5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps the most important — certainly the most thought-provoking — book in years
October 22, 2009
Review by Jesse Kornbluth
Book by Stewart Brand
I was interviewing George Soros as the Dow rapidly shed 300 points and crashed through the 10,000 level.
“Is this it?” I asked.
Soros shrugged — a very calm reaction from an investor who might have seen his portfolio shrink by hundreds of millions of dollars in a matter of minutes.
I lost much less that day, but I had a different reaction — panic. The thing to do, I concluded, was to trade my beloved Classic 6 in Manhattan for a self-sustaining house in the country. Ten acres would suffice, as long as they had decent water, land suitable for a large garden and enough sunlight for the solar panels.
I bought a URL for the web site I planned to launch: […]. This was no back-to-the-land hippie retreat. I would be stepping into the smart future: small town/rural purity (Woodsmoke) with the 21st century benefits of a fast Internet (Broadband) and Amazon.com’s free shipping.
Given all that, you will understand that I was quite stunned to read “Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto” — by Stewart Brand, creator of the 1960s and 1970s classic, the “Whole Earth Catalog” — and discover that the last place its author would have me go is back to the land.
In these pages, Stewart Brand lays out a mind-blowing vision for the planet’s salvation: migration to the cities, power generated by mini-nuclear reactors, healthier crops through genetic engineering.
This may well be the most important book I’ll read this year. Certainly, it’s the most aggressively optimistic book that’s also closely reported — Brand’s a student who shows his work. Granted, a lot of it is technical. Skip those pages. Just read with a pencil. Mark what seems important and/or drives you crazy. Start reading more science news — Brand recommends NewScientist — and keep an open mind. That is, get ready to abandon your own long-held views. And be just as ready to disagree with Brand.
The book starts with climate change — not as a phenomenon to debate with those who don’t believe it’s real, but as a factor in warfare, which has historically often followed changes in climate. In the past, “wholesale carnage was common, and so was cannibalism.” But in the last three centuries, historians have found, only about 3% of the world’s population dies in warfare. And in our own century, war has become absolutely humane — we now kill only enough of the enemy to guarantee victory.
But what if we experienced severe climate change? “Humanity would revert to its norm of constant battles for diminishing resources,” Brand writes. “Peace lovers would be killed and eaten by war lovers.”
Now that he has your attention — and with that image, he certainly has mine — Brand makes his case for a Green movement that is smart about science. In other words, based on facts, not emotion. Rachel Carson, he notes, was a hero for her anti-pesticide book, “Silent Spring”. But after DD was banned worldwide, malaria took off in Africa, possibly killing 20-30 million children. So he wishes us to consider the direct — and indirect — consequences of:
— “We’re now excessively carbon-loading the atmosphere toward inferno.”
— “Cellphones are the fastest global diffusion of any technology in human history.”
— For the next three decades, the world will be demographically split: in the global north, old cities full of old people; in the global south, new cities full of young people.
— “A white roof saves the building’s tenant 20% in cooling costs.”
— Because of its nuclear plants, France exports power to coal-burning countries.
But the big phenomenon for Brand, in his new way of thinking, is this: “The takeoff of cities is the dominant economic event of the first half of this century.” And when we met in New York for a short interview, that’s where we started.
You see more and more people moving to cities. Why do you applaud that?
Cities innovate faster as they grow bigger. They create enormous problems, but they also create solutions faster. Cities seem to know how to get out of their own way.
What’s driving the attraction of cities?
Globally, the evolution of cell phones. Once people in the bush have smart phones, people can see the wealth creation in cities.
Won’t this lead to more urban gridlock?
People don’t move from the country to the capital cities. They go to the nearest city.
Okay, climate change. Care to predict the year when, if we haven’t taken radical steps, it becomes just too late to save the planet for humans life?
No, because you can’t find a hard edge.
I used to think rising sea level was not significant. You can, after all, walk back from water. Then I realized most of the wealth and productivity and expensive real estate is on the coasts. In San Francisco, real estate along the shore is susceptible to inches. So rising water is more serious to those people than drought. Very simply, the rich will say: “Stop this!”
And for those who don’t live on the coasts?
Ten years of drought would have an effect. At 15 years you realize it’s not going away. And once drought stays, the area does die.
In either scenario, climate is the story.
It’s the ongoing story: What does climate change mean to us?
But people don’t want to hear it. Why?
People turn away from news that confuses them. And these problems resist easy understanding. There’s much to disagree about on almost point. Like: every year, carbon comes out of the atmosphere. Does it go to oceans or continents?
You mention the good that would follow if we all painted our roofs white. Give me five more things that we can, as individuals, do to retard climate change.
In my “Whole Earth” days, that would be my focus. Now I don’t think about painting your roof white, I think about painting whole cities white.
Can you see that time?
Soon enough, I can see streets that will be embedded with solar cells.
And our power coming from mini-nuclear plants?
Micro-reactors are game changers. China is talking about building 400.
This conversation unsettles me. On one hand, you speak of urgency. On the other, you’re very calm. Why aren’t you screaming?
I’m a biologist. That comes with a kind of fatalism.
Working out the ideas for this book, when do you realize you were making a break with your past?
As I was pursuing urbanization, I realized there was a nest of good news in what had been treated as bad news. As a journalist, this is what you look for — suddenly I had a story. And my changed sense of “green” is a piece of that story. That’s one advantage of being 70 and having been in the public eye for 40 years.
So is “Whole Earth Discipline” a repudiation of the “Whole Earth Catalog”?
The “Catalog” was not, as some thought, counter-culture. It was counter-counter culture. It matched the passion of the hippie movement with reasoned responses. “Discipline” is the same game.