GROW UP, GREENS!
Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
By Stewart Brand (Atlantic Books 316pp £19.99)
In 1968 Stewart Brand produced the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog. It had a picture of the earth seen from space on the cover and inside were lists of useful tools for transforming the planet by distributing power to the people. I remember seeing it in bookshops. Thrilling and demanding, it called on me to join my generation. Like Woodstock, student demos, dope, tie-dyed T-shirts and improbably flared trousers, the Catalog told us we were different.
We were. But now different has become mainstream. The Catalog was, above all, Green. It treated the planet as a single, finite system whose contents could be catalogued. Now the whole world is Green and the Internet lists its contents. David Cameron and Ed Miliband believe what only doped-out freaks in sandals and Afghan coats believed in 1968. And so Stewart Brand returns to take stock.
Whole Earth Discipline is immensely entertaining, moving and slightly confusing. The confusion is twofold. First, Brand is an unreconstructed cataloguer. The book is, at one level, simply a list of developments in biotechnology, climate science, urbanisation, agriculture and so on. This tends to leave one wondering if these things do tie together in quite the way Brand says they do. Secondly, much of the book is about the author's changes of mind. He is now, for example, pro-nuclear power and genetically engineered foods. This is honourable but it does cast a slight shadow of doubt over his latest enthusiasms.
That said, the book brilliantly defines our present predicament - our need to deploy science to clean up the mess made by science. The modern world was made by burning half a trillion tons of carbon since the Industrial Revolution. The next half trillion will be burned in about forty years at present rates of increase. If that happens, then global temperatures will rise by up to 4 degrees and it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of current scientific thought, that our species' continued existence will be at risk.
As Brand, heavily influenced by James Lovelock, perceives, this means that the Greens are going to have to reverse some of their primary positions. In the giddy days of 1968, eco-awareness was an aspect of the ideological package that included resistance to the Vietnam War and to The System, often defined as the military-industrial complex. We wanted to get 'back to the garden', to a condition of pastoral simplicity. This pastoralism seemed to be the way to save Spaceship Earth and it still clings to the Green movement with its belief in organic foods, wind power and sustainability in general. None of this will work because climate change is happening too quickly.
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'That means', writes Brand, 'that Greens are no longer strictly the defenders of natural systems against the incursions of civilization; now they're the defenders of civilization as well. It's a whiplash moment for everyone.'
Climate change really means Mother Nature is preparing to rid herself of humans. If we are to survive, we can no longer worship her, we must fight back with smart weapons. So we have to embrace nuclear - there is no other source of clean energy which can sustain our societies - and genetically engineered 'Frankenfoods'. Ideally, these would be synthesised in laboratories. Farming, as Lovelock has pointed out, is a planetary catastrophe, stripping out biodiversity and filling the atmosphere with the methane from cow farts.
The Green dream must thus become a very hi-tech dream rather than the muddy paradise of Woodstock. Brand's conversion to this view is the central drama of this book and it sends him off on a genial and enthusiastic safari through wild science and cool facts.
Did you know, for example, that only a tenth of the cells in your body are you? The rest are microbes - 'We are a portable swamp.' Did you know that Stora Enso in Sweden is the oldest surviving corporation? King Magnus IV granted its charter in 1347. Did you know that in a fifth of a teaspoon of seawater there are a million bacteria and ten million viruses? Well, now you do.
This is all good fun but the heart of the matter is the word 'ecopragmatist' in the subtitle. Brand's big point is that we must do what works without prejudice. Green prejudices have, in the past, often been on the wrong side of the argument. The campaign to get DDT banned because of its effects on birdlife, for example, may have cost the lives of 20 million children in Africa who were left to die of malaria. And The System we all hated in the Sixties and Seventies produced Norman Borlaug, the man behind the very capitalist Green Revolution - increased crop yields - which may have saved a billion lives.
Now the Greens are threatening to do more damage. They're suckers for anything labelled 'natural'. 'In the marketing world,' remarks Brand, '"natural" now means anything the seller wants to charge extra for or distract your attention with.'
They also resist nuclear power and persist in deluding people into thinking all we have to do is build wind farms and cycle to work. They also go on about the loss of the rainforest when, in fact, fifty-five times more is growing back each year than is being cut. Perhaps worst of all, for Brand, they advocate the Precautionary Principle which requires that any new technology has to be shown to do no harm. This is, of course, impossible. It is also self-fulfilling because it effectively prevents the testing of new technologies to establish risk. Greens have not escaped the pastoralism of their roots and thus find themselves not just on the side of nature, but on the side of nature against humans.
But Stewart Brand lives in hope and this is a very upbeat book. He plainly thinks we'll get there in the end. The Greens are going to have to grow up. This book should help get them out of the nursery.
Bryan Appleyard writes for 'The Sunday Times', blogs and is working on a book which he cannot yet explain.