Whole Earth Discipline

By Bryan Walker 25/01/2010

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist ManifestoWhen James Lovelock, Edward O. Wilson and Ian McEwan jostle to praise a book I assume it will be worth attention.  Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto doesn’t disappoint. The title echoes the Whole Earth Catalogue which he founded over forty years ago as an ambitious reference aid for skills, tools and products useful to a self-sustainable lifestyle.

Times have changed and Brand has changed with them. Climate change has become a clear and present danger. He has become more of a pragmatist, though no less of an environmentalist. His pragmatism leads him to regard with favour three factors which put him to some extent at odds with others in the environmental movement. The three are urbanisation, nuclear power and genetic engineering, and part of the purpose of the book is to urge the Green-inclined to consider how the three may now be considered significant contributions to facing up to climate change.

There’s no questioning the seriousness of climate change. James Lovelock is frequently Brand’s point of reference in this regard. He hopes that things won’t get as bad as Lovelock’s prediction that we are in the process of moving to a stable hot state 5 degrees warmer than now, but recognises that even the 2 degree rise which politicians seem to be regarding as an acceptable limit will mean large species loss, more severe storms, floods and droughts, refugees from sea level rise, and other expensive and inhumane consequences. It’s against the background of this concern that he sets his case.

Urbanisation is proceeding apace, and is to be welcomed. Brand takes a positive view of what cities mean for the people who are now flooding into them, even if they begin in the squatter settlements which can look so dismal to outside observers. He points to on-the-spot slum researcher reports which observe that cities are very successful in promoting new forms of income generation, that it is much cheaper to provide services in urban areas and that getting people to move to the city may be the most realistic poverty reduction strategy. From the environmental perspective, natural systems in the countryside fare better with fewer inhabitants. Subsistence farming on marginal land can give way to more concentrated cash-crop agriculture on prime land. Aquifers recover. Forests recover. Birth rates drop when people move to cities. Women play a more powerful role in city society. Urban societies become greener in their sensibilities, which can lead to increasing protection for the countryside.

This is only a sample of the wide-ranging survey Brand offers of the positives in growing urbanisation. He acknowledges the negative actualities as well. Cities are far from an unmitigated good. But he is firm that the prospect of 80 percent of humanity living on 3 percent of the land will be a net good for the planet. Infrastructure efficiency, energy use reduction, less pressure on rural natural systems, and the like, are adduced to support this conclusion.

Brand’s section on nuclear power is prefaced with a variously attributed quote: ’With climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened. With nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened.’ His own stance on nuclear power has flipped from anti to pro for two reasons. First, he gradually realised that nuclear waste disposal no longer looked like a cosmic-level problem. Second, nuclear power looked like a major solution in the light of growing worries about climate change. Coal is the enemy. He endorses Hansen’s statement in his open letter to President Obama, ’Coal plants are factories of death’, and the accompanying observation ’One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of anti-nuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions.’

Brand is all for energy efficiency and for renewables, but impressed by the claim that renewables cannot be relied on for the baseload electricity currently provided by coal in many countries. The dangers supposed attendant on nuclear power generation are not now serious.  Much work has gone into minimizing the risk of accidents. The accumulated effects of low-dose radiation are no longer thought significant for human health. Waste storage arrangements are not as hazardous as once thought. There is every reason for it to be part of the energy portfolio we will need to replace fossil fuel sources. 

Brand reserves his strongest accusation of the environmental movement for its opposition to genetic engineering (GE). ’We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.’  Noting the lack of alarm about genetic engineering among biologists he comments that ’they know what a minor event it is amid the standard chaos of evolution and the just-barely-organised chaos of agricultural breeding.’ Taking the example of GE herbicide-tolerant crops he points to the great ecological win they represent in that they encourage no-till agriculture. This offers major climate benefits along with improvements to soil structure because tillage releases carbon from the soil, which holds more carbon than all the living vegetation and the atmosphere put together. He regrets that organic farmers, whose work he values highly, can’t use GE but must continue to plough. Some of those farmers also regret it.

There is a great deal more than this example in the chapters which proclaim the green possibilities of GE and his hope that the organic farming and food industries will come to terms with the technologies of ’ecology in the seed’.  

Having dealt with the three developments which he considers need to be embraced, not rejected, by the environmental movement, Brand moves on to some general considerations as to how not to repeat the mistakes made in those areas. Greens need to be less romantic and more scientific.  ’Environmentalists do best when they follow where the science leads, as they did with climate change. They do worst when they get nervous about where science leads, as they did with genetic engineering.’ 

Ecosystem engineering and niche construction are part of what humans have always done. Brand makes an emphatic case for tending the wild, for people being densely involved with nature. ’It’s all gardening’ is the chapter heading. Restoration is part of it, but so is agriculture which merges with the practices of tending the wild. 

Humanity is now stuck with a planet stewardship role. The trend of the changes we have made lately indicates we are doing a poor job of it.  ’We are forced to learn planet craft — in both sense of the word: craft as skill and craft as cunning.’ For that we need a better knowledge of how the Earth system works. ’We are model-rich and data poor.’

Brand writes with clarity and verve. He grips reader attention. Whatever one thinks of the positions he holds there is high interest in his explanations of them and no denying their importance in relation to the seriousness of the challenge of climate change. How in fact the balance between nuclear power and renewables will be worked out remains to be seen, and the whole question of non-fossil fuel energy sources seems still very open. Some who have no objection to nuclear power on principle still consider it unlikely to play a major role. But Brand’s concern is to establish that there is no reason to exclude it from consideration, or indeed to exclude anything else which science affirms as useful to ecological balance.