Let Me Count the Ways …

Stewart Brand issues his latest challenge to the environmental movement in his Whole Earth Discipline. Using climate change as his big stick, Brand does not walk softly as he attempts to overturn some of the key presuppositions of the environmental movement.

This quirky, nonlinear compendium is a treasure trove of anecdotal information on the planetary environment. À la Amory Lovins, whose writings he uses as a foil on more than one occasion, Mr. Brand, ever the optimist, finds new solutions to our collective environmental woes under every bush. He builds a strong case.

The curtain opens with what has become commonplace: a call to action in the case of highly likely and potentially catastrophic climate change. It’s an update of Al Gore’s film with wide-ranging references to the popular-science literature. While his argument might not be wholly convincing, there is little doubt we have a problem.

Most of the volume focuses on Brand’s ideas for solutions, the first being to concentrate on dense urban zones, which are more efficient users of energy than dispersed settlements, at least for heating and transportation. In urban zones it is also easier to collect and recycle or treat waste products. While it’s taken as a given that mass transit goes along with urbanization (actually, small, light, hybrid or electric personal vehicles may prove to be at least as efficient within the city), the urban thesis will not engender much angst in the environmental community outside the pastoralist “back to the land” part of the movement. A special bonus in this chapter is the discussion of demographic implosion. Brand marshals figures to demonstrate that the population bomb is no longer the problem it was once thought to be. In his mind, urbanization is causal, though it may well be correlative. No matter; I agree with the basic argument.

Brand’s embrace of nuclear power is where the fireworks begin. Although he makes the necessary obeisance to energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, Brand reserves his firepower for nuclear, in what is the most systematic chapter in the book. One by one, though not too linearly, he addresses the big four arguments against nuclear power: safety, cost, waste disposal, and proliferation. With the exception of cost, Brand’s treatment of these issues is thorough. On the cost issue, Brand states that “the problem is not that nuclear actually is expensive. The problem is that coal is cheap.” While there is no doubt that coal is too cheap, nuclear is expensive. And gas is given short shrift.

The book is quite provocative. There is a long, though nontechnical, discussion of conventional plant-breeding practices, which Brand likens to a genetic roulette wheel in comparison to the targeted results obtainable by modern gene-splicing techniques. Concerns over genetic contamination are dismissed as unfounded and unproved, and the European ban on genetically modified foods is tarred with the brush of the monopsonist, in so many words. But Brand goes much further with his support, which might be summed up with his quote from Dr. Florence Wambugu of Kenya: “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first?” This is a plausible position.

The last chapters of Whole Earth Discipline are a call for science, ecosystem engineering, and finally planetary engineering. And, well, there is a difference: science is about understanding problems. But ecosystem engineering is another kettle of fish: while we are undoubtedly learning, ecology is so complex and our experience at ecosystem engineering is spotty at best; I am not reassured completely by Brand’s argument here. As with mycology, even a small error can be fatal. The byword is caution.

The discussion of planetary engineering—“geoengineering”—is grafted onto the tail end of the book. While we as a species may eventually come to that, this is really a great leap of faith forward.

Does Brand think he can solve the problem of global warming? It would appear that he is imbued with an engineer’s optimism—all can be solved, even if radical measures might be required.