Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Whole Earth Discipline

I finished Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatism Manifesto three or four weeks ago, and put off writing about it. I enjoyed reading it, and it challenged me. Brand says that his opinions are loosely held and forcefully stated, and his Four Environmental Heresies talk is a pretty fair outline of the book. I wrote forcefully about that talk in late July, and I find myself wanting to eat my words, but not entirely convinced.

Maybe what is happening in my skull is not that I’m unconvinced, but think that conversion to Brand’s program is too easy and would betray fickleness on my part. Brand’s thesis is that human-caused global warming is genuine and civilization is at stake. He says that Gaia can take care of herself, and that environmentalists are coming to see, and should see, our business, not as protecting the environment, but preserving civilization. Brand’s program includes urbanization, replacing coal with nuclear power, genetically modifying seed to increase yield in starving parts of the world (and to keep carbon in the soil), and adding sulfur dioxide and water vapor to the atmosphere to increase its albedo.

Urbanization has already happened, but Brand speaks primarily about the slums in the global south. This is the best part of Brand’s TED talk, and the initiative and ingenuity we see in his slides show why the slums that house a sixth of the world’s people appeal to the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand says that there is a better livelihood for the slum immigrants than there was in the countryside, and writes, in the book, at some length about commerce, education, and quality of life. What the slum dwellers need from us is safe legal electricity, clean water, public safety, and security of tenure. He also would make sure that power and cell phone service reach the countryside.

Coal is the major culprit in changing the climate. We depend on it for baseload power, power that we can count on 24/7/365. Wind, sun, tide, etc. are dispersed unevenly over space and time. We can’t count on them to power a world of seven billion and more. A gigawatt year of nuclear power yields twenty tons of waste, about two casks worth; the same amount of coal power broadcasts 8 million tons of waste. The nuclear waste is where we can watch it; the coal waste is out of control, in the atmosphere where it can cause mischief.

People have starved because environmentalists interfered with the delivery of genetically modified seed. We can take genes that provide desirable qualities in foods without those qualities -- say, vitamins or the ability to grow in drought or flood -- and add them to those foods. (Another kind of genetic engineering allows us to hang onto our soil, and keep carbon in the ground, by breeding crops -- “Roundup ready” -- that survive herbicides, allowing no-till ag. Genetic trading happens frequently in the microbial world, and we ourselves are colonies of symbionts in our cells. Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have lobbied in their own countries and in developing countries to restrict access to genetically modified plants. In Mozambique, seed was kept from starving people because officials believed that genetic engineering was a genocidal colonial plot. One fear I have about genetic engineering has nothing to do with health: genetically modified seed is identified with a few large companies, and will concentrate wealth. The technology is accessible enough for serious hobbyists. For about a thousand dollars and a few weeks time, you too can engineer E. coli that smells like strawberries. It’s been done, and that means genetic engineering is a genie that’s out of the bottle, and not the property of a few big corporations.

Geo-engineering is Brand’s least forcefully held or stated heresy. In 1992, Phillipine Mount Pinatubo put 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, resulting in the planet’s cooling half a degree, increasing Arctic ice and the polar bear population. It’s cheap enough that Bill Gates, for instance, could take matters into his own hands to stop global warming. The trick is coordinating a global effort to restrict the ultraviolet radiation penetrating the atmosphere. Brand, himself, says that this strategy’s chief weakness is that efforts to limit warming by changing the atmosphere’s albedo would make us complacent about fixing the problem at its root, our production of greenhouse gases.

Throughout the book, Brand backs conservation, organic agriculture (he buys organic), and permaculture, but believes that these by themselves are not enough, and will be more productive combined with the heretical technologies.

I had planned on including Brands recommended reading list, but that, and his footnotes are at this address

Today’s illustration is a portrait of Harold “Stoney” Stone, from Monday’s drawing co-op. I’m getting back into charcoal after a half-year hiatus (I was spooked). I took a picture of the drawing -- on 18”x24” paper -- because it wouldn’t fit on my scanner.


Von said...

Whooo,dangerous stuff this!!Haven't read the book but you've reviewed it so well I imagine.He seems to be choosing to ignore all the arguments against GMGrains,Nuclear Power etc so it's very interesting and I understand your reservations.
great drawing!

Stewart Brand said...

That's an excellent summary, Tom Roark.

Thank you for it.