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Planet Stewardship

WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Stewart Brand. x + 325 pp. Viking, 2009. $25.95.

In Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand makes an impassioned argument for the acceleration of urbanization and increased use of biotechnology, genetic engineering and nuclear power. The tone Brand sets at the beginning of the book is grave. He warns readers straight away that the book is “full of harsh revelations” about the seriousness of climate change and environmental problems. He discusses, among other things, “sneaky” threshold effects related to pollution, the potential for nonlinear changes to the global climatic system, the value of ecosystem services such as drinkable water and breathable air, and the unsustainability of current forms of economic production and consumption. If we continue to damage our planet in this way, Brand warns, we could soon produce a less livable Earth where we would be much like ants on a burning log. “If we do nothing or not enough,” Brand says sternly, “we face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions.”

Three technologies are the key to solving these pressing environmental problems, says Brand. First come cities, which have immense environmental and economic costs but also “more than earn their keep” by creating higher incomes, engendering social stability and facilitating strong forms of institutional governance. Brand tells us that in the same way that “organisms become more metabolically efficient as they scale up,” cities become more innovative as they increase in size. City dwellers consume fewer resources, generate less pollution and occupy less land than their rural counterparts.

Second comes nuclear power. Brand argues that nuclear reactors hold manifold advantages over other sources of energy supply. Unlike intermittent sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, nuclear reactors are capable of providing year-round, 24-hour baseload power (the minimum amount of power needed to consistently meet the needs of a customer base numbering in the millions). They occupy less land than wind farms and solar arrays. Nuclear waste is “miniscule in size” compared with the pollution from fossil-fueled facilities: The nuclear waste produced by creating enough power to supply one person with a lifetime of electricity would fit in a Coke can. Nuclear facilities also emit almost no greenhouse gases and can thus help humanity use energy without contributing to climate change.

Third comes the genetic modification of crops. Brand prefers the term genetic engineering—working with the genes behind certain traits to grow crops that produce more nutrients, grow in hostile soils, use less water, or accomplish a variety of other amazing feats. Some genetically engineered crops—those that are herbicide-tolerant, for example—can be harvested through “no till” methods that avoid plowing and the need for pesticides; the stubble from the crop can be left in the field to turn into compost, and the roots stop erosion and keep carbon in the ground. Crops can be made more nutritious: Scientists have used genetic engineering to create rice that contains beta carotene, providing hundreds of thousands of children around the world with much-needed vitamin A.

The problem with environmentalism, Brand contends, is that in shunning these three modern marvels it has become “too outdated,” “too negative,” “too politically one-sided.” Environmentalists thus “risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new tasks.” What environmentalists and “ecopragmatists” need to do instead is adopt a “planet stewardship role” by embracing cities, engineered food and atomic energy.

The book has two primary strengths. The first is its synthetic nature. Brand draws from modern-day luminaries as diverse as Charles David Keeling, Albert Howard, John Holdren, Amory Lovins, Rachel Carson and James Lovelock as well as classic scholars such as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He even sprinkles his pages with poetry from Robert Frost and quotations from the fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. The book’s second strength is its style. It is incredibly easy to read and presents its arguments in clear, simple language that is easy to comprehend.

Readers may be disappointed, however, by the book’s methodology and by Brand’s uncritical, almost sycophantic, acceptance of technology.The synthetic nature of the book, lauded above, may also strike some readers as a weakness, because it appears at times that Brand has no voice of his own. We are instead presented with large chunks of text directly quoted from his favorite authors, producing a work that at times reads more like an extended annotated bibliography than a coherently crafted book. Brand also claims to be marshalling “scientific studies” in support of his arguments, but a close read of his sources reveals a dearth of peer-reviewed literature. The list of “Recommended Reading” at the end of the book also includes less-rigorous sources of information, including blogs, Web sites and the home page of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying firm.

Furthermore, we do not hear much of the other side—of the serious countervailing arguments (some of them compelling) against urbanization, genetic engineering and nuclear power. Brand believes that “concentrating” pollution in cities is better, but epidemiological work has repeatedly shown that the high concentrations of pollutants found in metropolitan areas result in increased morbidity and mortality among urban residents. Concentrations of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, benzene and lead, for example, have been shown to especially harm children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Nuclear power is “green” only so long as one neglects to mention the serious environmental hazards related to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle. Uranium mining contaminates water sources and has resulted in scores of accidents and severe environmental degradation in dozens of countries around the world. Nuclear waste storage represents what physicist Alvin Weinberg called a “Faustian bargain,” because our civilization will be stuck with it for hundreds of thousands of years. The Oxford Research Group contends that the nuclear fuel cycle is energy-intensive (meaning that every part of it has its own affiliated greenhouse-gas emissions) and that the carbon footprint of nuclear facilities will only get worse as high-grade uranium ores are depleted and reactors get older.

Genetically modified crops have in some cases improved standards of living, but the nonpartisan Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warns of unintended consequences—through “gene escape,” for example, genes for herbicide resistance could be transferred into weeds. Moreover, the primary actors engaged in biotechnology research are multinational corporations with little concern for improving the livelihood of local farming communities.

Even if one were to ignore these points and accept that cities, reactors and engineered crops are an environmental panacea, expansion of their use would most likely continue to be impeded by a seamless web of social, political and economic obstacles. People in the field of science and technology studies, including erudite scholars such as David Nye, Richard Hirsh, Vaclav Smil and Thomas P. Hughes, have been arguing for decades that the most pernicious barriers to technological adoption are often social—consumer attitudes, lack of information, barriers to market entry, outdated political regulations—rather than technical. Engineers cannot just “design around” or wish away these social challenges.

In the end, Brand makes as compelling a case as any for technologies traditionally shunned by environmentalists. But anyone wanting to be taken seriously by that community will have to provide a far more careful and balanced analysis than the one contained in this book.

Benjamin K. Sovacool is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is also a Research Fellow in the Energy Governance Program at the Centre on Asia and Globalization. He is the author of The Dirty Energy Dilemma: What’s Blocking Clean Power in the United States (Praegar, 2008) and is coeditor with Marilyn A. Brown of Energy and American Society—Thirteen Myths (Springer, 2007).

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