Books: update from a green guru

Stewart Brand, the ’60s-era icon of sustainable living, is back and looking kindly on nuclear energy and GM food. Clive Cookson enjoyed Whole Earth Discipline, even when he didn’t agree.

Whole Earth Discipline
Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books, 2010

The 21st century has seen the emergence of a different type of green campaigner, who embraces science as an essential tool for tackling the world’s environmental woes. In contrast to the technophobic old guard of organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the new green embraces nuclear power as a way to produce energy without carbon dioxide, and genetic engineering as a route toward more efficient agriculture.

Now the new style of environmentalism has a worthy prophet, Stewart Brand, and a bible, Whole Earth Discipline. Not that Brand himself is a newcomer. The 71-year-old Californian – the subject of a recent Lunch with the FT article – made his name in the 1960s and 1970s as publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, the encyclopaedic guide to sustainable living.

From the start Brand was something of a maverick in the environmental movement. Though he initially opposed nuclear power, he was never hostile to genetic engineering. Today he is a proponent of both – and makes an articulate case for them in his book.

His starting point is man-made climate change, which Brand regards as the overriding threat to human civilisation. Agriculture, cities and industry have developed over the “long summer of the past 10,000 years,” during which the global climate has been remarkably stable. Because civilisation has known only benign conditions, with historically gentle transitions such as that between the medieval warm period and the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th century, we are not prepared for the changes that may be triggered by the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Brand first became really passionate about fighting climate change after he came to appreciate the archaeological and ethnological evidence for the naturally warlike behaviour of human beings when resources are scarce. “With climate change under way we have to make a choice,” he writes. “If we do nothing or not enough, we face … crisis leading to war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions.”

Compared to such a threat, the downsides of nuclear energy – radiation, possible accidents and the build-up of radioactive wastes – are small, Brand argues. The weakest point in his argument comes when he rather brushes aside what many commentators see as the greatest risk: the link between nuclear power and weapons.

While Brand tolerates nuclear energy, he is enthusiastic about the potential for genetic engineering to improve agricultural productivity without exacerbating climate change. The environmental movement has done more harm in its opposition to genetic engineering than in anything else, he claims: “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.” To correct matters, the book gushes about the technology in a way that might raise a blush even in a spokesman for Monsanto, the leading agricultural biotechnology company.

Though nuclear and biotechnology are at the heart of Whole Earth Discipline, the book ranges entertainingly across other fields, from urbanisation to the political history of the environmental movement. Brand is a fan of mega-cities, arguing that allowing people to concentrate there is more efficient and productive than trying to keep them in the countryside. “Squatter cities are green,” he claims. But his praise for the innovative spirit of the world’s great squatter slums, such as Dharavi in Mumbai, should have been tempered with more understanding of the squalor – or even horror – of life there.

You do not have to agree with Brand to enjoy Whole Earth Discipline. While it contains flaws and fallacies (for example, about the timing and impact of BSE, or “mad-cow disease”, in Europe), overall the writing is so entertaining and thought-provoking that I can see it being quoted 30 years from now, just as the Whole Earth Catalog is today.

Clive Cookson is the Financial Times science editor.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010