A comprehensive, forward-thinking blueprint for sustainable living

Brand (Clock of the Long Now, 1999, etc.), who won a National Book Award for his groundbreaking Whole Earth Catalogue in 1972, provides readers with the most necessary survival tool in this era of increasing climate change: well-researched, accurate information and a guide with which to use it. Our ability to combat the greenhouse gases that threaten earth’s delicate ecosystems have reached a breaking point, and only concerted, global efforts that have been properly analyzed for macroeconomic value—as opposed to, say, drilling for oil offshore or burning “clean coal”—can stave off a further increase in global temperature that will precede a catastrophic climate crisis. The author proposes that a drastic re-evaluation of “green thinking” is required to accomplish this, claiming that the recent environmental movement is muddled in their message and has even been a hindrance to certain eco-alternatives, such as nuclear energy and genetic engineering. As people continue to migrate into cities and technology pervades even the poorest of slums, an agricultural revolution would offer a chance for farming to become a profitable urban enterprise and nature to reclaim rural areas. Brand writes with clarity, directness and wit, and despite his obvious partisanship toward environmentalism, he never proselytizes. His long career precedes him, and those who have followed his crusades over the years will find his admissions of error in some past arguments—specifically the viability of nuclear power—refreshing. Also inspiring is the sheer amount of knowledge he imparts on dozens of issues. He deftly reflects on the subtle differences in biotechnical, scientific, ecological, political and sociological arguments and refrains from tiresome parable. His message is clear. We have passed the point of no return where climate is concerned, and drastic, well-planned and innovative measures to combat total ecological collapse must be implemented now.

Breathtaking in scope and implication—a must-read.

—Kirkus Reviews, Sept. 1, 2009


Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

Stewart Brand. Viking, $25.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-670-02121-5

Brand, co-author of the seminal 1969 Whole Earth Catalog, compiles reflections and lessons learned from more than 40 years as an environmentalist in this clumsy yet compelling attempt to inspire practicable solutions to climate change. Brand haphazardly organizes his “manifesto” into chapters that address environmental stewardship opportunities, exhorting environmentalists to “become fearless about following science”; his iconoclastic proposals include transitioning to nuclear energy and ecosystem engineering. Brand believes environmentalists must embrace nuclear energy expansion and other inevitable technological advances, and refreshingly suggests a shift in the environmentalists’ dogmatic approach to combating climate change. Rejecting the inflexible message so common in the Green movement, he describes a process of reasonable debate and experimentation. Brand’s fresh perspective, approachable writing style and manifest wisdom ultimately convince the reader that the future is not an abyss to be feared but an opportunity for innovative problem solvers to embrace enthusiastically.

Publishers Weekly, Aug. 24, 2009


Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto,  Stewart Brand, Viking, Adult: 2009. 336pp. US$25.95

Oliver Morton, until recently chief news and features editor, Nature:
This book is not going to help anyone get to grips with the intricacies of the UN climate negotiations, but if you want to lift your head from the trenches for an overview of the twenty-first century, it’s a great place to start. Brand has been championing clear long-term visions since he campaigned for NASA to photograph the Earth from space in the 1960s, later setting up such farsighted institutions as the Whole Earth Catalog, the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation.

His new book, though presented in small chunks that are enticing to skip in and out of, nevertheless builds up into a lucid big picture put together with experience, wisdom and optimism. Brand tackles touchy issues such as the importance of urbanization, the potential of genetic engineering and the practical case for nuclear power, fully aware that many of the environmentalist readers he hopes to reach will start out disagreeing with him. He refuses either to pander to their prejudices or to take delight in shocking them, preferring engagement, reason and a leavening of wit. He simply argues persuasively, on the basis of wide reading, for the positions he thinks will best allow humans to shore up nature so that nature in turn can help preserve humanity.

Nature,  Oct. 2, 2009


Brand, Stewart. Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
Viking. Oct. 2009. c.336p. ISBN 978-0-670-02121-5. $25.95. SCI

Brand, now a senior citizen, is best known as the editor of the counterculture classics Whole Earth Catalog (1968–85) and CoEvolution Quarterly. An ecologist by training, he has also written books and articles about the environment. His latest is a personal call to citizens and organizations to make every possible effort at managing further climate change. Brand makes a strong case for taking a pragmatic approach—beyond environmentalism—keeping some of our technological civilization alive while reducing our net carbon emissions to a minimum. The methods he promotes include urban density, vertical farms, nuclear power plants, and biotechnology. Referring to scientist James Lovelock's statements that climate change cannot be halted now and will turn many habitable regions into parched wasteland, Brand outlines visionary and risky geoengineering projects that may be deployed to mitigate global warming. VERDICT  Despite the occasional flippant comment, Brand's tough but constructive projection of our near future on this overheating planet is essential reading for all. [Six-city tour; see Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/09.]—David R. Conn, Surrey P.L., B.C.

Library Journal,  Sept. 1, 2009  


Stewart Brand’s Rugged Disciples
Review Date: OCTOBER 01, 2009

Stewart Brand has regrets. Not many, perhaps, but one has obviously been nagging at him: Like every other right-thinking Californian back in the days of Diablo Canyon and Three Mile Island, he opposed the development of nuclear power. “Greens caused gigatons of carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere from the coal and gas burning that went ahead instead of nuclear,” Brand writes. He adds, “I apologize.”

Founder of the legendary (and rightly so) Whole Earth Catalog and its many offshoots, and spiritual godfather to the computer revolution (see John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said) and to modern environmentalism (see Andrew Kirk’s Counterculture Green), Brand has been a presence in the counterculture for nearly half a century. With his new book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Oct. 19, 2009; Viking; 978-0-670-02121-5), a vigorously written and fluent treatise that touches on a few more regrets, Brand takes a contrarian stance against the received wisdom of environmentalism.

Nuclear power is, in the balance, a good and necessary thing, he argues. So, too, are cities good and necessary things, places that are profoundly liberating to country people in the developing world; even the meanest shantytown or periurban slum is a place of opportunity and betterment. So, too—and this may be the most controversial of all—is genetically engineered (not modified, Brand notes, but engineered) food. Without these things, coupled with some brainy engineering of other kinds and without some uncontroversial bioremediation to remake ruined ecosystems, we're very likely, he urges, to fall victim to the worst possible outcomes of climate change: not just more ruined ecosystems, but a human future of scarcity, constant warfare over resources and even cannibalism.

It isn’t your grandpappy’s counterculture, but then, it isn’t your grandpappy’s climate. All our technologies, institutions, laws and norms “could collapse,” Brand writes, “if carrying capacities everywhere are lowered by severe climate change.” That’s a big if, but it seems to get smaller with each passing headline, what with melting ice caps, growing deserts, disappearing water and, the most frightening scenario of all, the likelihood that unless global warming is reversed, North America and Eurasia will become unsuitable for agriculture in the next half-century.

Brand, who allows that just a few years ago, “climate change was fun to think about,” sprinkles frightening scenarios aplenty across the pages of Whole Earth Discipline. For all that, he remains optimistic, and perhaps oddly so, given all the dark news he delivers. A longtime champion of appropriate technology and constant self-education and a fan of tools and their proper use, he suggests at many turns that part of the joy of being human is to get ourselves into pickles and then engineer our way out of them.

“We are as gods, and might as well get good at it,” Brand proclaimed 40 years ago, in the Whole Earth Catalog. One might forgive a pessimist for revising that, given the possibilities he outlines today, to read, “We are as toast, and we might as well get used to being scorched.” Yet Brand, ever the contrarian, refuses to give in to that possibility. Instead, he writes by way of an update, “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” It just takes a little discipline.

—Gregory McNamee


Tim O’Reilly in Good Reads
Tim rated it: 5 of 5 stars
Read in September, 2009

This book is a tour-de-force of persuasion, using the urgency of climate change to re-examine environmental orthodoxy. Stewart's conclusion: there is no “natural.” Cities are green, nuclear power is green, genetically modified crops are green. “Never mind terraforming Mars,” he says, “We’ve already terraformed earth.” We're just doing it badly. Now, we are faced with a series of planetary-scale engineering problems. Our only way out is forward.

I had already heard the arguments for cities and for nuclear power; what was most revelatory to me was how wrong most of us have been about genetically modified foods. I was convinced by all three of his arguments. I think you will be too.

Even if you disagree with Stewart’s conclusions, though, you will be far smarter by the time you finish the book. It is a backstage tour of a remarkable mind, fifty plus years of reading and the equivalent of decades of TED talks compressed into 300 pages. Read it, pass it on, act on it.

P.S. What a great reading list. I came away from this book with a list of at least a dozen other books I want to read.


Stewart Brand's green manifesto
By David Stipp - January 7, 2010 - Fortune

NEW YORK -- Four decades ago Stewart Brand opened The Whole Earth Catalog with a rollicking mission statement: "We are as gods, and might as well get good at it."

It was an apt mantra for the eco-friendly, do-it-yourself lifestyle guide, which was so clever it won a National Book Award. Now a futurist, author, and business consultant, Brand opens his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, with an urgent update of his youthful declaration: "We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it."

The cause for urgency is climate change. Until 2003, Brand writes, "I had only the usual concerns" about the seemingly "dire but distant" issue. Then he saw studies of Greenland ice cores revealing that, in the past, the climate has tipped into a radically different state, such as an ice age, in less than a decade.

Runaway positive feedback is the likely cause. Here's an example: As human greenhouse emissions mount, global warming causes mirror-like polar ice to give way to dark ocean. That makes the Arctic absorb more solar heat, which melts more ice, leading to yet more heat absorption. This and other positive feedbacks are likely driving the ominously fast melting of Arctic ice, which was half gone by the summer of 2007, three to four decades earlier than predicted -- the great melt is unfolding with tipping-point-like speed.

Channeling climate scientists, Brand predicts that fresh water and other resources will be in desperately short supply in many areas of a climate-changed world. A global state of constant war over dwindling resources might well ensue, killing billions.

Too dire? Consider: Tibetan Plateau glaciers, which feed shared rivers of China, India, Pakistan, and other Asian countries, are now melting away to expose a drought-prone tinderbox filled with vying nuclear powers, as well as "feral zones" controlled by Al Qaeda and its allies. If increasingly plausible worst-case scenarios play out, Brand tersely observes, "we're ants on a burning log."

His scary analysis is the setup for a hopeful, though controversial, message: All may still be well if we get really good at using tools many Greens love to hate. To wit: urbanization (which enables efficiencies of scale and lower per-capita use of resources), nuclear power (to displace coal's heavy greenhouse emissions), biotech (to engender, among other things, biofuel-producing microbes and drought-resistant crops), and geoengineering (such as lofting megatons of smoky particulates into the stratosphere to block sunlight and cool the climate).

Brand's case for parting ways with environmentalism's old guard rests largely on surprising developments that, he freely acknowledges, have shown some of his former views were wrong. Who knew that the rise of developing-world megacities, with their sprawling slums, would defuse the population bomb? (In rural villages, Brand notes, "every additional child is an asset, but in the slum, every additional child is a liability, so the newly liberated women in town focus on education and opportunity -- on fewer, higher-quality children.")

That the expected number of excess cancers from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster would now be less than 1% of initial projections, and that the Chernobyl area would be a uniquely biodiverse wildlife sanctuary teeming with rare species? That the widespread cultivation of bioengineered corn, once thought to kill monarch butterflies, appears to be greatly benefiting them?

Not surprisingly, Brand's iconoclasm has heated up the blogosphere, and some deep-dyed Greens apparently feel the trailblazer whose whole-earth visions seeded the first Earth Day in 1970 is doing a Lieberman.


Brand has always been an Obama-like, big-picture pragmatist -- his famous catalog's supreme virtue was its usefulness. And while some of his positions cry out for debate -- I'm not sure I'd trust a real god to attempt geoengineering, much less us fumbling, self-taught ones -- no one has brought more breadth, clarity, and cogency to bear on the biggest issue of our time. At 70, environmentalism's pithiest polemicist has outdone himself, giving us one of the most important green tracts since Silent Spring. Read it.


Why we greens keep getting it wrong
Mark Lynas (Author of SIX DEGREES)

New Statesman - Published 28 January 2010

If, as I think almost certain to be the case, the environmental movement made a grave mistake in opposing nuclear power, the question naturally arises about what else the greens may have got wrong.

First, it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the things environmentalists got right, and for which humanity owes them a major debt of thanks. Climate change is top of the list; acid rain, too, now largely under control in North America and western Europe. The ozone layer also qualifies as a disaster mostly avoided, thanks to determined campaigning.

In all these areas environmentalists were successful because they followed science - both in understanding the dangers and designing solutions. It is where greens part company from science, as with nuclear power, that problems arise. I have now concluded that all the main objections raised against nuclear power are bogus, or overhyped, or solvable, yet the established environmentalist position - because of a herd mentality as well as deeply held ideology - remains opposed. As a result of three decades of successful anti-nuclear campaigning, tens of billions of tonnes of carbon have accumulated in the atmosphere, thanks to proposed nuclear plants being replaced by coal.

Admitting mistakes is difficult, especially when one's claimed position is the moral high ground. Although for years I believed in the anti-nuclear cause, I was never an active anti-nuclear campaigner. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, was something I spent years of my life campaigning against. And yet here, too, a science-led assessment of the likely risks and benefits suggests that I was wrong.

There is, for example, zero evidence that any genetically modified foods in existence today pose a health risk to anyone. Millions of people in the US and Canada have eaten GM corn and soya for years now. As the leading botanist Peter Raven puts it: "There is no science to back up the reasons for concern about foods from GM plants at all. Hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM foods, and no one has ever gotten sick."

Raven is quoted in a splendidly written book by the American environmentalist Stewart Brand (see last week's NS). Whole Earth Discipline nails the issue in just two chapters (the others are concerned with cities, geo-engineering and - importantly - nuclear power), but the book as a whole is this year's must-read for anyone who considers himself an open-minded green.

Admittedly, many activists I knew were never that convinced by the "Frankenfoods" argument: instead, their concern was that new, genetically engineered seeds would allow big corporations such as Monsanto to monopolise the world's food supply, to the detriment of poor countries. However, this should not be an argument to oppose the technology. It would more rationally suggest the need for an open-source approach, where the benefits of GM technology could be developed within, and for the benefit of, poorer countries (drought-tolerant, more nutritious and nitrogen-fixing subsistence crops are some examples under development).

What have I learned? Make sure your dearest principles can be reassessed in the light of changing evidence. We cannot criticise global warming sceptics for denying the scientific consensus on climate when we ignore the same consensus on both the safety and the beneficial uses of nuclear power and genetic engineering.


Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto
By Stewart Brand

Reviewed by Becky Hogge - New Statesman - 20 January 2010

The American social entrepreneur and technology guru Stewart Brand's first significant contribution to the environmental movement came to him ashe sat on a rooftop in 1966. Tripping on LSD, he looked up at the stars and asked: "Why haven't we seen a picture of the whole earth yet?"

Forty years later, Brand has given up the drugs and mysticism of 1960s San Francisco, but he's still thinking about the planet. This time, he doesn't only want a photograph (that happened in 1968, leading to the first Earth Day in the United States); he wants "a constant, real-time high-resolution video of the earth turning in the sunlight" - the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), abandoned before launch by the Bush administration because it had been Al Gore's idea. Much more than DSCOVR, though, Brand wants us to break free from our various ideological shackles and to begin focusing on the task at hand - saving civilisation.

Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto is a rich, compelling guide to how old wisdom can combine with new technologies to help civilisation survive man-made climate change. But it should be read as much for its dissection of the way ideologies distort decision-making onscience and technology. Why, for example, did the anti-statist right oppose fluoridation and the anti-corporate left oppose genetically modified crops? "A political agenda is . . . poor at solving problems," writes Brand. "Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilisation, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilisation from a natural system." The ensuing ideological backflip will spread its own kind of chaos - a chaos budding ecopragmatists must learn to sidestep.

The book proposes three ideological heresies about to break on the shores of environmental consciousness. These concern urbanisation, GMcrops and nuclear power. The earth's population became mostly urban in 2007. The dream of going back to the land - an ideal that Brand won fame for promoting in The Whole Earth Catalogue, a kind of Sears for hippie communes - is wrong-headed, because cities turn out to be the green option.

Urbanisation slows population growth (as more women choose education and opportunity over large families), concentrates resource needs and gradually empties rural areas of subsistence farmers, allowing planned approaches to agriculture that reduce environmental impact and leave room for "natural" ecosystems that will mitigate climate harm.

But urban populations demand grid electricity, and that entails re-evaluating the nuclear option. The rejection of nuclear power stems from ourrevulsion at nuclear weapons; the "absolute" nature of our other concerns about it - those having to do with safety, cost and waste storage - all flow from here. Brand dismisses each objection with a mixture of hope and hard science.

A trip to the experimental Yucca mountain 10,000-year storage facility leaves him agreeing with James Lovelock - that "we need it about as much as we need a facility for imprisoning dangerous extraterrestrials". We should divert the $28bn set aside to store waste from the nuclear power we have already used towards research into new micro-reactors and the possibility of substituting uranium with thorium.

Brand's own ideological shift, here and elsewhere, is away from 1960s individualism and towards a 21st-century model of governance. And yet, post-Copenhagen, we might wish that his proposed blend of the internet-inspired engineer/hacker frame with approaches to economic planning that might alarm the folks back home was a little less vague.

Most compelling is the book's defence of GM agriculture. Here, Brand the trained biologist puts the leaders of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in the dock, alongside the leaders of ExxonMobil, for their crimes against science and humanity. Environmentalists who label GM "unnatural" have confused agriculture with nature; in fact, agriculture itself is one of the world's worst climate criminals.

For Brand, the work of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in demonising GM has left millions of Africans starving, in order to defend a misguided European ideology. The organic and GM movements must converge around the shared goal of soil quality through no-till agriculture. The only thing stopping them from doing so is moral panic. Brand drolly reminds us that Frankenstein was the inventor of a creature that the public mistook for a monster. "Of course, that's a rhetorical argument, devoid of meaning. But so is the term Frankenfood."

Urbanisation, nuclear power, GM - all will happen whether the environmental movement adopts Brand's manifesto or not. But if greens heed his call, and if they start working to "green the hell" out of the world's new mega­cities, go "glow-in-the-dark" green and make sure that nuclear power adoption is directed in the right way, or if they encourage GM technology out of the patent portfolios of Monsanto and into the hands of local specialists ("Biotech wants to be free"), all three will happen better. Like adolescents emerging into adulthood, we are finding that it's time to put away our inner grudges and get used to the idea that we alone are masters of our destiny: "We are as gods, and have to get good at it."


Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand

The Sunday London Times review by Danny Fortson
January 10, 2010

As eco-warriors go, Stewart Brand’s credentials are impeccable. The original publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, a sort of hippie handbook for simple living, and an adviser to the famed left-leaning California governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown, he has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for more than four decades. He dropped acid in the 1960s with Ken Kesey and once staged a week-long “starve-in” in a car park to highlight the dangers of the earth’s exploding population and dwindling resources. Now 71, he lives in a 100-year-old tugboat in the San Francisco Bay.

One could be forgiven, then, for expecting his book to be yet another in the growing catalogue of scaremongering screeds about climate change, urging us to live in tepees and prepare for the reckoning. It is anything but. What Brand has produced is a thoroughly researched, highly entertaining manual that takes on many of the environmental movement’s biggest taboos, among them nuclear power and genetically modified food, and argues that, far from the scourges they are portrayed to be, they should be embraced wholeheartedly and as fast as possible. His message is, in short: get real.

He has a gift for the pithy. To environmentalists opposed to introducing genetically modified food in the developing world, he proposes that “anyone who encourages other people to starve on principle should do some of the starving themselves. I can attest that starving just a little bit, just for a week, concentrates the mind wonderfully”. A trained scientist, he is assiduous in backing up his arguments with a constant drumbeat of persuasive facts. Explaining his conversion from anti-nuclear campaigner to pro-nuke cheerleader, he offers: “Radiation from nuclear energy has not killed a single American, but of all the energy by-products it is the only one we dread.” Carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel generation has caused more cancers and is far more pernicious environmentally, he notes. His views on mass urbanisation (the more the better) and geo-engineering, which involves big infrastructure projects such as a giant balloon-hoisted hose that squirts earth-cooling gases into atmosphere, are similarly clear-eyed.

“The long-evolved green agenda,” he writes, “is suddenly outdated — too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialised, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem.” Much of what he advocates will make fellow greenies blanch, but even they may enjoy how he goes about it.


Book review: Whole Earth Discipline - An Ecopragmatist Manifesto - The Scotsman
16 January 2010


ON THE first page of this landmark book, the lateral-thinking, San Francisco tugboat-based ecologist Stewart Brand sums up his philosophy in a single line: "We are as gods and have to get good at it." It's a staggeringly arrogant statement, guaranteed to offend everyone from religious fundamentalists to those at the mystical, misty-eyed end of the Green spectrum, but after reading Whole Earth Discipline, you'll find it difficult to disagree. Yes, even if you started out believing in God or Allah or the inherent rightness of Mother Earth.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brand broke the mould by creating the best-selling Whole Earth Catalog – a periodically updated DIY manual for sustainable living – and now he's gone and done it again. Many books written about climate change over the last decade or so have been fairly straightforward critiques of human civilisation. Here are the problems we face, say the authors, here are the human causes of those problems, and here is a long, painful list of the things we must do if we're to have any hope of keeping the Earth in a reasonably habitable condition for future generations. By contrast, Brand sets out to critique the Green Movement itself. To date, he says, Greens have achieved a colossal amount, from the salvation of the rainforests to the international ban on CFCs, but they are now in danger of becoming bogged down in ideology. As science and technology advance and the threat posed by climate change becomes ever more immediate, the Green Movement has to be prepared to evolve, adapt and – occasionally – admit that it's been wrong. Brand believes some Greens are currently doing more harm than good by dragging their feet on three key issues: cities, nuclear power and genetic engineering, and he spends the core of this book explaining why.

His most effective argument for cities as a boon to the Green Movement is his suggestion that they slow population growth. Since the late 1960s, when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb and advocated worldwide compulsory birth regulation to prevent hundreds of millions of people starving to death, the spectre of overpopulation has been at the very heart of Green discourse. As the world becomes more crowded, goes the logic, our natural resources will become increasingly stretched, resulting first in irreparable damage to the environment and then, when we are no longer able to produce enough food, irreparable damage to us. That might make sense if the global population was going to keep on growing indefinitely, argues Brand, but it isn't – indeed, in the not-too-distant future it will actually start to decline.

Brand cites a 2004 article by the demographer Phillip Longman which states: "Some 59 countries, comprising roughly 44 per cent of the world's population, are not producing enough children to avoid population decline ... By 2045, according to latest UN projections, the world's fertility rate as a whole will have fallen below replacement levels."

And why is this happening? Apparently because of urbanisation: as more and more people move to the cities, they have fewer and fewer children. Brand explains the process thus: "in the village, every additional child is an asset, but in the slum every additional child is a liability, so the newly liberated women in town focus on education and opportunity – on fewer, higher-quality children. That's how urbanisation defused the population bomb."

In the light of all this, what are self-respecting Greens to do? Well, according to Brand, they should stop worrying about overpopulation and instead endorse "an environmental population programme ... that is gently pro-natal." The ultimate goal should be population stability. In order to mitigate against the coming population crash (the effects of which are already starting to be felt in China and Japan, both struggling to support huge ageing populations), Brand suggests aiming for an average birth rate of 2.1 children per woman (2.1 rather than 2 because some children die before they can reproduce). And while global population levels are being stabilised, Greens should also be working hard to "Green the hell out of the growing cities". The city is the greenest form of human settlement, says Brand, but it could and should be a lot greener.

On this last point, I suspect he's preaching to the converted – Greens already know this, they have known it for some time and many of them are already hard at work, Greening the hell out of conurbations all around the globe. On the vexed question of nuclear power, however, which he chooses to tackle next, he still has a lot of convincing to do.

Brand is by no means the first person in the Green Movement to make the case for nuclear as a solution to climate change. As noted in this newspaper last year, the British scientist James Lovelock argues extremely convincingly for it in his "last ever" book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009). In Whole Earth Discipline, Brand reiterates much of what Lovelock has said: that renewables alone won't save us; that the potential pitfalls of switching to nuclear are less serious than the potential pitfalls of continuing to use fossil fuels; that our fear of nuclear is mostly irrational; that Chernobyl wasn't the cataclysmic disaster the anti-nuclear lobby thinks it was but, in purely scientific terms, actually a bit of a non-event (just 56 people dead compared to, say, more than 6,000 in the Bhopal disaster).

Where Brand improves on Lovelock, however, is in his ability to think around the problem. Yes, we should bury nuclear waste, but let's make sure future generations are still able to access it if they need to; as technology improves it might be possible to recycle it. He is also illuminating on the question of whether more nuclear power stations in the world could lead to more nuclear bombs. He draws attention to an ongoing and little-reported deal between the Russians and the Americans called "Megatons to Megawatts", which, since 1994, has seen countless nuclear warheads from Russia shipped to the US to be converted into fuel. An astonishing 10 per cent of the electricity Americans currently use comes from decommissioned Russian weapons. The goal is to convert 20,000 warheads to fuel by 2013. Far from encouraging proliferation, argues Brand, "nuclear energy has done more to eliminate existing nuclear weapons from the world than any other activity". (He also points out that Israel, India, South Africa and North Korea all covertly developed their nuclear weapons programmes from research reactors, not energy programmes, so there isn't necessarily a causal link.)

The third and final sacred cow of the Green Movement Brand aims his bolt gun at is distrust of genetic engineering. He certainly conjures up a very seductive vision of a world where every conceivable problem has a corresponding bio-fix, but somehow he fails to land a killer blow. Part of the problem is his occasionally dismissive, arrogant tone (sweeping statements like "most environmentalists don't seem aware of what's going on in the biosciences these days" are not only unhelpful, they're vague for a so-called man of science, and vagueness doesn't inspire confidence).

There's also something slightly unsettling about his suggestion that, rather than trying to solve "imaginary problems" before initiating a GE project, you should simply get on with it and then, once it's up and running, "pay close attention to what actually goes on, noting genuine problems as they emerge, and then solving them as locally as possible with speed and efficiency". In his book The Constant Economy, published towards the end of last year, prospective Tory party candidate and former editor of the Ecologist Zac Goldsmith recounted a GE "disaster scenario" in which researchers in Oregon State University accidentally created a bacterium that Canadian geneticist David Suzuki claimed, "could, theoretically, have ended all plant life on this continent" if it had been released from the lab. Before I get too excited about the world-changing possibilities of GE – and Brand does make it all sound very exciting – I'd like to hear him explain how he would go about solving that little poser "with speed and efficiency".

Brand asserts that "environmentalists do best when they follow where science leads, as they did with climate change. They do worst when they get nervous about where science leads, as they did with genetic engineering". Ultimately, though, he sees the Green Movement splitting into two groups: traditional Greens, who stick to proven, hair-shirt ways of preventing climate change, and Post-Greens, who will go in search of technical fixes like geo-engineering – taking steps to artificially alter our climate when CO2 reduction measures prove too little too late. We'll need both branches of the movement working in tandem, Brand believes, if we're to deal with the challenges ahead.


Nonfiction: Whole Earth Discipline
October 24, 2009
Peter Schoonmaker

Futurist Stewart Brand spoke to nearly 1,000 committed environmentalists in Portland several years ago and offered three solutions to the world's environmental problems: slums, nukes and genetic engineering. The crowd was not receptive. Dozens walked out.

Brand loved it. Now he's written a book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, expanding on these solutions. Environmentalists should read it.

With the latest evidence suggesting even more dire global climate disruption than scientists had predicted just a few years ago, Brand maintains that we need to own up to the role we've taken on unwittingly: global geo-engineers.

He begins with a quick reprise of the latest findings in Earth systems science. Much of his review, indeed much of the book, comes from reading the scientific literature and talking with scientists and entrepreneurs, many of whom are friends and colleagues. The essential message is that humans have been affecting global climate since the advent of agriculture and we push carbon, nitrogen, water and energy around enough to fundamentally change chemical and life systems on the planet. We are crossing, have crossed or will cross tipping points that will be hard to reverse. Goodbye Arctic ice, hello Northwest Passage. Goodbye polar bears, hello palm trees in Portland. Soon.

The bad news: To stabilize our climate system, we need to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide to no more than 350 parts per millions, not 450 or 550 as we thought just a few years ago. The really bad news: We're already at 387 ppm and climbing. To get back into the safe zone, we'll need to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 97 percent by 2050. The worst news: Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy at a global scale is probably not realistic. To do so, we'll need to make and install 900 square feet of photovoltaics every second, and bring online a 300-foot-diameter windmill every five minutes, day and night, for the next 25 years. We'll also need huge land areas for biofuels and solar thermal energy. And we'll need a new smart grid system to carry all this clean energy. We might be able to do all this if we converted our auto and silicon chip industries to making windmills and solar cells, but how likely is that? And that's not all. We'll also face population and food-supply bottlenecks in a warming world.

The eco-pessimist conclusion: We're sunk. Brand will have none of this. He's a techno-optimist. If we can't reduce greenhouse gases fast enough to stop climate change, how about cooling the atmosphere with stratospheric sulfates (mimicking volcanic eruptions) or with water vapor spewed from ocean-going "cloud machines"? If we're worried about population growth, why not encourage people to move to cities -- even to slums (which eventually transform to livable places) -- where they have fewer children and a lighter ecological footprint? If we can't build all the renewable energy solutions fast enough, why not let a proven technology -- nuclear power -- back into the game? If we're worried about climate-induced food shortages, why not engineer new drought-tolerant crops?

Of course Brand has anticipated the objections to these solutions. If he doesn't always convince you of his techno fixes, he makes you pause to consider them. In the end, his overriding message hits home. We have become the Earth's gardeners, whether we like it or not. Now we need to tend the garden responsibly. The question arises, however, "what does it mean to be responsible?"

Reading: Brand discusses Whole Earth Discipline at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.

Portland Oregonian, 24 Oct. 2009


An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

by Eric Drexler on October 24, 2009

This week, with the help of Viking Press, Stewart Brand has offered the world an important book on the collision between humanity and the Earth’s limits — on the facts, the problems, the passions, the politics, and the realistic possibilities for better outcomes.

After Whole Earth Discipline appeared in my mail, I opened it and skimmed a few random pages. I consistently encountered substantial — often striking — new information and insights on topics where I’d been reading and following developments for years. Surprised, I did this a few more times, and then more, reading further. Fresh. Important. Wise. Readable and information-dense.

Stewart was the founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, becoming a leading figure in the emerging environmental movement, years before the first Earth Day. Concerns about the whole earth have been a thread woven through a life in which Stewart has engaged areas ranging from sustainable communities to space development, from helping with the first public demo of a hypertext system to helping global corporations formulate business strategies for a turbulent and unpredictable world.

In Whole Earth Discipline his topics include genetic engineering, nuclear power, climate engineering, economic development, and the competing ideologies that surround them. In all of this, Stewart is politically sensitive and (in my view) overwhelmingly correct, yet far from politically correct. He kicks intellectual butt on both sides of most issues, but does so respectfully and from a principled moral center that itself demands respect.

Beyond its presentation of fascinating specific facts, and beyond its treatment of topics that could be books in themselves, Whole Earth Discipline is a book about how to think more coherently and effectively about what may be the greatest challenge of our time.

It may make a difference. I hope so.

[Conflict of interest disclosure: I’ve known Stewart for 30 years, we’ve exchanged favors, and the publisher bribed me by sending a pre-publication copy of his book. (My deep approval, however, does not come that cheaply.)]

—Eric Drexler blog, Metamodern


WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
Stewart Brand; Viking
by Edward Wolf

Cue Stewart Brand, self-described “ecologist by training, futurist by profession, and hacker (lazy engineer) at heart.” Brand founded and published The Whole Earth Catalog, edited CoEvolution Quarterly (later Whole Earth Review), and has founded organizations including The Long Now Foundation and the Global Business Network, where he works part-time. Brand is a playful, inquisitive gadfly who wears a heretic’s robes with relish, challenging readers to reexamine assumptions and to change their minds.

Framed as a challenge to environmentalists, his new book Whole Earth Discipline presents four heresies: Cities are Green! Nukes are Green! Gene modification is Green! Geoengineering is Probably Necessary!

At first glance, Brand would seem to personify Dumanoski’s nightmare. His motto, “We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it!” positively drips with the hubris that Dumanoski detects at the heart of the planet’s emergency. But there is much the two authors agree on, beginning with their assessment of the climate crisis; in a TED Talk outlining the four heresies, Brand calls climate change “worse than we think, and coming faster than we think.” The two share heroes. Brand, like Dumanoski, is close to Gaia originator James Lovelock, and he is on friendly terms with prominent scientists including climatologist Paul Crutzen, biologists E.O. Wilson and Peter Raven, restoration ecologist Dan Janzen, genome decoder Craig Venter. When it comes to assessment of the planetary challenge and the people who understand it best, Dumanoski and Brand are on the same page.

Where Brand differs, and what makes Whole Earth Discipline a provocative companion to The End of the Long Summer, is his orientation. Brand admits to the “engineer’s bias”: the world is a set of design problems. Framed this way, the world’s problems a priori have solutions; the solutions must simply be found and applied. If his tone seems unusually chipper given the weight of those problems, it’s because Brand is at heart a gadget guy, eager to choose the right tool and get on with the job.

Brand claims that he is not out to convince anyone. He states flatly: “My opinion is not important, it’s just a tool.” He is out to force readers to examine their assumptions, a desirable talent in a world shifting at its foundations. Thus in his chapter titled “New Nukes,” Brand spars cheerfully with his friend Amory Lovins over the economic viability of nuclear power. Brand is unlikely to win this particular debate with Lovins, who has been engaged with nuclear issues about as long as the country’s oldest nuclear reactor (Oyster Creek in New Jersey) has been generating power, but if he has even dented the armor of reflexive opponents of nuclear expansion, then he has achieved his purpose.

Solar and renewable power appeal to Brand, and he contends “energy efficiency and conservation come first, last, and always.” He just doesn’t believe that clean, non-nuclear power sources can scale fast enough to meet the baseload demand of growing megacities or shut down coal fast enough to avoid climate disaster. He bases his views in part on the work of Saul Griffith, who has calculated the physical scale of renewable and nuclear power expansion needed to supply 17.5 terawatts of global power demand within 25 years. It’s an area the size of the United States – “Call it Renewistan,” Griffith says – and Brand thinks we’re unlikely to do that, but might go nuclear if we consider it Green.

“Science is the only news,” Brand proclaims with relish, brandishing headlines from Nature, Science, and specialized journals. His footnotes and annotations (available here online) are a treasure trove, and most readers will discover “hidden in plain sight” surprises from new research in his chapters on cities, genetic science, and the large-scale ecosystem restoration strategies he likes the term “megagardening” to describe. Sometimes, however, Brand’s enthusiasm for data blinds him to context. Brand sees “a ray of hope” in news that the abundant phytoplankton Emiliana huxleyi increases its rate of calcification at higher carbon dioxide concentrations – a finding that would portend increasing carbon capture by the oceans as climate change advanced. But he fails to mention reasons this laboratory result may not pertain under natural conditions in the ocean (where acidification puts other, larger shellfish at risk). His wish for an elegant negative feedback mechanism reaches farther than available data can support.

Brand attempts to push “ecopragmatism” on a green movement he considers overly prone to sentiment and ideology. The critique rings true to me, and there is much to learn from Brand’s eclectic appetite for solutions. Doom fills the book, but not gloom; his favorite adjective is “thrilling.” Seeing vitality where others see only chaos and decay, Brand is a sort of countercultural Tom Friedman. One senses that his first response to disastrous news like a “methane burp” from the melting permafrost of Siberia would be “Wow! Cool! What are we gonna do now?”

Echoing Pogo’s famous line, Brand points out that “the key positive feedback in the current earth system is us.” To understand feedbacks and their influence on the structures, stocks, and flows of systems of all kinds is a central aim of Donella Meadows’s posthumous Thinking in Systems. Trained as a biophysicist, Meadows was lead author of The Limits to Growth (1973) and achieved distinction as a professor, author, syndicated columnist, and organic farmer. Though she died unexpectedly after a short illness in 2001, her work remains timely and exceptionally relevant to challenges of the scale and urgency laid out by Dumanoski and Brand.

Worldchanging blog,  Nov. 2, 2009


Whole Earth Discipline: from the land back to town

by DNairn on 10/26/2009 20:25

Categories: Urban Economics

"Cities are probably the greenest thing humans do."

This quote comes from the man behind the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, in an interview with NPR's Marketplace. As a luminary for the back to the land movement from the 1970's, he wrote the original catalog to provide the tools necessary to live self-sufficiently. However, it was only a few years after adopting the rural lifestyle before he and many others in the movement went "back to town." He has now published a new book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto to, among other things, disabuse his fellow environmentalists of the notion that surrounding oneself in greenery and mimicking a primitive way of life is sufficient for meeting global environmental challenges.

Brand's version of environmentalism seems to be about the opposite of that of Thoreau and his followers. Instead of passively folding ourselves into the ecosystem and trying to interfere as little as possible, Brand sees the human role as much more active. We have the responsibility of being gardeners (more aptly geoengineers in his parlance) and we ought to avail ourselves of whatever tools we can. You see the general industriousness and reason from the Whole Earth Catalog, only magnified to a much larger scale. Cities just happen to be the best tool for energy and resource efficiency around.

Brand is quick to point out that humans don't have to be forced to live in cities; we generally want to. He notes that this is as true for Bismarck, North Dakota as it is for Lagos, Nigeria. The ongoing trend toward urbanization has gone on unabated. He has a special appreciation for the squatter cities evolving on the periphery of every city in the developing world. Formerly rural families want to better their lives by moving closer to the dynamic wealth-creation agglomerations while still shaping their environment as independent agents. They naturally form vibrant, walkable, mixed-use communities with both strong social ties and personal liberty.

In terms of design and development, he falls firmly on the side of self-organization over rational planning.

"To a planner’s eye, squatter cities look chaotic. To my biologist’s eye, they look organic."

I've wrestled with this question here before and mostly believe this laissez-faire approach is less helpful for the fully modernized West than it is for the developing world. But Brand doesn't see much of a future for the aging residents of the West, hence the scant attention.

Not that he has to cover ever single issue in one swing, but this would seem to be an oversight. Much of the world's consumption will still be in the West into the foreseeable future, and, as he notes, the slums will only gentrify in time raising the same issues. Then there's the fact that almost everyone reading this book will be from affluent nations. Knowing that sustainable and prosperous slums are emerging somewhere else doesn't strike me as particularly ecopragmatic in terms of managing our own challenges.

The Whole Earth Discipline seeks to slay several sacred cows of environmentalism. I can't speak to any of the others, but it is certainly refreshing to hear a person who has been a figurehead for romantic ruralism endorse vibrant human settlement so unequivocally. The first line of the book could easily be read as commentary on Genesis 1:26 (with emphasis on the "as"):

"We are as gods and have to get good at it."

Stewart Brand offers cities as a helpful tool toward meeting this responsibility of stewardship.

Sustainable Cities Collective blog,  Oct. 26, 2009


BOOKS: 'Whole Earth Discipline'

An elder green chides his own

By Max Schulz

By Stewart Brand
Viking, $25.95, 336 pages

"If Greens don't embrace science and technology and jump ahead to a leading role in both, they may follow the Reds into oblivion."

That's strong, hard-hitting stuff. However, the author who derides environmentalists as anti-intellectual Luddites and compares them to communists isn't Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck. It's Stewart Brand, one of the world's leading environmentalists and a founder of the modern green movement.

Mr. Brand has just written a controversial but tremendously important book that calls on his environmental comrades to rethink some of their most firmly held beliefs. In "Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto," he has the temerity to suggest that the environmental movement must embrace nuclear power, biotechnology, urbanization and even geo-engineering if it hopes to save the planet. If those in the movement take his message to heart (a big if), that would herald a positive new era for America's policy debates on energy and the environment.

A veteran of Ken Kesey's famous Acid Tests, Mr. Brand emerged from the 1960s counterculture. He gave a boost to the nascent environmental movement (and helped marry it to the hippie lifestyle) when he began to publish the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. A back-to-the-land bible for environmentalists, the catalog preached the virtues of sustainability and renewable energy and showcased products for the new green lifestyle.

In a commencement address at Stanford University several years ago, Apple's Steve Jobs praised the Whole Earth Catalog, describing it as "sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions."

Over four decades, Mr. Brand has remained a green in good standing, revered as one of the movement's founding fathers. He is passionately worried about global warming and can be as alarmist as anyone in painting a vision of Earth's apocalyptic future. If we do nothing or not enough, he warns, "we face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to a war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions."

For decades, the green message to accompany this sort of "the end is near" claim has been: "Repent." The environmental movement has matured by decrying mankind's sins against Earth. Consumerism, industrialization, growth, the building of cities — all are evidence of mankind's fallen state and its assault on nature. The green left's policy prescriptions arise from a reflexive opposition to the things that have built our technologically advanced, urban society.

Hence, the greens have made theirs a movement of opposition. They oppose large-scale energy development and consumption. They push a regulatory structure that clamps down on private corporations and landowners in a bid to stop them from despoiling the environment. They oppose scientific efforts to improve food production to feed billions because that just means supporting more people who do damage to the planet.

Mr. Brand's "Whole Earth Discipline" says, in effect, that it isn't enough just to oppose. In fact, in some instances, that opposition has been disastrous.

"I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about," he writes. "We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool."

He notes that "Silent Spring" author Rachel Carson, patron saint of the modern environmental movement, actually encouraged pursuing the science of biotic controls, i.e. genetic engineering, but that greens have rejected that counsel in defense of a bizarre idea of what is "natural."

"Whole Earth Discipline" is both starkly candid and highly entertaining. Mr. Brand metes out harsh punishment to environmentalists for allowing their dogma to lead them down the path of error (and he does not spare himself) as well as for corroding the political debate with a smug self-assurance that does not permit consideration of opposing views.

Mr. Brand's larger argument, however, is that the conventional green approach to issues does not contribute meaningful solutions to our problems. This is particularly the case with climate change, where the environmental movement's success in checking the expansion of nuclear power has kept sheathed the most potent weapon for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The green hostility to nuclear power is based on an aversion to dealing with nuclear waste. However, Mr. Brand writes, "the more I thought about the standard environmentalist stance on nuclear waste, which I had espoused for years, the nuttier it seemed to me." Similarly silly is the failure to account for nuclear power's manifest advantages over wind and solar power: Nuclear can provide reliable, large-scale baseload power, and it can do so with a relatively small natural footprint. A solar array would require 50 square miles to match the output of a nuclear plant that takes up a third of a square mile.

Patrick Moore, who helped found the organization Greenpeace, is guilty of apostasy similar to Mr. Brand's. Mr. Moore suggested that forestry could be a sustainable practice (lumber companies need new supplies of trees to grow, after all) and that green efforts to ban chemicals such as chlorine amounted to dangerous, anti-scientific political activism. Perhaps worst of all, Mr. Moore had a conversion about nuclear power. For this, he has been branded an "eco-Judas" and a heretic and has been ostracized from the environmental movement.

Mr. Moore is an honest broker. His experience at the hands of former colleagues not only has been shameful, but has justified many of his criticisms of the environmental movement. Mr. Brand, too, is an honest broker. For the sake of the environment as well as our politics, let's hope the greens don't treat him as they did Mr. Moore. Mr. Brand is an elder to whom they would be wise to listen.

Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The Washington Times, Nov. 9, 2009


Green 2.0

Posted on: November 29, 2009 8:00 AM, by Pamela Ronald

One of the pleasures of reading Stewart Brand's new book, Whole Earth Discipline, is that when it comes to managing the Earth's ecosystem, he is unconstrained by conventional wisdom.

In a break with many old-school environmentalists, Brand argues that the established Green agenda is outdated, too negative, too tradition bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided to address the scale of environmental problems that we face today.

Who better to challenge the rigidity of the long-respected environmental movement than the distinguished writer, lecturer and author of the classic Whole Earth Catalog, which won the national book award in 1972?

Whole Earth Discipline offers a radical rethinking of the traditional "green" movement whose battle against modern technologies often appears to be antithetical to the goals it professes to achieve, seemingly eternally stuck in a bygone era. Especially in his chapters on nuclear energy and genetic engineering, Brand's progressiveness, willingness to grapple with the science and well-thought out vision shines through. "Ecological balance is too important for sentiment. It requires science," says Brand.

Brand believes that the environmental movement is driven by two powerful forces—romanticism and science—that are often in opposition. "The romantics are moralistic and dismissive of any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change directions. The scientists are ethical rather than moralistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm". A romantic loves the tree, not its genome. A scientist loves both.

The book is extremely well-researched with references and illustrated annotations of the chapters available on-line.

Part memoir, part history of the environmental movement and part manifesto for the future, Whole Earth Discipline will delight the reader with its stories and characters. Over the years, Brand seems to have conversed with everyone ever involved in the environmental movement and many of these old friends appear in his book.

The reader will encounter Jim Lovelock, one of the founders of the Gaia Hypothesis that the Earth functions as a kind of superorganism; Amory Lovins, beloved advocate of "soft energy technologies"; David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth"; California governor Jerry Brown, for whom Brand arranged meetings with leading intellectuals; James Watson, a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA; Paul Erhlich, author of 1968 book "The Population Bomb" as well as Brand's undergraduate advisor when he was a student at Stanford; and the Hopi spiritual interpreter Thomas Banyacya, who advised Brand on the best way to collect herbs (do not harvest everything, leave some to grow back).

Even Vice President Al Gore has a brief appearance: " When I mentioned [the idea of solar shades] it to him, he said, 'Oh right, Brand. Let's just experiment with the whole planet!'"

You will laugh when you read this book- the prose is clear and bright and witty. You will also be reminded again of the seriousness of our situation and the need for science-based dialog and action to sustain Earth for generations to come.

This book is both a manifesto for a more progressive green movement (which Brand calls Green 2.0) and an enjoyable tour in the life of a brilliant thinker and writer.

The one serious omission from this book? The lack of inclusion of ScienceBlogs, the largest internet resource for science, on his list of recommended reading.


Bryan Appleyard
Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
By Stewart Brand (Atlantic Books 316pp £19.99)

In 1968 Stewart Brand produced the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog. It had a picture of the earth seen from space on the cover and inside were lists of useful tools for transforming the planet by distributing power to the people. I remember seeing it in bookshops. Thrilling and demanding, it called on me to join my generation. Like Woodstock, student demos, dope, tie-dyed T-shirts and improbably flared trousers, the Catalog told us we were different.

We were. But now different has become mainstream. The Catalog was, above all, Green. It treated the planet as a single, finite system whose contents could be catalogued. Now the whole world is Green and the Internet lists its contents. David Cameron and Ed Miliband believe what only doped-out freaks in sandals and Afghan coats believed in 1968. And so Stewart Brand returns to take stock.

Whole Earth Discipline is immensely entertaining, moving and slightly confusing. The confusion is twofold. First, Brand is an unreconstructed cataloguer. The book is, at one level, simply a list of developments in biotechnology, climate science, urbanisation, agriculture and so on. This tends to leave one wondering if these things do tie together in quite the way Brand says they do. Secondly, much of the book is about the author's changes of mind. He is now, for example, pro-nuclear power and genetically engineered foods. This is honourable but it does cast a slight shadow of doubt over his latest enthusiasms.

That said, the book brilliantly defines our present predicament - our need to deploy science to clean up the mess made by science. The modern world was made by burning half a trillion tons of carbon since the Industrial Revolution. The next half trillion will be burned in about forty years at present rates of increase. If that happens, then global temperatures will rise by up to 4 degrees and it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of current scientific thought, that our species' continued existence will be at risk.

As Brand, heavily influenced by James Lovelock, perceives, this means that the Greens are going to have to reverse some of their primary positions. In the giddy days of 1968, eco-awareness was an aspect of the ideological package that included resistance to the Vietnam War and to The System, often defined as the military-industrial complex. We wanted to get 'back to the garden', to a condition of pastoral simplicity. This pastoralism seemed to be the way to save Spaceship Earth and it still clings to the Green movement with its belief in organic foods, wind power and sustainability in general. None of this will work because climate change is happening too quickly.

'That means', writes Brand, 'that Greens are no longer strictly the defenders of natural systems against the incursions of civilization; now they're the defenders of civilization as well. It's a whiplash moment for everyone.'

Climate change really means Mother Nature is preparing to rid herself of humans. If we are to survive, we can no longer worship her, we must fight back with smart weapons. So we have to embrace nuclear - there is no other source of clean energy which can sustain our societies - and genetically engineered 'Frankenfoods'. Ideally, these would be synthesised in laboratories. Farming, as Lovelock has pointed out, is a planetary catastrophe, stripping out biodiversity and filling the atmosphere with the methane from cow farts.

The Green dream must thus become a very hi-tech dream rather than the muddy paradise of Woodstock. Brand's conversion to this view is the central drama of this book and it sends him off on a genial and enthusiastic safari through wild science and cool facts.

Did you know, for example, that only a tenth of the cells in your body are you? The rest are microbes - 'We are a portable swamp.' Did you know that Stora Enso in Sweden is the oldest surviving corporation? King Magnus IV granted its charter in 1347. Did you know that in a fifth of a teaspoon of seawater there are a million bacteria and ten million viruses? Well, now you do.

This is all good fun but the heart of the matter is the word 'ecopragmatist' in the subtitle. Brand's big point is that we must do what works without prejudice. Green prejudices have, in the past, often been on the wrong side of the argument. The campaign to get DDT banned because of its effects on birdlife, for example, may have cost the lives of 20 million children in Africa who were left to die of malaria. And The System we all hated in the Sixties and Seventies produced Norman Borlaug, the man behind the very capitalist Green Revolution - increased crop yields - which may have saved a billion lives.

Now the Greens are threatening to do more damage. They're suckers for anything labelled 'natural'. 'In the marketing world,' remarks Brand, '"natural" now means anything the seller wants to charge extra for or distract your attention with.'

They also resist nuclear power and persist in deluding people into thinking all we have to do is build wind farms and cycle to work. They also go on about the loss of the rainforest when, in fact, fifty-five times more is growing back each year than is being cut. Perhaps worst of all, for Brand, they advocate the Precautionary Principle which requires that any new technology has to be shown to do no harm. This is, of course, impossible. It is also self-fulfilling because it effectively prevents the testing of new technologies to establish risk. Greens have not escaped the pastoralism of their roots and thus find themselves not just on the side of nature, but on the side of nature against humans.

But Stewart Brand lives in hope and this is a very upbeat book. He plainly thinks we'll get there in the end. The Greens are going to have to grow up. This book should help get them out of the nursery.

Literary Review, December, 2009


Solutions without ideology

Whole Earth Discipline

Stewart Brand inspired Cool Tools. This blog is a continuation of the user-generated recommendation mechanism that Brand invented in the Whole Earth Catalog (which I worked on in its later years). Brand has spent his long career successfully changing people's minds by offering them tools. The tool he offers here is simply the tool of "changing your mind." How do you do it rationally, smartly, wisely? What kind of evidence do you need? What is more important, principles or pragmatism?

This book can be seen as a challenge to green theory and green dogma, but it directly challenges ideology itself. I think this is Brand's best book yet. As you follow his arguments, you get a great education in following science and data rather than righteous assumptions. Instead, says Brand, assume much of what we think is true isn't, and then go from there with a fresh look at the evidence. Being pragmatic about something as complex as a technological planet can lead you to unconventional ideas for dealing with planetary woes -- even if they seem contrary to cherished beliefs. Some of the solutions -- like nuclear power and genetically modified crops -- will be dismissed as outright heresies among greens. But you get to watch a great mind change his mind. As Brand's education continues he makes as good a case for these heresies as you'll hear anywhere.

This book may change your own mind about things you thought you believed. What more can you ask of a book?

Kevin Kelly, Cool Tools, Dec. 21, 2009


Stewart Brand’s Environmental Heresies

By Aaron M. Cohen

A maverick environmentalist advocates saving the planet via nuclear power, mass urbanization, genetically engineered food, and geoengineering.

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand. Viking. 2009. 316 pages. $25.95.

Futurist and ecologist Stewart Brand believes that the Green movement must move swiftly and decisively to embrace technological solutions to climate change — several of which many leading environmentalists have spent their careers campaigning against — including nuclear energy, genetic modification, mass urbanization, and geoengineering.

Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, and co-founder of The Long Now Foundation and The WELL, has never had any trepidation about seeking out controversial solutions or endorsing emerging technologies. As he sees it, climate change is the single largest threat looming over humanity. It comes down to a simple choice, he writes: “We finesse climate, or climate finesses us.”

The first item on the agenda is a carbon-free future. Brand argues that this is well within reach and that the technological know-how is already in place — all we need to do is get over our nuclear fears.

A 2002 tour of the notorious Yucca Mountain project led Brand to rethink his long-held opinions on nuclear energy. He began to balance potential benefits against potential drawbacks. In the process, he learned that the risk of cancer is much higher from fossil-fuel production and usage; that oil, natural gas, and hydrogen are much more explosive; that trace radiation technically isn’t bad for you; and that nuclear energy is historically associated with deproliferation efforts — not nuclear weapons programs.

Brand makes nuclear energy the leading component of his green energy plan and presents a strong case that it is economical and safe. (The arguments he presents against greater investment in wind and solar technology are far less persuasive, however). He also endorses the proposition, quickly gaining acceptance, that booming megacities are facilitating an increasingly beneficial arrangement between humans and the environment. “Urban density allows half of humanity to live on 2.8 percent of the land,” he writes. “Soon that will be 80 percent of humanity on 3 percent of the land. Consider just the infrastructure efficiencies.”

Brand goes on to declare urban slums, home to more than half of city dwellers, to be the new sustainable communities. Intentionally or not, “squatter cities are Green,” he says. For example, urban farming and rooftop agriculture have their roots in squatter cities, where such practices were born of necessity if not ideology. He argues that squatter cities must be improved and incorporated within larger urban structures.

With the energy crisis and overpopulation under control and everyone comfortably ensconced in megacities, the next question is how to feed everyone. Brand advocates what he sees as the next logical step in what has been an ongoing process ever since humans began domesticating crops thousands of years ago.

Like nuclear power, genetically modified crops have long been the bane of environmentalists, but Brand believes it’s time to rethink the issue. The benefits of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are myriad, he argues. Crops modified to grow without being tilled prevent carbon in the soil from being released in the atmosphere. So called Bt crops (engineered with a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium) reduce pesticide use. Other technologies reduce the amount of water or fertilizer needed to grow crops. Still others may help reduce methane emitted from the animals that consume them (including humans).

The main hindrance comes from the private sector in the form of corporate licensing practices and intellectual property law, which can prevent farmers in the developing world from taking full advantage of agricultural aid. Taking his cue from the open-source software movement that he’s been a strong advocate for over the years, Brand pushes for what he calls “open-source biotech,” which he believes is very much a possibility. If environmental scientists develop non-patent-protected seeds with ecology and international aid in mind, they may be able to contain food and water shortages, keeping them at more manageable, localized levels.

Saving what is arguably his most controversial proposition for last, Brand writes that large-scale geoengineering efforts are now imperative. Relying on systems dynamics, he shows that it’s too late to completely prevent or mitigate climate change even if humanity somehow miraculously reverses course at the last minute. More drastic measures must be considered. Finding ways to engineer the planet with a light touch is a tricky proposition, to say the least, and implementing such solutions even trickier, but Brand is cautiously optimistic that it can be done.

The moral of the story is that, in the face of imminent climate change, we must search for innovative high-tech solutions and embrace what Brand calls “the freedom to try things.” This thoroughly researched and highly readable book presents a compelling if controversial argument for how best to confront the challenges ahead.

Aaron M. Cohen is a staff editor for THE FUTURIST and World Future Review.

The Futurist, Jan. 1, 2010


Authors say climate crisis a perfect storm for disaster

By FRANCIS MOUL / For the Lincoln Journal Star | Posted: Friday, December 11, 2009

("Storms of My Grandchildren" by James Hansen, Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $25)

("Whole Earth Discipline" by Stewart Brand, Viking, 325 pages, $25.95)

"Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystallized only in the past few years. We now have clear evidence of the crisis.... The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself -and the timetable is shorter than we thought."

That opening paragraph of James Hansen's book tells the danger of climate change on Earth. The rest of the book gives scientific proof to his prediction and offers some ways out of the crisis, if humanity acts fast enough. He is the scientist who first brought global warming to international attention in the 1980s, and is a Columbia University professor and head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Irrefutable studies show that heavy carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is acting as a greenhouse gas to warm the planet, creating debilitating droughts, forest fires and storms, and melting polar ice and glaciers worldwide. A level of about 450 parts per million (ppm) of the gas in the atmosphere is a widely accepted target to avoid the fatal tipping point of no-return crisis, but Hansen lowers that target to 350 ppm (versus today's 387 ppm).

This book is very, very scary. Here is a scientist, author of many scholarly papers, whose climate change predictions have proven true for 30 years. Although there is a great deal of scientific analysis here, he writes generally in layman's terms, understandable to most readers.

Coal, he proclaims, is deadly. Using it in power plants kills a million people worldwide every year and will -in his grandchildren's lifetime -begin to destroy most species on Earth and make the planet uninhabitable for people. He draws an awful analogy: Each coal train that passes through Nebraska carries the equivalent of 400 dead species (of Earth's 12 million). Mining for tar sands and oil shale will be the final straw.

The blame for not fixing this problem is laid directly at politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, who are beholden to shortsighted special interests and lobbyists blinded by greed.

What are the fixes? Leave the coal, tar sands and oil shale in the ground and turn to nuclear power and renewable energy (wind and solar). A progressive carbon-based fuel tax on all coal at the mine door and oil in the pipelines and docks will cut their use until renewable energy substitutes and nuclear power become available. That tax income should be given back to the American people as regular dividends to offset their new, extra costs. Those conserving energy will pay less while energy guzzlers will pay more.

Scary: Part Two

Stewart Brand's first chapter is also very, very scary. He founded the Whole Earth Catalog and is a longtime environmentalist of the first order. His conclusion is that our civilization caused climate change and if we fail to now stabilize that, "our civilization will either be gone or unrecognizable."

This work is aimed at a broad audience of climate- change naysayers and comfortable neutrals, and steadfast greenies who loudly oppose nuclear power and biotechnology. As a former anti-nuclear warrior, he has made a radical shift and urges other Green Movement adherents to do likewise.

This book is highly readable and effective. Although not a scientist, Brand urges us all to follow the science that clearly shows the dismal effects of climate change. He synthesizes a great deal of information and comes up with some workable solutions, if only we will act in time.

Each solution gets a chapter. He first looks at one unusual answer, urbanization, taking the slum towns of major cities in developing nations as an example. There, people are creating fantastic cultures of making do with new resources of the Internet, cell phones and recycling cast-off goods. He also shows that the Earth's population is getting more under control, with some nations not even growing at replacement population rates.

Nuclear power is a very formidable solution to climate change, and Brand makes a sturdy case on safety, nuclear waste management and security issues. Here, he and James Hansen agree fully, and they are compelling. Besides safety, the initial high capital cost of nuclear power is a leading complaint, and it will be a problem. But the deadly option of not doing anything is much more severe.

Brand's third solution is biotechnology, which is facing major opposition in the European Union. Genetic engineering, however, is already creating new plants and animals that will survive and thrive in a climate-changing world. There is real promise for this, and the new engineering is simply a speeded-up version of what humans have been doing for centuries, such as turning a tall tropical grass into today's hybrid corn.

Finally, if changes don't come soon enough to stabilize the climate, then we will have to turn to geoengineering. This involves artificial carbon sequestration efforts, such as feeding iron to seaborne organisms that pull carbon into sludge that sinks to the bottom of our oceans. Experiments are being done on small projects by nongovernmental agencies, and these need to be bolstered heartily.

Read these two books and you will become both a knowledgeable eyewitness to our unfolding crisis, and even an advocate for change.

Francis Moul, Ph.D., is an environmental historian.


Whole Earth Discipline-An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

Posted in Book Reviews by Mary Bennett on January 3, 2010

Whole Earth Discipline-An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Viking 2009) Book review by Jim Ronback

My favourite environmental activist, professional forecaster and biologist, Stewart Brand, has again provided timely pragmatic strategies and solutions. Remember “The Whole Earth Catalog” in which he provided, 1968-1985, useful advice on how get back to the land, get off the grid and save the planet. Well, he’s now written a seminal book.

He advocates not just a shift in habits, but also a fundamental philosophical change towards stewardship of the planet.  He looks at the various aspects and interactions of climate change, urbanization and biotechnology. He shatters a lot of myths. He says, “Science has long informed the environmental movement. Now it must take the lead, because we are forced to enter an era of large-scale ecosystem engineering, and we have to know what the hell we’re doing.”  His new motto is: “We are as gods and have to get good at it”.

The chapter titles gave a flavour of where he comes from and where he’s showing the way:

1. Scale, Scope, Stakes and Speed; 2. City Planet; 3. Urban Promise; 4. New Nukes; 5. Green Genes; 6. Gene Dreams; 7. Romantics, Scientists, Engineers; 8. It’s all Gardening; 9. Planet Craft.

Being an engineer who designed systems for nuclear power stations, I found the chapter on New Nukes intriguing in that he agrees with James Hansen of NASA on nuclear energy plus he identifies many people who were originally strongly against nuclear power stations, including himself, have gradually changed their minds and now consider them as a necessary greener and safer source of energy than coal fired plants. Nuclear power plants can provide much of the 24/7 baseload to meet the growing energy demands of our burgeoning cities and factories and they have a much smaller footprint than solar or wind farms which are not a part of the dependable steady baseload, to provide an equivalent amount of variable electrical energy. The problems of safety, cost, waste handling, and weapons potential are design problems which can be solved and must be acted upon in spite of unrealistic fears. “We need to assess our fears in light of real risks closely examined, and that begins with noticing how fear works…We fear spectacular unlikely events …We underestimate threats that creep up on us…Risk arguments cannot be divorced from values…We love sunlight but fear nuclear power …Sunlight has killed many more people than nuclear reactors.


Why Stewart Brand's new book is a must read
Marc Gunther - Jan. 5, 2010

Many books shaped my thinking about business, economics and the environment during 2009. Last year was the year that I discovered Nassim Nicholas Taleb and The Black Swan, to my great delight, as well as the year that I began to explore behavioral economics by reading Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. I enjoyed my friend Russell Roberts’ libertarian romance (yep) The Invisible Heart, and I learned a lot from The Myth of the Rational Market, a timely and readable history of the economics of markets by my ex-Fortune colleague Justin Fox.  The Good Soldiers by David Finkel is a searing up-close look at the surge in Iraq that should be read by any American citizen who wants to better understand the human costs of the wars being waged by our government.

But the book that I most want to recommend to readers of this blog is Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand. It’s brilliant, controversial, unconventional and lively. Nothing I read in 2009 changed my thinking more.

I’m not alone in my admiration for Stewart’s book. Paul Hawken calls it “likely one of the most original and important books of the century.…” Edward O. Wilson says it is “ominous and exhilirating.” Larry Brilliant says it is “an absolutely seminal work, extraordinarily well written, a tour de force of so many interconnected worlds and lives and studies.” Nice blurbs, no?

The praise is all the more remarkable because Whole Earth Discipline argues that we need nuclear power to combat global warming, that we need biotechnology to feed the world and that we need to take  geo-engineering seriously — ideas that are anathema to much, though not all, of the environmental movement that Stewart helped create roughly 40 years ago.

For those of you (younger readers) who aren’t familiar with his work, Stewart, who is a vigorous 72-year-old, is best known as the editor of Whole Earth Catalog, an influential compendium of all things countercultural, published in the late 1960s and 1970s, with a photo of the earth seen from space on its cover.

After an LSD-induced experience that got him thinking about the curve of the earth, Stewart campaigned to have NASA release the picture. Later, he wrote:

It is no accident of history that the first Earth Day, in April 1970, came so soon after color photographs of the whole earth from space were made by homesick astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission to the moon in December 1968. Those riveting Earth photos reframed everything. For the first time humanity saw itself from outside… Humanity’s habitat looked tiny, fragile and rare. Suddenly humans had a planet to tend to.

Since then, Stewart has been a writer, a speaker, an organizer, a pioneer of online communities as a founder of the WELL (the “Whole Eart ‘Lectronic Link,” where I first discovered the power of the Internet), a consultant to companies and the owner of a tugboat in San Francisco where he lives with his wife, Ryan Phelan. He writes:

Because I’m an ecologist by training, a futurist by profession and a hacker (lazy engineer) at heart, my bent is scientific rigor, geoeconomic perspective, and an engineer’s bias, which sees everything in terms of solvable design problems.

Fun fact about Stewart: He owns the table where Otis Redding reportedly wrote “Dock of the Bay.”

I’m not going to try to summarize Stewart’s arguments about nukes, GMOs or geo-engineering here, but let me try to give you a flavor of his thinking and writing.

On nukes, he says, given the urgency of the climate crisis,  it’s a little nutty to worry about how to dispose of radioactive waste hundreds or even thousands of years from now since we can’t predict technological progress between now and then (although we can sure there will be lots of it). And, as he notes:

Nuclear waste is minuscule in size—on Coke can’s worth per person-lifetime of electricity if it was all nuclear…Coal waste is massive—68 tons of solid stuff and 77 tons of carbon dioxide per person-lifetime of strictly coal electricity.

France, which built a fleet of 56 reactors in about 20 years because of an efficient licensing process, now has

the cleanest air in Europe, the lowest electrical bills and a $4 billion export business selling energy to all its neighbors, including Green Germany and nuclear Britain (2 gigawatts flow west under the English Channel). France shut down its last coal-fired plant in 2004. It emits 70 percent less carbon dioxide per capita than the United States.

I didn’t know that. Did you?

On biotech food, Stewart is characteristically blunt:

I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.

He has a great rant about “natural food” (see page 133) as well as a fascinating account of the debate over genetic engineering inside the environmental movement in the 1970s which, among other things, led the scientists Lewis Thomas and Paul Ehrlich to part ways with Friends of the Earth. Since the mid-1990s, as Stewart notes, we (meaning earthlings) have conducted “the most massive dietary experiment in history” with most everyone in North America eating biotech foods and most everyone in Europe doing without them. The results are in, and no difference can be detected between the test and the control group. He goes on to write about what he calls a “GE-inclusive organic agriculture” as well as the potential of foods engineered to produce health benefits.

There’s much more to recommend in Whole Earth Discipline. It turns out that Stewart is a fan of urbanization, having abandoned what he calls his “Gandhiesque romanticism about villages.” Slums in the global south, he says, are hotbeds of innovation and cooperation, they cure overpopulation and they are better for people and the planet than the subsistence farms seen by many as “soulful and organic.”

I’ll save Stewart’s ideas about geo-engineering for another blogpost. Meanwhile, read this book. And, if you can, join us at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment, where I’m delighted that Stewart Brand will be one of the featured speakers.


The Indypendent » All Things Considered: Climate Change from Different Angles
By Steven Arnerich

From the January 8, 2010 issue

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
By Stewart Brand
Viking, 2009

Now that more people are attuned to the ticking clock of climate change, there is no shortage of theories for how the next act will play out. Though scientists, activists and theorists have been wildly off the mark so far, they continue to guess at what will be the solutions — and pitfalls — for getting the planet back on track.

Stewart Brand first made his mark not by imagining the future, but by making it happen. His Whole Earth Catalog of 1968 (published through the early 1970s), changed publishing, kick-started the computer revolution, the green movement, organic farming and the whole concept of living off the grid.

His signature scattershot style — he served as the Catalog’s editor — brought together openended possibilities: In a single place one could learn about abandoned railroads, barn building, integrated circuits, the illusion of money and several thousand other things one had never heard of. It was subtitled Access to Tools. It would not be a stretch to say it laid the groundwork for the internet.

In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline, Brand intends to serve, if not the same smorgasbord, then at least a little something in the same style. He is quick to throw ideas around: don’t worry about polar bears, let them interbreed with grizzlies; slums empower women and slow population growth; no agricultural product has been “natural” for 10,000 years; coal has killed more people than radiation. Like Al Gore, he’s certain that if we don’t do anything, we’re toast. There’s plenty of counterintuitive things actually worth trying. He introduces the reader to dozens of scientists who support, and sometimes oppose, his ideas.

What’s his prescription? Embrace nuclear power, genetic modification and geoengineering and stop trying to solve the imaginary problem of what might happen. (Anyone remember Y2K? He admits he was wrong about that.) Brand considers Yucca Mountain to be the “classic example of the folly of long-term planning” — why should we expect that nuclear waste disposal must remain intact for 10,000 years? It’s more likely that we will dig up buried waste to use as fuel long before it leaks out; or it’s just as likely we’ll be reduced to a new stone age, and then radiation will be the least of our problems.

As for genetic modification, he quotes Bertolt Brecht: “Grub first, then ethics.” Brand makes the unsettling accusation that Greenpeace’s opposition to genetically modified food has condemned millions to death by starvation. From an African point of view, a European ban on genetic modification gives Europe an economic advantage at Africa’s peril.

With this approach, it is difficult to say Brand is wrong about any one thing, since he often changes the subject from one paragraph to the next. His cavalier suggestion that no state would risk handing nuclear weapons over to stateless terrorists for fear of retaliation doesn’t sound like a safe bet to me, imaginary problem or not. Despite Brand’s attempts at persuasion, making the leap from (to paraphrase Brand) “lots of what we worry about has already been solved” to “technology can fix any problem” is not a compromise I am always willing to make.

On the other hand: mirrors in space? Why not? A 1991 volcano sent enough sulphur into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet by half a degree; enough to account, maybe, for a slightly higher birthrate of polar bears in 1992. Is it crazy to send more sulphur up there? Not as crazy as burning a few thousand gallons of jet fuel, well-proven to have the opposite effect, on your next summer vacation.

On balance, Whole Earth Discipline is essential reading—Brand refuses to give us easy answers, but positions himself, correctly, I believe, at the core of the scientific method: restless, optimistic and never fully resolved.


Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand

Jon Turney - The Guardian (UK), Saturday, 9 January 2010

If we are serious about curbing climate change, what would actually help? More people in cities, lots of nuclear power stations and lashings of GM crops, urges Stewart Brand. Unless green activists embrace the benefits of all three, they are not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

This prescription, from the founder of that quintessential 1960s publication the Whole Earth Catalog, comes as a surprise. And his eclectically informative new book makes the most of it. I care about the Earth, and especially about the fate of humanity, says Brand. I have changed my mind about how to exercise that care, and so should you.

He builds his case skilfully, weaving together a wealth of sources. The most novel material concerns cities, now home to more than half of humanity, and set to attract many millions more. Most will begin their new urban lives in the shanty towns and slums of the southern hemisphere. Viewed from the comfort of the developed world, they are pretty terrible places. They are also, Brand insists, full of people working their way out of poverty as fast as they can. They offer freedoms denied to villagers, especially women villagers, and foster a zillion micro-enterprises. And cities new and old cram many people into small spaces, exacting a lower environmental cost than if they stayed in the countryside.

On nuclear power, he finds that those who know the most see the least to fear.

The opposite is true of coal plants, and their vast outpouring of carbon dioxide. Monuments to nuclear fear, such as the $10bn Yucca Mountain waste depository in Nevada, are, he concludes after a visit, "nutty". Why commit to entombing radioactive waste for thousands of years with existing technology? The question has additional force when posed by the co-founder of the Long Now Foundation – another of Brand's many ventures – which is dedicated to long-term thinking. The way to deal with the long term is to allow for adaptation and keep options open, not lock into a single strategy. In a couple of hundred years, never mind a thousand, there is a good chance we will have far better ways of dealing with nuclear waste. On the other hand, if we are back in the stone age by then, decaying nuclear waste dumps will be the least of our worries.

On genetic manipulation, he relates no Yucca-style epiphany. Brand felt that swapping genes around was no big deal back in the 70s, when scientists first worked out how to do it. The profoundly unnatural human activity, for him, is agriculture. But it has become clearer that GM crops can make it better: more productive, more sustainable, and more adaptable to climate change. Opposing such use of helpful technology, in his view, is the biggest mistake the environmental movement has ever made.

Brand's arguments are good, and his mind-changing, let's-all-learn-from-my-mistakes rhetoric is pretty persuasive. How effective will it be? I am uncertain, because unsure how far environmentalists will accept his claim to be one of their own. Sure, he studied ecology with Paul Ehrlich, dropped acid with Ken Kesey and lives on a tugboat in San Francisco, so his 60s credentials are second to none. But he has always had an unusual appetite for ideas, and is as likely to be found talking to tech entrepreneurs as tree-huggers. Climate change really grabbed his attention when the Global Business Network – yet another venture he co-founded – did a famous study for the Pentagon on the dangers of rapid climate shifts.

His own big idea is that the best approach to the issues he discusses is pragmatism. He fleshes it out by example, rather than by discussing its philosophical defence by John Dewey or William James. He reckons it is an engineer's approach, accepting whatever gets results. For environmentalists, he suggests, it means not a shift in ideology, but discarding ideology completely.

Maybe so, but there are deeper matters of world view at stake here than that simple suggestion recognises. Some of them are taken up in the latter part of the book, where Brand offers his own vision of caring for ecosystems even as we transform them – adopting lessons from everyone from Native Americans to modern, scientifically informed restoration projects. There is a long tradition of managing, maintaining and repairing ecosystems which we have to learn from, he argues. It begins with gardening, but can be scaled up to take in a whole planet.

In fact, we must use that tradition to expand our future repertoire to include geoengineering as well as the trio of cities, nukes and gene-tweaking he has already dealt with. This will be an even bigger stretch for old-school environmentalists. Discussion of serious options for geoengineering, such as pumping sulphur dioxide aerosols into the atmosphere or manufacturing artificial "trees" to remove carbon dioxide, is just beginning. But it can easily sound like a collection of hubristic schemes dreamed up by mad scientists.

Again, Brand is pragmatic and cautious. We will soon be considering geoengineering, he argues, because mitigation is not going to work. We do not yet know which geoengineering schemes will work, either, but we must do the research to find out, especially through investment in sensors and monitoring to improve understanding of earth systems. He foresees that old-school greens will go on clinging to their opposition to the technologies they love to hate. But if that happens, they will be marginalised by a new generation of science-led, environmentally aware ecoengineers who recognise that the state of the Earth is now in our hands. Contemplating the outcome of the Copenhagen climate conference, I can only hope he is right. There will be long, impassioned arguments along the way, but this wise book is a great start.

Jon Turney's Rough Guide to the Future will published later this year.


Whole Earth Discipline

Review by Clive Cookson

Financial Times January 18 2010
Whole Earth Discipline
By Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books £19.99 316 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.99

The 21st century has seen the emergence of a different type of green campaigner, who embraces science as an essential tool for tackling the world’s environmental woes. In contrast to the technophobic old guard of organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the new green embraces nuclear power as a way to produce energy without carbon dioxide, and genetic engineering as a route toward more efficient agriculture.

Now the new style of environmentalism has a worthy prophet, Stewart Brand, and a bible, Whole Earth Discipline. Not that Brand himself is a newcomer. The 71-year-old Californian – the subject of last weekend’s Lunch with the FT – made his name in the 1960s and 1970s as publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, the encyclopaedic guide to sustainable living.

From the start Brand was something of a maverick in the environmental movement. Though he initially opposed nuclear power, he was never hostile to genetic engineering. Today he is a proponent of both – and makes an articulate case for them in his book.

His starting point is man-made climate change, which Brand regards as the overriding threat to human civilisation. Agriculture, cities and industry have developed over the “long summer of the past 10,000 years,” during which the global climate has been remarkably stable. Because civilisation has known only benign conditions, with historically gentle transitions such as that between the medieval warm period and the “little ice age” of the 17th century, we are not prepared for the changes that may be triggered by the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Brand first became really passionate about fighting climate change after he came to appreciate the archaeological and ethnological evidence for the naturally warlike behaviour of human beings when resources are scarce. “With climate change under way we have to make a choice,” he writes. “If we do nothing or not enough, we face ... crisis leading to war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions.”

Compared to such a threat, the downsides of nuclear energy – radiation, possible accidents and the build-up of radioactive wastes – are small, Brand argues. The weakest point in his argument comes when he rather brushes aside what many commentators see as the greatest risk: the link between nuclear power and weapons.

While Brand tolerates nuclear energy, he is enthusiastic about the potential for genetic engineering to improve agricultural productivity without exacerbating climate change. The environmental movement has done more harm in its opposition to genetic engineering than in anything else, he claims: “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.” To correct matters, the book gushes about the technology in a way that might raise a blush even in a spokesman for Monsanto, the leading agricultural biotechnology company.

Though nuclear and biotechnology are at the heart of Whole Earth Discipline, the book ranges entertainingly across other fields, from urbanisation to the political history of the environmental movement. Brand is a fan of mega-cities, arguing that allowing people to concentrate there is more efficient and productive than trying to keep them in the countryside. “Squatter cities are green,” he claims. But his praise for the innovative spirit of the world’s great squatter slums, such as Dharavi in Mumbai, should have been tempered with more understanding of the squalor – or even horror – of life there.

You do not have to agree with Brand to enjoy Whole Earth Discipline. While it contains flaws and fallacies (for example, about the timing and impact of BSE in Europe), overall the writing is so entertaining and thought-provoking that I can see it being quoted 30 years from now, just as the Whole Earth Catalog is today.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor


Human Landscapes

A blog about people and nature

25. January 2010 by Erle

Human Landscapes | Whole Earth Manifesto (a review of Whole Earth Discipline)

Cities are green. Nuclear energy is green. Genetic engineering is green. (Brand 2009).” In 1968 Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog was embraced by a generation trying to get back to the country, get off the grid, and grow their own. Now it’s 2010, and the quote above, from Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (2009) makes clear that after 42 years, Brand is still ahead of the curve.

With Whole Earth Discipline, a founder of  20th century environmentalism takes us into the 21st century.  Whether or not you embrace cities, nukes and frankenfoods, Whole Earth Discipline is a must read, filled to overflowing with transformative, big-picture thinking from a true visionary who’s been evolving deep thoughts about humans on this planet for more than four decades.  These are the visions of a self-affirmed “ecological pragmatist” one who has been around long enough to see his own best-intended ideals and those of his generation go in unforeseen directions, often failing to do good and even causing harm.  Most importantly, he has fearlessly used this experience to inspire more robust visions for the future. 

Brand begins with a bracing review of our current environmental situation, clearly demonstrating that we need new environmental thinking to move us forward.  He then takes us on an educational journey, starting with the global ecological importance of urbanization.  City growth is unstoppable, good for people, and good for the planet in numerous surprising ways.  His analysis is rich, deep and spot on- I couldn’t agree more with it.  I’ve seen this in my own research in China- as people move to the city, the countryside is greening up- even as agricultural productivity booms, marginal lands are being abandoned and greening up.  Yes, “cities are green” and greens need to promote urbanization as a central tenet of environmentalism in this century. 

Next the nukes.  Yes, nuclear energy is low carbon and should be taken off the “green black list” (especially now that coal is there at the top!).  But even with a nuclear “full-steam ahead” approach, there are real limits to this ever becoming more than a fractional solution– it is no more than one of at least 7 “wedges” for solving global warming.  So while I agree that opposing nuclear energy is no longer green, I’m not convinced that nukes need ever be a big agenda item,  Greens should just “officially” get out of the way- while also helping us to avoid an y irrational exuberance about “clean nukes” – nukes can be very dirty, even if they can help save us from global warming. 

Brand then promotes genetic engineering (GE)- and here I’m of two minds.  While it is right to stop fearing GE, I don’t see GE as being different from any other type of engineering- it depends on how you use it.  As a plant biology Ph.D. student at Cornell in the late 1980s, I minored in plant breeding, just as the first generation of agricultural GE appeared: herbicide-resistant crops and rBST.  At that time, their safety was essentially untested and still a scientific concern.  Now, GE has done hard time in the field, and scientists have yet to find anything really scary.  Brand is very right to criticize as “antiscientific” those who decry the “unnaturalness” of GE organisms.  This idea has no basis in science and Brand does a good job of putting the stick to it.  Popular fears about GE agriculture, like food allergies, escapes of genes, “superweeds”, and hazards to wild species are all truly minor compared with the environmental problems already caused by regular old agriculture (think: peanut allergies, invasive species, deforestation).   Yet I still don’t think that GE is the future of agriculture- or if it is, that it is necessarily the green way to go.

GE is not the reason for today’s high yields.  While GE crops are now very widely used and do have benefits, including pest and weed control with less toxic chemicals (and this can be green), yields would be very little changed without GE.  Today’s high yields are about half traditional plant breeding and half increased use of fertilizers and other agrichemicals, and irrigation.  Even today, GE tools are unable to substantially increase yields and other quantitative traits (traits controlled by many genes) because introducing more than a gene or two and making genes play well together is still very difficult, though genetic fingerprinting does help accelerate traditional plant breeding efforts- without introducing new genes.  So GE is generally limited to adding or enhancing single traits, like vitamin A in golden rice, and resistance to pests or herbicides.  Note that plant breeders are always wary of single gene traits- they are the most easily overcome by pests.

The main thing GE’s have done for agriculture is to advance corporate control of crop and livestock varieties- now farmers are even being sued for saving their own seeds.  For someone committed to open source ideals and the common good, Brand gives too little attention to how GEs have benefited huge corporations more than anyone else- farmers, food processors and us food consumers, and the trivial gains so far to the environment.  Maybe the open-source GE that Brand vividly demonstrates is now going on in garages and science fairs will change things for the better- but I’m still not convinced.  I don’t see anything inherently green about GE- and so far I’ve seen more greenwash than real green GE action.  GE dreams are fascinating, but they still remind me more of Bladerunner than Ecotopia

Criticisms aside, No matter what you think of Brand’s almost heretical new green thinking, if you are concerned about the future of humanity and our planet, you should read this book.  It will change your thinking and is so well-written that I hardly put it down.  Whole Earth Discipline puts 20th century green thinking into the headlights of 21st century environmental issues: global warming, declining biodiversity, huge human populations with ever richer diets and energy demands, and finds it mostly myopic and misguided.  More importantly, he offers a way forward: real-world eco-pragmatism, getting us away from the old environmentalist thinking that nature will save us if we will only listen and leave it alone, and moving us toward a postnatural paradigm and the global environmental practices and thinking we must implement if we want this planet to be what we want it to be at the end of this century and after.

As Brand says: 
Ecological balance is too important for sentiment.  It requires science.
The health of natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity.  It requires engineering.”

I couldn't agree more.


Tom Sutcliffe: Time to have confidence in the future
The Independent, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The great aphorist Ambrose Bierce defined an aphorism as "pre-digested wisdom" in his Devil's Dictionary – a blankly unaphoristic definition which contains more than a hint of self-criticism. He was right to be suspicious, with the memorability and neatness of aphorisms so often seducing us into forgetting everything that contradicts them. But sometimes you encounter an aphoristic phrasing of an idea that requires you to do all the digesting, so neatly does it encapsulate a much larger thought


It happened to me while reading Stewart Brand's new book Whole Earth Discipline, which he describes as an "ecopragmatist manifesto". The line was this one: "Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilisation, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilisation from a natural system – climate dynamics." That is the scale of the problem that climate change represents.

Once, we had the luxury of feeling guilty about encroaching on nature, but very soon, if it hasn't started already, nature is going to start encroaching on us – and it isn't going to give a damn about it. And that, Brand argues, is going to require an entirely new approach to the problem, one which abandons the romantic idealism that achieved so much for the Green movement and substitutes for it an engineer's practicality. You use what works, not what matches your prejudices.

His book is thoroughly exhilarating, which is a slightly odd thing to say about a text that doesn't for a moment diminish the threat of global warming and which actually argues that we've already left things too late. A book that describes us being like "ants on a burning log" might, you think, be a touch depressing. But it isn't. It's one of those books that you want to press on people and insist they read, partly because it exemplifies in action what it urges on its readers.

Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue in the Sixties and a Moses for the low-impact, commune lifestyle, used to think that cities were the problem. Now he realises (having done the sums and read the research) that urbanisation may be the best thing that can happen to the planet, creating efficiencies which are impossible in small, rural communities. He used to fear nuclear power. Now he argues that we live in thrall to a largely imaginary terror of its potential dangers, oblivious to the continuing catastrophe caused by fossil fuels. He deplores the simplistic demonisation of GM crops which has retarded research into improved strains of food plants and ignores the ecological benefits of the no-till agriculture which they make possible. On every page, it seems, received opinion is up-ended and dogmas examined at their foundations – which are frequently found to be worm-eaten.

What he's calling for, in short, is for everyone to come out of their trenches and stop fighting an embedded war from fixed positions. The recipe is not for a set of values which are ideologically unimpeachable, but for a way of addressing the issues which might generate genuine solutions. And at the heart of that is an essential confidence in the future – that we are in for good surprises as well as bad.

Nobody would have predicted, for example, that mobile phones would prove a boon to developing Africa, and yet they've had an extraordinary effect in many societies there. Since we're going to end up in the future whether we like it or not, it makes sense to get there by the best routes available. Whole Earth Discipline doesn't present itself as the only road map, but I doubt you'll encounter a more entertaining or thought-provoking one.


Whole Earth Discipline

by Stewart Brand (Atlantic books, £19.99)

Morning Star (UK)

Sunday 14 February 2010

by John Green

Stewart Brand is a long-time environmental campaigner in the US. He throws down the gauntlet in this thought-provoking, challenging but also irritating book.

The big issues of atomic energy, population growth and genetic engineering have led to furious debates and divided green activists everywhere.

Brand's book will fuel this debate further, but it's irritating because it is overburdened with quotations, personal anecdotes and "facts," yet no footnotes are provided. You have to go to Brand's website for those.

He argues that the world's population is increasingly urban, with thousands drifting from the countryside to the cities.

This is good for the environment, says Brand, because it relieves pressure on the countryside. And those moving into cities tend to have fewer children, so helping to reduce population pressure too.

People in cities, even in shanty towns, are more productive and lead more satisfying lives than in the countryside.

Brand argues persuasively that if our cities were redesigned to increase their environmental efficiency, allowing communities to flourish, with inner-city areas used to grow food this would help to solve the present pressing environmental problems.

Even shanty towns, he writes, have a great track record in recycling, reusing waste and developing their own community spirit.

However he doesn't address the question as to why so many of our cities are dying at their core as a result of property speculation. Or how planning, designing and building people-friendly cities is frustrated by this.

Brand's most persuasive arguments are for nuclear energy - that solar and wind power can never supply the energy needed even if we cover acres of land with solar panels and wind farms to the detriment of the landscape and environment.

Nuclear energy is clean, has a virtually zero carbon footprint and is very safe. The big argument of its opponents, aside from the possibility of accidents like Chernobyl, is that we still don't know how to safely store the radioactive waste.

Brand argues this can be done, even if only temporarily, until future generations find better ways of reprocessing it. Even Chernobyl, he says, only caused 56 confirmed deaths - a figure that's clearly disputable.

On genetic engineering, Brand argues that it can help to solve many of our problems, whether in food production or medical science.

Like many of its supporters, he argues that manipulating genes is what nature's been doing since life emerged.

What he glosses over is the role of big multinationals such as Monsanto which are attempting to monopolise genetic engineering processes, marketing their own pesticide-resistant seeds and pesticides.

The big weakness of this book is that it doesn't address the conflict of interest between capitalist structures and human need.

Even if many of us agree on solutions to protect humanity and the planet, the implementation of those solutions will often be frustrated by capitalism's drive for short-term profitability and shareholder pressure.

On population Brand again lines up the "facts" about how the world's population is not growing but actually levelling off, and in a number of countries it is actually shrinking.  So, according to him, population is not the central problem.

If you took Brand's facts at face value you couldn't help but be convinced of his views, but I get the feeling that he uses sleight of hand in his selective use of argument.

While he marshals the names of those he quotes like an army of the "great and the good," Brand undoubtedly knows his onions and is very persuasive.

If his "facts" are indeed facts then he has an impregnable case. Read it and see what you think.


Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline

By Scott Wa|ker -  February 24, 2010 - Orion magazine

It is clear we must re-examine some basic assumptions before we can realign human behavior with natural processes:

   *Is capitalism really good for the planet?
  * Are we defining “growth” properly?
  * Does happiness require more GDP? Or is there a way to measure “balance”?
  * Should we reinvent the whole food system for health reasons?
  * Are democracy and ecologically correct decisions compatible?

It is much simpler to go along with ideas that seem to have worked, mostly, for a long while, and are besides shared by friends and family and others who are part of our cohort. We can speak to each other in a sort of shorthand, and recognize each other by our outward and visible signs—usually the products we buy and use in public. But are those fundamental ideas still resonant with reality? Things change, evolve. Our ideas should too.

Longtime environmentalists can perhaps benefit from a hard look at some of our bedrock notions, including these, the very ones Brand addresses in Whole Earth Discipline:

Cities are bad
      * Brand points out that cities are ecologically (in terms of impact on planet resources) much more efficient than dispersed populations, which is good news because by mid-century we’ll be 80 percent urban, as rural subsistence farming becomes unsustainable. Once everybody’s in the city, the natural countryside recovers.

Nukes are bad
      * The need for power is huge, resource wars are looming as a result of climate change, and we need a huge solution to the impact of carbon emissions. Nukes work. There are new nuclear technologies that offer much less of a waste issue. Nukes—micro-reactors are one option—are the only reasonable alternative to extraordinarily climate-harmful coal plants.

Genetic agricultural engineering: evil
      * Using GE as a tool for positive change, rather than an emblem of “technology” that by definition can’t be trusted. It works, and it has worked. It’s a moral issue, certainly, but the science is not, by environmentalists, well understood.

Let nature be
      * It’s too late for that: we need to creatively and intelligently manage and sustain and care for nature, proactively and intelligently, rather than set it aside.

Rethinking and recalibration are hard, and there is a lot about this book that will be argued, vehemently. Brand, a challenging but trusted thinker, is a good place to start an essential re-thinking process. Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (he says he “was Mr. Natural for a while”) and Coevolution Quarterly were innovative crystalizations and guides to the “back to the land” movements of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70s, and an early warning signal about the societal implications of the use of computers—which at the time, I dismissed entirely as hare-brained oddness.

Reinvention: are we up for that? We’d really best get started.


In Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Viking, $26), Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand has a controversial solution: Urbanize, embrace bioengineering, ramp up nuclear power, and geoengineer the planet. It's an argument sure to upset anti-nuke, Slow Food enviros. Brand's voice is a little glib for his own good, but the proud futurist offers a provocative Green 2.0 brainstorming session: All ideas welcome.

Outside Magazine, October 2009


"Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto" by Stewart Brand. (Penguin Group, 325 pages, $25.95).

Greensboro News & Record  Sunday, April 18, 2010  By Morgan Josey Glover

Can an ecologist get away with backing the political hot potatoes of nuclear energy and genetic engineering? Environmental heavyweight Stewart Brand can and does. Brand, editor of the popular 1970s series, "Whole Earth Catalog," and developer of a 10,000-year clock, has come to criticize the very same American environmental thinking he helped develop in the late 20th century.

Brand believes climate change has the potential to devastate human societies, but he also now thinks societies can best reduce greenhouse gas emissions and manage ecosystems through the growth of cities, the building of modern nuclear power plants, the responsible development and use of biologically engineered plants and (less controversially) the restoration of wildlands. He believes we can, with care and successful long-term thinking, engineer our way out of our most pressing dilemmas.

The rigidity and short-sightedness of mainstream environmentalists is a common theme throughout Brand's book.

He writes: "The long-evolved Green agenda is suddenly outdated -- too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem. Far from taking a new dominant role, environmentalists risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new tasks. Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system-- climate dynamics."

With thoroughness, wit (and bullet points!), Brand attempts to dispel commonly held beliefs that he believes keeps people from effectively addressing climate change. His book is a valuable counterweight to the slippery slope arguments made by some environmentalists and should be read by anyone who wants a balanced view of the today's ecological problems.


Two views of our planet's future

NATURE - 28 April 2010

David Orr explains how two environmentalists' manifestos bracket the debate on climate change — one favouring technological solutions, the other local interventions.

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

by Stewart BrandViking/Atlantic: 2009/2010. 336 pp. / 325 pp. $25.95/£19.99

Environmentalists Stewart Brand and Bill McKibben mostly agree that the vital signs of our planet are worrying, but differ markedly in what they think should be done about it. Both accept that Earth has warmed by 0.8 °C since 1880, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, species are being driven into extinction and a larger global population and growing economies are destabilizing Earth systems and the biotic world. Brand favours technological fixes to stabilize the climate and maintain economic growth; McKibben proposes a more decentralized and resilient course. Taken together, their accounts raise questions about our collective failure to respond adequately to the global emergency and why it has been so difficult for those who presume to lead to do so.

Stewart Brand, founder of the Co-Evolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Catalog and a self-described 'ecopragmatist', recognizes the dangers implicit in the trends. If we do too little, he warns, we will “face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to a war of all against all”. He concludes that the planet is quickly and unavoidably urbanizing, that nuclear power is both inevitable and beneficial, that genetic engineering will be essential to providing agricultural systems productive enough to feed the burgeoning world population, and that geoengineering the atmosphere will be necessary to cool Earth. His message is: “Cities are green. Nuclear energy is green. Genetic engineering is green.”

Once thought of as an environmentalist far to the left of the mainstream, Brand has had a road-to-Damascus conversion. Having come in from the cold, he now dismisses many of his former green colleagues as ranters with inexplicable “deep aversions” to sensible things. He dismisses in particular those who believe that nuclear power is an expensive way to boil water and that it cannot compete in a fair market with the more agile, faster and cheaper opportunities of improved energy efficiency, solar and wind power. Brand thinks that “nuclear power will grow no matter what we do” and opposition will only make it grow “badly — slowly, expensively, unsystemically”.

Brand argues similarly that the environmental movement's opposition to genetic engineering has contributed to world hunger, hindered science and hurt the natural environment. Yet he is quiet on ongoing research in natural-systems agriculture and organic farming. He dismisses advocates of the 'precautionary principle' as fear-mongering and ignorant of science. Instead, Brand is thrilled by the possibilities of synthetic biology, looking forward to a day in which amateur bio-hackers will increase biodiversity. Buried in the euphoria are a few caveats about the dangers, but they are only whispered.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

by Bill McKibben Times Books: 2010. $24

The environmental movement, Brand argues, should “become fearless about following science”. However, science is not one but many different things that share a common faith in data, logic, evidence and peer review. With equal rigour the scientific method can be directed to agribusiness, nuclear energy and geoengineering, as Brand proposes, or to ecologically grounded agriculture, efficiency and dispersed small-scale technologies. The difference of priorities is rooted in alternative visions about the future and the capabilities of humanity. Brooking little difference of opinion, Brand's agenda is to champion the pursuit of economic growth through heroic technology, control of natural systems and expansion of human agency justified by a planetary emergency. But as physicist Alvin Weinberg proposed, such things will require a priesthood to run them all: a possibility that Brand does not discuss.

The starting point of McKibben's book is similar, if more sharply etched and with higher voltage, but he arrives at opposite conclusions to Brand. His title Eaarth is meant to signify that we have already changed the familiar Earth into a planet that will be hotter, more threadbare and more capricious. The changes to our lives will unavoidably be “ongoing and large”. The only serious question for McKibben is what can be done to adapt to that emerging reality and to curb the worst of what is otherwise likely to occur.

The end of economic growth is the strangest and most terrifying change we face, he writes. Sharing none of Brand's breezy optimism about our ingenuity, McKibben thinks that we are unlikely to grow, build or innovate our way out of the situation, both because of the sheer scale of the human enterprise and because we will be contending with bigger storms, rising seas, declining biodiversity, longer and more severe droughts and the resultant political and economic turmoil. As he puts it: “There's more friction than we're used to. You have to work harder to get where you're going.”

He proposes that we choose to “manage our descent”. We should grow up, face reality, jettison excess consumption and work out how to live decently with a lot less stuff and a lot more neighbourliness and local self-reliance. In place of growth, our national projects will be about “keeping what we've got” and “holding on against the storm”. On a less forgiving 'Eaarth', McKibben writes, we will need local decision-making rather than centralization.

Brand's and McKibben's books bracket the rational debate about the human future in light of the perils of global destabilization. One admits the severity of climate change, but blinks in the face of it; the other is rather more fearless. One sees problems that are solvable; the other sees dilemmas that we cannot avoid but might learn to manage. Differences aside, the issues raised are long familiar. The questions are what can be done to avoid crossing the threshold of irreversible and adverse changes, and how we can bridge the chasm that separates science and the public discourse.

—David Orr is Paul Sears Distinguished Professor at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio 44074, USA. He is author of Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse.


Book Review: Whole Earth Discipline

by Graham Strouts

Energy Bulletin - Published Mar 22 2010 by www.zone5.org, Archived Mar 22 2010

“Civilization is at risk, but civilization is the problem”.

Stewart Brand is one of the iconic founders of the environmental movement, an original old hippy whose influence on the boomer generation should not be understated. With his latest book Whole Earth Discipline he takes that same movement to task for rejecting science and getting sidetracked by ideology at the very time when the practical application of science through engineering and technology may be the only way to save ourselves.

I came across an early copy of The Whole Earth Catalog, founded by Brand in 1968, on an early visit to a small “back to the land” commune about 25 years ago. It was a thrilling introduction to the possibilities of the burgeoning “alternative” lifestyle of organic gardening and renewable energy I was joining at the time.

Over the coming years, I read about his early involvement in LSD in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and currently have a copy of his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now on my bookshelf.

In a recent interview, I heard Brand take on the environmental movement’s anti-science stance on various issues. I have been grappling with this issue myself for some time now, particularly in the credulous acceptance by most green organisations of “alternative medicine” for which there is no evidence, and the anti-science diatribes that are inevitably summoned up in defense.

More recently I have discovered for myself how little science there is behind the health claims of organic food, and how organisations such as the Soil Association are often pseudo-scientific in their claims and their treatment of evidence.

Whole Earth Discipline challenges the greens on four more holy cows: population, urbanisation, nuclear power and Genetically Engineered crops, and in reading this compelling and fascinating book I have had to do some serious re-thinking around these issues myself.

Of those four issues the one I have been most concerned about myself has been population: what use our hard-won per capita reductions in carbon emissions if this is to be always canceled out by more people? What chance of eco-system restoration if a growing population is constantly increasing the pressure?

In contrast to Brand- who had Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich as one of his early tutors- I do not see population really as a big environmentalist cause, rather it seems to be the elephant in the room that no-one wants to talk about, perhaps because of connections with oppressive regimes, racism and the sheer intractability of the problem.

Brand claims however that world population will most likely peak within another generation at around 9 billion, far less than was being predicted in the 70s and 80s, and that there is one major reason for this: urbanization. Most of humanity now live in cities and as the rural poor move there they reduce their numbers of offspring, so much so that far from a population crash, we are facing a crisis of an aging population.

Brand paints a very different picture of this process of the move to town than that of the conventional environmentalist. The move to the city Brand claims is liberating on the whole, and especially for women. Rural village life tends to be parochial and oppressive, offering little by way of opportunity. Peasant subsistence agriculture is far from the romantic view of the back-to-the-land movement for most, but back breaking toil subject to the vagaries of the weather with no back-up in case of crop failure.

The mega-slums of the developing world may appear to be hellish and grossly over-crowded polluted and destitute to the affluent western greenie, but Brand argues that in fact they are preferable to squalid farming because they offer opportunities to escape poverty. One way this is happening is by the ubiquitous spread of the cell phone: even the poorest of the poor have one, with incoming calls often free.

Not only that, but growing cities mean an emptying countryside which is good for forest regeneration. The point is made clearly: if you want to be green, than the compact life in the city id for you, while those in wealthy countries who set up their small-holdings in remote rural locations are likely to have a larger footprint, subsidised as they are by car transport and long supply lines. (I would be a classic example of this last category.)

Surprising though Brand’s analysis is on cities, his more controversial chapters are likely to be the ones on nuclear and GE crops.

While I attended anti-nuclear demos in my youth- CND was at its height in the late 1970s when I was leaving school- more recently I have been swayed by James Lovelock’s position on nuclear, that which ever way you look at it, coal is the real dirty fuel and if your concern is over future generations, addressing climate change by decarbonising the economy is your first priority.

It does indeed seem that fears over the dangers of nuclear waste have been exaggerated. The total per capita waste from a lifetime of using nuclear fuel for one family would fit into a soda can. France runs 80% of its electricity from nuclear, but while many die every day in car crashes, nuclear seems to be very safe these days. Not only that, but there are new generations of nuclear power stations which are relatively small and which can be deployed anywhere. One scheme is to produce small power stations which contain their entire lifetimes worth of fuel, are buried for the duration of the fuel and simply switched off when that is spent, with no waste extracted.

Brand also points out that all the existing nuclear powers developed weapons technology first, which then gave rise to civil energy uses, rather than the other way round; since Iran actually does need nuclear power, the international community would be in a very strong place to insist how this is developed safely. In the west meanwhile, large numbers of nukes are being used as a source of fuel for power generation.

What Brand skips over in his book with barely a mention is peak oil. He clearly thinks new technologies and fuel sources can fill the gap somehow; uranium can be extracted from sea water, and if that runs out, we can use thorium instead.

Peak oil doomers like myself have long argued against nuclear on the grounds that it will take too long to construct, that the carbon footprint is still high once you have counted the embodied energy in construction and decommissioning;that uranium will peak also before too long should we try to run everything from nuclear.

While Brand makes a convincing case for the safety of modern reactors and the promise of new technologies, he is clearly under no illusion about the challenge facing us were we to try to replace existing coal and oil with a range of alternatives, including nuclear, before the climate tipping point. Brand is no techno-fantasist, but a pragmatic and practical engineer.

Perhaps even more of a Holy Cow for environmentalists than nuclear is Genetically Engineered crops. (Brand prefers “GE” to the more common “GM”.) This seems to go right to the heart of what sees as the problem with the ideological position of “romantic” greens who are motivated by a spurious ideological notions of what is “natural”.

Tampering with genes, especially crossing the species divide, seems unnatural to many and unholy to some.

But scientists are no more concerned about GE technology than they are about plant breeding and loss of diversity from farming in general, because they know as Brand says that genes are extremely fungible in nature: transgenic mutations, especially on the microbial level, are apparently quite normal, indeed we could hardly have evolved without this process. Although the “strawberry with fish genes” is apparently an urban myth, in fact any given gene may be nearly identical in two very different species so splicing genes from one organism into another may not be nearly as “abnormal” as it may appear.

The problem is not this or that particular kind of farming, but farming in general. Unless you advocate a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles (there are those who do) there is no reason to feel GE crops are uniquely evil or dangerous.

To an ecologist, or to a Gaian for that matter, agriculture is one vast catastrophe. The less of it the better.

Another urban myth which may be partly responsible for the extreme opposition to GE- in common with anti-abortion and anti-vivisection activism, anti-GE sentiment is deemed to justify violence on occasion- is the “terminator gene”, designed to produce sterile genes. This does appear to be unjustifiable, interfering as it does with ancient farming practices of seed-saving, until you read the true story: no “terminator” crops were ever actually produced, in part because of protests, but the real reason for their proposed development was to limit the dangers of the new crops running amok in the wild: in other words, terminator technology was part of the checks and balances that Monsanto were proposing to address some of the environmentalists concerns. Without this, preventing contamination may now be harder.

The absurdity of the opposition to these crops is expressed in the quote given by Vandana Shiva, from her book Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (2000):

“The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that would eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet”- a biological impossibility, since terminator plants would be unable to spread by seeds.

Brand gives a shocking account of how ideologically motivated environmental organizations including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth campaigned extensively against US food aid to Africa during famines in 2001 and 2002 because it contained GE crops, threatening to prevent any African imports to Europe if this badly needed food was accepted. Brand ruefully quotes Brecht: “Grub first, then ethics.”

Starvation was treated as a measure of commitment to the cause. In the service of what was thought to be a higher good, the environmental movement went sociopathic in Africa.

That well funded environmental groups in Europe campaigned so vociferously against food aid that was meant for starving people is surely a shocking indictment that there is something seriously wrong with the movement.

Many of the arguments Brand discusses in favour of GE crops are given here;

-after a decade of real life trials, no evidence suggests any human health implications from eating GE food;

-checks and balances are employed far more diligently in GE than in many other areas;

-GE is already becoming decentralised with many smaller companies and NGOs becoming involved in using the technology appropriately to help the poor and the hungry, with many beneficial effects for the environment including less use of pesticides:

“Developing countries are building their own non -corporate GE programs suited to their unique agricultural needs.” The democratization of the technology may even have been hampered by anti-GE activism: “Only a few big corporate players have survived a period of consolidation, caused partly by excessive anti-GE regulation that drove out small companies”.

And the potential of the technology is impressive: unlike conventional plant breeding, GE can be highly specific and precise in the traits it develops, and has had many successes despite the hampering of environmental protests.

Brand discusses at length how the bogus concept of the “precautionary” principle has been used to scupper development of the technology. In the absence of any clear evidence of danger, the precautionary principle is merely a recipe for social apoplexy. No doubt there were protesters using the same argument when people first discovered fire. In fact there are lots of checks and balances and the scientists who know what they are doing are far more aware of possible dangers than protesters.

Quasi-scientific propaganda against climate change is no different from quasi-scientific propaganda against genetic engineering. Both try to harness science to a political agenda.

In the coming years, GE seems certain to spread and eventually to be accepted: “The fact is that the fastest-moving countries now with GE crops are the developing nations that have the scientific competence and confidence to stand up to excessively cautious environmentalists- China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Argentina, the Philippines. as they go, so goes the world.”

As I write this I am getting forwarded emails asking me to sign the Avaaz petition against the recent decision by the European Council to allow GE potatoes to be grown here. I wont be signing, but I know most of my colleagues- many of whom have pulled up GM crops themselves- will.

In the future however, the strategy is likely to be to aim the benefits of the produce at the consumer: if the technology is good enough, people will simply prefer the better product. The proof will be in the pudding.

Brand returns to the issue of the dysfunction of Greens in his next chapter, Romantics, Scientists and Engineers.

Here he suggests that one of the driving forces of green movements has been the romantic notion of decline. As a peak -oiler myself a lot of bells rang as I read through the book and I found myself stopping to question how much of my beliefs about the inevitability of collapse and “the long descent” are ideological rather than based on real evidence.

Clearly the potential for collapse is very real, and perhaps an over-optimistic world view based on “positive thinking” has contributed to the recent financial collapse, as Barbara Ehrenreich has argued in her book Smile or Die.

Without discussing the ins and outs of the collapse theory- he has already outlined some of the worst scenarios of climate change in the opening chapter- Brand explores the idea that romantic greens are ideologically opposed to finding solutions, whereas engineers believe there must be a solution to everything.

A new set of environmental players is shifting the balance. Engineers are arriving who see environmental problems neither as a romantic tragedy nor as a a scientific puzzle but simply as something to fix.

I myself used to buy into the still prevalent myth of the Fall from an idyllic past: for thousands of years,so this particular myth goes- humans lived in harmony with Nature, responsive to Her (usually feminine) deepest energies and understandings.

At a certain unspecified point in our history, we lost our way, separating from Nature and playing God by manipulating natural laws. It is because this myth is still so powerful that anti-GE and anti-nuclear sentiment remains so strong and vitriolic- Thou Shalt Not meddle with the Deeper Law.

In reality, there never was such an idyllic harmonious past; Rousseau’s Noble Savage never was.

Nature does not care about us, nor does it have plans or desires; rather, any species that were to evolve the adaptive advantages of opposable thumbs and the neo-cortex would have come to dominate our predators and competitors in the same way we have.

Being close to nature has always meant short life-span, high infant mortality and constant resource wars. It has only ever been our technology- starting with fire- that has allowed us to escape such an existence.

As Brand outlines so succinctly in his opening pages, the fundamental problem of humanity is not separation from nature, but existential: everything we do has a footprint; yet we want our children to survive and prosper.

Brand takes a brief look at how these retro-romantic views have been associated with, and are not incompatible with, Nazism: yearning for a purity in nature not found in culture; and an elitism only possible in the well fed to moralize to the hungry.

But the engineer’s approach is very different from any kind of deluded new age pseudo-therapy, rooted as it is in science and practical experience. There is surely no guarantee that we will be able to pull off the kind of techno-fixes Brand describes in his last chapters- which includes such things as giant sunshades in space and the sequestration of carbon through biochar on a massive scale- but the worst aspects of the romantic’s world view should not hinder these attempts which may be our last chance.

Every environmentalist should read this life-changing – and maybe even planet-changing book.

The long-evolved Green agenda is suddenly outdated- too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem. Far from taking a new dominant role,environmentalists risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new tasks. Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system- climate dynamics.


Terraforming Earth

In the face of climate change, a founding father of the greens argues, the movement must embrace whatever works--even if that happens to be nuclear power, mass urbanization, or genetic modification.

By Mark Williams - Technology Review  - May/June 2010

The environmental left, futurist Stewart Brand argues in Whole Earth Discipline, needs to view the world afresh. Once it has done so, he writes, it is likely to see that many of its most cherished notions are inconsistent with reality. It might see nuclear power as a plausible answer to our need for carbon-free energy, for instance. It might decide that DDT isn't so bad after all. It might be more open-minded about ideas like genetic modification, mass urbanization, and geoengineering.

Fat chance, one may suspect. In his acknowledgments, Brand notes that his book began as a piece called "Environmental Heresies" in Technology Review's May 2005 issue. The faithful subsequently assailed him for imagining an environmentalist movement that embraced, in his words, "Green biohackers, Green technophiles, Green urbanists, and Green infrastructure rebuilders." The reaction provided ample evidence for Brand's contention here that default green thinking is "too negative, too tradition-bound, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem."

Brand's position is notable because of his historical significance: he was the lifestyle guru who, in 1968, launched the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication whose covers often featured a picture of Earth seen from space and whose pages advocated the transformation of the planet through people's use of ecologically friendly tools. The publication continued into the 1990s and did as much as anything else during the last century to introduce eco-awareness to the masses.

Forty years ago, Brand believed cities were bad things, and the good thing--for Spaceship Earth, especially--was a rural lifestyle. Now, he passionately believes that cities are beneficial for both people and the planet. Then, Brand was antinuclear. Now, he writes: "Greens caused gigatons of carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere from the coal and gas burning that went ahead instead of nuclear."

A statement like that amounts to an apostasy of sorts, and Whole Earth Discipline presents Brand's reasons for it. Given the question in any reasonable reader's mind—if Brand was wrong then, why is he right now?—this occasionally makes for droll reading.

Overall, however, Brand deserves credit for forthrightly stating that "when the facts change, I change my mind." He deserves credit, too, for asking to be held accountable for his book's predictions and for providing a website, Longbets.org, where one can go to tell him that he's wrong.

What changed his mind? Reality. Brand is a cofounder of the Global Business Network (GBN), a consulting firm that offers multiple scenarios, prepared by experts and insiders, to help companies, nongovernmental organizations, and governments plan strategically. One frequent GBN client has been the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, directed by the 88-year-old semilegendary futurist Andy Marshall.

In 2003, Marshall's office asked GBN for scenarios of abrupt global climate change. The data, from temperature indicators embedded in ancient Arctic ice, showed that temperatures had been known to shift with shocking speed. Brand realized, he says, that "climate change wasn't something remote, but could happen anytime--and fast." Our species has burned half a trillion tons of carbon since the Industrial Revolution began and could burn an equal amount in the next 40 years as China and India arrive at the First World banquet table, Brand realized. He understood that the planet might warm as much as five degrees before the end of the century. The most recent data support him: a 2009 study by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change indicates a median probability that Earth's surface temperature will rise 5.2 °C by 2100. One of the coauthors, Ronald Prinn, reports: "There's significantly more risk than we previously estimated."

Brand acknowledges that the consequences of climate change and climate policies remain uncertain: some stabilizing factor in the planetary ecosystem might mitigate the heating effects of our carbon emissions. "Counting on that, though, would be like playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded but one," he writes.

Hence, Brand has come to the position that humanity must be unbiased in its resolve to do whatever works. He opposes doctrinaire forms of environmentalism like the campaign to globally ban the pesticide DDT--a decision that, according to malaria expert Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, contributed to the deaths of 20 million children worldwide. Most pernicious, in Brand's view, greens have resisted nuclear power, claiming that renewable sources of energy like wind and solar will one day generate all the grid electricity we now derive from fossil fuels.

Given the current capabilities of those renewable technologies, Brand thinks, that's highly unlikely. A large coal-fired plant, a hydroelectric power station, and a nuclear reactor each might have one gigawatt (a billion watts) of generating capacity. To achieve the same capacity, a wind farm would need to cover more than 200 square miles; a solar array, more than 50. That's a big footprint for renewables.

Admittedly, those estimates are disputed. Michael Totten, chief advisor on climate and energy at Conservation International in Arlington, VA, says that wind turbines have the smallest footprint of all energy technologies and that all current U.S. electricity consumption could be met with 400,000 turbines, each with two megawatts of capacity, placed over just 3 percent of the 1.2 million square miles of the Great Plains. If those turbines were hypothetically squeezed into one space, the footprint would cover just six square miles.

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, confirms Totten's numbers. Footprint, Jacobson says, shouldn't be confused with spacing--the area between devices or around generator plants, which is usable for multiple purposes, like farming or wildlife refuge. If 50 percent of the world's energy needs were met by wind in 2030, Jacobson says, the footprint would be less than 50 square kilometers, although the spacing would require 1 percent of the planet's surface. Totten says, "Brand's arguments are blatantly wrong about wind and solar, as though he simply assembled in book form what he's heard over the years from GBN's biggest customers."

Arguably so. But asked about nuclear power, Totten invokes the prospect of Chernobyl-style meltdowns and reactors smashed open by terrorist-piloted planes. Reminded that these are technical impossibilities for modern reactor designs, he switches to an economic argument: nuclear plants are so expensive that the industry always requires government subsidies.

But it's notable that in the 1970s, before regulations made construction costs skyrocket, nuclear energy provided America's cheapest electricity. Nor should we forget that France gets more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, emits two-thirds less carbon dioxide per capita than the United States, and is the world's largest net exporter of electricity—earning $4 billion annually—thanks to its very low cost of generation.

Brand says it's entirely predictable that many greens neither know nor are interested in educating themselves about recent developments like new reactors or cleaner fuel cycles: "As far as they're concerned, nuclear had been stopped, they're glad it was, and now that it's happening again, they're confused and upset." That observation strikes at the heart of the matter. If today Greenpeace and an entire generation of activists simply cannot accept that nuclear power might be the most credible source of carbon-free energy, it's because doing so would entail an almost unbearable recognition: that a very large part of their life's work has been fundamentally, disastrously wrong, and that by obstructing the transition to nuclear back in the 1970s, they bear direct responsibility both for global warming and for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that have since resulted from coal-related pollution. It is to Stewart Brand's credit that he can recognize that disturbing truth.

Mark Williams is a contributing editor at Technology Review.


Peter Kareiva: What You Should Be Reading This Summer
A Sixties Environmentalist Enters the 21st Century

    --Peter Kareiva, The Science Chronicles, June 2010

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.

By Stewart Brand. 2009.

It was the Sixties — 1968, to be exact. I was in high school experimenting with all sorts of things, and Stewart Brand published the first Whole Earth Catalogue. It was brilliant and oh-so-Sixties. Now Brand is back with a 21st century prescription for saving the planet — and this book is the freshest, smartest, and most provocative enviro title I have read since Shellenberger and Nordhaus's Death of Environmentalism in 2004. Brand challenges the anti-technology and anti-business piety of old-school enviros and comes down strongly in support of genetically engineered crops, nuclear power plants, and green cities.  The ideas are important, the writing is superb, and Brand uses statistics and quotes better than anyone I know. One of my favorites is this sign placed above the doors of Chinese elementary schools:





Brand knows that the conservation game is really about creating the right kind of highly managed world, not wallowing in nostalgia for a bucolic nature untouched by man.  If you read only one non-fiction book this summer — this would be my top recommendation.

Peter Kareiva is VP and Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy


Planet Stewardship » American Scientist - Sept-Oct 2010


Benjamin K. Sovacool

WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Stewart Brand. x + 325 pp. Viking, 2009. $25.95.

In Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand makes an impassioned argument for the acceleration of urbanization and increased use of biotechnology, genetic engineering and nuclear power. The tone Brand sets at the beginning of the book is grave. He warns readers straight away that the book is “full of harsh revelations” about the seriousness of climate change and environmental problems. He discusses, among other things, “sneaky” threshold effects related to pollution, the potential for nonlinear changes to the global climatic system, the value of ecosystem services such as drinkable water and breathable air, and the unsustainability of current forms of economic production and consumption. If we continue to damage our planet in this way, Brand warns, we could soon produce a less livable Earth where we would be much like ants on a burning log. “If we do nothing or not enough,” Brand says sternly, “we face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions.”

Three technologies are the key to solving these pressing environmental problems, says Brand. First come cities, which have immense environmental and economic costs but also “more than earn their keep” by creating higher incomes, engendering social stability and facilitating strong forms of institutional governance. Brand tells us that in the same way that “organisms become more metabolically efficient as they scale up,” cities become more innovative as they increase in size. City dwellers consume fewer resources, generate less pollution and occupy less land than their rural counterparts.

Second comes nuclear power. Brand argues that nuclear reactors hold manifold advantages over other sources of energy supply. Unlike intermittent sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, nuclear reactors are capable of providing year-round, 24-hour baseload power (the minimum amount of power needed to consistently meet the needs of a customer base numbering in the millions). They occupy less land than wind farms and solar arrays. Nuclear waste is “miniscule in size” compared with the pollution from fossil-fueled facilities: The nuclear waste produced by creating enough power to supply one person with a lifetime of electricity would fit in a Coke can. Nuclear facilities also emit almost no greenhouse gases and can thus help humanity use energy without contributing to climate change.

Third comes the genetic modification of crops. Brand prefers the term genetic engineering—working with the genes behind certain traits to grow crops that produce more nutrients, grow in hostile soils, use less water, or accomplish a variety of other amazing feats. Some genetically engineered crops—those that are herbicide-tolerant, for example—can be harvested through “no till” methods that avoid plowing and the need for pesticides; the stubble from the crop can be left in the field to turn into compost, and the roots stop erosion and keep carbon in the ground. Crops can be made more nutritious: Scientists have used genetic engineering to create rice that contains beta carotene, providing hundreds of thousands of children around the world with much-needed vitamin A.

The problem with environmentalism, Brand contends, is that in shunning these three modern marvels it has become “too outdated,” “too negative,” “too politically one-sided.” Environmentalists thus “risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new tasks.” What environmentalists and “ecopragmatists” need to do instead is adopt a “planet stewardship role” by embracing cities, engineered food and atomic energy.

The book has two primary strengths. The first is its synthetic nature. Brand draws from modern-day luminaries as diverse as Charles David Keeling, Albert Howard, John Holdren, Amory Lovins, Rachel Carson and James Lovelock as well as classic scholars such as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He even sprinkles his pages with poetry from Robert Frost and quotations from the fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. The book’s second strength is its style. It is incredibly easy to read and presents its arguments in clear, simple language that is easy to comprehend.

Readers may be disappointed, however, by the book’s methodology and by Brand’s uncritical, almost sycophantic, acceptance of technology.The synthetic nature of the book, lauded above, may also strike some readers as a weakness, because it appears at times that Brand has no voice of his own. We are instead presented with large chunks of text directly quoted from his favorite authors, producing a work that at times reads more like an extended annotated bibliography than a coherently crafted book. Brand also claims to be marshalling “scientific studies” in support of his arguments, but a close read of his sources reveals a dearth of peer-reviewed literature. The list of “Recommended Reading” at the end of the book also includes less-rigorous sources of information, including blogs, Web sites and the home page of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying firm.

Furthermore, we do not hear much of the other side—of the serious countervailing arguments (some of them compelling) against urbanization, genetic engineering and nuclear power. Brand believes that “concentrating” pollution in cities is better, but epidemiological work has repeatedly shown that the high concentrations of pollutants found in metropolitan areas result in increased morbidity and mortality among urban residents. Concentrations of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, benzene and lead, for example, have been shown to especially harm children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Nuclear power is “green” only so long as one neglects to mention the serious environmental hazards related to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle. Uranium mining contaminates water sources and has resulted in scores of accidents and severe environmental degradation in dozens of countries around the world. Nuclear waste storage represents what physicist Alvin Weinberg called a “Faustian bargain,” because our civilization will be stuck with it for hundreds of thousands of years. The Oxford Research Group contends that the nuclear fuel cycle is energy-intensive (meaning that every part of it has its own affiliated greenhouse-gas emissions) and that the carbon footprint of nuclear facilities will only get worse as high-grade uranium ores are depleted and reactors get older.

Genetically modified crops have in some cases improved standards of living, but the nonpartisan Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warns of unintended consequences—through “gene escape,” for example, genes for herbicide resistance could be transferred into weeds. Moreover, the primary actors engaged in biotechnology research are multinational corporations with little concern for improving the livelihood of local farming communities.

Even if one were to ignore these points and accept that cities, reactors and engineered crops are an environmental panacea, expansion of their use would most likely continue to be impeded by a seamless web of social, political and economic obstacles. People in the field of science and technology studies, including erudite scholars such as David Nye, Richard Hirsh, Vaclav Smil and Thomas P. Hughes, have been arguing for decades that the most pernicious barriers to technological adoption are often social—consumer attitudes, lack of information, barriers to market entry, outdated political regulations—rather than technical. Engineers cannot just “design around” or wish away these social challenges.

In the end, Brand makes as compelling a case as any for technologies traditionally shunned by environmentalists. But anyone wanting to be taken seriously by that community will have to provide a far more careful and balanced analysis than the one contained in this book.

Benjamin K. Sovacool is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is also a Research Fellow in the Energy Governance Program at the Centre on Asia and Globalization. He is the author of The Dirty Energy Dilemma: What’s Blocking Clean Power in the United States (Praegar, 2008) and is coeditor with Marilyn A. Brown of Energy and American Society—Thirteen Myths (Springer, 2007).


Book review: "Whole Earth Discipline" by Stewart Brand | Mother Nature Network, Dec. 2, 2010   By John Platt

Pro-nuke, pro-geoengineering, pro-cities: Steward Brand tackles the Earth's climate crisis.

Brand, founder of the groundbreaking “Whole Earth Catalog,” argues that current efforts to mitigate climate change are nowhere near enough, and that climate change is going to get dramatically worse over the next 20 years, at which time the world could devolve into chaos and conflict as people compete for scarce resources like food, water and energy.


If we hope to reverse this, Brand believes that most of the modern thinking about environmental causes needs to go out the window.

Take nuclear power, for example. Brand writes that producing nuclear power requires less space, produces less waste, and can be ready sooner than solar power or any other sustainable energy source.

But isn't nuclear waste toxic? Aren't nuclear power plants dangerous? Brand disputes those long-held environmental beliefs. Nuclear waste is bad, sure, but Brand says that it's more compact, more controllable, and less of an immediate threat than the billions of pounds of greenhouse gases emitted every year by coal plants. And it doesn't need to be stored for 10,000 years, as goes the conventional wisdom. Brand writes that it needs to be stored for only 100 or 200 years, by which time our descendants will have a better idea what to do with it. It might even prove to be an energy resource of its own by then.

As for safety, Brand argues that the current nuclear power industry has solved the safety problems that created Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Brand even says the nuclear power industry would never allow another accident, because a single event would destroy the entire nuclear industry.

Brand also believes that more people should move to cities rather than away from them. Cities are more efficient, create wealth, and speed up innovation. They also create a stable population and a community that keeps people stronger and more vital. Villages and rural living, meanwhile, breed ignorance and do not use resources efficiently.

Then there's GMO food. Most environmentalists decry GMO crops, but Brand says they have always existed. "Consider the kiwi," he writes. The famous fruit was created by "selective breeding of the Chinese gooseberry." If this achievement had been created in a lab, it would not be the popular food it is today.

GMO foods offer other benefits, Brand writes. They can be more resistant to disease, weeds and pests; they produce greater crop yields with less fertilizer and water; and they require less farmland to produce. Meanwhile, Brand cites a U.N. report that found no evidence of any injurious effects to the environment or to people from eating GMO food.

Throughout the book, Brand argues his points well and backs them up with meticulous research. Few of his assertions are likely to be popular with the environmental movement, but his courage in saying them needs to be applauded and his alternative viewpoint needs to be taken seriously and examined in depth. Some people might be willing to write off his theses just because they're different, but the environment needs a devil's advocate, and Brand seems more than willing to take on that role.

This new paperback edition contains a detailed afterword, correcting and expanding information from last year's hardcover. You can also visit www.sbnotes.com, where Brand is posting detailed annotations, making the book's research a living document that you can use to further research these topics.


Brand Management

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. By Stewart Brand. Penguin, 2010. 352 pages.  The Science Chronicles - Dec. 2010

This is another book that everyone at The Nature Conservancy should read. Author Stewart Brand has a remarkable gift for continually reinventing himself — from one of author Ken Kesey's original Merry Pranksters, who helped shape 1960s’ counterculture (see Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) to author of The Whole Earth Catalog (a huge deal for folks my age) to early pio- neer of the Internet (via the WELL, one of the Web’s first online communities). Here, Brand turns his full attention to the conservationist’s mission, arguing for a hard-nosed and science-based approach to setting priorities for the conservation movement.

To note two examples, he focuses on genetically modified foods (as a smart way to produce more food while using less land) and nuclear power (of course, to generate greenhouse- gas-free power and to save habitat from the prospect of becoming what he calls "Renewistan” — a landscape cluttered with windmills, solar thermal plants and transmission lines). Interestingly, he also calls for folks to roll up their sleeves and get outdoors to protect nature (say, by pulling invasive weeds) instead of hitting the gyms. No reader will agree with everything Brand recommends, but we ought to carefully consider everything he discusses in this beautifully written and closely reasoned fact-based analysis.

—Mark Tercek