Book review: Whole Earth Discipline - An Ecopragmatist Manifesto


ON THE first page of this landmark book, the lateral-thinking, San Francisco tugboat-based ecologist Stewart Brand sums up his philosophy in a single line: "We are as gods and have to get good at it." It's a staggeringly arrogant statement, guaranteed to offend everyone from religious fundamentalists to those at the mystical, misty-eyed end of the Green spectrum, but after reading Whole Earth Discipline, you'll find it difficult to disagree. Yes, even if you started out believing in God or Allah or the inherent rightness of Mother Earth.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brand broke the mould by creating the best-selling Whole Earth Catalog – a periodically updated DIY manual for sustainable living – and now he's gone and done it again. Many books written about climate change over the last decade or so have been fairly straightforward critiques of human civilisation. Here are the problems we face, say the authors, here are the human causes of those problems, and here is a long, painful list of the things we must do if we're to have any hope of keeping the Earth in a reasonably habitable condition for future generations. By contrast, Brand sets out to critique the Green Movement itself. To date, he says, Greens have achieved a colossal amount, from the salvation of the rainforests to the international ban on CFCs, but they are now in danger of becoming bogged down in ideology. As science and technology advance and the threat posed by climate change becomes ever more immediate, the Green Movement has to be prepared to evolve, adapt and – occasionally – admit that it's been wrong. Brand believes some Greens are currently doing more harm than good by dragging their feet on three key issues: cities, nuclear power and genetic engineering, and he spends the core of this book explaining why.

His most effective argument for cities as a boon to the Green Movement is his suggestion that they slow population growth. Since the late 1960s, when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb and advocated worldwide compulsory birth regulation to prevent hundreds of millions of people starving to death, the spectre of overpopulation has been at the very heart of Green discourse. As the world becomes more crowded, goes the logic, our natural resources will become increasingly stretched, resulting first in irreparable damage to the environment and then, when we are no longer able to produce enough food, irreparable damage to us. That might make sense if the global population was going to keep on growing indefinitely, argues Brand, but it isn't – indeed, in the not-too-distant future it will actually start to decline.

Brand cites a 2004 article by the demographer Phillip Longman which states: "Some 59 countries, comprising roughly 44 per cent of the world's population, are not producing enough children to avoid population decline ... By 2045, according to latest UN projections, the world's fertility rate as a whole will have fallen below replacement levels."

And why is this happening? Apparently because of urbanisation: as more and more people move to the cities, they have fewer and fewer children. Brand explains the process thus: "in the village, every additional child is an asset, but in the slum every additional child is a liability, so the newly liberated women in town focus on education and opportunity – on fewer, higher-quality children. That's how urbanisation defused the population bomb."

In the light of all this, what are self-respecting Greens to do? Well, according to Brand, they should stop worrying about overpopulation and instead endorse "an environmental population programme ... that is gently pro-natal." The ultimate goal should be population stability. In order to mitigate against the coming population crash (the effects of which are already starting to be felt in China and Japan, both struggling to support huge ageing populations), Brand suggests aiming for an average birth rate of 2.1 children per woman (2.1 rather than 2 because some children die before they can reproduce). And while global population levels are being stabilised, Greens should also be working hard to "Green the hell out of the growing cities". The city is the greenest form of human settlement, says Brand, but it could and should be a lot greener.

On this last point, I suspect he's preaching to the converted – Greens already know this, they have known it for some time and many of them are already hard at work, Greening the hell out of conurbations all around the globe. On the vexed question of nuclear power, however, which he chooses to tackle next, he still has a lot of convincing to do.

Brand is by no means the first person in the Green Movement to make the case for nuclear as a solution to climate change. As noted in this newspaper last year, the British scientist James Lovelock argues extremely convincingly for it in his "last ever" book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009). In Whole Earth Discipline, Brand reiterates much of what Lovelock has said: that renewables alone won't save us; that the potential pitfalls of switching to nuclear are less serious than the potential pitfalls of continuing to use fossil fuels; that our fear of nuclear is mostly irrational; that Chernobyl wasn't the cataclysmic disaster the anti-nuclear lobby thinks it was but, in purely scientific terms, actually a bit of a non-event (just 56 people dead compared to, say, more than 6,000 in the Bhopal disaster).

Where Brand improves on Lovelock, however, is in his ability to think around the problem. Yes, we should bury nuclear waste, but let's make sure future generations are still able to access it if they need to; as technology improves it might be possible to recycle it. He is also illuminating on the question of whether more nuclear power stations in the world could lead to more nuclear bombs. He draws attention to an ongoing and little-reported deal between the Russians and the Americans called "Megatons to Megawatts", which, since 1994, has seen countless nuclear warheads from Russia shipped to the US to be converted into fuel. An astonishing 10 per cent of the electricity Americans currently use comes from decommissioned Russian weapons. The goal is to convert 20,000 warheads to fuel by 2013. Far from encouraging proliferation, argues Brand, "nuclear energy has done more to eliminate existing nuclear weapons from the world than any other activity". (He also points out that Israel, India, South Africa and North Korea all covertly developed their nuclear weapons programmes from research reactors, not energy programmes, so there isn't necessarily a causal link.)

The third and final sacred cow of the Green Movement Brand aims his bolt gun at is distrust of genetic engineering. He certainly conjures up a very seductive vision of a world where every conceivable problem has a corresponding bio-fix, but somehow he fails to land a killer blow. Part of the problem is his occasionally dismissive, arrogant tone (sweeping statements like "most environmentalists don't seem aware of what's going on in the biosciences these days" are not only unhelpful, they're vague for a so-called man of science, and vagueness doesn't inspire confidence).

There's also something slightly unsettling about his suggestion that, rather than trying to solve "imaginary problems" before initiating a GE project, you should simply get on with it and then, once it's up and running, "pay close attention to what actually goes on, noting genuine problems as they emerge, and then solving them as locally as possible with speed and efficiency". In his book The Constant Economy, published towards the end of last year, prospective Tory party candidate and former editor of the Ecologist Zac Goldsmith recounted a GE "disaster scenario" in which researchers in Oregon State University accidentally created a bacterium that Canadian geneticist David Suzuki claimed, "could, theoretically, have ended all plant life on this continent" if it had been released from the lab. Before I get too excited about the world-changing possibilities of GE – and Brand does make it all sound very exciting – I'd like to hear him explain how he would go about solving that little poser "with speed and efficiency".

Brand asserts that "environmentalists do best when they follow where science leads, as they did with climate change. They do worst when they get nervous about where science leads, as they did with genetic engineering". Ultimately, though, he sees the Green Movement splitting into two groups: traditional Greens, who stick to proven, hair-shirt ways of preventing climate change, and Post-Greens, who will go in search of technical fixes like geo-engineering – taking steps to artificially alter our climate when CO2 reduction measures prove too little too late. We'll need both branches of the movement working in tandem, Brand believes, if we're to deal with the challenges ahead.