A Manifesto for the Planet

Bibliologue / by Maywa Montenegro /

Author and environmental icon Stewart Brand on four green heresies, developing-world ingenuity, and the new face of environmentalism.

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Stewart Brand is a rare breed of environmentalist: in his own words, “an ecologist by training, a futurist by profession, and a hacker (lazy engineer) at heart.” In the 60s, Brand campaigned against nuclear power and staged a “Hunger Show” to dramatize the global famine predicted by his mentor, Paul Ehrlich, but he also began printing a decidedly pro-technology handbook for saving the planet. Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, was premised on the notion that given the right information, tools, and awareness, people could—and would—create a more sustainable world. It was, many have said, the beginning of environmentalism.

Since that time, Brand’s own views on core “green issues,” from atomic energy to genetic engineering, have shifted under the weight of scientific evidence. Rather than quietly backpedal, Brand has now issued a bold challenge to the very movement he helped create: Can you forsake ideology for the good of the planet? Whole Earth Discipline contains every reason why they should: 300 pages of data, anecdotes, and arguments that illustrate, in withering detail, the scale of ecological problems we face today, and the utter inability of faith-based environmentalism alone to fix them. Seed editor Maywa Montenegro recently caught up with the 70-year-old Brand, ahead of a multi-city book tour.

Seed: It’s been 40 years since the first edition of Whole Earth Catalog. Why publish the sequel now?
Stewart Brand: There was actually no periodicity. In fact, I kind of hate the “40 years later” stuff that’s going on. But what did happen is the realization that I’d accumulated a set of contrarian views on some important environmental issues—specifically, cities, nuclear energy, genetic engineering, and geoengineering—and that it added up to a story worth telling.

That led me to the larger strategy of trying to move the environmental movement from a romantic identification with nature toward a more scientific basis. And moving on from that, toward an engineering approach to solving environmental problems.

Seed: Do you think environmentalists will be receptive?
There are two main elements that are changing things. One is the younger generation, which is pretty comfortable with technology and doesn’t regard it as inherently evil. So something like synthetic biology or genetic engineering looks like something they can figure out and put to use. And when it comes to nuclear engineering, they don’t remember the Cold War or Chernobyl. The other element is climate change. It was taken seriously early and often by environmentalists, and they’re now living with the consequences of having been right about it. They paid attention to climatologists, to the scientists, to the IPCC, so they are more comfortable with a scientific approach on other issues.

Seed: You’ve said that environmentalists have some “radical news” coming with urbanization, specifically in the developing world.
SB: Well, the good news is that people in cities in the developing world are having fewer children than they did when they were out in the bush. As they move from the bush, the bush is coming back. And they don’t have, by and large, the kind of concerns that we have in the global north about genetic engineering and nuclear power.

Their dire need for grid electricity is pushing them right now to build vast quantities of coal-fired plants. But they are increasingly aware that this is a problem: Many developing countries are energetically pursuing nuclear power, which is the only immediate, one-for-one substitute.

Isn’t nuclear power prohibitively expensive for most developing countries?
SB: My guess is that the developing world is going to be a major market for microreactors, for the new generation of small nuclear reactors. These offer grid electricity generated close to hand and pretty inexpensively. The smaller ones, the 35–150 megawatt ones, are the right size for a town of a certain scale. You can start with one, and as the town grows, or as people go up the energy ladder, you just add another and connect them all in sequence. Over time you get the benefits of a large reactor without having to build the whole thing from scratch. That kind of thing will be very attractive in developing economies.

On most environmental issues, a lot is going to be played out in the developing world because that’s where the major needs and crises are. Also, that’s where there is the ability to radically rethink things. We’ve seen this with cell phones. Wait ‘til those folks get a hold of synthetic biology.

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