Watching the State Of the World

AS a schoolboy 40 years ago in New Jersey, Lester Brown was a small-scale farmer growing tomatoes with his younger brother. Today, he's still concerned with the makeup of soil, with water quality and irrigation, and with the productivity of the land.

But as founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute, the scope and scale of his interests are much larger: agriculture and energy, transportation and cities, population and the treatment of women, pollution and endangered species, trade and material consumption - everything that concerns humanity's impact and place on planet Earth, or what has come to be known as ``sustainability.''

Mr. Brown has just received one of the highest international awards for ``exceptional contributions to solving global environmental problems.'' Sponsored by the Asahi Glass Foundation in Japan, the ``Blue Planet'' prize is worth 50 million yen (about $506,000). It's the Nobel of environmental achievement, one in a string of awards Worldwatch Institute and its founder have received in recent years.

Other recognition has included the United Nations' annual ``Environmentalist of the Year'' award, a gold medal from the Geneva-based World Wide Fund for Nature, and a ``genius'' grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Brown says it's because he has ``one of the most talented, dedicated research teams ever assembled,'' and that is true. The small group that works out of its Washington offices are thorough researchers and prolific writers. But the awards also are a tribute to Brown's own vision and hard work.

Educated at Rutgers, Harvard, and the University of Maryland, he worked for the United States Department of Agriculture and helped establish the Overseas Development Council before starting the institute 20 years ago with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Since then, Worldwatch has become one of the most influential private, nonprofit gatherers, synthesizers, and analyzers of data and trends on the global environment.

Its best-known publication is ``State of the World,'' published annually since 1984. This year's edition includes chapters on the energy industry, the ocean environment, rebuilding the World Bank, and ``reinventing transport.''

``State of the World'' has been translated into 27 languages, and it is widely used by government agencies around the world and as a text at more than 500 colleges and universities.

More recently, Worldwatch has published ``Vital Signs'' featuring short pieces on environmental, economic, social, and other trends. These annual slim volumes are packed with charts, graphs, and other data very useful to journalists.

The institute also produces a bimonthly magazine about its research, regular ``Environmental Alerts,'' and lengthy papers on specific subjects. The latest of these (number 120 in the series) is titled ``Net Loss: Fish, Jobs, and the Marine Environment.'' It's a lot of output for a staff of about 35 people.

BROWN and crew are generally sober in outlook, sometimes to the point of being grim. While there are positive trends, they say (in life expectancy, energy efficiency, and some air-polluting emissions, for example), other data indicate worsening problems. These include habitat destruction causing loss of species, a drop in per capita grain production, and a rise in international refugees.

Critics say Brown and Worldwatch have an ax to grind and that they do so using selective and sometimes suspect data. In his 1993 book ``Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse,'' Ronald Bailey calls Worldwatch ``very successful at peddling millenial doom.''

Lester Brown is a bit of a Jeremiah, discomforting to those more interested in preserving the status quo - especially those well-off in a world of Rwandas and Haitis. But his message is an important one, and the recent international recognition is well-deserved.

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