Stewart Brand and The Way Forward

October 5, 2010

Last night I attended a speech by Stewart Brand which effectively opened the Gaining Ground Conference on urban sustainability in Vancouver.   For those who don’t know, Brand founded and edited the Whole Earth Catalog back in the 1960s.  He founded a number of organizations including The WELL (precursor to all the internet communities of today), the Global Business Network, and the Long Now Foundation.  He is a multi-volumed author and his latest book, which formed the theme of his speech last night, is called “Whole Earth Discipline: An EcoPragmatist Manifesto.”

In the book and in the speech, Brand takes what might be considered a contrarian position on issues such as cities, nuclear power and genetically-modified food — all of which he declares to be green — and on geo-engineering, which he believes will be necessary.  Brand believes that we have to work in these directions because no other set of policies can save the earth before we reach the tipping point to destruction.

With regard to cities, Brand remarked that the Renaissance was in fact the re-urbanization of Europe after the rural retreat caused by the collapse of Rome 800 years before.  It was the cities that drove progress, and he notes that city slums around the world are the breeding ground of the most interesting and progressive entrepreneurs.  These folks are poor and do not want to be poor any more; they do what is required to improve their lives and by doing, improve the cities at the same time by developing infrastructure.   He noted the development of Sausalito (where he has lived since the early 1960s) from a ramshackle locale to a gentrified space as an example of this process.

This development was described here earlier at: “What Slums Can Teach Us.”

Brand, like me, is a big pusher for nuclear energy.  I have no way of confirming his figures but he noted that one GW of power produced by nuclear energy results in 20 tons of waste. By comparison, one GW of power from coal-fired stations creates 800,000 tons of CO2. Further, he claims, there have never been any proven child defects as a result of nuclear disasters at Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Chernobyl.  Moreover, the area around Chernobyl is now one of the most successful wildlife areas — as a result of the removal of humans and human activity in the region.  He is in favour of very-deep bore holes for storage of the nuclear waste.

Stewart Brand is also a supporter of genetically-modified food primarily, it seems, because he sees it as the best way to deliver additional food and nutritional value.  Along the same lines, he believes that “garage biotech” will be the growing hobby — as programming was in the 70s and 80s.

He now believes — with reluctance, he admits — that some level of geo-engineering will be necessary as we are now not able to mitigate the effects of emissions in time.  He remarked that we would need three Mount Pinatubo-value eruptions each year to counter the rise in heat on the earth.  He has looked at atomizing seawater into the atmosphere to brighten the albedo affect from clouds which would help cool the earth.

Basically his point is that our problems are now so great that we will need to engineer ourselves out of them — ecological sentiment is simply not enough.  He hopes that the “legacy resistance” against older “new” technologies (nuclear, GM food, etc) will not stop us finding pragmatic solutions to the earth’s crisis.

The speech was the first in the new Fay & Milton Wong Theatre at the brand new SFU campus in the re-developed Woodward’s building.  It was a sold-out event at the 400-seat locale and attendees included BC Premier Gordon Campbell.

What Detroit Needs

November 29, 2008

Stop the presses!  Hold the front page!   I have found the solution to Big Auto’s problems.

I present to you — the renewable, recyclable, no-gasoline motor:


With a $25billion loan from the American taxpayer, Ford, GM and Chrysler could probably corner the global market in suitable cows.

[Thanks to Peter Greenberg for the image]

Synchronizing the Details

November 10, 2008

A century or more ago when I was in my early teens at school, I recall going caving with my class on more than one occasion.  England’s West Country is riddled with wonderful nooks and crannies if you can get over the early stages of claustrophobia.   I remember not being too impressed with stalactites and stalagmites and such like.   Luckily, others had more sense.

monsoon-climate-change-chinese_21Via, I learn of work that has been done on a stalagmite in Wanxiang Cave, China, that allows researchers to figure out the detailed climatic conditions back more than a thousand years at intervals of just 2.5 years.  In particular, they can pick out the drought of the ninth century that seems to have contributed to the collapse both of the Tang Empire in China and of the Mayans in the Americas. The researchers have also found evidence of low rainfall at the times of the end of the Yuan and Ming dynasties.

In all cases it seems, the carrying capacities of their agricultural systems couldn’t handle the pressures caused by years of low rainfall, and the civilizations crashed.

We usually look at the histories of empires, their rise and fall, as a confluence of human emotions, power, technology, military advantage, economics.  We often forget that climate is a truly global player that can cause history-changing effects simultaneously on both sides of the globe; effects that no human power has yet figured out how to tame.

Green Engines Of Change

July 1, 2008

Today, British Columbians began paying the carbon tax of about 2 1/2 cents per liter of gasoline and other fuels.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Campbell Liberals have had the guts to be the first government in North America to institute such a carbon tax — a measure thoroughly approved of on the environmentalist side.  There are constant complaints, of course; many spread to feed the needs of the media for conflict rather than with any other justification.

The same media thoroughly downplay the income tax cuts that also come into effect today.  These income tax cuts, combined with the $100 “climate change” check recently sent to every man, woman and child in the Province (and who really cares if it is an election gimmick?) make the carbon tax as damn near revenue neutral as any tax could be.  Anyway, I don’t want to get political so let’s just say I am proud to live in a pioneering jurisdiction like BC.

But there is so much more that can be done.  And someone who is already doing more is Britain’s Prince Charles.  I’ve always been a supporter of Charles.  Having been forced to live a sublimely surreal life since birth, he has turned out to be a thoroughly sensible chap, unafraid to voice his strongly held opinions.  He has used the perquisites of his position wisely, to further the causes he espouses.

Case in point, he has just converted his 38-year old Aston Martin to run on a biofuel created from surplus wine.  This now joins his other cars which have already been converted to run on used cooking oil.

I like his style.

The Scythians and Global Warming

June 28, 2008

Discover has a piece on some archaeology that is fascinating on a couple of accounts.

First, it is about the Scythians, the mysterious mounted warriors from the East that early Greek historians despised (through fear) so much.   A multitude of Scythian graves have been found on the Central Asian plains, some of which have wonderful mummies and other artifacts preserved by ice over permafrost.

Second, it reveals yet another consequence of global climate change.  Scientists fear that the ice lenses preserving the remains may soon thaw, consigning the bodies to rot and decay.


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