Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Stewart Brand, Ecopragmatist, Part 1

Cover of Whole Earth DisciplineIf environmentalism is a conversation, Stewart Brand's recent book Whole Earth Discipline is the person who insists on saying what no on else wants to hear.

Brand has over 50 years of environmental credentials, from his undergraduate work in biology and ecology to founding the Whole Earth Catalog and its progeny to living a low-carbon life that includes volunteer work removing non-native invasive plants in county parks.

Yet in this book, whose subtitle is "An Ecopragmatist Manifesto," Brand advocates a return to nuclear power, the growth of cities, genetic engineering of plants and animals, and geoengineering.


Climate change, of course. The first chapter of the book starkly sets out the problem we face, quoting James Lovelock, an atmospheric chemist known for the Gaia hypothesis: "the Earth system is now in positive feedback and is moving ineluctably toward the stable state of one of the past hot climates." By 2040, if not before, "the IPCC is estimating that Europe, America, and China become uninhabitable for the growth of food." The carrying capacity of that Earth: "Oh, I think it's less than a billion." (pages 12-13)

Brand says, "Because I'm an ecologist by training, a futurist by profession, and a hacker (lazy engineer) at heart, my bent is scientific rigor, geoeconomic perspective, and an engineer's bias, which sees everything in terms of solving design problems" (page 21). And so the book is about how to mitigate, adapt to and ameliorate the changes that would result in Lovelock's prediction.

What Is to Be Done?

One of the key ideas in the book is that if we believe in science as a way of knowing the world and coming up with ways of addressing its many problems, then we should trust scientists and technical people who understand these problems.

Brand points out that when it comes to technologies like nuclear and genetic engineering, the people who know the most are the least afraid.

Another important point is that natural is not the simple, common sense concept we generally think it is, whether in food or the world around us. Humans have been "terraforming" the Earth for 10,000 years. Agriculture is inherently unnatural.

Given his acknowledged belief that science is a legitimate base from which to approach a problem like climate change, Brand focuses on four ways to mitigate, adapt to and ameliorate the problem. I plan to summarize three of these in a later post:

  • Go nuclear, particularly small-scale and thorium-based reactors.
  • Use genetic engineering to create crop plants that don't need pesticides.
  • Explore geoengineering as a way to buy us time while we decrease our carbon footprint the hard way.
Those are some hard topics, but he tackles them with enthusiasm and clarity. For today, though, I'll deal with the easiest of Brand's four proposals, which is treated first in the book.

Encourage the Growth of Smart Cities

Because urban areas inherently use less energy and fewer resources, square mile vs. square mile, than rural areas. Let people build shanty towns, without threatening their right to be there. As journalist Robert Neuwirth found in immersing himself in a series of sprawling urban slums, "the wretched quality of housing in squatter cities is never the main concern of the inhabitants... The people who build the shanties take pride in them and are always working to improve them. The real issues for the squatters... are location... and security of tenure. They need to know that their homes and community won't be suddenly bulldozed out of existence" (pages 37-38).

Women both benefit and play an important role in the economic power and community life of shanty towns. We've all heard about how microfinancing often benefits women. A favorite quote from this section of the book: "It is so important to free up newly urbanized women from their traditional role as fetchers of water and fuel that, as the UN report drily suggests, 'the provision of water standpipes may be far more effective in enabling women to undertake income-earning activities than the provision of skills training' " (pages 39-40).

Going "back to the land" is the last thing Brand wants us to do. Those who remain on the land when most others leave for the city "can shift from subsistence farming on marginal land to more concentrated cash-crop agriculture on prime land" (page 35). Fewer people in the country means aquifers and forests recover from being overrun by people.

And let's not forget that all the world's cities were shanty towns at one time. "The process by which they became proper cities is being recapitulated now in the world's squatter cities, only much faster this time and on a far larger scale.... Program by program, nation by nation, the world is learning how to engage the boundless resourcefulness of urban squatters" (pages 48-49).

And what happens when people live in cities and (increasingly literate) women have a role in the economy and civic life? Population decreases over time, another essential element of sustainability. "In the village, every additional child is an asset, but in the slum, every additional child is a liability..." (page 59).

How high will the population peak -- predicted to occur in the mid-21st century -- be? Brand puts it at 8 billion, "followed by a descent so rapid that many will consider it a crisis" (page 60). "In Mexico, the birth rate dropped from 6.5 in the 1970s to about 2 in 2008, and it is still falling... China -- now at a 1.73 birthrate -- ...could easily be losing 20-30 percent of its population per generation [by midcentury]" (pages 60-61). "Brazil's birthrate of 1.3 children per woman...may be the best protector of the Amazon rain forest. A population with that birthrate halves in forty-five years, and the halves again in the next forty-five years" (page 62).

And what, I couldn't help wondering, will the people of the cities eat, if everyone has left the countryside? This is where urban farming comes in.

Already demonstrated in Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed and took its imports with it, people in cities can raise their own food. Greenhouses use 5 percent of the land of farms and 10 percent of the water. One source Brand cites says "A 30-story farm on one city block could feed 50,000 people..." (page 70).

Lingering Discomfort with Some of These Ideas

It's easy to get swept up while reading Brand's easy-going prose. But there are some nagging questions.

Anti-nuclear environmentalist Amory Lovins has attacked Brand's thinking on the nuclear question, particularly on the economic realities of building nuclear plants. Reading this analysis after reading Brand gives you the feeling that you've inadvertantly stumbled onto a scene from The Clash of the Titans.

My biggest hangup on the ideas in the book is about genetic engineering. While I resonate with Brand's argument that it is actually potentially less damaging than traditional plant or animal breeding because it is more fine-tuned, I wonder about how it would work in a world driven by monopoly capitalism, where intellectual property must be protected because it's where profits come from. The case of Maurice Parr, represented in the movie Food, Inc., is a cautionary tale on this topic.

And I wonder about the loss of biodiversity in the midst of large-scale agricultural monoculture of these engineered seeds. I realize this is already happening, and can't help thinking about the current issues with wheat fungus. Only a few varieties of wheat are being grown, and if/when they succumb to the evolving fungus, where will we be? Or does genetic engineering improve our chances of keeping ahead of the wily fungus?

There's a lot more to say about Whole Earth Discipline, but it will have to wait for another post because this one has been sitting, partially written, for over a month. More to come in Stewart Brand, Ecopragmatist, Part 2.

1 comment:

Blythe said...

A couple of things that trouble me about agricultural genetic engineering. 1) Excessive pesticide use remains a problem. The expected drop-off in use hasn't materialized (with a couple of exceptions). In fact, it may actually be increasing. 2) It leads to corporate control of seed. I understand that this, once again, is an intellectual property issue, but I don't like the monopoly aspect.

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