Book Review: Whole Earth Discipline
An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books 2009
“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, Scientist 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.