A pragmatic response to climate change

Kai Ryssdal Oct 26, 2009

A pragmatic response to climate change

Kai Ryssdal Oct 26, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Stewart Brand is as close to an iconic figure as the sustainability movement has. Forty years ago he came up with the idea for the Whole Earth Catalogue, kind of a how-to-guide for the environmentally minded. “Whole earth” became a byword for sustainable living. And Stewart Brand became known for this idea that human progress depends on some deeply individual ideas about technology and development. That perception of him may be about to change. He’s got a new book. It’s called “Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto,” in which he outlines solutions to the climate change problem that might catch some of his old friends off guard. Stewart Brand, it’s good to have you with us.

STEWART BRAND: My pleasure.

Ryssdal: Why this book at this time?

BRAND: I think the realization that my fellow environmentalists had been wrong about a couple of issues and were getting in the way of important things we should be doing, both with biotechnology and with nuclear technology and in terms of how we think about cities, and in terms of how I know we’re going to think about geoengineering, that is, direct intervention in the climate. All of those issues needed to be re-thought at a deep level, and that’s what I tried to set in motion.

Ryssdal: Let’s break some of those out and talk about them. Urbanization, first of all. You are now a fan basically of big cities.

BRAND: Not only big cities, but big slums. The squatter cities where a billion people live now, and a billion people more live that are coming. That’s how they’re getting out of poverty. They’re emptying out a lot of the subsistence farms that have been tough on the landscape all over the world, moving into town for opportunity, building jobs for each other. They’re also moving up what’s called the energy ladder, toward more and better, greater electricity. By and large, cities are probably the greenest things that humans do.

Ryssdal: Did you ever think in a million years you’d be saying something like that? Cities are the greenest things that we could ever do?

BRAND: You know, I was part of the back to the land thing. In fact, I guess I encouraged a fair amount of it with the Whole Earth Catalogue in the ’60s and ’70s. And most of us went back to the land then and bounced pretty hard, and came back to town within two or three years having learned all sorts of important things.

Ryssdal: Let’s continue with the list of things you advocate in this book. Genetically modified crops or genetic engineering. How does that make sense from an environmentalist point of view?

BRAND: Already the crops that we have now, the herbicide tolerant and the insect-resistance crops, like Bt-corn and Bt-cotton, and so on, are cutting back on pesticide use, which is terrific. The herbicide-tolerant ones mean that you don’t need to plow every year, so you’re getting what amounts to higher yield, so you can raise more food on less land. And all of that is good for ecology in general and climate in particular.

Ryssdal: I will use the language of critics of genetically modified crops here, and say, but what we have, Stewart Brand, is frankenfoods.

BRAND: Yeah, and frankenfood is first to a fictional romantic story in the 19th century, and the idea there was that Dr. Frankenstein was doing something against nature. And that somehow genetically engineered food crops are against nature. And as a biologist, I’m just baffled by that line of argument because agriculture has been in that sense against nature for 10,000 years. That we’re finally able to do more precise tuning of the crops is a huge gain, not a loss.

Ryssdal: You’re the guy who came up with the idea for the Whole Earth Catalogue 40-some-odd years ago. Chart your progression for me, would you? From a guy who writes something like that to a book called “Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto.” I mean, what happened?

BRAND: What’s different is in that one I focused on individual empowerment, and in this one the focus is on the aggregate effects of humans on things like climate. And some of these issues are of such scale that you got to have the governments doing things like making carbon expensive. Or making coal expensive to burn and putting all that carbon into the atmosphere. And individuals can’t do that, individual communities can’t do that. It takes national governments.

Ryssdal: Is there anything we can do that’s going to get it done in time? I mean, I know that’s kind of a pessimistic question but…

BRAND: I think we’ll probably have to step across a couple of too-late lines. Events tend to change behavior. You realize that it’s just going to keep getting worse unless you do something. And I think that’s what we’re going to have to go through before you really get the level of action that’s called for.

Ryssdal: Stewart Brand. You knew him first as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. He’s got a new book out, it’s called “Whole Earth Discipline.” Mr. Brand, thanks so much for your time.

BRAND:My pleasure, and thank you.

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