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Book Review:  Whole Earth Discipline

By On

Eric Hirst is guest writer.

Environmental Heretic or Prophet? A Review of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Viking Press, 2009.

Stewart Brand’s new book shakes the foundation of conventional environmental thinking. I moved to California in 1964 to attend graduate school. That summer I hiked in Yosemite National Park and instantly became an environmentalist. Like many others, my environmental interests evolved over the following decades. Initially, my goal was to preserve western high-altitude wilderness areas (rocks and ice.) My horizons later expanded to include air pollution, water pollution, and toxic wastes. Much of my career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory focused on energy efficiency, primarily to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the environmental problems associated with their extraction, transportation, and combustion. Now global warming looms over everything else, the ultimate game changer.

Along comes Stewart Brand with a book on global warming and strategies to respond. Brand, now in his early 70s, is best known for his Whole Earth Catalog, published from 1968 to 1985. His new book challenges many conventional environmental beliefs. Because the author is a well-recognized environmentalist, we need to take seriously his criticisms of the environmental establishment and his suggestions. The book has chapters on population, urbanization, nuclear energy, genetic engineering, and geo-engineering.

Climate change is unlike other environmental problems in its magnitude, both scope and scale. It affects the entire planet, not just local regions. And it promises to change dramatically life on earth. Environmentalists traditionally worried about the effects of people and our technologies on the environment; with global climate change we are now worried about the effects of the earth on us.

Many environmentalists (including me) believe that population growth lies at the root of all major environmental problems. Unless we can slow and then stop population growth, all is lost because increases in the number of people will overwhelm all efforts to manage the commons and cut pollution.

Brand has a different take on the issue. Largely because of increasing urbanization, population growth is slowing dramatically. As more and more people move to cities, they choose to have fewer children. Indeed, within a few decades we will have a declining world population.

Urbanization is good for the environment, according to Brand. Getting people out of the countryside allows the rural landscape to recover. In addition, cities are where innovation occurs and new ideas are born. Brand is upbeat about the slums in large third-world cities, which he says are hotbeds of creativity.

Brand says that nuclear energy must be a key part of our energy mix. Most renewables are intermittent (e.g., solar and wind,) which limits their usefulness to the electrical grid. Electricity is the ultimate real-time product, produced at exactly the same time it is consumed, because the electrical system has almost no storage capacity. Nuclear power is reliable, controllable, and its production costs are very low. It provides baseload power that runs steadily 24/7.

Brand says we should not worry about the long-term (thousands of years) storage of nuclear waste. We should plan to store such wastes for about a century and assume that the creativity and new technologies invented by our children and grandchildren will solve the long-term waste-storage problem. Had environmentalists been unsuccessful in blocking nuclear plants, we would have a lot fewer coal plants—and therefore much less carbon dioxide, sulfur and nitrogen air pollution, and land and streams ruined by mountaintop removal and strip mining.

Concerns about genetically engineered foods (frankenfood) are seriously misplaced. The environmental community should learn more about biology so it understands the major benefits these modified foods bring to society, including much less use of pesticides and fertilizers. Brand says the environmental community has “starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool” in opposing genetic engineering.

Brand sees the environmental movement made up of Romantics and Scientists. “The romantics identify with natural systems; the scientists study natural systems.” A new set of players is emerging—engineers who want to fix things. And global warming is a gigantic problem in search of lots of fixes. “Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems.”

Brand favors further study of and experimentation with new ideas to modify the earth’s climate, called geoengineering. These are efforts to directly modify the earth’s climate and slow (or reverse) global warming. The leading scheme involves stratospheric sulfates. Much as a volcano would, we could inject sulfates directly into the atmosphere. Airplanes, cannons, or balloon-suspended hoses could be used to deliver the sulfates.

Brand’s book includes an excellent list of books and papers on science, climate, cities, population, nuclear, genetic engineering, environmentalism, ecology, Indians, restoration, and geoengineering.

Brand is too much of a technological optimist. He believes we will identify and invent new technologies and systems to solve the problems caused by global warming. He also believes (implicitly) that these new technologies will have no serious adverse side effects. I disagree with both of his beliefs. However, this is such an interesting, wide-ranging, and well-written book that I urge you to read it.

Editor note: This book is currently in stock and on the shelves at Village Books. July 15

About Eric Hirst

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jul 23, 2015

Eric Hirst has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University, spent 30 years as an energy policy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and retired to Bellingham 14 years ago. He [...]

Comments by Readers

Steve Wilson

Jul 19, 2010

Thanks for the book review Eric.  Sounds very interesting. I would agree that Stewart is overly optomistic.  Is he suggesting that we are no longer under the spell of Alfred E. Newman:  “What Me Worry?”
Why is it that it’s more popular to believe we can solve all these man-made problems instead of avoiding their creation.  Seems like a convenient form of denial.
BTW, have you read ‘The Report From Iron Mountain’ (from the 60’s)?