Whole Earth Disicpline: An Ecopragmatist Approach
© 2010 Stewart Brand
Sustainability is context, not a gadget or a single technology. From Stewart Brand, a lifelong environmentalist and creator-editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, comes this fascinating argument that the environmental movement has for too long been wrapped up in romanticism, rejecting avenues to effective change out of misfounded prejudice — particularly nuclear energy, urbanization, and GMOs. Discipline is a constantly-evolving work, with multiple editions and added content that stray from the original premise, but offers a unique, balanced perspective.
Brand opens with the book by stressing the urgency of action, pointing in particular to positive feedback loops in nature which might quickly accelerate catastrophic environmental & climactic changes too quickly for us to adapt. We must adopt a trident approach: avoidance, mitigation, and amelioration. When one of the largest contributors to emissions (and pollution in general) is the use of coal, shifting to nuclear — with zero emissions and whose lifetime toxic output per person per lifetime amounts to material small enough to fit inside a can of Coke — would have an enormous impact on reducing C02 emissions. Cities and GMOs both tremendously relieve pressure on land and natural systems by allowing us to do more with less, and in the case of cities, innovation and wealth both are increased tremendously, opening options for responding to problems as they appear. If we were to take these seriously as anti-climate tools, we could do far more still: imagine cities with rooftops optimized for reflecting heat instead of absorbing it, or engineered bacteria which could digest and render neutral pollutants. Brand also addresses the criticisms levied against these (nuclear energy and GMOs, as he has not always been a proponent: he confesses to being one of the environmental movement’s most active anti-nuclear proponents in this youth, and it’s only through his study of their case – -including visits to places like Yucca Mountain — that he has changed his mind to argue that nuclear is potential gamechanger. In each chapter, Brand addresses common criticisms of nuclear power, genetic modification, etc, and shares how he came to change his mind based on what he’d studied and observed.
Having previously read titles which argued for the green virtues of both nuclear energy and cities (A Bright Future and Green Metropolis, respectively), I was delighted to find a dyed-in-the-organically-sourced-wool proponent of the same. The book wasn’t as focused as I initially expected, but given the open nature of the book (it’s had multiple editions, and its footnotes are hosted online to ensure currency), that’s not an enormous surprise. The last few sections seem more miscellaneous, and honestly the GMO connection to environmentalism is weak: as someone who used to be more critical of them, I appreciated reading an argument in their favor from someone who had shifted in their opinion. While Whole Earth Discipline is surpassed, content-wise, by the books mentioned previously, it has an unparalleled value in that its author has changed their mind about the issues and can see both sides fairly and argue on facts rather than prejudice and sentiment.