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17 January 2010

Embracing engineering for the whole earth

Filed under: books, climate change, Genetic Engineering, geoengineering, green, Nuclear energy — David Wood @ 2:14 am

One thing I’m trying to do with my blog is to provide useful pointers, into the vast amount of material that’s available both online and offline, to the small small fraction of that material which does the best job of summarising, extending, and challenging current thinking.

Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto“, the recent book by veteran ecologist and environmentalist Stewart Brand, comprehensively fits that criterion.  It is so full of insight that virtually every page contains not just one but several blogworthy quotes, ideas, facts, putdowns, and/or refutations.  It’s that good.  I could write a book-length blogpost signing its praises.

Brand turned 70 while writing this book.  In the book, he indicates that he has changed his mind as he grew older.  The book serves as a landmark for various changes of mind for the environmental movement as a whole.  The argument is sustained, easy-to-read, detailed, and compelling.

The core argument is that the future well-being of the whole planet – human societies embedded in biological ecosystems – requires a thoroughgoing embrace of an engineering mindset.  Specifically, the environmental movement needs to recognise:

  • That the process of urbanisation – the growth of cities, even in apparently haphazard ways – provides good solutions to many worries about over-population;
  • That nuclear energy will play a large role in providing clean, safe, low-carbon energy;
  • That GE (genetic engineering) will play a large role in providing safe, healthy, nutritious food and medicine;
  • That the emerging field of synthetic biology can usefully and safely build upon what’s already being accomplished by GE;
  • That methods of geoengineering will almost certainly play a part in heading off the world’s pending climate change catastrophe.

The book has an objective and compassionate tone throughout.  At times it squarely accuses various environmentalists of severe mistakes – particularly in aspects of their opposition to GE and nuclear energy – mistakes that have had tragic consequences for developing societies around the world.  It’s hard to deny the charges.  I sincerely hope that the book will receive a wide readership, and will cause people to change their minds.

The book doesn’t just provide advocacy for some specific technologies.  More than that, it makes the case for changes in mindset:

  • It highlights major limitations to the old green mantra that “small is beautiful”;
  • It unpicks various romantic notions about the lifestyles and philosophies of native peoples (such as the American Indians);
  • It shows the deep weakness of the “precautionary principle”, and proposes an own alternative approach;
  • It emphasises how objections to people “playing God” are profoundly misguided.

Indeed, the book starts with the quote:

We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.

It concludes with the following summary:

Ecological balance is too important for sentiment.  It requires science.

The health of the 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.

And what is an engineer?  Brand states:

Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The constant economy” by Zac Goldsmith, which I read a few weeks ago.  The two books share many concerns about the unsustainable lifestyles presently being practiced around the world.  There are a few solutions in common, too.  But the wide distrust of technology shown by Goldsmith is amply parried by the material that Brand marshalls.  And the full set of solutions proposed by Brand are much more credible than those proposed by Goldsmith.  Goldsmith has been a major advisor to the UK Conservative Party on environmental matters.  If any UK party could convince me that they thoroughly understand, and intend to implement, the proposal in Brand’s book, I would be deeply impressed.

Note: an annotated reference companion to the book is available online, at www.sbnotes.com.  It bristles with useful links.  There’s also a 16 minute TED video, “Stewart Brand proclaims 4 environmental ‘heresies’“, which is well worth viewing.

Thanks to Marc Gunther, whose blogpost “Why Stewart Brand’s new book is a must-read” alerted me to this book.

By a fortunate coincidence, Brand will be speaking at the RSA in London on Tuesday.  I’m anticipating a good debate from the audience.  An audio feed from the meeting will be broadcast live.

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