Worldwatch Institute Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Worldwatch Institute was founded to keep policy makers in Washington and around the world aware of global environmental concerns.

Summary of Event

The Worldwatch Institute was incorporated in 1974 and began operations in 1975. The idea for the institute came from Lester Brown, who, by his forties, had established himself as an international expert on soil, agriculture, and food supplies. Brown had spent his early years working on a family farm in the Midwest and had gone on to earn degrees in agriculture and agricultural economics from Rutgers University and the University of Maryland. In 1959, he joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), where his interest in worldwide agricultural issues intensified. Under the auspices of the USDA, he published a number of influential reports that confirmed his expanding expertise on global agriculture and food production. Worldwatch Institute Environmental organizations [kw]Worldwatch Institute Is Founded (1974) [kw]Founded, Worldwatch Institute Is (1974) Worldwatch Institute Environmental organizations [g]North America;1974: Worldwatch Institute Is Founded[01460] [g]United States;1974: Worldwatch Institute Is Founded[01460] [c]Organizations and institutions;1974: Worldwatch Institute Is Founded[01460] [c]Environmental issues;1974: Worldwatch Institute Is Founded[01460] Brown, Lester Freeman, Orville L. Hayes, Denis

In the 1960’s, Brown worked with the International Agricultural Development Service and in 1969 became a senior fellow in the Overseas Development Council (ODC). It was during these years that Brown formulated his idea for a Worldwatch Institute that would present an interdisciplinary approach in confronting matters relating to the human environment. Brown’s particular concerns were population, food supply, soil erosion, and creating policies that would curb the most serious environmental abuses. By locating the institute in Washington, D.C., Brown hoped that Worldwatch could influence politicians and members of government agencies in the United States and abroad. The Washington, D.C., locale also offered the prospect of gaining support from high-powered individuals and foundations. Worldwatch would provide a place where people concerned about the global environment could exchange ideas and develop strategies to meet what seemed to many people to be an impending environmental crisis. Brown believed that the institute would provide a breeding ground for solutions to environmental problems.

When the institute was created, it was decided that it should be governed by an international board of directors with Orville L. Freeman serving as its chairman. Freeman, a former governor of Minnesota and the U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1961 to 1969, had a background in agriculture similar to Brown’s, and he shared Brown’s concerns about the consequences of continued abuse of the land. Freeman gave strong encouragement to Brown while he served in the USDA. The board of directors agreed that Brown would be president of the institute and generally gave him complete freedom to manage Worldwatch as he wished. From the beginning, the Worldwatch Institute received generous funding from several foundations, including the Kettering Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the United Nations, various U.S. government departments, and private individuals.

Offices for the institute were established across the street from the ODC, where Brown had worked for four years. Science magazine (March, 1975) described the institute as a think tank aimed at alerting the world to impending problems arising from inattention to the depletion of natural resources. Brown intended that the institute would remain manageable, and to ensure this goal, he insisted that the staff never exceed twenty. His initial associates included Eric Eckholm, Eckholm, Eric who had worked closely with Brown at ODC; Denis Hayes, a well-known Washington environmentalist; and James Fallows, Fallows, James a staff writer for Washington Monthly and later a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter.

Almost immediately, Worldwatch began to issue pamphlets on a wide range of topics. This was in keeping with Brown’s view of himself as a synthesizer and the institute’s stated goal of taking a multidisciplinary approach to matters relating to the human environment. The immediate objective set by Brown was to redefine national security in nonmilitary terms. National security, Brown believed, should be seen as providing the best possible environment for human life. In line with this, the early publications featured essays on deforestation (firewood crisis), population expansion, food production in North America, nuclear power, family planning, soil abuse, women in politics, and equal education for women. Brown was convinced that women had to have a more prominent role in policy making if environmental goals were to be realized.

Brown was known to be an indefatigable worker whose intensity, often likened to that displayed by Ralph Nader, sometimes confounded those in frequent contact with him. Nevertheless, the institute thrived under his leadership, and its publications (often in translation) were distributed worldwide. Brown published prodigiously, with articles on population, declining cropland, automobiles, overfishing, and the food crisis in Africa appearing under his name. He published in diverse journals from The Humanist to the Farm Journal. While his articles continued to appear in dizzying numbers, he also wrote books based on research and analysis carried out by Worldwatch.

One of the most successful of these books, The Twenty-Ninth Day: Accommodating Human Needs and Numbers to the Earth’s Resources, Twenty-Ninth Day, The (Brown)[Twenty Ninth Day, The] was published in 1978. In this book, which was carefully vetted by his institute colleagues, Brown wrote about the ecological and economic stresses that were threatening the world’s grasslands and ecosystems. He echoed the sentiments expressed by William Vogt in his Road to Survival (1948). Brown also appealed to people to understand the danger posed by excessive population and unbridled materialism. He specifically praised the work of Rachel Carson, Carson, Rachel Ralph Nader, Nader, Ralph and E. F. Schumacher. Schumacher, E. F. Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful (1973), Small Is Beautiful (Schumacher) demanded a reevaluation of the world’s fascination with ever greater technology. Brown believed that global change began with individuals such as Schumacher and then expanded to include larger groups.

Brown’s enthusiasm and drive enabled Worldwatch to continue its success in gaining financial support from U.S. and international agencies as well as from private foundations. The institute became one of the best-supported environmental organizations in the world. This financial backing, principally from the Rockefellers, enabled Worldwatch to begin its annual State of the World State of the World (Worldwatch Institute) publication in 1984. Its purpose was to report on world progress toward the goal of a sustainable society. Brown believed that this would become the institute’s most important contribution. Many Worldwatch associates contributed chapters to the book. There were reports on such issues as global warming, clean air, saving water, feeding the world, and ending poverty. The issues covered were different every year. The State of the World series provided Worldwatch with enormous visibility, and the books sold exceedingly well, particularly among high schools and colleges.

Brown continued his frenetic pace of issuing reports and calling attention to new areas of environmental concern into the 1990’s. He succeeded in making the Worldwatch Institute the most widely known source of information in the United States about where human beings were heading in the continuing effort to find accommodation with their natural resources. Brown continued his prolific writings, serving as president of the institute until September, 2000, when he was succeeded by Christopher Flavin. Flavin, Christopher In May, 2001, Brown went on to found a new organization known as the Earth Policy Institute, Earth Policy Institute where he has continued to publish widely.


During the 1970’s, hundreds of environmental groups and agencies formed around the globe. Their creation signaled the awakening of a significant portion of the world’s population to the reality that natural resources were disappearing at an alarming rate. The groundwork for this awakening was laid in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when ecologists and a few politicians began to point out that Earth is a small planet on which materialism, technology, and population growth had created a clear and present danger to the human environment. The 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) in Stockholm, Sweden, declared that the preservation of natural resources was a global concern. Human actions in one part of the world affected the environment of those living in another part of the world. After the Stockholm Conference, and with the end of the war in Vietnam, the popular cause became the conservation of essential resources through the limiting of pollution and the rethinking of personal and national goals. The Worldwatch Institute was founded in the midst of this rush to save the planet from human destruction. It was not the first such organization, but it was one of the earliest in the United States and one of the most enduring.

The impact of Worldwatch must be assessed in terms of the plethora of similar organizations forming at the time. There were several distinct advantages for Worldwatch. Its founder and president, Lester Brown, was relentless in his determination that Worldwatch should make a difference. His vast knowledge of agriculture and the world’s food needs, combined with his liberal political philosophy and writing skills, made him a formidable force. He surrounded himself with talented people of similar convictions who were able to challenge his thinking and keep him renewed. Although Brown’s leadership was the primary advantage that Worldwatch possessed, there were other factors that were nearly as important.

The institute’s location in Washington, D.C., gave the group access to politicians and policy makers. Its publications were quickly disseminated to key individuals on Capitol Hill. Washington also had a pool of experts in all areas of interest to Brown, and vast library resources and the latest government statistics were within easy reach for Worldwatch’s personnel. The Washington venue greatly facilitated fund-raising, which was another strong advantage for Worldwatch in comparison to other environmental groups. The money available made it possible to publish regularly, and eventually the publications themselves began to produce substantial revenue for the institute.

The impact of the Worldwatch Institute must be viewed from two perspectives: To what extent did the institute directly influence policy decisions and legislation, and to what extent did it indirectly influence the environmental movement through its broadcasting of information? Where policy and legislation are concerned, Worldwatch’s influence is not easily differentiated from the efforts of other environmental agencies. It was a strong lobbying force for legislation and policy relating to clean water, emission standards for pollutants released into the air (particularly automobile emissions), and in matters dealing with food production. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to cite a specific policy or law that resulted directly from positions taken by Worldwatch.

It was the indirect influence of Worldwatch that provided its greatest impact. By making information and statistical analysis readily available to policy makers, Brown believed that informed decisions would be made when these policy makers were confronted with choices that would affect the environment. This is one reason the institute’s approach was so eclectic. Brown saw that, by the early 1980’s, the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. (created by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969) had lost its momentum and Worldwatch had to fill the void. The issuing of the State of the World reports beginning in 1984 was Worldwatch’s effort to draw together pertinent information from around the globe and integrate that information in a way that would prove useful to government officials, legislators, and the general public. Brown wanted to provide a basis for reordering priorities and also wanted to suggest different ways of evaluating the relationship between humans and their environment.

Although the State of the World reports were often criticized for lacking focus and being amorphous, they were immensely popular and frequently cited in publications from the United Nations Environment Program. The hope of Brown and his Worldwatch colleagues was that through a broad interdisciplinary discussion of environmental issues, they would be able to reach people who had remained untouched by such matters. In this effort, the institute achieved considerable success. The State of the World reports, however, documented little progress in achieving sustainable societies. Worldwatch Institute Environmental organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Lester R. The Twenty-ninth Day: Accommodating Human Needs and Numbers to the Earth’s Resources. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Possibly Brown’s most successful book, in which he identifies ecological and economic stresses affecting the human condition. In keeping with his eclectic approach, he discusses changing roles of women, redefines national security, and explains how individuals and organizations can accommodate global planning. Notes, index. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. World Without Borders. New York: Vintage Books, 1973. Presents Brown’s global perspective on the human environment and provides an overview of the many ecological and economic problems that humans faced in the early 1970’s. He suggests that a global economy and a global infrastructure will eventually reshape the future in a way that leads to sustainable societies. Notes, index, bibliography. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Lester R., and Ed Ayres, eds. The World Watch Reader on Global Environmental Issues. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. “Best of” articles drawn from World Watch magazine. Well-researched, without the technical jargon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gore, Al. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. 1992. Reprint. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2006. Gore was a U.S. senator when he wrote this work. His interest in the environment began with concern over soil erosion on his family farm. The introduction is especially insightful. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. 1973. Reprint. Point Roberts, Wash.: Hartley & Marks, 1999. Brown was impressed by this widely read essay, in which Schumacher urged a reappraisal of materialistic and technological goals. Although the book ultimately failed to change the world’s thinking, it remains an inspiration to environmentalists. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vogt, William. Road to Survival. New York: William Sloane, 1948. Vogt anticipated many of Brown’s concerns, particularly with regard to soil abuse and the dangers of a worldwide population increase. Unlike Brown, Vogt wrote in an acerbic style that often enraged those individuals and groups who were the object of his scathing verbal attacks. The work is, however, a classic. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Worldwatch Institute. State of the World, 1984: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. The first of the annual reports issued by Worldwatch. Should be read for an understanding of the institute’s objectives. These reports proved to be Worldwatch’s most popular publications. Notes, index.

Earthwatch Is Founded

Commoner Publishes The Closing Circle

Club of Rome Issues The Limits to Growth

Ward and Dubos Publish Only One Earth

United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm

Schumacher Publishes Small Is Beautiful

Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits

The Global 2000 Report Is Issued

United Nations Creates a Panel to Study Climate Change

Categories: History