When Lester Brown left for India in the summer of 1956 as part of a farm youth exchange program, he was a 22-year-old tomato farmer in southern New Jersey. He started farming tomatoes as a high school student, he’d farmed through his years at Rutgers, and he planned to farm tomatoes for the rest of his life. But India changed him. Brown AG’55 toured villages (“in the first five homes we visited, there was no food for a noonday meal”), and he saw looming problems with population growth and hunger. Soon he would be working for the federal government on international agricultural issues and traveling around the world as one of the founders of the global environmental movement just then taking shape.
Now 79, Brown has led a remarkable life. He has met world leaders, from Lyndon Johnson to Indira Gandhi, and authored 51 books. His accolades include a MacArthur fellowship, the United Nations Environment Prize, and 25 honorary degrees. Yet something of the farmer—and of his education at Rutgers—has always remained with Brown. “The systemic thinking that characterizes my research and my writing had its roots in growing up on the farm and being immersed in the agricultural sciences,” says Brown, who captures his career, including his time at Rutgers (in a chapter titled “Ag Science at Rutgers”), in his new book Breaking Ground: A Personal History (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).
Brown’s work—as an author, adviser to governments, and founder of the Worldwatch and Earth Policy institutes—reflects ambitious thinking and a willingness to take risks. The titles of his books give a sense of this: Full Planet, Empty Plates; Building a Sustainable Society; Man, Land, and Food. “They’re not narrow, specialized books,” he notes. “They deal with the big picture.”
Yet Brown isn’t content to observe and reflect. He often takes a practical, let’s-get-this-done approach, and his work has influenced the lives of millions around the world. His 1995 book, Who Will Feed China?, led to a debate over whether China’s industrialization would put pressure on world grain supplies. Or, as a Washington Post article put it: “How China Could Starve the World.” Brown’s analysis, and the debate surrounding it, led to a restructuring of China’s agricultural policy. When Brown met Chinese premier Wen Jiabao years later, the Chinese leader told him, “Your book was very helpful to us.” And, surely, to the rest of the world.
Globalization, sustainability, food scarcity—these terms have become part of the cultural conversation, and Brown helped bring them to the world, and to convey their significance, well before they were commonplace. Where others see data, or disparate areas of knowledge, Brown makes connections and detects what really matters—and what to do about it. While in India for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1965, Brown was convinced “a potentially massive famine” was looming. He wrote a cable, eventually shared with President Johnson, and a crisis was averted through the largest food-rescue effort in history.
Brown’s interdisciplinary thinking “reflects a rootedness in agriculture,” he says. Talk to him about climate change, and soon the conversation veers back to farming. “Agriculture as it exists in the world today evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability,” he notes. “The agricultural system has evolved to maximize production with that climate system. But that climate system is no more. With each passing year, the agriculture system and the climate system will be more and more out of sync with each other.”
It’s a dire prediction, of a world out of sync, and Brown wants to reverse that. His Plan B, outlined in a book series and in a film, Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, narrated by Matt Damon, aims to eradicate poverty, stabilize population, and take other steps to restore the earth’s natural support systems.
Certainly he does his part. Brown, who recently made a $1 million bequest to Rutgers (visit support.rutgers.edu to learn more), lives a simple life in a one-bedroom apartment along Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. He doesn’t own a car. And he works seven days a week. “I work because I enjoy it,” he says, “and I don’t even think of it as work.” •
— Allan Hoffman