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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2006, 00:20 GMT
Learning from the ruins
Peter Day
By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Ancient sumerian writing from 300 BC
The Sumerians could not see the writing on the wall

I was talking the other day to Lester Brown about the Sumerians.

They invented the wheel in about 3500 BC but could not invent themselves out of eventual disaster.

Lester Brown is one of the great pioneer environmentalists.

He mentioned the Sumerians because they may have a lesson for us all.

As he tells, it, the lesson goes like this:

Paradise lost

The Sumerians were a tribe which arose in the cradle of civilisation, the land known as Mesopotamia, home of the Garden of Eden.

They invented the wheel because the land was so productive that it produced regular surpluses.

That led to non rural communities, cities, and that led to trade.

Cartloads of food, with newly-developed wheels, trundled off to new urban areas. Trade needed record-keeping, so tokens were invented; that led to writing, and laws.

Lots happened in the cradle of civilisation but why did it all happen?

Chinese woman sampling car in Shanghai
China's growing material appetites could have serious repercussions

Because of water, piped from the two great rivers of the area by complex new irrigation systems.

And what then became to this latterday Eden?

Well, the rising water table caused by the irrigation sucked up the salt from deep levels in the soil; and the salt killed the abundance that the Sumerians had relied on.

They found no technological response as the water got increasingly salty. Something similar happened to the Mayans. And on Easter Island. A civilisation passed on.

Paying a heavy price

The similarity to our own times is pretty obvious. We have built our civilisation on fossil fuels and carbon emissions. But now it is time to pay for the past, and we may not be able to do it.

However, Lester Brown is not yet totally in despair.

He has just produced a book called "Plan B, 2.0" subtitled "Rescuing a planet under stress and a civilisation in trouble".

BP oil rig in tge Gulf of Mexico
Oil will become an increasingly scarce commodity

It is a continuation of decades of work at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC, which produces the annual and enthralling State of the Earth report about the vital shortage of the raw materals the rich world relies on.

He has recently moved on to found a new more campaigning organisation called the Earth Policy Institute.

His new book focuses on the practical problem of what will happen if China continues to grow but develops similar appetites as the US already has, something he predicts may happen around the year 2031.

Chinese appetites

With the same consumption as the US today, it would mean two thirds of the current grain harvest going to China; the country would have more than a billion cars, when the whole world has 800 million now.

It would use 99 million barrels of oil a day, more than the current global production which may be near its limit.

China would then be consuming twice the world's current supply of paper. "Goodbye to the forests," he notes.

But - as Lester Brown admits - it is difficult to see this happening.

In other words, something has to happen to reduce our consumption of raw materials before we are joined by Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Former US vice president Al Gore
Al Gore detects a sea-change in US attitudes to the environment

He uses this mathematical projection of supply and demand rather than the threat of global warming because he thinks it is easier to grasp than the complexities of climate change.

But behind the figures, similar mechanisms would be needed to get us all out of the coming trouble.

US conversion

Now I said that Lester Brown maintains that he is still just about an optimist about the state of the world, whatever his projections.

He says he detects urgent stirrings in - of all places - the US, gas guzzling on the roads and in denial about global warming, at least as far as government action is concerned.

Don't look at the President, says Lester Brown.

Look to the 180 local mayors across the US who have signed up to the Kyoto Agreement.

Americans are being pushed into a new awareness about the fragility of the world and the need to move towards sustainability by a combination of fears about oil prices and supplies, budget deficits, healthcare payments and social security.

Former vice president Al Gore told me something similar only recently.

Lester Brown says 'if you doubt America is changing look at how serious business and Wall Street are now taking wind generated energy'.

Well the trouble with its conversion to sustainability of - if it is actually happening - is that foreigners do not seem to have noticed.

Business in the rest of the world says 'what is the point of our taking action on carbon emissions if the White House won't even sign up to Kyoto'.

And that perception matters because, as Lester Brown says in a final, sobering aside : "The one resource we are really running out of is time."

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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