It is the classic story of a poor boy who believed in the power of hard work to get ahead. Pictures from his childhood growing up and laboring on a South Jersey farm look like something straight out of James Agee and Walker Evans’ Depression-era book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
Born in a small house for hired hands near Bridgeton, Lester Brown was the son of a farmhand and a domestic. Brown’s father dropped out of school at age 12 to support his own single father in raising three other children, who worked picking strawberries and cutting asparagus. Brown’s grandfather supported the family by digging ditches in the winter.
Today Brown, one of the world’s most influential thinkers, is best known for founding both the World Watch Institute and Earth Policy Institute, and for more than 50 books on global environmental issues. He has influenced U.S. presidents, the United Nations, and leaders around the world, and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard University professor Edward O. Wilson has called him one of the great environmentalists of our time.
But his life is deeply rooted in the soil of New Jersey, and he credits his early experience as a tomato farmer for leading to his becoming a global analyst and the guru of the environmental movement.
The MacArthur Genius Award Winner with curly hair and blue eyes will pay a visit to D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center on Tuesday, October 29, at 6:30 p.m. to discuss his newest book, “Breaking New Ground: A Personal History,” and make connections back to the soil of New Jersey.
“Breaking New Ground” recounts the experience he had in his mid teens: along with his younger brother, Brown borrowed a tractor to grow tomatoes on weekends. By 1958 that operation was producing 1.5 million pounds of tomatoes — and Lester kept up his good grades in school all the while. He went to Cook College to study agriculture with the sole objective of becoming a bigger and better tomato farmer.
Shortly after earning a degree in agricultural science he earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard and spent six months living in rural India in 1965, examining India’s agricultural plan. He immediately became aware of how overpopulation was undermining food production. Drought was leading to crop reduction, and as he played with the numbers, he knew action would need to be taken immediately. Issues of decreasing crop production, global warming, population control, women’s education, and energy and water resources depletion are all connected, he learned.
He was especially concerned about soil erosion, learning that it takes centuries to rebuild top soil. When then-President Lyndon B. Johnson read Brown’s cable about the situation, he saw an opportunity to reform India’s agriculture. At age 31, just a few years off the farm, Brown found himself advising policy leaders in New Delhi, leading to 12 million tons of U.S. grain being shipped to India to avoid famine.
Brown’s 51 books make the connection between overpopulation, water shortages, climate change, and food security, and have been translated to 40 languages. His 1995 book “Who Will Feed China?” led to hundreds of conferences and seminars and a broad restructuring of China’s agricultural policy. “Plan B 4.0” (2009) is a warning call for the leaders of the world to begin mobilizing to save civilization in four ways: by stabilizing population, eradicating poverty, cutting carbon emissions 80 percent, and restoring forests, grasslands, and fisheries.
“Breaking New Ground: A Personal History” traces Brown’s life as the son of a sharecropper to one who dines with heads of state. He makes it clear in the preface that his goal is not self-aggrandizement, but to help inspire others through understanding how he developed his thinking as he began his life during the Great Depression and experienced, over eight decades, some of the greatest changes in human history. “My motivation comes from seeing the problems facing humanity, and the need to do something about them while there is still time,” he says.
Brown admits he was always looking for ways to challenge the establishment, and while working for the USDA he and a colleague “repurposed” the old carpeting torn from the office of more senior-level officials who were getting an upgrade. The immediate effect was that Brown and his colleague were viewed as important because their office was now carpeted.
In order to meet his deadline to create agricultural supply and demand projections for the world in 1962, he pulled a series of all-nighters, dozing on the leather sofa in the offices of the administrator. “My great fear was that one day I’d oversleep and he would discover me,” Brown writes. Instead, those projections were published in a U.S. News & World Reports cover story, “Why Hunger is to be the World’s No. 1 Problem.” From there Brown’s career took off.
The inclination to buck the system is what led to his breaking new ground in thinking, combining agronomy, economics and demographics to ultimately launch his two institutions.
As Brown was studying overpopulation in countries in Asia, he observed how, as population first grew, agricultural production went up, but as industrialization increased, there was less agricultural land available to meet the spiking demand for food. “You have a country that’s basically in balance, and then production goes down and consumption begins to rise so imports go up very fast.” He applied that model to China to anticipate the day when China would become heavily dependent on imports.
But because of the Great Famine in 1959-1961, no political leader in Beijing would admit that one day China would be importing a large share of its food supply. After publication of “Who Will Feed China” and ensuing conferences, the Chinese government began to realize he was right. “In 1995 China produced 14 million tons of soybeans and consumed 14 million tons of soybeans,” says Brown. “In 2010 they produced 14 million tons of soybeans and consumed 70 million tons of soybeans. They are now importing 80 percent of their soybeans.
“I am concerned about where the world is headed,” he continues. “The question is, can we get things turned around while there’s still time? We don’t know the answer to that. If you like challenges, this is a good one.”
Climate change adds another huge threat to food security. “Agriculture as we know it today evolved over an 11,000-year period. Agriculture and the climate system were very much in sync with each other, but now what worries me is that’s beginning to change, and it leaves you with a helpless feeling. When you look at the heat and the drought the U.S. experienced in 2012 — and we’re the most technologically advanced country in the world — there’s just not much we can do about it. We’re just sitting there, watching and hoping . . . My goal is to be neither optimistic or pessimistic but realistic.”
What can be done? “Cut carbon emissions fast, 80 percent by 2020. (It’s what we need to do) to protect the future of civilization itself.”
But back to his childhood on the farm. There weren’t any toys to play with, he says, nor any cameras to record family life, but there was a lot of work to do, and that was what gave him his sense of self worth. “Working, for me, was an important part of my evolution as a person,” he says. “In looking back, I feel as though I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities that have been there. I have an enormous debt to society.” He includes his opportunity to get an education, even though neither of his parents graduated from elementary school. “In this society, no one asks what your parents did or who they are. It’s who you are that counts.”
Lester Brown’s “Breaking New Ground: A Personal History,” D&R Greenway Land Trust Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton. Tuesday, October 29, reception at 6:30 p.m. and lecture from 7 to 8 p.m. RSVP. www.drgreenway.org.