Whole Earth Manifesto (a review of Whole Earth Discipline)

WholeEarthLarge_clipCities are green. Nuclear energy is green. Genetic engineering is green. (Brand 2009).” In 1968 Stewart Brand‘s Whole Earth Catalog was embraced by a generation trying to get back to the country, get off the grid, and grow their own. Now it’s 2010, and the quote above, from Brand‘s new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (2009) makes clear that after 42 years, Brand is still ahead of the curve.

With Whole Earth Discipline, a founder of 20th century environmentalism takes us into the 21st century. Whether or not you embrace cities, nukes and frankenfoods, Whole Earth Discipline is a must read, filled to overflowing with transformative, big-picture thinking from a true visionary who’s been evolving deep thoughts about humans on this planet for more than four decades. These are the visions of a self-affirmed “ecological pragmatist” one who has been around long enough to see his own best-intended ideals and those of his generation go in unforeseen directions, often failing to do good and even causing harm. Most importantly, he has fearlessly used this experience to inspire more robust visions for the future.

Brand begins with a bracing review of our current environmental situation, clearly demonstrating that we need new environmental thinking to move us forward. He then takes us on an educational journey, starting with the global ecological importance of urbanization. City growth is unstoppable, good for people, and good for the planet in numerous surprising ways. His analysis is rich, deep and spot on- I couldn’t agree more with it. I’ve seen this in my own research in China– as people move to the city, the countryside is greening up- even as agricultural productivity booms, marginal lands are being abandoned and greening up. Yes, “cities are green” and greens need to promote urbanization as a central tenet of environmentalism in this century.

Next the nukes. Yes, nuclear energy is low carbon and should be taken off the “green black list” (especially now that coal is there at the top!). But even with a nuclear “full-steam ahead” approach, there are real limits to this ever becoming more than a fractional solution– it is no more than one of at least 7 “wedges” for solving global warming. So while I agree that opposing nuclear energy is no longer green, I’m not convinced that nukes need ever be a big agenda item, Greens should just “officially” get out of the way- while also helping us to avoid any irrational exuberance about “clean nukes” – nukes can be very dirty, even if they can help save us from global warming.

Brand then promotes genetic engineering (GE)- and here I’m of two minds. While it is right to stop fearing GE, I don’t see GE as being different from any other type of engineering- it depends on how you use it. As a plant biology Ph.D. student at Cornell in the late 1980s, I minored in plant breeding, just as the first generation of agricultural GE appeared: herbicide-resistant crops and rBST. At that time, their safety was essentially untested and still a scientific concern. Now, GE has done hard time in the field, and scientists have yet to find anything really scary. Brand is very right to criticize as “antiscientific” those who decry the “unnaturalness” of GE organisms. This idea has no basis in science and Brand does a good job of putting the stick to it. Popular fears about GE agriculture, like food allergies, escapes of genes, “superweeds”, and hazards to wild species are all truly minor compared with the environmental problems already caused by regular old agriculture (think: peanut allergies, invasive species, deforestation). Yet I still don’t think that GE is the future of agriculture- or if it is, that it is necessarily the green way to go.

GE is not the reason for today’s high yields. While GE crops are now very widely used and do have benefits, including pest and weed control with less toxic chemicals (and this can be green), yields would be very little changed without GE. Today’s high yields are about half traditional plant breeding and half increased use of fertilizers and other agrichemicals, and irrigation. Even today, GE tools are unable to substantially increase yields and other quantitative traits (traits controlled by many genes) because introducing more than a gene or two and making genes play well together is still very difficult, though genetic fingerprinting does help accelerate traditional plant breeding efforts- without introducing new genes. So GE is generally limited to adding or enhancing single traits, like vitamin A in golden rice, and resistance to pests or herbicides. Note that plant breeders are always wary of single gene traits- they are the most easily overcome by pests.

The main thing GE’s have done for agriculture is to advance corporate control of crop and livestock varieties- now farmers are even being sued for saving their own seeds. For someone committed to open source ideals and the common good, Brand gives too little attention to how GEs have benefited huge corporations more than anyone else- farmers, food processors and us food consumers, and the trivial gains so far to the environment. Maybe the open-source GE that Brand vividly demonstrates is now going on in garages and science fairs will change things for the better- but I’m still not convinced. I don’t see anything inherently green about GE- so far I’ve seen more greenwash than real green GE action. GE dreams are fascinating, but they still remind me more of Bladerunner than Ecotopia.

Criticisms aside, No matter what you think of Brand‘s almost heretical new green thinking, if you are concerned about the future of humanity and our planet, you should read this book. It will change your thinking and is so well-written that I hardly put it down. Whole Earth Discipline puts 20th century green thinking into the headlights of 21st century environmental issues: global warming, declining biodiversity, huge human populations with ever richer diets and energy demands, and finds it mostly myopic and misguided. More importantly, he offers a way forward: real-world eco-pragmatism, getting us away from the old environmentalist thinking that nature will save us if we will only listen and leave it alone, and moving us toward a postnatural paradigm and the global environmental practices and thinking we must implement if we want this planet to be what we want it to be at the end of this century and after.

As Brand says:
Ecological balance is too important for sentiment. It requires science.
The health of natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity. It requires engineering.”

I couldn’t agree more.

> Research material, updates and illustrations for the book: www.sbnotes.com

> Wikipedia entry for Whole Earth Discipline