The environmental left, futurist Stewart Brand argues in Whole Earth Discipline, needs to view the world afresh. Once it has done so, he writes, it is likely to see that many of its most cherished notions are inconsistent with reality. It might see nuclear power as a plausible answer to our need for carbon-free energy, for instance. It might decide that DDT isn’t so bad after all. It might be more open-minded about ideas like genetic modification, mass urbanization, and geoengineering.
Fat chance, one may suspect. In his acknowledgments, Brand notes that his book began as a piece called “Environmental Heresies” in Technology Review’s May 2005 issue. The faithful subsequently assailed him for imagining an environmentalist movement that embraced, in his words, “Green biohackers, Green technophiles, Green urbanists, and Green infrastructure rebuilders.” The reaction provided ample evidence for Brand’s contention here that default green thinking is “too negative, too tradition-bound, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem.”
Brand’s position is notable because of his historical significance: he was the lifestyle guru who, in 1968, launched the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication whose covers often featured a picture of Earth seen from space and whose pages advocated the transformation of the planet through people’s use of ecologically friendly tools. The publication continued into the 1990s and did as much as anything else during the last century to introduce eco-awareness to the masses.
Forty years ago, Brand believed cities were bad things, and the good thing–for Spaceship Earth, especially–was a rural lifestyle. Now, he passionately believes that cities are beneficial for both people and the planet. Then, Brand was antinuclear. Now, he writes: “Greens caused gigatons of carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere from the coal and gas burning that went ahead instead of nuclear.”
A statement like that amounts to an apostasy of sorts, and Whole Earth Discipline presents Brand’s reasons for it. Given the question in any reasonable reader’s mind–if Brand was wrong then, why is he right now?–this occasionally makes for droll reading.
Overall, however, Brand deserves credit for forthrightly stating that “when the facts change, I change my mind.” He deserves credit, too, for asking to be held accountable for his book’s predictions and for providing a website, Longbets.org, where one can go to tell him that he’s wrong.
What changed his mind? Reality. Brand is a cofounder of the Global Business Network (GBN), a consulting firm that offers multiple scenarios, prepared by experts and insiders, to help companies, nongovernmental organizations, and governments plan strategically. One frequent GBN client has been the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, directed by the 88-year-old semilegendary futurist Andy Marshall.
In 2003, Marshall’s office asked GBN for scenarios of abrupt global climate change. The data, from temperature indicators embedded in ancient Arctic ice, showed that temperatures had been known to shift with shocking speed. Brand realized, he says, that “climate change wasn’t something remote, but could happen anytime–and fast.” Our species has burned half a trillion tons of carbon since the Industrial Revolution began and could burn an equal amount in the next 40 years as China and India arrive at the First World banquet table, Brand realized. He understood that the planet might warm as much as five degrees before the end of the century. The most recent data support him: a 2009 study by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change indicates a median probability that Earth’s surface temperature will rise 5.2 °C by 2100. One of the coauthors, Ronald Prinn, reports: “There’s significantly more risk than we previously estimated.”
Brand acknowledges that the consequences of climate change and climate policies remain uncertain: some stabilizing factor in the planetary ecosystem might mitigate the heating effects of our carbon emissions. “Counting on that, though, would be like playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded but one,” he writes.