...And His Cause of Renown

Only Capitalism Can Save the Planet

Lester Brown, environmentalist nonpareil, isn’t waiting for government. He thinks the free market is the way to address climate change.

05.23.15 10:45 AM ET

A warming planet poses a threat to our way of life whether it’s man-made or a natural phenomenon, and government efforts to combat and slow its impact so far have been minimal. President Obama says our failure to act weakens national security, yet Congress is beholden to climate-change deniers and no real action is likely to happen anytime soon.

This isn’t surprising in the least to Lester Brown. A pioneering environmentalist who decades ago warned of the “manhandling of nature” and its dire consequences, Brown isn’t looking to government to save the planet. “Government helped get some of these things going (like solar energy and wind farms), but now government is less and less important,” he says. “The important thing is that the market is now driving this.”

As the founder of two nonprofit research organizations, the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant for his work on sustainable development, Brown is an unlikely champion of capitalism. But he predicts a half-century’s worth of change is possible in the next decade as corporate America and billionaire investors move into profit-making new-energy ventures.

He cites Wal-Mart’s decision last year to move toward solar energy—not to save the planet, but to save money. “It’s a business decision,” Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon said in May 2014. “The renewable energy we buy meets or beats prices from the grid.”

The beauty of this quiet revolution is that it’s more than the usual suspects. Billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Warren Buffett are on the front lines, investing in new sources of energy, but so is conservative oilman Philip Anschutz, owner of the conservative outlets The Weekly Standard and The Washington Examiner, who a year ago invested $15 billion to build a 3,000-megawatt wind farm in Wyoming.  “Anschutz has jumped into this with all four feet, he’s pulling out all the stops,” says Brown. “He sees Wyoming as a huge gold mine, and he’s building a transmission line to California. Wyoming has 600,000 people; California has 28 million.” Do the math, he says.

Renewable energy is an issue that divides conservatives. Some see its value; others see it as a threat to oil and gas. When the business-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) developed legislation for state legislatures requiring consumers who use solar to pay an added fee, the Tea Party joined with the Sierra Club in some states to fight the fee, dubbing itself the Green Tea Party.

Shifting alliances in energy can be dizzying. Texas has gone from being the country’s leading oil producer to being the biggest wind producer, getting 10 percent of its power from wind and building transmission lines to Mississippi and Louisiana. Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, an early believer in wind power, backed away in the face of early challenges. Brown tells of listening indifferently as Pickens lectured him on how oil is forever. “You’re not listening to me, are you?” Pickens said. “No,” Brown replied.

Trim and fit in his 80s, still jogging, and with a full head of white hair, Brown cemented his reputation as a seer with a 1994 article on who will feed China that ran in The Washington Post under the headline, “How China Will Starve the World.” It said that to feed 1.2 billion people, China would have to import so much grain that world food prices would rise, and nations would move away from emphasizing military preparedness to insuring and protecting food supplies.

Chinese officials angrily denied any such looming crisis. But they quietly revamped their agriculture policies to accommodate population growth that Brown said was the equivalent of a new Beijing each year. Several years later, a top Chinese official who was in power at the time told Brown his book, Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call for a Small Planet, was very helpful.

It may seem unusual for a leading environmentalist to place his faith in the power of capitalism to move the country, and indeed the world, away from the cheap oil and coal economy that has powered America’s economic success since the Industrial Revolution. Brown does hedge, writing in his new book, The Great Transition, that no one can say with any certainty that the change that’s underway will proceed fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Ted Turner, long an advocate on climate change and a funder of Brown’s work, purchased 4,000 copies of The Great Transition and is distributing them to members of Congress and elected officials across the country. It is a rare optimistic look at evidence that the economy is moving away from oil and coal to solar and wind and battery-powered vehicles. “That’s the most exciting for me, how fast things are moving,” says Brown, citing a UBS survey that says rooftop solar panels with backup batteries for home and cars will be cost-competitive in Europe by 2020.

Obama’s “war on coal” was a feature in the 2014 midterm election, and there’s still plenty of pushback in Congress. But 188 of the nation’s 523 coal plants have closed or are scheduled to close, and the $80 million donated by Michael Bloomberg to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign is a game-changer, says Brown. As the economy transitions, so does the investor class. Brown points out that Goldman Sachs pulled out of coal, and Morgan Stanley is out of oil. Even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, whose ancestor founded Standard Oil, divested its investments in fossil fuels last year. “When you get the billionaires moving out, that’s smart money,” says Brown.

Pressure to divest is also cropping up on college campuses. Stanford is out of coal, and Syracuse University is out of all fossil fuels. Harvard students staged a sit-in in February demanding the university shed its investments in fossil-fuel companies. The administration refused, but the pressure will continue. More than 200 faculty members have signed a letter asking Harvard’s governing body to reconsider, and Harvard law students have filed a lawsuit in an effort to force the change that everybody knows is coming. For those who worry about the health of the planet, help is on the way.