Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Answering Stewart Brand's Four Environmental Heresies

It was so startling a contradiction of how I would make the world, that I watched the video four times, practically transcribing it the third. For someone to take the problems of population, hunger, and climate change as seriously as I do, then concoct this paradoxical way of fixing them, seemed so important that I put a hold on one of the five copies of the book the library has on order.

We are at a dangerous moment in history. There are too many of us, and the things we do to get by degrade the world’s ability to keep us -- and to sustain other living things. We are altering the Earth’s climate. We concentrate wealth to the point of extravagance so as to avoid the deprivation we see in our wake. Somebody claimed this species uses forty percent of the planet’s photosynthetic capacity. We are in peril of extinction, and in denial of the peril. We have acquired god-like powers in a mickeymouse way, well in advance of getting the understanding needed to wield them.

Along comes Stewart Brand, the creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, and now Whole Earth Disciplines. In a sixteen-minute presentation, “Four Environmental Heresies,” given to TED, Brand claims that overpopulation and industrially driven climate change demand:

* Concentration of the developing world’s poor into cities (this is already a fact, and the longest and strongest part of Brand’s presentation documents it);

* Nuclear power;

* Genetic engineering;

* Geo-engineering (introduction of steam and gases such as sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to mitigate climate change).

Brand reminds us before he begins of his environmentalist credentials, which are genuine. Brand studied biology at Stanford, particularly ecology and evolution. He is famous for conceiving and editing The Whole Earth Catalog, and its many later incarnations. As part of California Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, Brand helped to increase Californian energy efficiency and reduce the state’s carbon emissions with incredible foresight. He is serious, knowledgeable, and sincere.

Brand is a thinker who understands how systems grow, change, and decay. He reminds us that climate is a “profoundly complex, non-linear system full of runaway positive feedbacks, hidden thresholds, and irrevocable tipping points.” (This means that climate has many parts which influence each other. Changes can make more of the same bad thing happen. Once changes reach certain levels they can make other systems change (permafrost thaws and releases more carbon dioxide; higher levels of freshwater enter the oceans, braking the existing currents). Systems will reach levels that make fixing them impossible.

Brand says to expect surprises, few of them good. The “heresies” are his prescription for curing a sickness that will end civilization.

My own prescription is to mimic nature and integrate with it. Human beings should accept it that we are part of the web of life, and find fulfillment by fully participating in the flow of energy from species to species. Our problem so far has been that we have tried to cut a separate deal with existence, using technology to funnel and store energy in novel ways. Humanity has improved its survival and comfort by force, force to expand its range, force to grow food, and force to exert dominance within the species. An organism does what an organism has to do, but it seems as though the same ingenuity that invented bulldozers and automatic rifles could discover how to become one among a community of species.

I’m least interested in disputing Brand’s developing-world urbanization. It’s a fact that one sixth of humanity now lives in squatter cities. Brand shows us what look like vital, outlaw neighborhoods in places like Bangkok, Mumbai, and Sao Paulo. Their residents chose to go to these places, and Brand calls them “population sinks,” saying that population growth quickly drops to replacement levels there. Short of forced repatriation to the countryside, it’s a done deal. (What Brand wants from us industrial democrats for the squatters is water, electricity, sanitation, and protection from crime. The squatters should be connected to the countryside by good roads, cell phone service, and grid electricity.)

Still, it seems like a mistake. It seems like most people should be producing food. Here’s E. F. Schumacher, in Small Is Beautiful:

"The cities with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. The prevailing lack of balance, based on the age-old exploitation of the countryman and raw material producer, today threatens all countries throughout the world, the rich even more than the poor. To restore a proper balance between city and rural life is perhaps the greatest task in front of modern man. It is not simply a matter of raising agricultural yields so as to avoid world hunger. There is no answer to the evils of mass unemployment and mass migration into cities unless the whole level of rural life can be raised, and this requires the development of an agro-industrial culture, so that each district, each community, can offer a colorful variety of occupations to its members."

Schumacher was writing in the early seventies. Maybe nobody was listening, and we’re going to be looking at some of that runaway positive feedback in the population system soon.

Objections to nuclear power include poor reliability, high capital costs, damage to the environment from uranium mining and from cooling-water discharge, unknown decommissioning costs, unknown cost for storing spent fuel, radioactive wastes’ remaining dangerous for longer than we could expect continuity of supervision, plant safety and public health concerns, vulnerability to attack, utility as part of national military nuclear strategies, wastes a components in “dirty bombs.” Brand scores points by showing that the volume and mass of nuclear waste is dwarfed by the waste from coal, and contained, while coal's waste is dispersed throughout the atmosphere.

The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island happened in 1979. There were no deaths at the time of the Three Mile Island meltdown, with disputed claims of increased cancer incidence subsequently. The explosion at Chernobyl happened in 1986, resulting in fifty-seven deaths at the time, and four thousand thyroid cancers among children and adolescents exposed at the time. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation reports no cancers from ongoing exposure. Nuclear power proponents will excuse the Chernobyl disaster as the result of poor design, and a corrupt political system, but can the world restrict nuclear power to countries of high competence and moral character, and can we expect governments and businesses to persist for the half life of plutonium which ranges from eighty-eight to 81 million years?

You have to wonder, too, how many of these things do we need, and how quickly can we build them. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar plant was the last nuclear power plant to come online in this country. Begun in 1973, it opened in 1996. Twenty-three years in the making. Brand dismisses wind and solar (although he hints at orbiting solar) because it’s diffuse and intermittent. We don’t have the renewable technology now to replace coal -- and, in fairness to Brand he is talking about widely distributed plants as small as one forty-eighth the size of existing nukes -- but Brand’s timetable can’t be brief. We want to be warm, have light, and keep our food cool. The techs I know who are still in the conservation business are still finding ways to save megawatts.

Beyond a list of objections to nuclear power, there’s the question of how does radioactive stuff integrate with the ecology of this planet. What’s this stuff got to do with life? If I want to come into my own as Homo sapiens, be everything and exactly what I’m able, do I want to fool around with nuclear power? Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, says “When you look at the natural world you see that organisms do not use high heats or high pressures or toxic chemicals to achieve their ends.” I want conservation and high-level human innovation.

In genetic engineering, genes are transferred from one organism to another. Some modified organisms are transgenic -- genes come from other species -- and some are cisgenic -- genes come from other members of the same species. We’re worried about the transgenic organism, I think, because we could probably breed something similar to the cisgenic ones, or they might even happen spontaneously.

Why are we worried? Health, economics, and the integrity of existing populations are three reasons, with the third affecting the other two.

If you are allergic to a one food but not to another you could have a reaction while enjoying the supposedly safe food that was grown with DNA from the allergen. Given the frequency of people with severe food allergies, genetically engineered foods complicate too many people’s lives.

And the strange genes don’t just find new homes under human auspices. Researchers have found DNA from engineered strains of corn in ancient Mexican varieties of maize. The corn’s jumping the fence is more than a curiosity. Contaminating the antique plants denies us information from the past, crowding out unknown useful traits.

Canadian canola grower Percy Schmeiser ran up a four hundred thousand dollar legal tab, when Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety of canola contaminated the variety Schmeiser had bred over fifty years. The Canadian Supreme Court found that Schmeiser had infringed Monsanto’s patent by planting seed he’d gathered from the contaminated crop. The Court didn’t do more than spank Schmeiser’s hand, but it set precedent, and four hundred thousand dollars in legal fees stings. On legal advice, Schmeiser destroyed his entire stock of seed, losing the result of a fifty-year breeding program. Interestingly, the question the case decided, can a life form be patented, has been decided differently in other countries, including the United States, but we can expect Monsanto and others to argue that it can be in all venues where it operates. The big objection has to be the way this concentrates wealth, turning any serious farmer, whether in the developed or developing world, into a Monsanto franchisee.

Genetic engineering is redundant for Brand’s purposes. Brand’s concern, a very real one, is preserving the soil. Standard agriculture wastes soil, a limited if not finite resource. Eroded into streams and ocean, it’s pollution. Besides that, soil stores carbon, and turning it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Genetic engineers introduce genes into crops that allow the crops to survive herbicides. This lets farmers eliminate competing weeds without disturbing the soil.
But “no-till” farming isn’t necessarily chemically intensive. Planting trees and other perennials together, and grazing animals in the same area -- planting what permaculturists call “guilds” builds and preserves the integrity of the soil without using engineered crops. Researchers, most famously at Kansas’ Land Institute have and are developing perennial strains of wheat, sorghum, and sunflowers. The Rodale Institute has developed equipment to mulch a cover crop and plant a cash crop in one pass, building the soil and preventing weeds organically, and without genetically engineered seeds.

Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute writes, “Why spend the time, money and scientific ingenuity manipulating a handful of genetic materials to end up with a specific new attribute when we should, and could, be rigorously advancing regionally adapted varieties and building up soils organically to achieve enduring nutrient content cycling and resistance to drought, flood and disease resistance.”

When it comes to adding sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere or atomizing seawater to make the planet shinier, it’s so hard to take the scheme seriously, that part of me thinks it must be one of those so-crazy-it has-to-work ideas. I don’t know how to evaluate it, except by doing it and seeing what happens. Probably nobody else does either. Brand shows a photograph of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, which put twenty million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and cooled the planet by half a degree in 1991. This improved polar bear habitat to the extent that there was a bumper crop of cubs, dubbed the “Pinatubo Cubs.” Brand shows a slide of two cute bear cubs.

If the only unintended consequence of geo-engineering were an ursine population explosion, I’d probably vote yes, but this seems like a definite time to exercise the precautionary principle. Nature puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, too, but look what our adding to those has brought us.

Brand mentions that any medium-sized economy could geo-engineer, so maybe the genie will come out of the bottle, will we, nil we. And, to quote Brand, we are all down-wind. He says that nations would consider each other’s unilateral attempts to alter climate acts of war, which is probably appropriate. The diplomacy that would allow concerted geo-engineering might be healthy, in that it would demand nations and their citizens to recognize the fact that Earth is a single system. But let’s not tell North Korea about it.

I owe my exposure to a lot of what’s inspired me to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth. I learned about the first book that I ever read energetically, Paolo Soleri’s City in the Image of Man in the Whole Earth Catalog. There’s a long list of books and ideas that moved me that either came to me via Whole Earth, or which Whole Earth encouraged me give a second look. Buckminster Fuller, Ayn Rand, permaculture, Kimon Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw, Gregory Bateson, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, the Hernandez Brothers’ comic Love and Rockets, one crude little cartoon by Michael Phillips concerning the relationship between income and ecological footprint. My guess is that Brand is smarter than I am, not necessarily by a lot but some, and I know he’s more disciplined.

Then what’s the deal here? I remember reading a comment of Brand's to the effect that if cancer were ever cured, it would be by a kid with a Gilbert chemistry set. The unlicensed, untaxed cities devised by third world squatters must appeal to him in the same way that the spontaneous hippie solar and geodesic communes of the late sixties did. Certainly Brand knows all the objections and alternatives I’ve mustered. His friends invented the ideas I've built my world from. Why does Brand propose the heresies?

Brand’s a libertarian, a point of view I don’t understand. Still, it seems strange that I can’t do the math that must connect libertarianism and an authoritarian program. My feeling, instead, is that Brand’s heresy comes from his idea of what is possible. There are fortunes to be made and power to be claimed in building a nuclear, genetic and geo-engineered world. These solutions are proprietary, and belong to the already powerful. While solar tinkerers, permaculturists, and farm-equipment improvisers are disorganized and dispersed, nuclear power plant builders and big ag companies have the means to promote their interests and grease the political wheels to make change happen, then find the big credit necessary to ramp up production in a hurry. The "heretical" solutions also have the benefit of demanding the least from the complacent. So we solve the problem of global warming at the cost of other environmental problems. And at the cost of indenturing ourselves more deeply to concentrated wealth.

It’s a devil’s bargain, and Brand tries to enlist us, reminding us that the tragedy of Darfur is a climate change war, and that it is the world’s poor, not we, who will suffer most. He says that we “are as gods, and we need to get good at it.” Yes, we are at a critical moment in history, but that makes it all the more important that we leave certain fruit on the tree.

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