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.