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Thinking the unthinkable

A new book by Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, challenges green orthodoxy and considers some frightening scenarios, writes John Elkington.

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Imagine Karl Marx calling for capitalism, Gandhi advocating war or the Pope embracing atheism. That is the scale of the disbelief that will likely greet a new book by one of my favourite thinkers, Stewart Brand. He is perhaps best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog series, a powerful icon of the Sixties counterculture, recently described by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a forerunner of the World Wide Web. From 1968 on, this was a basic reference for people like me, focusing on back-to-the-land pioneers, appropriate technology, renewable energy, self-sufficiency and sustainability, though we didn’t then use that word.

So it will come as a huge shock to many to find Brand arguing robustly for rapid urbanisation, the urgent application of genetic engineering, the widespread adoption of nuclear power technology and the development of new forms of geoengineering, all of which are seen as almost satanic forces by most environmentalists.

Don’t get me wrong—I like and admire most environmentalists. Indeed, almost 50 years ago, in 1961, I became one, raising money for the World Wildlife Fund in its first year. At the time, environmentalists were seen by many as some sort of weird mutation. Now, in the face of climate change, you risk being seen as a mutant if you are not an environmentalist. But, as Stewart Brand argues in a new book, Whole Earth Discipline, the tipping point where almost everyone becomes an environmentalist is “tough not just for people who have been comfortable thinking of themselves as antienvironmentalist; it’s even tougher for long-term Greens.”

At a time when much of the environmental movement is morphing into a climate-change movement, Brand argues that the greens “are no longer strictly the defenders of natural systems against the incursions of civilization; now they’re the defenders of civilization as well.” And the climate challenge to civilisation is going to force us all to think – and do – the currently unthinkable.

The central problem is that environmentalism, at root, is an ideology, “and ideologies hate to shift.” Worse, we are not simply talking about an ideological shift but a paradigm shift, something that happens very rarely. The scale is planetary, the scope will be measured in centuries – and the stakes are now civilisational.

The key feature of the climate challenge, Brand argues, still escapes many of those who have been negotiating global policy in the build-up to the Copenhagen COP15 climate conference. This thing doesn’t go in straight lines, it is discontinuous. For example, some years back the Global Business Network (GBN), which Brand also co-founded, predicted that the melting of Arctic ice would lead to massive releases of freshwater into the Atlantic, in turn triggering abrupt climate change – with the result that by 2020 much of Europe would suffer a climate like Siberia’s.

Instead of dealing with predictable climate trajectories, we are dealing with a system that is intrinsically unstable – and is characterised by what scientists call “positive feedback”. So, for example, as the highly reflective Arctic ice melts, it is replaced by dark, energy-absorbing seawater, which accelerates a vicious cycle of warming and of the release of powerful greenhouse gases like methane from the tundra. As the process of climate change accelerates, Brand argues that there is a growing risk that the twenty-first century will see an unparalleled “die-back” in human numbers, measured in billions of deaths.

Given current – and likely future – human population numbers, back-to-the-land policies, renewable energy and the like are not going to save us if the climate starts to go haywire. Instead, Brand insists, we must abandon key parts of our old ideologies and embrace genuinely transformative solutions. Foremost among these, he believes, will be a radical acceleration of urbanisation worldwide, with slum-dwellers seen as the leading edge of this trajectory. Whereas half the world’s human population now lives in cities, the goal should be at least 80% by mid-century. Why? Well, partly because the more concentrated cities are intrinsically more resource-efficient than rural settlement patterns – and because as rural areas are progressively abandoned, nature will move back in, cutting back on greenhouse emissions.

Even more controversial, however, will be Brand’s conclusions on genetic engineering (which he argues can help create crops that use less land, less pesticide and less water), nuclear power (the carbon footprint of which is dramatically lower than that for fossil fuel-powered electricity generation) and geoengineering (ranging from ships that create artificial clouds over the oceans to giant space mirrors, both designed to bounce back incoming solar radiation into space).

What is most striking about Brand’s vision of the future is not so much the nature of the solutions proposed but the long time-scales he envisages governments, business, financial markets and communities being forced to embrace. “We’re facing multidecade, multigeneration problems and solutions,” he concludes. “Accomplishing what is needed will take diligence and patience—a sustained bearing down, over human lifetimes, to bridge the long lag times and lead times in climatic, biological, ands social dynamics, and to work through the long series of iterations necessary for any apparent solution to become practical.”

Brand is worried that environmentalists won’t change fast enough, so that we will see the emergence of what he calls “Post-Greens, Greens-plus, Greens 2.0, Off-Greens—who knows?” Whoever ends up doing what needs to be done, the rules of the game are likely to run along the following lines: “Find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1.0, then (f) iterating rapidly.”

Very much, in fact, as the environmental movement began. With China planning to build three times more nuclear reactors than the rest of the world over the next decade, some may recall what happened last time a major nation went nuclear fast. The United States was shaken by controversies around reactors at Diablo Canyon and Three Mile Island, helping launch modern environmentalism. Will history repeat itself?

John Elkington is co-founder of SustainAbility and of Volans.

The homepage image is a detail from the cover of Whole Earth Catalog (Fall 1969 issue), published by Stewart Brand.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



We need to re-think 'Buddhist economics'

37 years ago the Englishman Schumacher proposed 'Buddhist economics', believing that the only way of solving our natural resource problem was the 'lessening of desire', and it seems that this way of thinking is still of use today. The strange thing is that although everyone basically identifies with this, Buddhist economics has not yet made it to the world stage, on the contrary, not only has everyone continuously rejected Buddhist economics, they have taken steps toward 'Loot economics'. Our thinking has been this way since the industrial revolution, and technological advances have unearthed the limits of humanities desires, so we have created one or two, even numerous new problems in the effort of solving an old one. DuPont is such an example, they invented freon refrigeration, making people's lives more comfortable; when they discovered that freon destroys the ozone layer, DuPont invented another method of refrigeration, which didn't have a devastating effect on the ozone layer, but who knows what other harmful side effects it may have? Despite this, DuPont is proclaimed as a great technological and innovative company, which really is ironic. What this means is that we actually need a new way of thinking, as Brand says, especially in relation to the high praise of urbanisation, we should not follow blindly. The young Hanhan all say 'cities make life terrible', so how can we still yearn for urbanisation? Recently there have still been people proposing it, now if you look at this years winter being so cold, many places had not seen such extreme cold in several decades, how likely is global warming if clearly the world it turning colder! One way or another, no matter who is right or wrong, perhaps we are all confused whether it's hot or cold. But what does this tell us? Does it tell us that there is no change going on? In any case, our environment is changing, but people are not changing: they are still greedy.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Extremely timely, extremely useful

This winter has been very cold, people who are aware of this can understand, that global warming has already arrived and is imminent. It seems as if humanity is sitting on the Titanic, and is heading for a full speed collision with an iceberg, even though we can all see the iceberg, nobody is willing to slow down their engine, and this is why COP15 ended up as a farce.
They would rather hit an iceberg, which is imminent, and naturally people believe that there will be a solution, such as a radical change. Brand's extreme measures are worth considering at such a time. It is only that these extreme measures may bring with them extreme risks, yet even the sharpest turn will not be able to avoid the boat overturning and the loss of human life.
Currently nuclear power relies on the low price of uranium which is also a finite resource; genetically modified food is singular and monopolizing in nature, and reliance on chemical fertilizer and pesticides and attracts the issue of food security; several types of geo-engineering programs are only short-term solutions and do not consider consequences.
What is gratifying about this is that Brand shows that he has realised that these programs will only be initial incomplete versions. And will make us come together in an effort to bring about a second version as quickly as possible. Of course, our greatest hope is that each country will work together to strongly reduce emissions, and that before we collide with the iceberg, that we slow down and change the course of the boat.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(1) 改变消费模式——这个文章选择忽略的选项(不可持续的消费模式造成了现有的问题);
(2) 促进计划生育(对世界银行和大部分双边捐助者说是一个禁忌)和对妇女的教育(但会引起男人的恐慌)。

What about empowering women and reducing consumption

But even more simple, cheap, effective and less risky would be to:
(1) change consumption patterns - an option which the article chooses to ignore (it is unsustainable forms of consumption which are causing the problem); and
(2) promote family planning (a taboo in the World Bank and most bilateral donors) and the education of women (but this is feared by men).

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The things that humanity does are only worth three or four cows

Stewart Brand's new book 'Whole Earth Discipline' is a true manifesto of pragmatism. The things that humanity does are only worth three or four cows. Less people, planting trees, cleaning up Eastern and Western civilization (especially the subversion of Western civilization) and the reconstruction of human ethics and morals.
Wang Jian

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Radical enough

There are so many people on this earth, that we will not be able to return to a state of unspoiled nature. Only if we completely devote ourselves to technological revolution can we feed our many starving compatriots.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



We want progress but not revolution

What we want is progress, not revolution. In which country have the most revolutions taken place? Those memories are bitter enough.
We forget one important thing, which is that our held beliefs follow the passage of time, we are unceasingly 'progressing'. We believe that because people nowadays have air-conditioning, that are lives are certainly more comfortable than that of the first emperor; we believe that since we have the internet, that our lives are better than during the time of Han Xin. The truth is, that it is actually the other way around.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Buddhism is the highest ideal of human spirit

How could the war happen if no people kill lives?
Why need the oligogenics if no people indulge lust?
How could the corruptions exist if no people steal?
How dare the windy speeches ever stand if no people talk nonsense?
How could the banquet at public expenses be popular if no people drink?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Amory lovins(他的中文名叫做卢安武)是我的偶像,我很崇拜他。他批评布兰登的文章我也看过,我同意他的批评的绝大部分( 一部分原因是我还不很理解这个复杂的核电问题),但是我始终有个问题想不通。卢安武,以及麻省理工学院的研究,都表明,核能的一个大问题就是成本,另外一个可能不是“问题”的“问题”可能是核废料的处理。前一个问题在美国确实是这样,在法国阿海法公司建设的芬兰的最新的反应堆的延期以及远超预算,也是事实。但是在中国,印度,韩国等等正在“复兴”核电的国家,特别是在中国,大家都知道成本不是个问题,卢安武也很清楚,还对我们国家秦山核电的建设进行了研究。因为我们恰好是属于由中央政府投资核电的性质,不是依靠资本市场。估计,私人资本想进来,国家还不一定让你进来呢,正好和美国以及其它西方国家的情况相反。你想你想看,中国未来的核电建设目标是达到装机容量大约1亿千瓦,需要1百个百万级的反应堆是个什么概念,更何况看来现在是没办法阻止核电在中国的复兴和大发展了。如果对占据了世界这么大的新市场的中国无能为力,否认核能好像没有什么特别的意义。但是,我要申明,我不赞成核能的立场还是一贯的。

If Brand is a China expert...

Who is Brand, I don't know him, most Chinese people also don't know him. If he was a Chinese person, if he served at a university or research institute, the issuing of these remarks certainly would have brought him national fame, following the 'experts' we already have, he may be placed among the likes of 'authority' or 'pioneer'. In other words, we currently do not have such a person in China. If he is a China expert, then we certainly have not spoken of him, or you have not had the opporunity of even speaking of him.

Amory Lovins (his Chinese name is 卢安武) is my idol, I worship him a lot. I have read his criticism of Brand's article and I largely agree with his criticism (part of the reason is that I do not yet completely understand the complicated issue of nuclear energy), yet I am still left with a question which I cannot fully understand. Lovins and the research of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both state that a large problem with nuclear power is the cost, and another problem, which may not actually be termed a 'problem', is the management of nuclear waste. In the United States this has certainly been an issue. The extended and overstretched budget of the most recent reactor built in Finland by French company Areva is also fact. But in China, India, Korea etc. - countries that are currently undergoing a nuclear energy 'revival' - especially in China, we all know that cost is not an issue. Lovins is also really clear on this, and is doing research into the building of our countries' Qinshan nuclear power station. Fortunately the nature of our nuclear power is dependent on investment from central government, and not dependent on capitalist markets. It is estimated that even if a private investor would like to come in on the arrangement, the state may not necessarily allow this, this is in contrast to the situation in the United States and other Western countries. If you think about it, the target of China's future nuclear construction is to reach an installed capacity of ca. 100 million kilowatts, this would require one hundred million nuclear reactors - what a concept - and at present it seems that there is no way of halting the revival and large-scale development of nucelar power in China. If China has no way of making an impression on such a large international market, then does this not negate the special meaning of nuclear power?! However, I would like to declare that I do not approve the stance of nuclear power is consistent.
Another problem is that while the management of nuclear waste is an issue, it really is ironic in the face of humanity's 'sustainable development'. However, when I think of how many nuclear war heads and nuclear weapons there are in the world, this makes me very angry, what should we do with these weapons that kill people? Currently they do not kill people, in the future they could kill people, it is only a matter of time until our children and grandchildren disappear. From this point of view, Brand's approval of nucelar power is still approval, but this issue really oversteps the boundaries of our discussion, at least in China it is a dead end.