Category Archives: Books

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


Book JacketI took some time about reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. It appeared on my desk when I was working at openDemocracy, which is at least two and a half years ago, and most likely more. The feeling I got when I received it has never left me: that this book was a secret messaage sent especially to me.

Nonetheless, it took me this long to read it, mostly because it is written densely, in an academic style. Fred Turner is assistant professor in the Department of Commnuication at Stanford University, at least he was at the time this book was published (2006). Perservering with his book has paid off.

The book tracks a period of time between the early 1960s and the late 1990s, focussing on the activities of Stewart Brand and the communities he encountered during his extensive career as a social entrpreneur, from his experience with the Merry Pranksters to his founding of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, an early San Francisco-based BBS. The books is subtitled “Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism”. In particular, Turner demonstrates how Brand brought to a popular audience the activities of both the New Communalist, back-to-the-land movement and the experiments in distributed computing of the latter day Cold War military-academic-industrial complex, using the common contact language he established to do so in order to frame an early, influential strand of information politics which extended to liberal economics, workforce reform… and the dotcom crash.

The book celebrates and illuminates key moments in the history of the digital age, including Douglas Engelbert’s “Mother of All Demos” of 1968 (which Brand filmed), a 1972 photo feature, shot by Anne Liebowitz for Rolling Stone magazine, in which Brand describes the oncoming personal computer revolution as “the best news since psychedelics”, the 1990 online encounter between John Perry Barlow and young New York hackers Masters of Deception, and Wired‘s 1997 cover story “The Long Boom”, which is subtitled thus:

“We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?”

I’d like to do another blog poast about that shortly. But in the mean time I suggest you swot up here.