NOTE: Biotech and nuclear lobbyists have latched on to the ageing hippie technophile Stewart Brand, one time editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, as their perfect spokesperson. And currently Brand's getting a slew of publicity with the publication of his new book Whole Earth Discipline.
Brand has never been short on hubris. "We are as gods", he wrote in the first Whole Earth Catalog, "and might as well get good at it." Even in those days Brand was pushing space colonies, and he claims that if he'd known about GMOs then, he'd have been more than in favour: "30 to 40 years ago I think I would have said to all the genetic engineering stuff - hot dog!"
These days getting good at being "gods" means not just GMOs, but nuclear power, geo-engineering and all the other quick techno-fixes that Brand vigorously promotes as the solutions to the climate, energy, and water crises. Brand also favours mass urbanization, glorifying the squalour of third-world squatter slums as the solution to poverty in the South.
Brand even seems comfortable with political dictatorship, if it's a question of a suitably informed elite holding the reins of power. Liberal democracy can not deliver the kind of future Brand considers necessary. He's a little coy about what should replace it but as Toronto Star journalist Cathal Kelly notes in the article below, "I put it to Brand that he's advocating some sort of environmental dictatorship. 'China's headed in that direction,' he says approvingly."
When it comes to scepticism about GM, Brand claims, "We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool." Brand by contrast, "gushes about the technology in a way that might raise a blush even in a spokesman for Monsanto," according to the science editor of the Financial Times.
Brand even thinks patents are no problem with GMOs, nor a factor in their rejection. He suggests instead that European opposition stems from French protectionism - a claim that may be music to the ears of North American agribiz lobbyists but appears laughable on this side of the Atlantic.
Ironically, when it comes to promoting genetic revolutions, Brand himself is not without vested interests - his wife, Ryan Phelan, is founder and CEO of DNA Direct, a company working in the controversial area of marketing DNA tests to consumers.
Why greens need to grow up if they want to save the planet
Cathal Kelly Feature Writer
Toronto Star, Oct 10 2009
*The grandfather of the modern eco-movement says environmentalism needs to be taken out of the hands of environmentalists. Where should we look for leadership? East
[image caption: Protesters sing a song as they sit in the entrance of the "Climate Camp," in southeast London. Hundreds of environmentalists gathered on the field for a week-long protest against climate change on Aug. 27, 2009.
LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP PHOTO]
Modern environmentalism began in 1948 with the publication of Our Plundered Planet, by Fairfield Osborn, a New Yorker who founded the Bronx Zoo.
Its objectives seeped into general consciousness on the initial Earth Day in 1970 and during the oil crisis that followed.
In between, there was Stewart Brand. During the late '60s, Brand toured the west coast in a 1963 Dodge he called the Whole Earth Truck Store. It was a travelling fair and supply depot. In those days, Brand was a SoCal trippy hippie.
In 1968, Brand released the Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopedic how-to for the embryonic environmental movement. Apple founder Steve Jobs later likened this DIY bible to "Google in paperback form."
In the four decades since, the founding ideals that Brand helped shape self-sufficiency, pastoralism and suspicion of The Man haven't changed much. Brand has.
He still wants to save us from ourselves. But now he wants to do it with nuclear power and planet-altering infrastructure projects
"(Environmentalists) are viewing what I'm saying more in sorrow than in anger," Brand says. "They're saying, `Too bad this nice, old fellow used to be one of us. He's obviously lost his mind.'"
Brand, 70, lives in a modified tugboat in San Francisco Bay. Cheap rent. Plus, he's set if climate change sends the West Antarctic Ice Sheet sliding into the Amundsen Sea, raising the world's oceans five metres overnight. He's the sort of guy who builds the Ark before it rains.
That's led him to his new manifesto, Whole Earth Discipline. Unlike many screeds on climate change, Brand's book is a prescription as well as an eco-horror story.
Brand advises us to replace dirty coal with clean nuclear. Storage problems? Brand waves those off. Anti-nuclear activists worry that radioactive waste will plague us in 1,000 years. Brand wonders if this civilization will exist in 100.
He embraces urbanization and its attendant poverty. He rhapsodizes about the vibrancy of slums in Lagos and Dhaka. These are hives of small-scale entrepreneurial activity and a boon to women seeking independence. He really gets going in his chapters on GE (genetically engineered) crops. Brand lampoons the activist fiction of "natural" foods. "Agriculture is one vast catastrophe," Brand writes. "The less of it, the better."
Argue "unnaturalness" with Brand and you are an unhealthy sentimentalist, and possibly a dangerous crank. "I've always had a problem with the (environmentalists') romanticism and the anti-science stuff, back to 30 and 40 years ago," Brand says.
A symptom of that romanticism might be the continuing onus on individual habits. How much faith does Brand have in those sorts of voluntary appeals to responsible living?
"None. I think it's really important that people engage these issues, but they don't scale. It doesn't add up to nearly enough," Brand says. "One of the changes for me from the relatively libertarian Whole Earth Catalog to the very government-oriented Whole Earth Discipline is the realization that some of these matters are government scale."
Environmentalism, in other words, needs to be taken out of the hands of environmentalists. It requires top-down action. But from whom?
In a chapter on geo-engineering planet-altering projects like sowing the oceans with iron and dispersing sulfates into the atmosphere to slow carbon release Brand gives a clue.
"The climate will keep changing as it is without governance," Brand writes. "To change the climate the world in the direction that we want requires forms of governance we do not yet have."
He doesn't describe these new "forms." But it's apparently not the form we already have liberal democracy. I put it to Brand that he's advocating some sort of environmental dictatorship.
"China's headed in that direction," he says approvingly. "They're the only nation we've got that can turn on a dime ... because it's a nation run by engineers. They're used to getting their way. And they are surprisingly adaptive. If something goes against Communism, but it works anyway, they don't care."
The tone of all of this is remarkably light. Brand laughs a lot. He remains hopeful, but in the measured way of a man who knows too much.
"Politically, it's clearly impossible to turn things around," Brand says. "But technically, industrially, it is possible. So ..."
He leaves the thought lying. How likely is it that we're still here in 100 years? "I don't think there are any annihilation scenarios. The dark view? We go down to (a population of) 1 billion, 1 billion and a half," Brand says. "But one can always be amazed at the kind of thriving that comes out of catastrophic loss."