Environmental movement needs pragmatism

Book Review: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand

Price: US$17.153
Hardcover: 336 page
Publisher: Viking Adult (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0670021210
ISBN-13: 978-0670021215

Stewart Brand is an invigorating and challenging writer. He has a long history in the environmental movement. His green credentials are undeniable. But he is not afraid to think outside the box. To challenge current environmental thinking. And to fight against the destructive role of ideology which can be such a limitation in political movements.

This book has two clear messages for environmentalists and “greens”:

1: Discard ideology.

2: Cities are green, nuclear energy is green, genetic engineering is green.

Brand proposes a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to the ecological and environmental problems we face today. In the process he has to critique some ideas he formerly promoted, and some of his allies still promote.

The book effectively deals with four areas. The role of cities, shanty towns and slums, the problem of anthropological contributions to climate change, the problem of energy and the role of nuclear power, and the resistance to solutions using genetic engineering.

Cities, countryside and slums

Brands discussion of the role of cities, slums and shanty towns is fascinating. It’s easily to be concerned about slums and shanty towns. But Brandt takes a positive view. He sees them as an important step in urbanisation. And urbanisation as an important step in improving the standing of living and cultural life of humanity. He opposes any romantic vision of villages which he describes as traps of ignorance and poverty.

Slums and shanty towns can be a hive of fervent commercial activity. Where people are busy making a living, carrying out a business (usually illegal or using illegal resources), educating their children and improving their income. All to enable them to make a transition to the city. To improve and incorporate technology into their own lives. “The worlds slums are the first urban environments to shape themselves around the cellphone”.

Sure, these areas can be breeding grounds for crime. But governments should do what they can to inhibit this and encourage the positive features. Another problem is that religions play a stronger role in slums than often realised. Brand refers to Planet of Slums by Mike Davis who says that:

“Populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early-twentieth-century socialism and anarchism.”

Such groups can often be the real government and supplier of services in the slums.

Greenhouse gas emissions

On the climate change issue Brand is clear. It is a real problem that humanity must confront. Market forces cannot solve the problem for us. We do need to take action. We need to intervene.

I liked his warning that underground sequestration of CO2 is not a solution. Personally, I would like someone to argue for diversion of CO2 away from emission into other manufacturing processes as a raw material. I find it silly that we could be considering underground storage of CO2 while effectively continuing to burn natural gas to produce CO2 in the manufacture of urea and methanol.

To my surprise, he argues for consideration of geoengineering solutions to global warming. Thankfully, he doesn’t deny the huge problems with this approach, the high possibility of unforeseen outcomes. However, his point is that this shouldn’t stop research in this area. After all, despite our best attempts we may be unable to exert enough control of greenhouse gas emission to prevent unavoidable disastrous outcomes. It would be wise to have geoengineering technology we could fall back on.

Brand likens this to the fact that people often resort to abortions when all attempts at normal birth control methods fail. A necessary evil.

I loved his speculation at the end of the book where Brand puts geoenginnering into context by considering possible future “solar system engineering.” We may, for example, mine for raw materials outside the earth, particularly in asteroids. We could also do much of our processing of minerals off the planet.

Energy and nuclear power

Brand promotes nuclear power as an essential contributor to humanity’s energy needs. This is often a controversial issue in the environmental movement. However, more and more greens are changing their minds on this, in the face of the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global warming. Many now see it as a “necessary evil.”

I found Brand’s reassessment of the nuclear waste problem convincing. He criticises the fallacy of long-term planning. That we should do things today that solves every future problem. Currently we don’t have a reliable, safe way of eliminating or disposing of nuclear waste. So he recommends a policy of retrievable underground storage. This is a medium term solution. Storage until we have the technology enabling final solutions for recovery and treatment of the waste. Future solutions could include reactor processing, efficient recovery of useful components or long-term effective disposal methods. Obviously security is an issue but this new perspective does reduce the importance of the waste issue.

The possible proliferation of nuclear weapons and material is also a problem with nuclear power. Brand believes we are making progress on antiproliferation treaties. I have also been heartened by US President Obama’s willingness to make progress on nuclear disarmament – which links directly to the proliferation issue.

Development of new and safer technologies, such as microreactors also makes nuclear power more acceptable. However, I feel that Brand in this book may be playing down the health risk of radiation leaks. He argues that we may have been overestimating the harmful effects of radiation. Or that low radiation doses may even have beneficial effects. Maybe he is right, but we shouldn’t be too quick to lower standards in this area.

Genetic engineering

This is the area where Brand is the most critical of his green colleagues. He sees their fear here as based mainly on an attitude that we shouldn’t play god, we shouldn’t interfere with nature, rather than any real evidence of dangers.

This has also motivated opposition to stem cell research and use of transgenic DNA. Brand argues that while commercial and field applications of the technologies must be properly evaluated we should get past the understandable overcautious approach adopted during the early days of research in these areas. He argues that genetic engineering can play an important role in producing more sustainable agriculture products, reducing the use of agricultural chemicals, increasing production and providing much needed nutrition for the world’s population. It is a cure for environmental problems rather than a cause of them.

Brand recognises problems that have arisen through corporate control and intellectual property issues. But he can foresee a time when environmentally oriented people promote genetic engineering. For example he sees a strong possibility of farmers markets promoting GE products and organic farmers adopting this technology.

Questioning ideology

Brand summarises his book with discussion of the problem of ideological agendas in the green movement. This has been the main factor inhibiting the ability of the movement to adjust to new realities like global warming, nuclear power and genetic engineering.

He sees a problem of attitudes aimed at changing behaviours rather than solving problems. Activists who are too prone to confirmation bias. Too willing to harness science to a political agenda.

Personally I don’t think this problem is in any way isolated to the green movement. It’s a common feature of all political movements. And has similar outcomes. People naturally resort to confirmation biases. They develop loyalty to preconceived ideas and political agendas. Natural human intuitions like judgementalism and loyalty get co-opted.

Political movements easily become like religions. This is true of parts of the environmental movement. It’s also true of conservative groups, such as the climate change deniers, who come out against the environmental movement.

Brand’s point is that it is always more important to be right than consistent. One should be prepared to changes one’s previous ideas on things like nuclear energy and genetic engineering. We have to learn to question fables.

I liked Brands parable about the fox and the hedgehog.

“”How you think matters more than what you think,” says political scientist Philip Tetlock. The most important distinction in quality of judgment, he declares, was first expressed by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” Hedgehogs have a grand theory they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand, are skeptical about grand theo­ries, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events. Hedgehogs don’t notice or care when they’re wrong. Foxes learn. Hedgehogs are great proponents, but foxes are invariably better forecasters and policy makers.”

So, Brand argues that in fact – cities are green, nuclear energy is green and genetic engineering is green. He opposes cultural pessimism and believes science is imbued with optimism.

Maybe you doubt this. Maybe you already agree. Either way you will find this book a stimulating read.

For a an overview of the book have a look at the videos below.


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See also: Another video presentation by Stewart Brand at the Q2C Festival, October 2009: The Whole Earth Discipline


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10 responses to “Environmental movement needs pragmatism

  1. ‘non-ideological approach’ – what is that?

    the ideology to shun ideology…
    the coalition to ban coalitions…
    the orthodoxy to trump orthodoxy…

    (i note, I’d agree with the practical solution-based approach, but let’s just not pretend it’s not also based on ideas – we can’t not think. it’s not that we want to ban ideology, we just want our ideas to be real and effective, etc. – nitpicking perhaps, but worth mentioning)


  2. Definitely nitpicking and definitely not worth mentioning Dale.

    There’s a difference between the ideology that forces proponents of AGW to focus on data that supports their cause and ignore data that might bring it into question as well as the ideology of anti-AGW proponents who do the same and saying that you’ll let the scientific facts speak for themselves. Sure that might technically be an ideology all on its own but it IS nitpicking to try to equate the two types.

    I suspect you get a little adrenaline rush from shit-stirring? Break that addiction fella 🙂


  3. Sure that might technically be an ideology all on its own but it IS nitpicking to try to equate the two types.

    Good thing I wasn’t equating the two types then 🙂


  4. “the ideology to shun ideology”


  5. huh? i hope you don’t think that quote implies an equating of any two types of ideology?


  6. OK… well… it was meant in the ‘shunning ideology is itself ideology’ kind of sense. This (to my mind) doesn’t equate ‘ideology shunning ideology’ with ‘ideology for the sake of it ideology’, but merely cautions (there’s the admittedly nit-picking flavour of my comment) against the idea that we need to have (or even can have) a ‘non-ideological approach’.


  7. Say you have a greenie who refuses to even consider nuclear power because they are ideologically opposed to it and you have a uranium mining lobby group who want governments to invest in nuclear power plants we are describing a similar category of ideology where the motives that drive their decisions are unlikely to change in the face of evidence. This is one use of the word ‘ideology’.

    Now, let’s say someone says that we should be careful not to let this kind of thinking get in the way because we’re unlikely to make the most informed decisions if we are prepared to ignore facts to the contrary. Technically this approach can be called an ideology but a very different category of ideology. A meta-ideology if you will.

    It seems clear to me that when Ken wrote “Brand proposes a pragmatic, non-ideological approach” he is talking of ideologies of the former kind. But your comment equated both the former and the latter kinds when you said “the ideology to shun ideology” and you further reinforce this by saying that you don’t believe we can even have a non-ideological approach.

    Yes, we can have a non-ideological approach if we are willing to base our actions on the available facts rather than our ‘ideologies’. And if you think that that is an ideology then you are equating the two.


  8. my comments were quite simple. Rather than valuing the different kinds of ideologies as equal, or with one better than the other (though it is implicit in my comment that I’d agree with the evidence-appreciating ideology), i simply made the point that the phrase ‘non-ideological approach’ implicitly suggests and/or recommends a non-possibility (categorically speaking, not comparatively speaking).

    I’ll happily plead guilty to the nit-picking charge (which I did in my first comment), though 🙂


  9. FYI: Stewart Brand has also endorsed my insider novel of nuclear power, “Rad Decision”, as an lay person’s guide to the topic. I’ve worked in US nuclear plants over twenty years and seen the good and the bad. The book is available free online, and also now in paperback at online retailers. See the website homepage for reviews. http://RadDecision.blogspot.com.

    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand


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