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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Seed: In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in December, there’s been increased debate over whether climate change is a regulation problem or an innovation problem. How do you see it?
SB: It’s not an either/or question. We need science to understand the climate dynamics much better. We’ve got better data and better models than we used to, but when the predictions of the models fail, they fail in important and scary ways. They did not predict the melting of the Arctic ice; they’re not particularly helpful in the melting of the sub-Arctic tundra. There may be an important negative feedback dynamic going on above the continents, where ever more woody plant growth is apparently fixing extra carbon. Just as important is understanding the oceans, particularly the microbes in the ocean and what they’re doing. At what temperature does the ocean stratify and go relatively dead? We’re short on good-enough data.

Then on the engineering level, direct intervention—geoengineering—is going to be necessary sooner than most people think or expect. Research there is absolutely essential because to make a mistake on the planetary scale is not something you want to do. Money and effort going into the 10 or 12 geoengineering schemes we have so far, plus developing new ones, is of the essence.

At the same time, government involvement is crucial because governments decide infrastructure what the price of various energy forms is going to be. The American, European, Chinese, and Indian governments need to make coal expensive. If they don’t, coal will be burned until we all cook.

Seed: Can you tell me about your vision of the Greens and the Turquoises?
SB: I question whether “green” or “environmentalist” will be a big enough tent to contain a growing variety of disunity within the modern environmental community. People who are fiercely against nuclear have very little good to say to someone who is otherwise totally green but likes nuclear.

So one approach is to say, okay, there are different flavors of green—the traditional “Greens” and this other thing. I wanted a name for them, so I just called them “Turquoises,” mixing green and blue. There’s enough work to keep both of them busy with more projects than they can possibly handle. Traditional Greens are already good at things like preserving, protecting, and restoring natural systems. The Turquoise types may be the ones who find new ways to push these projects in cities. Here I think they can collaborate completely, or almost completely.

When it comes to engineering technology, however, I’m not so sure. There’s a fundamental difference between Greens who automatically distrust technology and Turquoises who automatically look at a technology as a potential tool. Something like synthetic biology comes along, and the Greens say, “Just a damn minute,” while the Turquoises say, “Oh boy, this is interesting. I know what to do with this stuff.” Greens are typically worriers, while the younger Turquoises are more interested in opportunity, so they grab things and say, “Let’s try it out and we’ll worry later.” It’s the worry first versus worry later dichotomy.

Seed: Where do you fit along this spectrum?
SB: I’ve been a tech-loving Green from day one. Whole Earth Catalog was a technology-accepting green publication. We were pushing what was called “appropriate technology”—solar, wind, and other things that at the time were viewed askance. Everybody in the environmental movement, for example, hated cars. Then Amory Lovins came along and said, actually we can make cars more efficient, which would change the energy picture in a huge way. Amory describes himself as a techno-twit. I’m just a somewhat older and more experienced techno-twit.

Seed: As a techno-twit, you’ve got some interesting plans for this book.
Yes—I’m doing an online annotated version. It will go live at the same time that the book publishes in October. Basically, the sections of every chapter that are footnoted will be immersed in the research material with lots of live links and photos, diagrams, charts, and so on. So anyone who wants to see my sources can go straight there and draw their own conclusions.

And I’ll try to keep updating the book. I’ve already got some additional levels of understanding from people like George Church and Larry Brilliant. I’ll just add that to the online version.

Seed: You point out that Gaia will persist whether or not humans do. But are you optimistic about the future of people?
I agree with Lovelock, who in 1938 said something terrible is coming and we’re still figuring out what it is and what we’re going to do about it. So, no, I’m not sanguine. If most of the things that I point at in the book are pursued full on, we’d have a pretty good chance, but I’m not sure that it’s going to play out. It’s not bad people. There’s just a lot of momentum that we’ve built up going in directions that are now understood to be harmful and are getting more so as time goes by. You can’t turn a big ship on a dime.

Originally published September 3, 2009

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