Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Challenging ideas in Stewart Brand's new book

Stewart Brand has been popping up all over the British media in the last few weeks. He has a new book out, and is promoting not only his book, but the ideas that he wants to make widely known.

Anyone old enough to recall the 1960s counter-culture may remember The Whole Earth Catalog. Stewart Brand was the person behind this venture – a vast compendium of information and ideas covering self-sufficiency, alternative technologies, community living and libertarian politics. It was published annually from 1968 to 1972, and occasionally thereafter. The last one was a special millennium edition. In pre-World Wide Web days, it was the nearest thing possible (if you were interested in those issues) to the kind of information sourcing we now all take for granted. In fact, Steve Jobs (of Apple Inc.) described the Catalog as the conceptual forerunner of the World Wide Web.

The new book, Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto (London: Atlantic Books, 2010) is positioned, and titled, to be a kind of supplement to the Catalog series.

Stewart Brand is a serious environmentalist, and has been for many years, long before the term ‘environmentalist’ was in use. He’s got a significant track record of creative ideas and has influenced many fields of environmental, ‘alternative’ and counter-culture endeavour. He’s a combination of the visionary and the practical activist. You can find more about him on Wikipedia or browse his own account of himself on his own website.

I remember the Whole Earth Catalog series, but hadn’t recalled his name in association with them until I came across his 1999 book, The Clock of the Long Now: time and responsibility (paperback published in Britain by Basic Books, 2000). This was written as part of a bigger project, The Long Now Foundation addressing humanity’s ‘pathologically short attention span’. In the approach to the millennium, the whole public mood was that the year 2000 was the ‘end’ of something. One of the devices Brand uses in his book, to shift our thinking, is to write the years either side of the millennium as 01999 and 02000. So now we are in the year 02010. The idea of a ‘long now’ is to restore both a human-scale and cosmological sense of ‘now’, rather than the accelerated, technology-driven sense of ‘now’ that is so pervasive. In geological terms, ‘now’ is a million years, or so – a mere geological eye-blink.

Following this, Brand’s new book seeks to address the critical environmental issues now facing us, and does so in challenging and uncomfortable ways. In sum, he wants to see the environmental movement, world-wide, cease to be led by romanticism and start to be led by science and engineering – hence the ‘ecopragmatist’ in the title. Speaking on Radio 4’s Start the Week on 1 February, he said,
Ask any public figure, ‘What have you been wrong about, and how did that change your views?’
He says he was wrong about nuclear power, joining James Lovelock and others in warning that we will have to find ways of coming to terms with nuclear as the base-load provider for our power grids. He points out that the amount of waste attributable to one person’s lifetime use of nuclear-generated electricity is actually very small – and compare that with the amount of carbon dioxide produced from fossil-fuel generation. The major problem, he says, is how we stop the use of coal – the worst of all options. He also cites various calculations, produced for different countries, about the use of renewables for the baseload of power generation – there just isn’t enough land area for wind turbines or solar panels (even if we drastically reduce our usage). For the UK situation, see Without Hot Air.

He also thinks we (in Europe, especially) need to overcome our opposition to genetically modified seeds; and we need to stop our opposition to their use in Africa. They don’t have to come along with the whole package of monoculture prairie-style farming. As climate change rapidly alters the growing conditions in major food-producing regions of the world, we are going to need new varieties of staple food crops that can cope with the changing patterns of rainfall and temperature. He points out that many of the Amish have embraced GM seeds! The Amish are very interesting in their attitude to modern technology. They evaluate everything on the basis of both utility and impact on the life of the community. So they continue their traditional ways of farming, but use GM seed, which they just regard as better seeds. Brand suggests that what we need to adopt widely is organic farming, but with GM seeds where they offer an advantage.

These two are examples of using science and engineering as the drivers for our decision-making.

He also advocates more city-living, and discusses seriously the creativity and environmental soundness of many of what we normally regard as terrible slums around major developing-world cities. City dwellers generally use far less energy than non-city dwellers – localism, meaning walking and cycling for all your daily needs, is far more possible in city environments. In developing nations, as poor people move to cities, they encounter more opportunities to move out of poverty, have smaller families, use less energy and raw materials – and the eco-systems of the rural areas recover. These are challenging views, but his arguments are seriously researched and backed-up with data, and need to be considered, not dismissed out of hand.

And as if this were not already enough in the way of challenges, he has also re-evaluated his libertarian politics. He is now clear that climate change requires social and technological change, decision-making and enforcement on large scales that only powerful governments can provide. For instance, voluntary self-restraint and market forces are not going to keep coal in the ground – only governments can forbid mining, or use taxation to make coal too expensive to use.

You can hear Stewart Brand on Start the Week; you can hear a lecture he gave in the US (scroll down to the video frame); you can hear his talk given on 19 January at the RSA in London (listen online or download an MP3 file). And you can read a review article on the book.

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1 comment:

  1. Peter Hussey (Llandrindod and Pales Meeting)writes:

    Stewart Brand's thoughts on "what we normally regard as terrible slums around major developing-world cities" chime with what a number of people have appreciated about the Mumbai slums, for example Kevin McCloud's challenging TV programmes on his stay in the slums. That particular slum says a great deal about the resilience of people and the way in which they, when allowed to create community, can overcome their surroundings and organise themselves very effectively. It is a very effective argument for anarchy, a process which has long had a perjuative reputation, but one which has persuasive benefits. Having apparently appreciated that, you indicate that he then goes on "to be clear that climate change requires social and technological change, decision-making and enforcement on large scales that only powerful governments can provide." I would have thought that Copenhagen had demonstrated that governments are not well positioned to take the lead on, for example, "keeping coal in the ground". Are politicians going to include such ideas in their manifestos, alongside the restoration and re-invigoration of growth? Individual consumers have to first make it politically feasible, by affecting the market and reducing demand, and proving the public acceptance before any government, even a totalitarian one, can act. Ronald Higgin's "The Seventh Enemy", in which he suggests that all challenges to the future of mankind can be overcome, but that political apathy and governmental inaction will prevent it, provides a persuasive counter-argument. I am of the view that the idea of leaving action to government provides an excuse for in-action at the individual level and is, anyway, an aspiration that is likely to be disappointed.