Whole Earth Discipline

Seminal environmentalist (and sometime Cape Breton summer resident) Stewart Brand promotes a series of environmental heresies in this surprising talk.

In 1968, Brand created the Whole Earth Catalog, which Apple founder Steve Jobs described as the conceptual forerunner of the World Wide Web. A counter-cultural touchstone, the Catalog helped inspire and galvanize the environmental movement.

Today, Brand calls himself an ecopragmatist. This talk previews Whole Earth Discipline, a book he will publish this Fall challenging contemporary environmentalists to reconsider objections to nuclear power and genetically modified foods. Brand is pro-city, pro-genetic engineering, pro-nuclear, and so profoundly worried about climate change, he believes geoengineering will probably be necessary. After the jump, some excerpts from the talk.

On cities:

History is driven to a large degree by the size of cities. All the largest cities in the world are in the developing world,  and they are developing three times faster and nine times bigger than those in the developed world. In other words, the rise of the west, dramatic as it was, is over.

Squatters, all one billion of them, are building the urban world—which means they are building the world—personally, one by one, family by family. clan by clan, neighborhood by neighborhood.  They start flimsy and they get substantial as times goes by. They are Intensely creative.

We are getting a world of old folks, in old cities, going around doing things the old way, in the north—and young people, in brand new cities, doing new things they are inventing, in the south. Where do you think the action is going to be?

On climate change:

The climate news is going o keep getting worse than we think faster than we think. Climate is a profoundly complex nonlinear system full of runaway positive feedback, hidden thresholds, and irrevocable tipping points. We’re going to keep being surprised, and almost all the surprises are going to be bad ones.

Base load electricity is what it takes to run a city. So far there are only three sources of base load electricity: Coal (and some gas), nuclear, and hydro. Of those, only nuclear and hydro are green.  Coal is what is causing the climate problem, and everyone will keep burning it because it is so cheap, until governments make it expensive. Wind and solar can’t help because so far we don’t have a way to store that energy.

On genetically engineered crops:

Genetically engineered food crops in my view as a biologist have no reason to be controversial. My fellow Environmentalists on this subject have been irrational, anti-scientific, and very harmful. Despite their best efforts, genetically engineered crops are the most rapidly successful agricultural innovation in history. They are good for the environment, because they allow no-till farming, which leaves the soil in place, getting healthier from year to year. It also keeps less carbon dioxide going from the soil into the atmosphere. They reduce pesticide use, and they increase yields, which allows you to have your agricultural areas be smaller, and therefore more wild area is freed up. This is a moral issue. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics met on this issue twice in great detail and said it is a moral imperative to make genetically engineered crops readily available.