BOOKS: ‘Whole Earth Discipline’

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WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: AN ECOPRAGMATIST MANIFESTO
By Stewart Brand
Viking, $25.95, 336 pages
REVIEWED BY MAX SCHULZ

“If Greens don’t embrace science and technology and jump ahead to a leading role in both, they may follow the Reds into oblivion.”

That’s strong, hard-hitting stuff. However, the author who derides environmentalists as anti-intellectual Luddites and compares them to communists isn’t Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck. It’s Stewart Brand, one of the world’s leading environmentalists and a founder of the modern green movement.

Mr. Brand has just written a controversial but tremendously important book that calls on his environmental comrades to rethink some of their most firmly held beliefs. In “Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto,” he has the temerity to suggest that the environmental movement must embrace nuclear power, biotechnology, urbanization and even geo-engineering if it hopes to save the planet. If those in the movement take his message to heart (a big if), that would herald a positive new era for America’s policy debates on energy and the environment.

A veteran of Ken Kesey’s famous Acid Tests, Mr. Brand emerged from the 1960s counterculture. He gave a boost to the nascent environmental movement (and helped marry it to the hippie lifestyle) when he began to publish the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. A back-to-the-land bible for environmentalists, the catalog preached the virtues of sustainability and renewable energy and showcased products for the new green lifestyle.

In a commencement address at Stanford University several years ago, Apple’s Steve Jobs praised the Whole Earth Catalog, describing it as “sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

Over four decades, Mr. Brand has remained a green in good standing, revered as one of the movement’s founding fathers. He is passionately worried about global warming and can be as alarmist as anyone in painting a vision of Earth’s apocalyptic future. If we do nothing or not enough, he warns, “we face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to a war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions.”

For decades, the green message to accompany this sort of “the end is near” claim has been: “Repent.” The environmental movement has matured by decrying mankind’s sins against Earth. Consumerism, industrialization, growth, the building of cities — all are evidence of mankind’s fallen state and its assault on nature. The green left’s policy prescriptions arise from a reflexive opposition to the things that have built our technologically advanced, urban society.

Hence, the greens have made theirs a movement of opposition. They oppose large-scale energy development and consumption. They push a regulatory structure that clamps down on private corporations and landowners in a bid to stop them from despoiling the environment. They oppose scientific efforts to improve food production to feed billions because that just means supporting more people who do damage to the planet.

Mr. Brand’s “Whole Earth Discipline” says, in effect, that it isn’t enough just to oppose. In fact, in some instances, that opposition has been disastrous.

“I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” he writes. “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.”

He notes that “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson, patron saint of the modern environmental movement, actually encouraged pursuing the science of biotic controls, i.e. genetic engineering, but that greens have rejected that counsel in defense of a bizarre idea of what is “natural.”

“Whole Earth Discipline” is both starkly candid and highly entertaining. Mr. Brand metes out harsh punishment to environmentalists for allowing their dogma to lead them down the path of error (and he does not spare himself) as well as for corroding the political debate with a smug self-assurance that does not permit consideration of opposing views.

Mr. Brand’s larger argument, however, is that the conventional green approach to issues does not contribute meaningful solutions to our problems. This is particularly the case with climate change, where the environmental movement’s success in checking the expansion of nuclear power has kept sheathed the most potent weapon for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The green hostility to nuclear power is based on an aversion to dealing with nuclear waste. However, Mr. Brand writes, “the more I thought about the standard environmentalist stance on nuclear waste, which I had espoused for years, the nuttier it seemed to me.” Similarly silly is the failure to account for nuclear power’s manifest advantages over wind and solar power: Nuclear can provide reliable, large-scale baseload power, and it can do so with a relatively small natural footprint. A solar array would require 50 square miles to match the output of a nuclear plant that takes up a third of a square mile.

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