Review: Whole Earth Discipline – An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

5 Star, Complexity & Catastrophe, Complexity & Resilience, Culture, Research, Economics, Environment (Problems), Environment (Solutions), Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design, Priorities, Science & Politics of Science, Survival & Sustainment, Technology (Bio-Mimicry, Clean), True Cost & Toxicity, Voices Lost (Indigenous, Gender, Poor, Marginalized)
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Stewart Brand

5.0 out of 5 stars Surprising, Challenges, Perhaps Wrong on Some Points,September 13, 2011

This book is an absorbing read, and several of the top reviews are very useful to anyone considering buying the book (also available in paperback, Amazon is now NOT crossing reviews over from different forms, a mistake in my view, but perhaps motivated by their trying to give the millions of new reviewers a starting point against those of us who have been reviewing books on Amazon for eleven years.

This book can read at multiple levels, and I dare to say that to reach each additional level, a second and third reading of the book is required.

Level 1: An overview of books that Stewart Brand has read and his general sense of the world.

Level 2: A deeper engagement with his thinking on climate change, urbanization, and biotechnology

Level 3: A very deep and necessarily skeptical reading of his book, mindful of many areas where he may be wrong while appreciating the extraordinary lifetime of intellectual and ethical leadership that he brings to bear–this is the man who created Co-Evolution Quarterly, Whole Earth Review, the Silicon Valley Hacker’s Conference that I was elected to in 1994 and am attending this year (4-6 November), and the Clock of the Long Now, as well as Global Business Network and other initiatives. He is in brief, one of a dozen minds I consider “root” for whatever good we might muster in the USA in the near term, along with Tom Atlee and a handful of others.

Level 1 books new to me that all of us should attend to:

1998 The Work of Nature: How The Diversity Of Life Sustains Us
1998 Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making
2003 Constant Battles: Why We Fight
2004 Rewilding North America: A Vision For Conservation In The 21St Century
2005 Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl
2006 Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources
2007 You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy
2009 The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning

Level 2 deeper engagement with his thinking:

+ He focuses on climate change, urganization, and biotechnology

+ His three broad strategies are mitigation, adaptation, and amelioration

+ He considers cities to be wealth creation engines, pointing out that in India a person can earn $500 in the city in one month, whereas that would take a year to earn in the rural regions.

+ Connectivity is productivity–to which I would add free connectivity with OpenBTS [see Range Networks] and creating “The Virgin Truth” [see Phi Beta Iota, Sir Richard Branson’s gatekeepers just do not want to hear this].

QUOTE (29): “The trend is clear. The “rise of the West” is over. The world looks the way it did a thousand years ago when the ten largest cities were Cordoba, in Spain; Kaifeng, in China; Constantiople; Angkor, in Cambodia; Kyoto; Cairo; Baghdad; Nishapur, in Iran; Al-Hasa, in Saudi Arabia; and Patan, in India.” This is a return to “normal.”

+ North is now old people and stagflation. South is young people and opportunity.

QUOTE (69): “Environmentalists have yet to seize the enormous opportunity offered by urbanization.

QUOTE (94): “The world’s worst nuclear power plant diaster [Chernobyl] is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities.” Citing Wormwood Forest, linked above in Level 1.

+ French nuclear licensing takes four years vice twelve years in the USA.

+ Green genes are good.

QUOTE (209): “The long-evolved green agenda is suddenly outdated–too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem. Far from taking a new dominant role, environmentalists risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new tasks. Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system — climate dynamics.

QUOTE (228): Citing Tetlock, “There is an inverse relationship between what makes people attractive as public presenters and what makes them accurate in these forecasting exercises.” Absolutely. See my review of First-Rate Madness. Those with credibility in the “established” systems are generally corrupt or plain wrong, and those on the “lunatic fringe” so easily dismissed, are right. I fear that Stewart Brand may have gone a step too far toward being establishment. He is very pro-technology, accusing environmentalists of being wrong on technology more often than not.

QUOTE (230): “Every interview with a public figure should include the questions ‘what have you been wrong about, and how did that change your views?’ The answer will tell us if the person is intellectually honest or a tale spinner with delusions of infallibility. [Having watched two Republican debates that exclude Gary Johnson and include at least three intellectual pygmies, I applaud this statement by the author.]

QUOTE (235): “cosystem engineering is an ancient art, practiced and malpracticed by every human society since the mastery of fire.”

+ He provides a long and really engaging discussion of indigenous knowledge, with special emphasis on the fact that it cannot just be exported, and that what makes it unique more often than not is its “groundedness.”

+ Wiser civilization have had two levels of ownership, both individual and communal.

+ One insight in the whole systems vein is that while upstream powers have power over the flow of water, downstream powers can wipe out the upstream advantages by allowing pests to run amok–there is a balance that most may not appreciate (including upstream powers today, e.g. Turkey).

+ What is new for me are the various efforts to commercialize whole system conservation, with the Salmon Nation Ecotrust claiming 6-8 percent returns on investment (ROI).

+ I am fascinated to learn that it may be possible to regenerate Mammoths, whose gift to us all evidently lies in their ability to consume and then poop really devastatingly large amounts of tall wild grasses. The cost is calculated at roughly $10 million.

+ New to me is a very detailed section on invasive plants and animals, both good and bad, and I have the annotation that there is a lifetime of practical natural knowledge in this book.

+ Barcoding of species is revealing vastly more diversity than we realized–one species of butterly actually being sixty distinct species, not the one.

QUOTE (277): “For sensitive engineering at planet scale, what we need most is better knowledge of how the Earth system works.”

While I agree with the need for more information, I am troubled by the complete lack of reference to the corruption rampant at all levels of society and especially within governments lacking integrity, and financial enterprises lacking ethical oversight.

+ He mentions the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, and the Data-Intensive Scalable Computer Systems. Both good, but until we get it all into Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) and Open Data Access such as The Netherlands is now mandating, slow to mature.

Level 3 Deeper skepticism

+ Anyone who cites discredited NASA scientist James Hanson, a known intellectually corrupt flak for the politicized bureaucracy, loses a little credibility with me.

+ He favors nuclear power so much so — and this was written before Fukushima and the various flooding and minor earthquakes scares across multiple nuclear plants in the USA including one in Virginia — that I have real doubts. While he applauds the relative merits of nuclear baseload, footprint, protfolio, and the role of government therein, I just do not see it.

+ He considers the precautionary principle to be an obstacle to progress. Here I have to disagree, and can cite only one book within my ten book limit, that of Charles Perrow, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (New in Paper). What we do every day in biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological carelessness is criminally insane.

QUOTE (275): “Whether it’s called managing the commons, natural infrastructure maintenance, tending the wild, niche constructoin, eco-system engineering, mega-gardening, or international gaia, humanity is now stuck with a planet stewardship role.”

As much as I admire the thought, I do not agree, and cite the broader view of Doug Hoffman and Allen Simmons in The Resilient Earth: Science, Global Warming and the Fate of Humanity. Earth will do just fine without us.

Where I decisively part ways with the author is on the need for geo-engineering (consistent with his dismissal of the precautionary principle). HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) is an example of out of control geo-engineering. The Army Corps of Engineers and the tens of thousands of levees all across America, all now ready to be overcome by record high rains that are an act of man, not an act of God, are another.

One example of geo-engineering offered by the author is for the placement of sixteen trillion (yes, trillion) two foot disks at Laurange Point (L1) in the sky to dilute the sun’s rays.

QUOTE (302): “What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable, we live one life.”

NOT SO. Totally wrong, in fact. Man has separated from nature, go back and read Herbert Marcuse, among others. We have lost our soul–capitalism has lost its soul, democracy no longer exists, the public interest has been so thoroughly betrayed the by 400 richest in the USA and their counterparts in Asia and Europe that we may well be facing a global plague of poverty, hunger, disease, and widespread crime. Our elites today have forgotten the lesson of the elites in New York in the 1920’s who created public health when they realized that disease plays no favorites. As one way puts it, “reality bats last.”

Man has not only separated from nature, man has separated from society, nowhere more so than in the USA. Each citizen has abdicated their sovereign role in relation to academia, civil society, commerce, government, law enforcement, media, military, and non-governmental/non-profit, such that all eight of the “tribes” have suffered massive paradigms of failure, a total loss of integrity and therefore a total loss of legitimacy and with that, a loss of efficacy.

In brief, what is missing from this book is the appreciation that Will Durant, among others has, for the Golden Rule and the vital role that integrity plays in human affairs. Without it we are brutes, with it we can achieve what Tom Atlee calls Evolutionary Activism.

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