An Hour with Stewart Brand

Photo by Ryan Phelan

Climate Watch sat down with ecologist and futurist Stewart Brand to talk about the rethinking of “traditional green pieties” that he says environmentalists will have to confront, in order to address climate change. In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline, he argues for a major change in the way “greens” have traditionally thought about stewarding the planet — one that calls for managing the earth’s natural infrastructure “with as light a touch as possible and with as much intervention as necessary.”

What do you think the world is facing in terms of climate change?

“I pretty much buy James Lovelock‘s approach that we’re warming toward an equilibrium of maybe five degrees warmer than now, which doesn’t sound like much, but the last time we were that was 55 million years ago and crocodiles were swimming around in the polar oceans. [Lovelock] thinks the carrying capacity for humans in a world that’s five degrees warmer would be about a billion to a billion-and-a-half people. And it could happen fairly quickly because there are various positive feedbacks that are self-reinforcing, amplification of change going on. A four-or-five-billion person die-back is horrible to contemplate. Nothing like it has ever happened in human history, and it does get your attention.

“I am persuaded by a number of data points he looks at and climatologists he listens to and the system dynamics of climate, which is tremendously non-linear. It has lots of these positive feedbacks in it and various thresholds. Sometimes we know where the threshold is, and sometimes we find out after we’ve passed it. Abrupt climate change, it turns out, is pretty common in the historical record and that’s what we could be looking at this century, maybe even in the first half of this century.”

You write in your book: “Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system: climate change.” Can you talk more about this?

“I wonder if there will be people turning up soon saying, “Let the climate do what it wants. Gaia’s just having her usual carryings-on and we must not stand in her way.” [Ed. Note: There are people already saying this] I think when it cuts this close to home, environmentalists do realize that when humans are an endangered species we’ve got to rise to the occasion and be green to protect this species and its habitat as well.

“There’s a shift that goes on because the standard, deep, ideological, emotional stance of environmentalists is that nature is always right and humans are always wrong, and this is a case when actually, nature is up to something we really, really don’t like and we have to do, as humans, something that’s right to head that off. That’s a switch. And it’s my point of leverage in the book which is to say, okay, bear that switch in mind, now think through all the things you’ve had opinions about for 20 or 30 years and revisit them.

“The climate crunch gives us permission, indeed encouragement, to rethink nuclear power, to rethink genetically-engineered food crops, to rethink how we feel about cities, and to start thinking in a serious way and an encouraging way about geo-engineering, which is direct intervention in the climate.”

The idea of “playing God” with nature can raise a lot of emotion and controversy…

“The thing is, we’ve been having god-like power in nature for a very long time, probably at least 10,000 years, maybe 55,000 years when we started doing massive burning to change the landscape in a way that we liked. In ecology, the current term is “niche construction” or “ecological engineering.” We don’t have a choice not to do it because it’s what we are doing. One of the terms for our era geologically is the ‘Anthropocene;’ the human-dominated era of geology. And so we’re already terraforming the Earth, and we’re doing it badly. So, is the choice to stop terraforming the Earth? No. Actually that’s no longer an option. The only choice is to stop doing it badly and start doing it well.”

It’s a large laboratory that we’re talking about in terms of learning from our mistakes, because we’ll be conducting our experiments (geo-engineering, bio-engineering, etc) in the world.

“We’re running an experiment in the world anyway by raising the greenhouse gas percentage in the atmosphere, and we’re starting to get results from that experiment, and we don’t like them, so we’re already doing interventionist science outside the lab in the laboratory of the world. If we don’t like what’s happening so far, we have no choice but to do better experimentation and better science and start getting the results that are better.”

How do you respond to Amory Lovins’ recent article on Grist, criticizing your position on nuclear power?

“I think it’s great that Amory Lovins, who is an old friend, has put up a rebuttal to my chapter on nuclear in the book. I think that’s absolutely fair and right since my whole chapter is basically a rebuttal of his anti-nuclear arguments.* I respect him enormously for most of the things I think he’s right about. I think he’s wrong about nuclear. He thinks I’m right about most things, and that I’m wrong about nuclear, so that’s the debate.”

*Last week we posted highlights from a conversation with Amory Lovins, aired originally on KQED’s Forum program. Brand’s name was not evoked in those excerpts but Lovins was critical of the idea of a nuclear power revival, dismissing it as financially unsupportable.