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.
I definitely agree that pragmatism must come long before dogmatism. We have to be, above all else, practical on how we approach these issues. I’m no fan of nuclear power for lots of reasons but I can see how nukes can provide part of the solution in the short term. I’m also generally against GM crops but, as long as the modifications are safe and actually produce real benefits – rather than just allow Monsanto etc to increase the use of their own pesticides and their profits at the expense of the environment – then I can live with that. We’re a pretty smart species so I’m sure that we can figure out ways to stop putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere and to increasing take out the excess that’s already there. Mitigation & adaptation are going to be required because of the effects already in the ‘pipeline’ from the damage we’ve already caused. Just doing nothing until it gets really bad isn’t really an option. We need to be acting now. Making what we have more energy efficient is a good thing. SMART cities and much else will help with that.
The ‘can of coke’ analogy made me laugh though. LOTS. That small can of ‘toxic’ waste sounds great in the abstract – until you factor in that getting anywhere near it will kill you and the fact that its contents will keep killing people for 250,000 years unless handled VERY carefully indeed. Now scale that up for a population of 7-10 Billion people. That’s a LOT of Coke!
I don’t buy that as a legitimate problem. Yes, radioactive materials can be lethal if touched, digested, etc, but they’re concentrated and contained: radiation levels outside the cast storage or the cooling pools are often lower than some natural background radiation on Earth — “some” because radiation levels aren’t consistent around the globe. Iran has some odd hotspots. A lot of material these days can be recycled: in A Bright Future, the author claimed that we’ve already generated the majority of waste that we ever will, because the ability for reactors to reclaim the energy from ‘spent’ fuel. If I remember correctly from my discussions with a former reader here, the reason we don’t do more fuel recycling owes entirely to cold war alarms about using said material for bombs.
This sounds like a refreshing look at the issue of nuclear power and other environmental issues, We need more thinking like this, but I am afraid that it is not going to be forthcoming from the powers that be in Washington, D.C.
Solar & wind have the political advantage, I think — lots of grasping hands in every state, lots of potential influence to farm for the politicios.