After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Discipline

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

Stewart Brand is best known as the founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog (1968 to 85) and CoEvolution Quarterly. His provocative new book Whole Earth Discipline makes a strong case for taking an eco-pragmatic approach to keeping some of our technological civilization alive while reducing our net carbon emissions to a minimum. The methods he promotes include urban density, vertical farms, nuclear power plants (“Those who know the most are the least frightened.”), and genetic engineering (which, he points out, we humans have been doing in so many ways ever since the dawn of agriculture.) Referring to scientist James Lovelock’s statements that climate change cannot be halted now and will turn many habitable regions into parched wasteland, Brand also outlines visionary and risky geoengineering projects that may be deployed to mitigate global warming.  

The shift from dread to action is under way. The outcome is wholly uncertain. Though microbes still run the world, right now they could use a little help in tuning the atmosphere. Our efforts will be tiny compared to what they do but enormous for us.”  

A lifelong environmentalist who sees everything in terms of solvable design problems, Brand describes three profound transformations underway on Earth right now. Climate change is real and is pushing us toward managing the planet as a whole. Urbanization—half the world’s population now lives in cities, and eighty percent will by mid-century—is altering humanity’s land impact and wealth. And biotechnology is becoming the world’s dominant engineering tool, the key to crop and land management. In light of these changes, Brand suggests that environmentalists are going to have to reverse some long held opinions and embrace tools that they have traditionally distrusted. Only a radical rethinking of traditional green pieties will allow us to forestall the cataclysmic deterioration of the earth’s resources. 

“Of the tools that come to hand, this book will examine four that environmentalists have distrusted and now need to embrace, plus one we love that has to be scaled up. The unwelcome four are urbanization, nuclear power, biotechnology, and geoengineering. The familiar one is natural-system restoration, which may be better framed as megagardening—restoring Gaia’s health at every scale from local soil to the whole atmosphere.” 

With a combination of scientific rigor and passionate advocacy, Brand shows us exactly where the sources of our dilemmas lie and offers a bold and inventive set of policies and solutions for creating a more sustainable society. In the end, says Brand, we have to learn how to manage the planet’s global-scale natural infrastructure with as light a touch as possible and as much intervention as necessary

“Our civilization caused climate change, and now it is undertaking to cause climate nonchange. At the end of the exercise (if it’s successful), climate will be the same but civilization probably won’t. We will be more transformed by our efforts to stabilize climate than by anything else we do in this century. If we fail to stabilize climate, our civilization will either be gone or unrecognizable.” 

“A summary:

Ecological balance is too important for sentiment. It requires science.

The health of natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity. It requires engineering.

What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable. We live one life.” 

“Stewart Brand has now raised the bar with the most important work of his lifetime, likely one of the most original and important books of the century. As the title connotes, the writing is about disciplined thinking. Shibboleths, ideological cant, and green fetishes are put to the side with the clarity and expertise gained by years of research and forethought, a mindbending exploration of what humankind can and must do to retain the mantle of civilization. The highest compliment one can give a book is ‘it changed my mind.’ It changed mine and I am grateful.” —Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest  

“Stewart Brand’s timely and down to earth new book gives me hope that his wisdom will help us prevent the earth system breaking as the economic system has done… This book is truly important and a joy to read. It is a practical guide to damage limitation and a sustainable retreat to a far more efficient society.” —James Lovelock, author of The Vanishing Face of Gaia

Stewart Brand
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.