I had heard that an alternative title for Stewart Brand’s book is “three heresies”.
Brand built his case for rethinking environmental goals and methods on two major changes going on in the world. The one that most people still don’t take into consideration is that power is shifting to the developing world, where 5 out of 6 people live, where the bulk of humanity is getting out of poverty by moving to cities and creating their own jobs and communities (slums, for now).
He noted that history has always been driven by the world’s largest cities, and these years they are places like Mumbai, Lagos, Dhaka, São Paulo, Karachi, and Mexico City, which are growing 3 times faster and 9 times bigger than cities in the currently developed world ever did. The people in those cities are unstoppably moving up the “energy ladder” to high quality grid electricity and up the “food ladder” toward better nutrition, including meat. As soon as they can afford it, everyone in the global South is going to get air conditioning.
The second dominant global fact is climate change. Brand emphasized that climate is a severely nonlinear system packed with tipping points and positive feedbacks such as the unpredicted rapid melting of Arctic ice. Warming causes droughts, which lowers carrying capacity for humans, and they fight over the diminishing resources, as in Darfur. It also is melting the glaciers of the Himalayan plateau, which feed the rivers on which 40% of humanity depends for water in the dry season—the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Yangtze, and Yellow.
Global warming has to be slowed by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases from combustion, but cities require dependable baseload electricity, and so far the only carbon-free sources are hydroelectric dams and nuclear power. Brand contrasted nuclear with coal-burning by comparing what happens with their waste products. Nuclear spent fuel is tiny in quantity, and you know exactly where it is, whereas the gigatons of carbon dioxide from coal burning goes into the atmosphere, where it stays for centuries making nothing but trouble. Brand declared that geological sequestering of nuclear waste has been proven practical and safe by the ten years of experience at the WIPP in New Mexico, and he paraded a series of new “microreactor” designs that offer a clean path for distributed micropower, especially in developing countries.
Moving to genetically engineered food crops, Brand noted that they are a tremendous success story in agriculture, with Green benefits such as no-till farming, lowered pesticide use, and more land freed up to be wild. The developing world is taking the lead with the technology, designing crops to deal with the specialized problems of tropical agriculture. Meanwhile the new field of synthetic biology is bringing a generation of Green biotech hackers into existence.
On the subject of bioengineering (direct intervention in climate), Brand suggested that we will have to follow of the example of beneficial “ecosystem engineers” such as earthworms and beavers and tweak our niche (the planet) toward a continuing life-friendly climate, using methods such a cloud-brightening with atomized seawater and recreating what volcanoes do when they pump sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, cooling the whole world.
Green aversion to technologies such as nuclear and genetic engineering resulted from a mistaken notion that they are somehow “unnatural.” “What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable,” Brand concluded. “We live one life.
“PS. Long Now likes to include a pointer to related reading. As it happens, the whole “Recommended Reading” section of my book Whole Earth Discipline is online, with 50 recommendations for books, magazines, and websites, with live links. It’s at: www.sbnotes.com