Between the Lines
“One of the world’s most influential thinkers” is how the Washington Post once described Lester Brown. The iconic 81-year-old is recipient of 25 honorary degrees and author of 54 books (although, amazingly, he never learned to type). Brown, in the wake of the recent shuttering of his Earth Policy Institute after a 14-year run, spoke with SEJournal book editor Tom Henry for the latest installment of “Between the Lines,” a question-and-answer feature with authors. Brown talked about how he came from a New Jersey family steeped in agriculture, how he developed a passion for reading and writing at a young age despite being raised by parents who never made it to high school and how his farming background and work ethic set the framework for his jet-setting career across the globe.
SEJournal: Looking back, is it hard to believe a modest tomato farmer from New Jersey wrote dozens of books and became hailed as one of the great pioneers of the environmental movement?
Lester Brown at a European Parliament conference in 2008.
Photo: Rebecca Harms, European Parliament via Flickr
Lester Brown: No one ever asks me about my parents. Neither of them ever graduated from elementary school. Being born in this country is good, in that respect. If you could choose a country to be born in, this would be it.
SEJournal: So tell us about your parents and how influential they were.
Brown: Pop was the oldest of four children. When his mother died, he was 12 and dropped out of school and started working as a farmhand to help raise money to support the other three. That kind of put an end to his formal education. Mom made it through seventh grade and grew up on a farm.
One of the interesting things, looking back, is there was never any pressure put on me by my parents to reach certain levels. I was free of all of those expectations. That left me to set my own goals. My goal was to get an education, not just in the formal education, but to get to know the world. My interest went far beyond the local community.
The other thing I see is that growing up on a farm is an education unto itself. You learn a lot. When the opportunity came in 1956 to go to India and live in villages under the auspices of the International Farm Youth Exchange program, I was eager to do that. Those six months, living in three different villages in India, was educational in so many ways.
SEJournal: What drove you to explore and to have a passion for the outdoors?
Brown: As a youngster, I read voraciously. I read a lot of biographies. When I was eight years old, I remember telling myself “Iwant to be someone.” Reading all of the biographies I did began to rub off on me. I began to subconsciously identify with the people I was reading about. The motivation was there thoroughly. I didn’t want to be the valedictorian of my class. By that, I mean I had pretty good grades — but I wanted to learn by my own terms. It consisted mostly of reading books, especially biographies and books about history. Every teacher in grades 3 through 8 said the same thing, that I rushed through my assignments so I could read on my own. That and growing up on a farm was a rich combination.
SEJournal: What’s made you tick as an adult, even after you achieved so much success?
Brown: I wanted to get to know the world in the broadest sense. When I was at Rutgers majoring in general agricultural science, I remember taking 24 science courses in 19 fields.I resisted the narrowing effect of our educational system. I avoided that by getting three degrees in three fields.
SEJournal: Your most recent book, “The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy,” offers an optimistic view that the transition — while difficult — is happening now and will gain more momentum. But don’t you fear that — human nature being what it is and greed coming into play — the transition will be even rougher than you expect?
Brown: It could be. But one thing that’s different now is that this energy shift from coal and oil to solar and wind is, in part, market-driven. That’s what changes everything. There are many places where solar panels on a roof provide cheaper power. There also is the development of batteries. There’s quite a lot of money going into batteries now in research and development, as well as manufacturing.
SEJournal: Will this be your last book now that you’ve retired and closed the Earth Policy Institute? Or do you expect to do others?
Brown: [Chuckling] Retirement is spelled with a lowercase “r.” I live about a mile north of Dupont Circle [in the District of Columbia]. I may look for a place I can affiliate with and still have a desk and maybe an assistant. I’m working on a book about water now, the world water situation. It’s in draft. That will be the next book. Beyond that, I don’t have a book in mind but I intend to keep writing. I’m in the position of having a network of publishers around the world who will almost automatically publish a new book if I do one. That’s a major asset. Most of my books now are published in 20 to 30 languages.
SEJournal: Was there any thought to keeping the Earth Policy Institute open without you being there?
Brown: I was not all that keen about closing it, but I think the board was a little worried. You know, I’m in my 80s. It was created 14 years ago specifically for me — by the foundations that support it.
SEJournal: In a 2013 interview with SEJ board member Kate Sheppard of the Huffington Post, you said you never aspired to become an author, don’t like writing and still don’t — that if you had the choice between speaking and writing, you would be a speaker. But haven’t you found writing to be therapeutic over the years?
Brown: Well, it’s very satisfying. If you have ideas and want to share those ideas with other people — which I do — you really don’t have much of a choice. You not only have to write, but you have to write books. Books are the only segment of the information sector where there is widespread translation into other languages. You can do magazine articles. Sometimes, they’ll get translated into two or three languages. But as a general matter, magazine articles do not get translated into other languages. If you want to reach a global constituency, you sort of have to do books.
SEJournal: Has the writing process become easier for you?
Brown: [Chuckling] Well, one would hope so. But I don’t think it’s changed very much over the years. I mean — you get the outline in mind, you think it through, you share it with colleagues and get their reaction. Once I get that, I take a letter-sized pad and start making notes of what I want to put into the chapter and kind of structure it. I dictate it. I don’t know if I’ve ever written a full paragraph. I guess I’m a dictator, not a writer [laughs].
SEJournal: I think people would be interested in knowing about someone who’s written 54 books and has been dictating instead of writing. Is there anything else you can say about your process?
Brown: I don’t know if my way of doing it would work for everyone. I don’t have a typewriter. I don’t know if I’ve ever typed a paragraph. From the beginning, when I joined the Asian branch of the Foreign Agricultural Service, we had a very progressive branch chief. He hooked up all of the offices with dictaphones and had a couple of secretaries there. Whenever somebody dictated something, they would put it on paper and get it back to the author. From day one, in the Department of Agriculture, I’ve always had someone around for dictation.
Incidentally, you mentioned Kate Sheppard. Kate and I grew up in the same community. We’re a couple of generations apart. In fact, her father and uncle were tomato growers, as well.
SEJournal: A lot of journalists have ideas for books. What advice can you give them to make some of those books reality?
Brown: One of the important things after you’ve selected a topic is to get the structure of the book right. Make sure you have that before you actually start writing. It’s easy to start writing and not really have that work done. You can get tangled up if you don’t do that.
SEJournal: There are obviously many issues facing the planet. Which deserve the most attention and why?
Brown: I think water is the most underrated one. Water, climate change, population growth are the three that would come to the top. We’re going to have to restructure the energy economy for climate reasons. But that’s doable. People need to understand not being able to use coal and oil is not the end of the world. It may be the beginning of a much more pleasant and attractive world. Think of a city where cars run on electricity. It’s much quieter. We take for granted the noise of cities now.
SEJournal: In your 2013 autobiography, you said the yardstick by which you judge yourself isn’t by how many books you’ve written or talks you’ve given, but whether we are reversing the trends undermining our future. What does the world need to do to get back on track?
Brown: I think the big thing is the energy transition. One of the exciting things about that is the geography of the new energy economy is so much different than the old energy economy. Throughout most of our lives, we’ve been heavily dependent on energy from halfway around the world — Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. Now, suddenly, our energy source is above our heads [with solar power]. We’re going to see a localization of the energy economy. That’s going to affect international relations and a number of economic ties. In China now, they are getting much more energy from their wind farms than their nuclear power plants. That’s a big shift now.
SEJournal: What are your future plans?
Brown: I think I can contribute most by writing. I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know the world, economically and also from the scientific point of view, from climate change to the water economy. One reason for doing “The Great Transition” was to show people there really is a transition and it’s under way. I imagine we’re going to see a century of change in the next decade. The water issue’s going to be a much bigger issue than a lot of people realize. If I had to choose between which would be most disruptive, water or climate change, I would pick water — because it’s more immediate. Most people don’t realize how much the world is drying out from over-pumping.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.