Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Discipline

This view of Earth transformed the way we see ourselves and our place on the planet.

“We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.”

Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who, in the late 1960’s successfully provoked NASA to publish the first photo of Earth from space, spoke in Vancouver last night. His talk and his latest book Whole Earth Discipline offer us yet another mind-expanding angle on our planet. This time it’s dedicated to our very survival.

In the minutes before he took the stage, the seats in the Woodward’s building Wong Theatre filled with young and old, women and men. The excitement in the air was palpable. Premier Gordon Campbell and his wife Nancy were in the front row. Former Vancouver Councillors Peter Ladner and Lynne Kennedy along with Milton Wong, who made the theatre possible, were also in attendance.

The free talk was advertised quietly by SFU email lists. One can only imagine the turnout to see Brand, who represents a living, thriving vision for the whole earth movement to so many of us, if his talk had been published in the Georgia Straight.

Brand stands tall and vibrant at 72. He began with a basic whole earth premise. “I am talking about two kinds of infrastructure,” he said.

“The artificial [infrastructure], this bridge [pointing to a slide like or of the Lions Gate Bridge] is based on natural infrastructure. The river under it and the woods on either side are natural. So is the climate.”  He underscored all of our artificial infrastructure is based on natural infrastructure, giving the example of earthworms. Humans, artificially, use earthworms to, naturally, turn bad soil to good soil.

Throughout his talk, Brand drove to the heart of the matter with straightforward images, diagrams, examples and anecdotes. One of his charts showed the layers of infrastructure in order of speed and power of change characteristic of each:

Beginning with Nature as the underlying foundation and moving sequentially through culture, governance and commerce, Brand puts fashion and art at the top of his schematic. Nature is the slowest to change and also has the most powerful potential.

Cities completely transform themselves every 50 years, he says. Fashion and art change even more rapidly, but have the least influence over our whole earth.

Brand’s vision for our survival is provocative. He, and the experts he cites, see humanity’s global migration into cities as, over all, a very good thing. In a nutshell, when individuals in developing countries move from subsistence farms (“an eco-disaster”) to cities, they and in turn their families find better opportunities. As a corollary, the farms they leave transform, returning to their natural state. This happens all the more quickly in rainforested areas.

Drought, he reminds us, destroys civilizations. And drought is what we’ll be getting more of with increasing levels of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere.

When people move to cities, birth rates drop dramatically. Quips Brand, “children are an asset in the country, but a liability in town.” He sees the vast squatter cities burgeoning all over the developing world as hotbeds of opportunity, innovation and healthy transformation.

A film clip of a commuter train moving through a crowded portion of Bangkok delighted the audience. As the train passed by, in seconds, the merchants slid their stalls over the tracks and their market resumed.

He believes world population can level off and stabilize.

But the crisis of climate change and our survival on Earth is tied to how we produce and distribute power as much as it is to human population levels.

If the people who know the most about climate change are the most worried and the people who know the most about nuclear energy are the least worried, Stewart Brand wants to know why the environmental movement isn’t listening.

“Coal [a major culprit in human-induced climate change] is too cheap,” Brand states. Through taxation, governments’ infrastructure in Europe, rightfully, makes coal expensive. The planet’s main energy users: US, India and China need to implement taxes on fossil fuels to make alternative power sources economically viable. “This could turn around climate change,” Brand says.

He is a strong proponent of clean nuclear energy. Brand gave the audience examples of the industry breakthroughs, which make it appealing now, in a way it wasn’t during the time when nuclear facilities like Chernobyl were built. These include modular reactors, fast reactors and fusion.

Brand also spoke glowingly on GMO foods: calcium-rich carrots for people who are lactose intolerant, pigs with lots of omega3 fatty acids and super nutritious rice and cassava for the cultures which respectively prefer each. A key point he makes is that no-till seed strains keep carbon in the soil where it belongs, thus helping to slow harmful climate change.

There was a lot more to his talk: both informative and thought-provoking. Except for an eye-popping film clip (Livermore Lab) about nuclear fusion and how much closer we may be to making fusion a viable energy source — it’s all in his book: Whole Earth Discipline.

Leaving the hall, this VO reporter talked to a few people from the audience. A young woman was surprised no one had boo’d him. A middle-aged couple also mentioned this with no prompting. Said the husband, “perhaps he can say these things because of his stature.” Maybe it was also his optimism.

Yes, Brand did predict, soon there will be a Chernobyl National Park at the spot of the then disaster and now Europe’s richest wildlife preserve. He imagines we’ll be enjoying pristine Nature there as well as remembering the mistakes of the past that we’re not repeating in the future.

“What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable. We live one life.” – Stewart Brand


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Stewart Brand also recommends:

The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future by Fred Pearce

Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa by Robert Paarlberg, with a forward by Jimmy Carter 

Adventures in Synthetic Biology (an educational comic book)

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