The Green Column #19

Humans Must Learn to Engineer Repairs to the Planet

January 23, 2010—Neither the powers that be nor traditional Green thinking will solve the cascading climate catastrophes about to hit us, warns pioneer ecologist Stewart Brand.

Civilization is at an historical crossroads similar to just before World War II, Brand writes in his 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Everyone knows something terrible is about to unfold but no one agrees on what to do.

The good news is that once global war broke out, people everywhere were galvanized into action. That generation was shaped by the sense of sacrifice, shared purpose and grand adventure. Americans felt a similar common desire for concerted action after 9/11, which President Bush famously fumbled by suggesting we shop.

Brand details the latest information on the climate threat, saying the scientists who know the most are becoming increasingly alarmed. Climate change will be sooner and worse than forecast, Brand warns. He holds little hope for political or diplomatic resolution.

The imminent hardship, tragedy and cost to civilization of failing crops and rising sea levels will cause a public clamor for innovative remedies. Humanity at last will have to face up to planetary stewardship or descend into bitter resource wars.

This is not an impossible task, Brand writes, despite the difficulties. But it will require breaking old habits of thought.

Brand devotes a chapter to comparing and contrasting the thinking of romanticists, scientists and engineers. Romantics love problems, scientists study problems and engineers solve problems. He thinks Greens may need to get out of the way of the engineers now.

For example, one temporary fix for global warming might be for humans to mimic volcanic eruptions by seeding the upper atmosphere to increase cloud cover. Other ideas are riskier and will require careful experimentation. But once crisis is upon the world, something will have to be done.

This new crowd of geoengineers will need a name—Post-Greens, Greens-plus, Greens 2.0, Off-Greens, Turquoise (from Earth’s green continents and blue oceans). Choosing the latter, Brand jokes that members of the new movement will call themselves Turqs and their critics will call them Turqueys.

Brand has had a lifelong fascination with the image of Earth from space, earning his spurs as a young man pushing a reluctant NASA to release such photos. He used the picture on the cover of 1968’s first Whole Earth Catalog, which he founded and edited till its demise in 1985. The potent symbol helped popularize 1970’s initial Earth Day and launched modern Greens.

Brand is familiar with the long list of harms humans have done to the planet’s ecology and this remarkably encyclopedic 302-page volume touches many bases: rain forests, oceans, species loss, native lore, etc. He also knows where human knowledge is lacking and describes new web-based catalogs to map the biosphere.

At 71, Brand writes with the frankness of experience. He confesses his mistaken judgments through the years—cocaine, communes, domes, Y2K—and points out what he considers the errors of others. Amory Lovins, for example, gets credit for pushing energy efficiency but criticized for opposing nuclear power.

A former opponent of nuclear himself, Brand changed his mind when he re-evaluated the waste issue. We don’t have to plan for 10,000 years, he decided. A century or two of safe storage is good enough, because our descendants will probably dig up the spent fuel as a valuable resource.

Now Brand considers nuclear power humankind’s best way of replacing fossil fuels and stopping greenhouse gases. France is all nuclear, has the cleanest air and the cheapest electricity in Europe. He’s especially optimistic about new thorium reactors like India is using because thorium is more abundant than uranium and safer to dispose of.

As a Stanford biology graduate, Brand always saw the benefits of genetic engineering and continues to criticize opposition, which he labels irrational. In this case, he says, those who know the most are the least worried.

Brand points out that agriculture from ancient times has involved genetic engineering. The result is that more humans get to eat more food. Bringing the project under scientific control only increases the benefits.

One of Brand’s early errors was to romanticize rural over urban life. Now he welcomes the world’s rush to urbanization as reducing human pressure on the biosphere. Cities are inherently efficient and put an immediate and voluntary end to large families.

So from his point of view, the forecast that 80 percent of humanity will be living in cities by mid-century is a golden opportunity. Brand is especially enthusiastic about the lively striving of Third World shantytowns.

Brand concludes with 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.

© Lincoln Green by Design