A curious blend of doom and optimism

Veteran green Stewart Brand’s new book proves a surprisingly useful source of arguments and facts against green dogmas. But critics of environmentalism should still be wary of him.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

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‘Every day, I wonder how many things I am dead wrong about.’

Stewart Brand approvingly takes this line from a novel, True North, and it sums up his own mindset – at least, to some extent. Brand was one of the early, high-profile environmentalists. He graduated from Stanford University in 1960 with a degree in biology, his specialty being evolution and ecology. (One of his tutors there was Paul Ehrlich, later author of The Population Bomb.) From 1966, Brand campaigned for NASA to release a rumoured photo of the whole Earth, a photograph finally taken in 1968, and an image that helped to inspire the first Earth Day in 1970. His Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, provided details of suppliers for all the essentials of life – if one wanted to be a treehugging hippy, that is.

Unlike many greens, however, Brand appears always to have been something of a technophile, and he mixed with many of the people who helped to create the World Wide Web. The journal he founded in 1974, CoEvolution Quarterly, included many technological pioneers, and promoted a positive attitude towards technology. If our thinking about technology could be radically altered, the journal argued, it could resolve many environmental problems.

In Whole Earth Discipline, this idea is expressed as a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde attitude towards the future. Brand manages to be both profoundly reactionary and thrillingly optimistic. His mix of science and misanthropy is reminiscent of James Lovelock (whom Brand refers to frequently in the book as ‘Jim’).

The book’s introduction is profoundly downbeat. Brand cites the Harvard archaeologist Steven LeBlanc’s argument that warfare is pretty much a natural state for humanity: ‘In all societies from hunter-gatherers on up through agricultural tribes, then chiefdoms, to early complex civilisations, 25 per cent of adult males routinely died from warfare. No one wanted to fight, but they were constantly forced to choose between starvation and robbing the neighbours. Their preferred solution was the total annihilation of the neighbors.’ LeBlanc’s thesis is that such wars were necessary because humans ‘always outstrip the carrying capacity of their natural environment and then have to fight over resources’.

Peace breaks out when the pressure on resources is reduced, suggests LeBlanc, either through a technological breakthrough or a major plague. In that respect, the Black Death was good news for Europe. In turn, after a period of relative peace in historical terms – over the past three centuries, just three per cent of the world’s people have died in wars – Brand argues that the future could bring a shift back to conflict if climate change sharply reduces the Earth’s carrying capacity. ‘If we do nothing or not enough’, writes Brand, ‘we face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to a war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions’. No wonder Brand now lives on a tugboat in San Francisco Bay, a perfect vantage point to watch from as the proverbial excrement hits the fan.

Brand clearly sees the monster of climate change at every turn. There are lots of ways, he believes, in which the climate could suddenly ‘tip’ from our currently benign conditions into something much more difficult to cope with. ‘Climate is so full of surprises, it might even surprise us with a hidden stability. Counting on that, though, would be like playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded but one.’ Chatting to ‘Jim’ Lovelock on the phone, the Gaia theorist warns Brand that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been too optimistic. Lovelock tells him: ‘I don’t think there’s much doubt at all now, amongst those few of us that have worked on the problem, that the system is in the course of moving to its stable hot state, which is about five degrees Celsius globally higher than now.’ Lovelock suggests that would leave the Earth with a carrying capacity for human life of less than a billion people.

How can we stop this disaster occurring? Brand turns to materials scientist Saul Griffith, who explains how we need to replace all our methods of producing energy at present with very low-carbon alternatives. Unfortunately, that task sounds close to impossible, requiring that an area the size of America is covered in wind farms, solar cells and sunlight-concentrating mirrors, biofuel tanks and nuclear reactors. Griffith tells Brand: ‘Industrially, humanity has the collective capacity. But politically, I don’t see how… But we have to try. Why else bother to be human and be in this game?’

Brand argues that the task is not impossible, but requires absolute urgency. ‘Forty years ago, I started the Whole Earth Catalog with the words, “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” Those were innocent times. New situation, new motto: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” The Whole Earth Catalog encouraged individual power; Whole Earth Discipline is more about aggregate power.’

This mix of climate change panic and politics, based on the demand that ‘we must do this, because the science says so’, has become the mainstay of environmentalism for the past couple of decades. But just when I was tempted to toss the book away – the recycling bag seemed an apt receptacle – Brand then spent the bulk of it laying into some of the totems of the environmental movement. If you took a scalpel to the introduction and the last part of the book, what you would be left with is a source book of facts and arguments on the failings of environmentalist ideas that could easily be renamed The Debater’s Guide to Why Greens Talk Rubbish.

Brand opens this section with a defence of cities. A familiar theme of recent years has been the realisation amongst many greens that cramming people into cities reduces their ‘ecological footprint’ considerably. Brand talks about this as if the aim should be to quarantine as many polluting humans as possible in urban areas. Nonetheless, he does recognise that there are human advantages of cities, too, and does a pretty good job of updating Marx and Engels’ dictum from The Communist Manifesto that capitalism had rescued people from the ‘idiocy of rural life’. To that end, Brand quotes the words of BR Ambedkar, the leader of the ‘untouchables’ who helped to write India’s constitution in the Forties. Ambedkar described villages as a cesspool, ‘a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’.

Brand recounts how his own ‘Gandhiesque romanticism about villages’ was turned upside down by the head of the Global Fund for Women in 2001, who remarked at a conference: ‘In the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and relatives, pound millet, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children.’ Rural and small-town life sucks, it seems, and people are voting with their feet. Brand notes how he asks travellers returning from remote places for their impressions, and gets the same universal report: ‘The villages of the world are emptying out, everywhere.’ In the past few years, the world has passed an important milestone: today, more people live in cities than in the countryside.

The upshot of this is that not only do people have a lower eco-footprint, but there are simply fewer of them, too. Brand notes that fertility rates plummet when people move to towns. In the impoverished countryside, women must have lots of children to provide a family workforce, give parents security in old age and, more brutally, because so many children die in their first few years of life. In the city, where space is at a premium, but where there are also many different means of support, the opposite is true: small families are better. Already, the assumption that world population will peak at nine billion is being questioned. Indeed, for a host of developed countries, declining population is a serious possibility as birth rates fall well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Even in the developing world, the rise of the city has meant that birth rates are dropping much faster than expected. You might decide to live in a remote village and pretend that this is a greener way of life, but Brand argues well that this impression is the exact opposite of the truth.

Brand is similarly scathing of the rejection of nuclear power. This section is, to some extent, a mea culpa: Brand was as vigorous in opposing nuclear as any other environmentalist in the Seventies. Yet a cool look at nuclear’s safety record shows that those green fears were totally misplaced. Nuclear is in fact far safer than other forms of power production. The stumbling block for many environmentalists, as Brand notes, has always been the issue of nuclear waste. Yet a trip with the board of his Long Now Foundation to Yucca Mountain Repository, 100 miles north-west of Las Vegas, changed Brand’s view completely. There is simply no need to bury waste in a vault that will last for 10,000 years when the waste can be stored at or near the surface safely. Moreover, there’s every chance that in the not-too-distant future, that waste could be reused as fuel. Why make assumptions about the needs or capabilities of future generations now?

With waste disposal reinterpreted as a manageable problem, and nuclear looking like a safe, reliable, low-carbon energy source, Brand notes: ‘My opinion on nuclear had flipped from anti to pro. The question I ask myself now is, What took me so long? I could have looked into the realities of nuclear power many years earlier, if I weren’t so lazy.’ Now Brand sides with the daddy of climate change alarmism, James Hansen, who wrote to President Obama as he took office in 2009: ‘The danger is that the minority of vehement anti-nuclear “environmentalists” could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on. That is a prescription for disaster.’ While Hansen is a fine one to be talking about irrational panic mongering, it is no surprise to find that more and more greens are changing their positions on nuclear.

Brand reserves his greatest scorn for those who oppose genetic engineering of crops. He provides chapter and verse on the advantages of developing new foods in this way, noting at the start of this section: ‘I dare say the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. In defence of a bizarre idea of what is “natural”, we reject the very thing Rachel Carson encouraged us to pursue – the new science of biotic controls. We make ourselves look as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse “intelligent design” or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and to decision makers.’ In the chapters on genetics, Brand provides as good a popular defence of GM crops as you’re likely to find, and it is particularly striking to find it coming from a green viewpoint.

Given his technophilic outlook, Brand worries about the dominant romantic philosophy of the green movement. ‘The romantics identify with natural systems; the scientists study natural systems. The romantics are moralistic, rebellious against the perceived dominant power, and dismissive of any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change direction… [scientists] are easily ignored, suppressed or demonised when their views don’t fit the consensus story line.’ He notes the relentless paradigm of decline that began long before there were environmentalists – in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Spengler and Heidegger amongst others – that finds its strongest contemporary expression with environmentalists.
Brand even frets about the comfortable fit between green ideas and Nazism. Brand notes that the biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term oekologie back in 1866, ‘championed eugenics and selective euthanasia to purge an imperilled Europe of “degenerates such as Jews and Negroes”‘. There is no necessary connection between environmentalism and Nazism by any means, but as one of Brand’s colleagues notes, ‘there are lots of ways in which the two movements can and have connected historically’.

Given the almighty kicking that Brand gives to some green shibboleths and to some of his past fellow travellers, you might think that he should start to question some of his other ideas, too. Is climate change, for example, really the global disaster waiting to happen that Brand suggests? His point that scientists – even within the green movement – who question the ‘consensus’ are ‘ignored, suppressed or demonised’ might have some consequences for the state of climate science, too. Perhaps he should have more sympathy for those scientists who (often tentatively) suggest that there are problems with the mainstream outlook on global warming.

But I suspect there is an element of ditching the past going on here, too. Environmentalism is now keen to be seen to be pro-science, a technocratic and pragmatic paradigm for running future societies; it is a ‘big idea’ that the political establishment can get behind, but one that is potentially very flexible in policy terms. It’s betrayed in Lovelock’s rather pompous phrase about the ‘few of us that have worked on the problem’ and Hansen’s dismissive quote marks around ‘environmentalists’ in his letter to Obama. This is really about the formation of a new elite that thinks it knows what is good for us. (Clearly, though, Brand has a self-confessed track record for not knowing what’s best for us.)

The last thing this new elite needs is a bunch of unwashed treehuggers running around and embarrassing them. Another Nazi parallel springs to mind: once its job was done, and the Nazis had wormed their way into government, Hitler was pretty quick to dispose of Ernst Rohm’s uppity Sturmabteilung or ‘brownshirts’. In other words: thanks very much for beating up the communists, now fuck off and die (literally). Brand’s assault on his erstwhile colleagues is in its own small way a reflection of a ‘Night of the Long Knives’ within the green movement.

Critics of the green movement would be wise to be cautious about Brand. At heart, he is still a green who wants to prostrate human society to the problem of climate change and thinks the real problem we face is too many people chasing too few resources. But the middle sections of Whole Earth Discipline are still a great read for anyone who believes in the capacity of humanity to understand and control nature in order to improve our lot. Just don’t forget the scalpel.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Whole Earth Discipline, by Stewart Brand, is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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