Stewart Brand

I’ve got a review of Stewart Brand’s new book Whole Earth Discipline in this week’s New Statesman. It doesn’t appear to be on their website yet, so I’ve re-produced it below.

I became interested in Stewart Brand after reading Fred Turner’s excellent (if a little dry) book From Counterculture to Cyberculture last year (see this previous post). Like a secret time-traveller, Brand pops up at various moments that would go on to define the development of personal computing: filming the “mother of all demos” in the 60s; funding the Homebrew Computer Club in the 70s; coining the phrase “information wants to be free” in the 80s. You can hear me interviewing Stewart for my favourite independent radio show, Little Atoms, on Resonance FM next Friday.

Here’s my review (note this is unedited copy, but it doesn’t differ much from what you’ll find on p.54 of today’s Staggers):

Social entrepreneur and technology guru Stewart Brand’s first significant contribution to the environmental movement came to him as he 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 the mysticism of 1960s San Francisco, but he’s still thinking about the planet. This time, he doesn’t just want a photograph (that happened in 1968, leading to the first Earth Day in the US), 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 begin focussing on the task at hand – saving civilisation.

Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto is a rich, compelling guide to how old wisdom and new technologies can combine to help civilisation survive manmade climate change. But it should be read as much for its dissection of the way ideologies distort decision-making on science and technology. Why did the anti-state right oppose fluoridisation and the anti-corporate left oppose GM? “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: urbanisation; GM; nuclear. Earth’s population became mostly urban in 2007. The dream of going back to the land – an ideal Brand gained his fame by promoting in Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of Sears for hippy communes – is wrong-headed, because cities turn out to be the greener option. Urbanisation slows population growth (as 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 more land surface to be gardened into “natural” ecosystems that will mitigate climate harm.

But urban populations demand grid electricity, and that means re-evaluating the nuclear option. The rejection of nuclear stems from our revulsion of nuclear weapons; the “absolute” nature of our other concerns – on grounds of safety, cost and waste storage – all flow from here. Brand dismisses each objection with a mix 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 we’ve 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 60s individualism toward 21st century governance. 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 same dock as the leaders of Exxon Mobil for their crimes against science and humanity. Environmentalists who label GM “unnatural” have confused agriculture with nature, when agriculture itself is one of the world’s worst climate criminals. The work of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in demonising GM has left millions of Africans starving 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 was mistaken by the public for a monster. “Of course, that’s a rhetorical argument, devoid of meaning. But so is the term Frankenfood.”

Urbanisation, nuclear, GM: all will happen whether the environmental movement adopts Brand’s manifesto or not. But if Greens take up his call, if they start working to “Green the Hell” out of the world’s new mega-cities, go “Glow-in-the-Dark” Green and make sure nuclear power adoption is directed in the right way, or 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, it’s time to put away our inner grudges and get used to the idea that we alone are masters of our own destiny. “We are as gods and have to get good at it”.

Stewart Brands campaigning buttons

9 responses to “Stewart Brand

  1. I agree urbanisation has a lot to say for it, and Greens generally agree that higher density living spaces tend to have lower footprints.

    It is disappointing to see Brand take the road of pro-Nuclear and GM. It’s like he’s been scared into supporting them by the scale of the environmental challenge we face.

    We know nukes have huge risks, are massively expensive requiring immense taxpayer subsidies and won’t be ready in time to make an impact on climate change.

    As for GM… well it is of course very hard to deal with the thought of so many people going hungry around the world. Yet GM does not solve this problem – it makes farmers poorer (by making them have to buy new corporate-sourced seeds each year) and leaves uncertain yields. Higher yields have been very hard to come by with GM crops… so the promise from the marketing has not been fulfilled.

    But Brand is absolutely right that soil quality is a key issue of urgent importance. I think he misunderstands the corporate agriculture agenda if he thinks they’ll be prioritising soil health though.

  2. Jason, I’m ecstatic that you’ve chosen to comment underneath this post. I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve not read the book. I would urge you to do so, then come back to your comment and see if you still stand by it.

    Just picking up on your GM comments to start with, I’d like to offer two rebuttals taken directly from the book. The first comes from when parts of Africa were suffering from severe drought in 2001 and 2002:

    “A 15,000 ton aid shipment of US corn (about one-third GE) was turned away by the government of Zimbabwe on the grounds that some GE corn kernels might be planted rather than eaten, and that would endanger the country’s exports to GE-averse Europe. The US offered to grind the corn to meal so it could not be planted. Meanwhile, part of the shipment was diverted to Zambia, just to the north, where 3 million were facing famine. Zambia had accepted and eaten such shipments for six years, but this time it was rejected. ‘Simply because my people are hungry, that is no justification to give them poison, to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health,’ President Levy Mwanawasa declared. ‘We would rather starve than get something toxic.’

    “…The lethal change of policy in Zambia was the result of a concerted effort by Europe-based environmental organizations to frighten African nations about GE crops…Decision makers in Zambia and elsewhere were persuaded that GE crops would cause allergies, would infect their digestive tracts, would spread HIV/AIDS, would contain pig genes, and would deny them any possibility of selling their crops to European markets.”

    So there’s one concrete example of how anti-GE propaganda starved Africans (Brand cites Robert Paarlberg’s “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa” in this passage).

    The terminator seeds story is apparently a bit of a myth, triggered in 1998 when Monsanto looked like it might buy out a smaller bio-tech company that had a patent for a technique called GURT – genetic use restriction technology. After massive public outcry, Monsanto announced it would not pursue the technology – Brand states that as of 2009, there are no sterilised GE crops anywhere in the world (although sterile plants might actually be quite useful in preventing gene flow from GE crops to non-GE crops). But he goes on to detail something even more interesting:

    “The fear that GE sterility technology would require the annual purchase of seeds is less novel and less alarming when viewed in the context of standard agricultural practice. Most farmers buy vigorous new hybrid seeds every year and have for decades. Hybrid seeds don’t “breed true”: the next generation is a chaotic mix.”

    He goes on to quote Jonathan Gressel:

    “‘Many of the [GE] detractors justify their antibiotech tirades by reasoning that farmers will have to buy seed and have turned “farmer-saved seed” into a holy mantra. Almost all those well experienced in agriculture know that there is nothing worse for farming than farmer-saved seed…'”.

    The big problem with biotech according to Brand – and since you know me, you’ll know why I find this so easy to believe – is patent thickets and monopoly control. Ironically, this monopoly control has been brought about in part because of the over-tough regulatory environment associated with GM. But these are not insurmountable problems. Plenty of foundations, led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are sponsoring research into GM that is conducted in and targeted at the developing world, and largely open sourced (irony #2). Meanwhile, the US adminstration is quietly looking at the case for bringing anti-trust proceedings against the major US biotech firms.

    One of the major lessons I took from working with you in the campaign against e-voting is that people will read what they want to read into new technology, based on their existing convictions. Remember all those returning officers who knew – just knew – that introducing computers into a vote count would speed things up? What about all those politicians who were convinced that because more people voted for X Factor than voted in the general election, introducing telephone voting was a good idea? And all those civil servants who couldn’t see past their conviction that e-voting would save the Treasury money? Although I’m interested in this book because it is believably optimistic about mankind’s chances of surviving climate change, I am – I’m a little ashamed to admit – more interested in it because of what it tells us about how ideology can distort our evaluation of new technology, and further about how our current social and political institutions – from political parties to the news media – can usefully evaluate new technology and help us come to sensible decisions about it as a society.

    I really do recommend Whole Earth Discipline to you, Jason – not just because it basically predicts the comment you wrote up there, but also because it approaches climate change in a frame of reference I don’t think any self-identified hacker/geek can resist. If it doesn’t change your mind on at least some of these issues, I’ll refund you the cover price.

  3. Thanks for a great reply Becky.

    First off the GM stuff…

    Of course rejecting food aid for starving people is an extreme and difficult response to justify. Some of the language you quote from Zambia is completely beyond science. If planted however it does have an impact on biodiversity – if provided ground up that risk of course isn’t there. There is still much scientific debate around the long term health impacts of various GM crops. In the face of starvation I would argue those risks are worth taking, but we have very little information on the long term risks and that should be acknowledged.

    If the terminator technology seeds are a myth or have been phased out then I’m very happy.

    I’ll try to give the book a read. But from what I can see of it, the theme follows much of what Wired has taken for some time – of the technofix. In other words, that human ingenuity will get us out of every problem eventually and we will persevere.

    Yes tech is amazing – solar power, LED bulbs etc are all great technofixes. Still they don’t change the massive starvation, poverty, extreme weather and polluted air/water we have in the world. I feel we should be more precautionary in how we treat the world and our bodies too.

    And yes… we all have our inbuilt biases which we need to work on!

  4. If you do get a chance to read the book (some of it is available and referenced here – but I’d recommend reading all of it, especially the chapter on “Romantics, Scientists and Engineers”) then I’d love it if you came back here and left your thoughts. I agree that somewhere between the rejection of technology that ultimately flows from over-emphasis on the precautionary principle and the Wired “whizz-bang, whoopee” approach is the path we probably need to take.

    On the subject of Wired, did you see Wired UK’s awful feature in the January issue “Fifteen radical ideas for a smarter nation”, where Glasses Direct founder Jamie Murray Wells advocated for online referendums at national and local level, not even at some point in the future, but right now? A perfect example of a totally irresponsible promotion of technology without a thought for its impact on human rights. It made my blood boil especially high since I’ve been selling Glasses Direct to all my friends who wear glasses for at least the last two years!

  5. Hadn’t seen that – a classic example of ‘if tech works for commerce then we should just do same thing with democracy’ fallacy.

    Thanks for all the good links and info.

  6. Hey H-girl! Found this while scouting for conversational ammo. Have the book on order, but heard Brand a couple of times; interesting chap. Nice article Beck-meister, and that’s enough unwarranted over-familiarity from me. Tchau!

  7. Louise Ferguson

    I’ve been a long-time fan of Brand, mainly owing to his How Buildings Learn, which is a bit of a bible for the designer-anthropologist. I have some bones to pick with his latest publication though. There’s a whole lot of simplistic thinking going on in there, which is not far off the magic thinking we see in e-voting. And surely the debate has moved on: climate change is just one of many issues facing us. I’m not seeing a discussion of water (we started reaching crisis point with water over a decade ago in southern Europe, while there are even major issues in the US); a discussion of the perpetual growth-energy model per se (not just peak oil but peak everything, including the rare elements used in some very hi-tech industries including power); and the entire edifice that is the ‘perpetual’ (but unsustainable) growth-economy model. You could argue that his book does not aim to address these issues. But I fail to see how anyone can ignore them in any discussion of ‘solutions’ for climate change/the future of the planet. For example, he raises the example of the eastern US mega-urbanisation pattern as some kind of good thing: but we’ve long known than the US mega-suburbia model is pretty doomed. (See Simmons, Kunstler, Heinberg et al.) And for another example, how can you unhook peak oil from climate change? The two are inextricably linked, and surely have to be addressed together. And has he taken a look at the supply of certain resources required for different kinds of energy production, including nuclear? I’d like to see him quoting more hard evidence rather than novelists and song-writers😉. Or rather, he could do his case some good by steering clear of the mystical/fictional/lyrical axis altogether.

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