Stewart Brand

"What do I usually do?  I find things and I found things," Stewart Brand once explained.  "Things I find include tools, ideas, books, and people, which I blend and purvey.  Things I've founded and co-founded include the Trips Festival (1966), Whole Earth Catalog (1968), Hackers Conference (1984), The WELL (1984), Global Business Network (1988), and The Long Now Foundation (1996)."

 

He writes books, too, having captured his excursions into ideas in such vibrant volumes as The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987), How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built (1994), The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (1999), and, most recently, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, just out this month.

 

Beginning with a bracing description of the "scale, scope, stakes, and speed" of the peril posed by climate change, Whole Earth Discipline goes on to discuss, with counter-intuitive insight and intelligence, the promise of urbanization, nuclear energy, genetic engineering, and ecosystem engineering. "Science is the only news," Brand writes, and its fast-breaking headlines (and slow-proving footnotes) are turning the received ideas of both environmentalists and their enemies upside down. Like all of Brand's projects and volumes, his latest book orchestrates an extraordinary range of reference, reading, and imagination with a clarity that is educational, exciting, even exhilarating. In mid-August, I spoke to the author by telephone; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.-- James Mustich


James Mustich: Your last book, The Clock of the Long Now, which explored the ideas between the world's slowest computer, was subtitled Time and Responsibility. Your new book, Whole Earth Discipline, engages both of those themes, albeit in less theoretical ways. An "eco-pragmatist manifesto," it is equally concerned with responsibility and time, but far more urgently.

Stewart Brand: I have two jobs. I work for Global Business Network, where we do strategic planning for large organizations, like governmental departments and corporations and so on. That's half of my time, and I'm paid. The other half of my time I work for the Long Now Foundation, where I'm not paid. My work there led to my book, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility.

The book I just finished, Whole Earth Discipline, draws on the Global Business Network a lot more than it does Long Now, because it is really immersed in clear and present problems; it's full of very strong opinions on issues that are quite controversial. While the issues may have some of the same frames of thinking that Long Now has been engendering, I play down the Long Now aspect in the new book, in part because one of our rules at Long Now is we take no sides. That's how you keep an organization alive over centuries: you don't get in fights, because even if you win most of them, you only have to lose one, and then it's over. So it would be foolhardy for me to act as though the President of the Long Now Foundation is espousing these opinions. As the President of the Long Now, I have an interest in good information on all sides of the issues, but do not express a strong view. As somebody trained as a biologist years ago, and who has worked in the environment in various ways for a half-a-century, I have very strong opinions, and that's who wrote the book.

I draw on the Global Business Network experience because we got involved early in looking at climate issues for the Secretary of Defense's office, and that was part of what alerted me to the greater level of seriousness of those problems. Likewise with nuclear --we've been a little bit involved in some studies that gave me another perspective on that than I got from my fellow environmentalists. So the frame of reference indeed is much more present, but responsibility still is the overarching principle, and the global perspective is there in the title and there in the nature of the problems we face.

JM: Early in The Clock of the Long Now, you refer to a book by Patricia Fortini Brown called Venice and Antiquity, writing that the author "notes that the ancient Greeks distinguished two kinds of time, ‘ kairos (opportunity or the propitious moment) and chronos (eternal or ongoing time). While the first . . . offers hope, the second extends a warning.'" What you say after that strikes me as an almost perfect précis of Whole Earth Discipline, at least as I read it. You said: "Our dead and our unborn reside in the realm of chronos, murmuring warnings to us presumably, if we would ever look up from our opportunistic, kairotic seizures of the day."

SB: [LAUGHS]

JM: "This must be the Golden Age of Kairos we live in," you continue, "or the Mercury Age of Kairos -- fluid as quicksilver, shimmering . . . Poisonous. Thrilling." That juxtaposition of "poisonous" and "thrilling" resonated with my own reading of Whole Earth Discipline, because the pragmatism that you espouse in the new book -- a kind of visionary engineering, if we could call it that -- seems provoked by a perilous conflation of kairos and chronos that's caused by the climate change situation.

SB: That's a nice way to put it. In a sense, I'm taking an issue from the chronos realm and translating it into terms that make sense in the kairos realm. For the seize-the-opportunity crowd, that's also the whole idea of "clear and present danger" as it's put in American policy -- that the serving president and the Congress have to recognize clear and present danger when it happens, and do something about it. And climate, thanks to Al Gore and many others, has been moving from the multi-decade, really multi-century realm of chronos -- "Well, I guess it'll be pretty serious someday," -- the kairotic present -- "It's very serious right now and requires action right now." And action of the kind that we've never actually done before -- global scale action. I mean, we've never done it on purpose. Inadvertently, yes, many times, by inventing agriculture and so on. But to haul off and do things on a global scale on purpose requires forms of governance we don't have yet. There's no existing political agreements between nations, or even regions, that will stand up to what is called for here. So you see a lot of fumbling around, but it's great that at least the fumbling around is underway. For a quite a while there, even that wasn't happening.

JM: To go back to that juxtaposition of "poisonous" and "thrilling" for a minute. My first encounter with Whole Earth Discipline was when my younger daughter was ill one night, in great discomfort, and I was sitting up with her. It was in the wee small hours of the morning, and I started reading it, and I grew increasingly terrified as I made my way through the first chapter, because your description of the "scale, scope, stakes, and speed" of what the citizens of the world are up against is quite ominous.

SB: I've got a nice blurb from Edward O. Wilson, which begins, "This is a very scary book."

JM: Well, I agree with the eminent Mr. Wilson. Although the latter parts of the book, as I would discover as I reader further in the light of day, counters the scariness with a thrilling sense of possibility.

SB: Wilson, too, goes on to use words like "exhilarating" and so on, which is delightful. Most of the scary aspect comes from a realization that climate change is real and overwhelming, and from our ongoing ignorance -- we don't yet know all the dynamics of how it works. The more we find out, the more alarmed people get. Indeed, if you look at climatologists, or scientists in general, the ones who know the most about climate, and especially the ones who do the most fieldwork, are the ones that are typically most alarmed. Because the surprises they discover as they collect data and as they run their models -- almost all the surprises have been bad ones. Some of them are very public, such as the Arctic ice melting quite a lot faster -- like 40 years sooner -- than the general expectation from the climate models. When the scientists discover something like that, or indeed, politicians or environmentalists look at something like that, you sort of wonder, "If the model is wrong about that, what else is it wrong about?"

What I do in the book is try to explain some of the mechanisms, the dynamics of climate. It is such a severely non-linear system, which means that, under certain circumstances, small perturbations can have very large and sometimes relatively permanent effects. And so there's talk of "tipping points" and "thresholds", and especially "positive feedbacks" -- positive feedback being like the feedback you get when you stand in front of the speaker with a microphone and suddenly the hall is filled with a howl; it goes very quickly, and can be explosive and devastating. For instance, when the Arctic ice melts, you're losing a white surface of snow and ice, and replacing it with a dark surface of open ocean. Which means that the light that used to reflect off the Arctic is now being absorbed by the Arctic, and so, the more the ice melts, the hotter things get up there, and the more the ice melts -- that's positive feedback.

There are a lot of instances of this. Take the permafrost, which melts various forms of methane. Some are from bacterial activity, some from what are called methyl clathrates, or the clathrates that combine ice and methane. Those melt, and methane is 20 or 30 times more severe as a greenhouse gas than CO2, so that also warms up the region in the earth, and that means more permafrost melts and more methane comes out, and that's another positive feedback.

Part of what I'm doing in the book is lining up a bunch of the abrupt climate change mechanisms, showing ones that are already in process and some that are worried about, then pondering what happens when they exacerbate each other. I spend a lot of time quoting James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis and author of two of the best current climate books, one called The Revenge of Gaia and a more recent one called The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Jim is an old friend, so I checked with him personally to find out what transformed this rather gentle soul and optimistic character into what now sounds like the scariest voice about climate out there. It's not personality change -- he still is a pretty cheerful guy! [LAUGHS] But he is worried by the dynamics and by the data that he's seeing from climatologists. Because he is not owned by any particular institution whose reputation he has to be careful of, but is a free-standing scientist, like Charles Darwin, he can say right out loud exactly what he thinks the evidence is showing. And where he thinks things are going is to a much hotter earth, five or six degrees Celsius hotter, that has a carrying capacity of maybe one-and-a-half billion people. That is tough for a world that has -- what do we have now? six or seven billion -- because it suggests that in a few decades there will be a pretty severe dieback.

That's the level of seriousness, just from climate, that comes to the fore here. That's the major scary element. I think there are others. But they don't have the severity and the sense that we could lose . . . not the planet, but quite a lot of civilization if climate goes the way it's going.

JM: You go on to survey several areas that might help us mitigate, adapt, or ameliorate the situation. It's a very pragmatic approach. What's interesting is that central to your approach, I think, is a paradox that's summed up in what you say about environmentalists in a passage later in the book. At a very time one might think environmentalists are on the verge of triumph, you write:

 

Wrong. The long-evolved green agenda is suddenly outdated -- too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialized, too politically one-side for the scale of the climate problem. Far from taking a new dominant role, environmentalists risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new task. Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system -- climate dynamics.

Would you elaborate on that a bit?

SB: There was a period of a sort of triumphalism say two years ago, when Al Gore's movie came out, An Inconvenient Truth. Al is a hardline environmentalist, and he won big, he got a Nobel Prize, he got the Oscar, and a lot of people were rightly alarmed by the movie and started rethinking things. The environmentalists themselves did not rethink much. [LAUGHS] I think they felt like they were exonerated on an issue that they'd been beating on for a couple of decades. Lo and behold, what they were warning about has come to pass, and they were right, and everybody else was wrong, and now all they have to do is push ahead.

But it's not that simple, and traditional environmental approaches are now being called into question. Environmentalists routinely say, "Nuclear is bad." Well, in terms of climate, nuclear is good. Environmentalists routinely say that genetically engineered food crops are bad. Well, in terms of climate and for a lot of other reasons, genetically engineered food crops are good -- in fact, quite Green.

And I don't know how the hell we're going to get out of the quandary caused be "Green" being equated with "liberal" or "Left." In Germany, for example, environmentalists are called "Watermelons" -- green on the outside, red on the inside; they're basically lefties. This kind of thing only exacerbates the split public view on climate. You can see a lot of it is split right down the liberal-conservative line, because a lot of conservatives who might otherwise take climate change seriously can't abide the idea of having to first admit that Al Gore was right about something. [LAUGHS] Gore is well aware of that, and so he tries to play down the political aspect of his own position in all this, but he's stuck with it. So at any given time you've got a lot of conservatives thinking they should be anti environmental issues, such as climate, because they're anti-liberal, and that confuses things. There's been a few efforts to improve that, but not enough.

I guess the other major issue that I see is that the scale, scope, speed, and stakes of climate change require way better science and very active engineering, and environmentalists have been kind of choosy about which scientists they deign to listen to, and pretty much against any large-scale engineering. That has to change, as we are facing serious engineering issues, and just being anti new technology, or anti exotic chemicals, or anti a gene being brought from one species into another species because "that's not natural" (it is natural, but that's another story) -- is an inadequate response to the technology. All this has to change for environmentalists to help with the kind of problems we're now facing.

My guess is that it will go several ways at once. There are already a large number of environmentalists who are quietly, sometimes noisily, pro-nuclear. There are some that are catching on that cities are Green things -- we used to think that villages and rural life was the epitome of Green, but we had that backwards. So there's movement. But I think the severity of the issues we're facing is going to need a lot more movement, and the approach that I espouse in the book is not a Romantic one. Do not be driven by Romanticism, or sentiment, or stories about how you think the world works. Try to figure out what actually does work, and then follow that even if it's against some sense of what's right in terms of natural systems. Natural systems are way more self-engineering than we acknowledge, and we need to figure out how they do that, and then step up to it and join the process.

JM: It's interesting to me to hear you highlight what is a counter-intuitive relationship between farm and city in terms of Greenness. In the book, you discuss, how climate has been a human artifact for a very long time, and the overwhelming impact that agriculture has had on creating that artifact. That was something I had never thought about before, and found revelatory. You illustrate how the human hand in shaping climate in big ways goes back a very long time, with farming in a way a culprit.

SB: The main villain from the Green standpoint is agriculture. It is the most radical thing humans have done to the landscape, to natural systems, to the earth, ever. Depending on how you count, something like 30% to 40% of the ice-free land area is devoted to one form or another of agriculture. Those are parts of the world, then, that don't, in a sense, participate in Gaia. They're not doing the usual balancing of microbially created gases and clouds and rain and the rest of it.

A paleoclimatologist named William Ruddiman has looked very closely at what seems to have been happening over the long time frame, 7,000 to 10,000 years. He's found some anomalies in the climatological record that are instructive. One astounding statement he makes in his book, Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate, is that we should have had an Ice Age 2,000 years ago, and it may well be that the reason we didn't is us. The reason it hasn't happened is methane -- you get this from ice cores, and it looks like the amount of methane in the atmosphere started going up when it should have been going down. Ruddiman postulates that this happened, basically, when basically rice farming came in -- wet rice farming. Then he explored an earlier anomaly with CO2, and that seemed to bear relation to when agriculture in general first came in. Those are major pieces of what they call geo-engineering, direct human intervention in climate. If we'd done it intentionally, we would be preening ourselves for "Look how smart our civilization is; we were able to head off an Ice Age!" But it was just dumb luck.

Now we need to shift from that kind of dumb luck to taking charge of that kind of transformative activity. We need to understand it more completely than we have, and then intervene at that scale with the realization that it's happened before, so we're not completely at sea about what may happen. But it's whole new territory.

In fact, climate hasn't been natural for quite a while. The other shift in thinking that is difficult for a lot of people is caused by the realization that in developed countries, people in rural areas and even in suburbs use a whole lot more energy, are much less efficient, than people living in town. Basically, the most energy efficient way you can live is in Manhattan in an apartment, and take the subway to work and the elevator to your office.

JM: It's pretty damn hot today, I'll tell you, in Manhattan on the subway.

SB: [LAUGHS] I just spent some time in Southeast Asia, where it's hot all the time, and you see that as soon as people get some money, they buy an air conditioner. I realized that as the developing world becomes the developed world, which is happening very rapidly, its inhabitants are going to want a lot of grid electricity to feed the air conditioners that they are going to install just as soon as they can afford them. These are not people you are going to persuade to suddenly become very efficient and abstemious about energy, because they've finally got a bit of money, and they want to do the same things with energy that we do, and they see no reason why they can't.

But the main reason cities are Green in the developing world is not so much the energy differential, but the fact that there are 1.3-million people a week in the world who are moving into cities. They are leaving behind villages, and they're leaving behind subsistence agriculture, which was a poverty trap and an ecological disaster. As soon as those subsistence farms shut down, the wildlife comes back, the natural growth comes back, the water comes back. A whole continent starts to green-up as people move into town. In aggregate, the migration to cities a huge event.

JM: You make a survey of a lot of literature on the rapid urbanization of the world and on the ecology, if you will, of squatter cities. This again was eye-opening to me. Would you talk a bit about what you see going on there?

SB: The U.N. has really led the way in reconfiguring how we think about squatter cities. A sixth of humanity lives in slums and in squatter cities, places that people start living in near town, or in town, in order to be close to jobs. They live in shanties, and they don't often have the sanitation or electricity, or they steal electricity. Until about ten years ago, the standard view was that these were terrible problems, and that we must keep the people back on the land, and we have made various efforts to do that. These all failed, because people will move toward opportunity, toward jobs, toward participating in the cash economy -- so they go to town. One family member goes to town and kind of makes the case, then more family members come, and so on.

Some demographers and city planners are now saying that it is squatters who are building the world's cities. The largest amount of construction, in bulk terms, is being done by people building and improving their shanties. The shift is from treating this as a problem that must be somehow be fixed to understanding that it is actually a solution. And it's not just a solution in environmental terms. It's a solution in economic terms, because cities create wealth, they do it at every scale, right down to the rickshaw economy of just a couple of rupees a day; for people who have been outside the cash economy on subsistence farms, to get a couple of rupees a day is a big deal. They immediately have fewer children. They are able to get medical care and education for their children in town, and go to great efforts to make sure that happens. Instead of seeing these squatter cities as a huge, horrifying populace of people crushed by poverty, what people see now is a huge, zesty populace busy getting out of poverty just as fast as it can -- moving pretty damn rapidly, with lots of resourcefulness. Much of the most radical use of cellphones in the world these days is in the developing countries, where they turn cellphones into cash machines and put them to all sorts of ingenious uses that we're still catching up with in the developed world. And they often have a better cell signal than we get in California. [LAUGHS]

JM: The transformational role the cellphone is playing in the economic mobility of people in developing countries is fascinating.

SB: If you are growing crops out in the bush and want to sell them, you used to go through a sequence of middlemen between you and the market in town. With a cellphone, you can find out yourself what cassavas are selling for in town. That cuts out the middle people, because you knows what the real price is, and you may well truck it into town yourself. The cash economy follows the cellphone towers, and they're not only transferring knowledge -- they're transferring actual money. The remittances of a family member overseas who has a job in Europe or North America are sent back via cellphone. Banks are being reinvented banks around cellphones, as has how work is found. It used to be that typically in the informal economy of these squatter cities, when a job situation arose, you'd go and you'd wait in line somewhere, and hope for the best. Well, now you can wait on line in a cellphone, and be doing something else useful instead of just standing around getting hungry. And on and on. Basically, the $10 cellphone -- which is what they get down to in these areas -- is becoming the most revolutionary instrument there is. Pretty cool.

JM: Very cool. Would you explain the evolution of your views on nuclear power? You devote a very important section of the book to what one might call its promise rather than its peril. I think that, for many environmentalists, that will be a heresy.

SB: Yes. It would be fun to go out and collect the conversion experiences various environmentalists have had on this subject. What did it take to change their mind about nuclear?

Essentially, we've had to readdress an issue that we thought about 10-15-20-25 years ago; we pretty much had our stand and stuck to it. But when one goes and catches up on information, and has climate change so much in mind, it's an invitation to consider nuclear power in a different light, because it doesn't put out greenhouse gases nearly as much as the other energy forms, and is, in that sense, renewable. So you now see people who've had a strong feeling against nuclear changing their minds. I'm one of those, although to tell the truth I had a mild feeling against nuclear. I just thought that it was irresponsible to put onto future generations, quite a large number of generations, the issue of dealing with nuclear waste.

But the fact is, I borrowed the thinking on that. I didn't pay close attention to the information, and hadn't really thought through the talk that the stuff has to be isolated for 10,000 years, because any amount of it getting out would be terribly deleterious. That talk doesn't hold up at any level. What I realized, after a visit to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is that all those projections assume that people are about the same 10,000 years from now, and they have the same vulnerabilities and the same technology and the same worries -- and that is so deeply impossible that the whole argument falls apart. It is based on a very, very strange idea of stasis in civilization.

That was the start with me. But others? Many younger environmentalists are comfortable with nuclear, because they weren't around when everybody got concerned about Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. They weren't around for the Cold War. They haven't crawled under a school desk to duck-and-cover under the specter of nuclear weapons. They just see nuclear as another technology, and they're young, so they like technology. They master cellphones and everything else faster than the grownups do, and don't see any reason that nuclear can't be something they master. So you'll see in the online forums, treehugger.com and so on, there's often a generational disjunct between older environmentalists saying nuclear is like original sin and the younger environmentalists saying, "No, nuclear looks like it works pretty well. It's got a couple of design issues; we can probably fix those -- let's get on with it."

Everybody's got their own story. Mine was a combination of climate and then thinking differently about what 10,000 years means in terms of people, and then starting to look at the data and realizing I've been lied [LAUGHS] to by my fellow environmentalists for years.

JM: If I read you correctly, you've found that the science really doesn't support the fear of radiation that has been bred in us.

SB: Yes. The deep dread of radiation is a peculiar one and a strangely selective one. Because radiation is used in medicine quite extensively and rather radically. In fact, there are starting to be concerns, genuine concerns that I support, about people getting too much radiation through CAT scans and x-rays and radiation treatments for cancer, and so on. That is really serious radiation, and it completely overwhelms what we allow our nuclear energy industry to do. Any nuclear energy site must emit no more than 15 milligrams a year to the public. But every woman who gets a mammogram is already getting twice that. We allow our astronauts 25,000 milligrams per shuttle mission. The background radiation in parts of Iran is 11,000 milligrams. Bear in mind that the amount of effort that has to be made in order to keep nuclear sites down to 15 milligrams coming out a year is huge. There's hundred of millions of dollars, billions of dollars being spent to do something which is probably -- well, is completely unnecessary. It's just the wrong scale, by quite a lot. So, radiation is our friend in medicine and our enemy in nuclear energy? That doesn't make sense.

JM: In discussing the accident at Chernobyl, you quote Robert Baker of Texas Tech, who, after close study, concluded that, "The world's worst nuclear power plant disaster is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities."

SB: Yes, that's an agriculture story right there. Basically, they evacuated the area around the Chernobyl reactor. There's people living there now, and they're fine. But the fear factor was such that, according to one U.N. report, in the area of that part of Ukraine and that part of Europe, 250,000 abortions were had by women immediately following the Chernobyl event, and those were probably all wasted deaths. There's been no birth defects detected anywhere from Chernobyl, and indeed, there were no birth defects detected anywhere from Hiroshima or Nagasaki, where extensive research was done. People are imagining they're going to have children with fin feet or something, and that just isn't how it works. But then some of the biologists went in and started examining the animals in the area. Not only is the wildlife swarming back; some of them damn near glowed in the dark, but seemed to be healthy -- in fact, were healthy! A couple of guys from Texas went over there, Baker and Ronald Chesser, and they spent ten years in what's called the Red Forest, where all the pine trees died from the radiation. They're looking at mice and these mice are highly radioactive, yet completely healthy, having embryos that are completely healthy. They were just seeing ground truth that there was way less damage to animals in the area than we had imagined would be the case.

There's a whole body of theory that there is no lower limit to radiation in terms of cumulative damage. The people who hold that theory -- not widely regarded by scientists but widely listened to -- said, "There's going to be 500,000 cancer deaths from Chernobyl." The United Nations sent seven different agencies, and they came up with an aggregate report that said the most might be 4,000 deaths from Chernobyl, and that would be among the 600,000 people most exposed. Well, that's undetectable. Statistically, it's not an event that epidemiology could detect, because of that 600,000, 100,000 to 200,000 are going to die from cancer anyway -- because we all do, we all get old and cancer mostly gets us. Will some of them die earlier because of getting some of the radiation from Chernobyl? Yes. How many? They came up with a number of 4,000, but a conservative number may well be lower than that.

How many people died from Chernobyl? Well, the number is 57 -- nine children and a number of workers, many of whom were heroic. But we just had more people die in Russia in a dam power plant this week: it's up to 76 now, or something like that. Yet no dread seems to associate with that larger number dying from that, or the 5,000 at Bhopal. So there's something spooky and irrational and superstitious going on with radiation and with nuclear in general, but I think we're gradually getting over it.

JM: Many environmentalists also take a similar tack -- you might call it (I think you do in the book) an "original sin" approach -- to genetically engineered foods.

SB: I think the term "Frankenfoods" is revelatory in the sense that. First, it's a great coinage. Immediately, it raises all the fears you really want to raise, that this is some kind of Frankenstein monster that some evil scientist is conjuring up. Part of my brief, I guess, is that this is all, in a way, a set of Romantic notions, just as Mary Shelley's story about the Frankenstein monster is one of the great Romantic stories, written at the height of Romanticism. The classic Romantic message is, "Do not go against Nature" -- or, as religious people might say, "against God" -- "by putting genes from one organism into another; that's an abomination." (Let me add a footnote that's not in the book, which is that recently the Vatican came out quietly with a report saying that genetically engineered food crops for the developing world are an important moral imperative, and pay no attention to our Pope who thinks it's somehow wicked.)

JM: [LAUGHS] Pay no attention to the man in front of the curtain.

SB: Right. In this area, as in nuclear, as people get closer to the real data and take a pragmatic approach to it, then they start to realize that the notion that there's something unnatural about moving a gene from one organism into another in order to get some benefits is actually the norm in most of nature. In microbes they're swapping genes around all the time, and it happens in the so-called "higher organisms" a fair amount spontaneously anyway. Indeed, if you want to be worried about some particular form of creating food crops, traditional breeding looks really irresponsible once you know that you can move genes around quite specifically and get the single trait you're looking for, and not get all of problems that you get with breeding. Breeding just looks like genetic gambling.

Kevin Kelly has come up with a thought experiment that illustrates this point: imagine we been doing genetic engineering for the last 10,000 years, and some group came along and said, "No-no, no-no, let's do it the natural way, let's do it this other way, we'll just breed things, and we'll radiate the seeds with lots of weird chemicals or lots of radiation so that they get scrambled, and we'll come up with a lot of weird new organisms, and then we'll pick and choose among those, and the ones we like, we'll release to the world." If someone suggested that -- which is what we do now; so-called "natural food" is a result of that process -- we'd think it was irresponsible when, with the knowledge that we have now, we can take these matters gene-by-gene, rather than packages-of-genes-by-packages-of-genes, without knowing exactly what's going on.

JM: You suggest that many environmentalists don't seem aware of what's going on in the biosciences these days. It seems to me that throughout the body politic there's a dearth of scientific literacy in general.

SB: Mmm-hmm.

JM: You write at one point, "Science is the only news." Are you hopeful that that news will be translated to a broader public any time soon? To read a book like yours, or other books that are trying to merely survey the scientific literature -- it's really quite an education. I don't see it being promulgated in schools or in the public sphere in many ways.

SB: Yes, true. In a way, the short form of what I'm trying with this book is to move the environmental frame of reference from sentimental to scientific, and then past scientific into engineering. People are weird about genes. Genes are small things. We're not really sure what they mean. We get really concerned about them when we are thinking of marrying somebody, or when one family is thinking of marrying into another and they want to find out how many suicides have you had in your family, and so on. That's the level of genetic moderation that we've done for years. And it makes people uneasy to suddenly have pioneering stuff going on in domains like synthetic biology, where we are in the process of creating microbial life basically from scratch, and creating viruses that can generate one smell when they're at rest and another smell when they're growing -- these are the kind of thing that is being done by scientists.

In large part, it's a matter of how you think about it. Is it some kind of "Frankenvirus" thing that's going on, or is it exactly the kind of thing that people do at the flower shows where they're showing off their blue rose, or whatever it is that they've developed, or at the reptile shows where they're showing off some new form of lizard that they've created? Freeman Dyson and others say that's the real continuum; people have been messing around with living organisms for a long time. The science is now giving us better understanding, better tools, and so we get somewhat more predictive outcomes, and all the rest of it.

There is a lot of it to catch up on. But the great thing about the Net is that it's relatively easy to get right up to speed in a particular area. I just finished this book in two years, and without the Net it probably would have been five years. A lot of scientific data and cross-checking, of getting a sense of who's got the real information -- that's pretty easily discerned with online research.

There are a lot of public issues that come down to the question -- or the answer -- of "What is the science?" And climate has been one of those. Climate change deniers are pretty much in the position of denying science. But on the other hand, our fellow environmentalists who are against nuclear are pretty much denying science on that score. What I would like is for everybody to take the science much more seriously, and that's a multi-generation task involving education and media and all sorts of things. But given the enormity of the issues we're facing now, the only perspective we can rely on is a scientific one, which puts an imperative that we haven't had before on listening to scientific voices. It's encouraging that our current administration is appointing first-rate people, like John Holdren as Science Advisor and Stephen Chu as Secretary of Energy. Not only is that a complete reversal of the previous eight years, which at best downplayed science (and at worst ignored it), but it's the beginning of the kind of efforts we need to make.

It's interesting that most of the scientists I know eschew politics. They don't even pay attention, and they certainly don't join the process. But they've been chastened, in part by the whole genetically engineered food crops issue, to the point where they now feel very strongly that the public needs to be kept informed.

Craig Venter, the lead developer of the Human Genome Analysis and now a major advocate among scientists working in genetic and synthetic biology, gives nearly100 speeches a year. Why? Because he wants the public to understand what he's up to. That's admirable. I ran into him recently and said, "How are we going to get more scientists to run for public office, not only to be appointed to positions of influence, but actually go out there and be elected?" He rolled his eyes, like, "Not me, brother." But then he also said, "Actually, you're right; that does have to happen." I think that's true. I think we need to get some real scientists into our political life. In the U.S. and Europe, most of the people who are top elected officials or are doing policy have a legal background. In other places, that's not the case. In China, they're mostly engineers; some of them are scientists. That's why some people have hope that if that nation decides that Green is of the essence, they may move very quickly and very accurately. When they go Green, they'll go Green big, and won't have to [SIGHS] -- they're not facing a whole lot of people who don't believe in evolution, for example. [LAUGHS]

JM: The program of geo-engineering you put forth at the end of the book is interventionist to a degree that some people might find alarming. But as you point out, ecosystem engineering on various scales is an ancient art. I wonder if you might talk a bit about what you think the opportunities for intervention are, and what kinds of things we have to explore.

SB: The first thing is to get geo-engineering that is direct intervention in climate out of the category of taboo. I think that's happening pretty rapidly. One reason is it's kind of an interesting news story. "Oh, we can just change the climate by doing . . ." -- and then you hear the various schemes. I think the other reason why it will be taken more and more seriously is that we're going to find out that we're not going to cut back on greenhouse gases as rapidly as we hoped, and so the warming will keep going on and surprising, abrupt events will occur. That will make us more and more serious about taking action that can have an effect in the short run rather than in the long run. Cutting back on CO2 emissions by civilization at present is going to take many decades, and then the effects of doing it are going to take many more decades to actually change the nature of the atmosphere and the climate. These long lag times are going to become apparent.

So we'll ask: what can we do that does something significant pretty quickly, and buys us some time to do the slow stuff? That's when you shift from being amused by schemes of injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere -- the way volcanoes have done for a long time -- to taking them seriously, mapping plans to create what's called global dimming, thereby raising the reflectance of the earth so more sunlight bounces off and less gets to the ground. In 1991, we had a major volcano in the Philippines that put quite a large amount, a million tons, of sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere, which then turned to sulfates, which then dimmed the earth and cooled it down by half-a-degree Celsius. So we know it works.

And then we'll be led to ask: if we're going to do that on our own, become our own slow-motion, carefully-valved volcano, what would it cost to do that? Some estimates are as low as a billion dollars a year, which is tiny in terms of all the other things that we're trying to do about climate and cutting back on greenhouse gases and so on. The effects are relatively immediate, and if you don't like the results, you can back it off, depending on how you start doing it, and have what you're doing be less effective pretty quickly.

There are other ideas to increase the reflectance of clouds over the oceans by atomizing seawater, which then immediately evaporates into a tiny salt crystal, which then becomes the nuclei for more droplets of water, which then brightens the clouds, which then brightens the reflectance, and thereby reduces the amount of sunlight being absorbed by the earth. I've been involved in some meetings on that particular idea, and as on all of these, you've got to double-track research.

One track is the engineering: how do we actually atomize seawater in large enough quantity to make a difference? Or how do we get sulfur dioxide up to the stratosphere in a way that would actually work? But then you've got the second track of the science, which is: what are the dynamics of climate, and particles, and dimming and so on in the stratosphere? Could you do preliminary experiments in the North Pole region, which is relatively isolated and where you could do it in the lower stratosphere, so it wouldn't take so long? In other words, a lot of science will need to be done to support the engineering.

Likewise with the cloud brightening. Those are just two of maybe twelve schemes that are out there. With the cloud brightening, there's a lot we don't know about: how many nuclei are actually in the middle of droplets? What size nuclei will best make droplets? The dynamics of clouds, I'm shocked to learn, is still extremely mysterious in parts. And then, the role of clouds in climate and climate change is still being investigated at a deep level. So you've got four major mysteries right there, even before you get the engineering to work.

I think the major news that one can deliver about geo-engineering is: start research right now. What we prefer is that we never have to do any of these things, but if we do decide that we have to do some of them, we need in place good science, good engineering, and good international agreements on how to proceed. None of those things exist yet.

JM: One last question. Would you say that your own progress through the years -- if we measure it by volume from The Whole Earth Catalog to Whole Earth Discipline -- has in itself been a movement from a kind of Romanticism to a pragmatism provoked by greater knowledge, by the weight of the world, so to speak? It strikes me as a Bildungsroman of sorts. But I'm a literary guy, and most things strike me as coming-of-age tales. [LAUGHS]

SB: Well, the main distinction between The Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Discipline is that the starting line of Whole Earth Catalog is "We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it," while the starting line of Whole Earth Discipline is, "We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it." In a sense, that explains the word "discipline."

It's also a shift from individual empowerment to -- well, Whole Earth Discipline bears all the individual stuff in mind, but it's mainly looking at humanity's aggregate power. Individuals are not going to do geo-engineering; whole sets of nations will. So there's a major aggregate shift there. That's I think a fairly typical difference. How old was I -- 30 or 31 -- when I did The Whole Earth Catalog? I was 69 and 70 while I was preparing this book. In the course of the intervening decades, I worked in and for various large organizations. That's reflected here, I think. I have experience now that I could not have put into Whole Earth Catalog, because I just hadn't done that resource then. So the Global Business Network work with governments and large organizations is very much a part of the data in the argument of this new book.

But what it still comes down to, at minimum, is that a large number of people are going to have give public permission to go ahead on these things. Public permission is required for expansion of nuclear power. It's required for the next generations of genetic engineering to be applied, which will be tremendously beneficial, not just to the environment, but to individuals as well. It's going to be required for thinking in global terms about climate change. So there's a lot of public opinion that is going to have reason to want to be informed, and then have reason to act on the information that it gets and the arguments that it finds persuasive. So the public discourse is, in a way, the essential matter here, and this book is my contribution to the public discourse. And yes, this is a time to be very pragmatic, folks.

— August 19, 2009

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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