more than half its expenses from the sales of publications, speaking engagements and similar enterprises, while typical think tanks generate only a few percent through such operations.
Brown created Earth Policy Institute when he was 67, a time when most are focused on retirement. A slice of the organization’s output includes:
* A study critical of the U.S. program that turns corn into ethanol fuel for cars, consuming more energy than it creates while raising food prices.
* A report that documenting that bottled waster was a waste of money; that the industry’s quality standards were usually less stringent than public supplies, and that it was shipped at an enormous energy cost.
* The finding that cancer in China had increased rapidly to become the leading cause of death as a result of unchecked pollution and the toll was likely to get far worse.
* An examination of geothermal energy in Japan found it could cheaply and safely replace the nuclear power industry that was crippled by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Those who celebrated Brown’s life last week noted that he has no plans to retire; that he loves what he does too much to quit. They pointed out that he lives simply and doesn’t waste time with wardrobe decisions. He has a closet stocked with light blue shirts, dark blazers, and colorful clip-on bow ties for when the occasion demands a tie.
The same pattern holds true with footwear; Brown goes to work in running shoes and wears them to formal affairs. And he wears them when he runs four miles, twice a week after work, and at least nine miles more on weekends in Rock Creek Park not far from his home.