In 1968 Stewart Brand published the first issue of his pioneering Whole Earth Catalog. It opened with the words “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it,” expressing both an acceptance of humankind’s scientific innovations and a critique of what humanity had so far done with all this technology. More than forty years later those words still summarize Brand’s views on our responsibilities to the planet and to each other.
The catalog, which won a National Book Award in 1972, published reviews of tools — broadly defined — that might be of use to people looking for do-it-yourself alternatives to a suburban supermarket-and-department-store existence. Many of the featured items appealed to the burgeoning back-to-the-land movement, such as hand tools, organic-gardening books, and camping equipment, but there were also high-tech products, including a $4,900 programmable calculator.
In addition to editing the Whole Earth Catalog — and later CoEvolution Quarterly, which became the Whole Earth Review — Brand has participated in many climactic shifts in the culture. He was present at the beginning of the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, promoting a music festival where the Grateful Dead played one of their first gigs. He had a role in the early environmental movement, campaigning for NASA to release an image of the entire earth from space to promote awareness of the planet’s fragility and isolation. And in 1985 he cofounded, with Larry Brilliant, the “Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link,” or WELL, which was a predecessor to the online communities of today.
Now Brand is once again pushing for a paradigm shift with his recent book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. In it he challenges many environmentalists’ core tenets, most notably by embracing genetic engineering and reversing his long-held opposition to nuclear energy. Though many agree with him that nuclear power is the best way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions — including President Barack Obama and former Greenpeace leaders Patrick Moore and Stephen Tindale — Brand has met strong resistance from some friends and colleagues. But the seventy-two-year-old self-avowed “environmental heretic” believes his critics will come around.
Born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1938, Brand soon discovered a world much bigger than his Midwestern town, thanks to his Vassar-educated mother’s fascination with outer space and his advertising-copywriter father’s interest in ham radio. Together they gave their son a strong sense of the possibilities offered by technology. Coming of age during the height of the Cold War, Brand also feared that technology would lead humankind to destroy itself. He studied ecology and biology at Stanford University, where he found a mentor in Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Ehrlich’s work with butterflies helped to popularize the idea of coevolution, which holds that a change in one organism can trigger changes in others. The idea influenced Brand’s thinking about how society evolves.
After graduating in 1960, Brand began two years of active service as an infantry officer and became an army photographer. After his military service ended, he spent time on Indian reservations and married a Native American. He also took LSD as a participant in a legal psychological experiment and started hanging out with the Merry Pranksters, devotees of novelist Ken Kesey whose escapades were chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Brand found another mentor in engineer and futurist Buckminster Fuller, whose book Ideas and Integrities introduced Brand to the concept of a “comprehensive designer,” someone who works outside narrow specialties, looking at the larger system and determining how new technologies might become “tools for human happiness.” It was one of the inspirations for the Whole Earth Catalog.
In the mideighties Brand began working with large corporations and went on to cofound the Global Business Network, a consulting firm that helps businesses, nonprofits, and governments develop long-term strategies that take into account potential social, technological, political, economic, and environmental changes. In 01996 Brand founded the Long Now Foundation, whose main initiative is to build a ten-thousand-year mechanical clock to promote long-term thinking and responsibility. That date isn’t a typo but a way of writing the year that Brand says helps us conceptualize the distant future. “Once you have the perspective of decades and centuries,” he writes, “problems that seemed unsolvable become solvable, and pressing urgencies fade away to expose what is crucial.”
Brand has written a number of books, including 1974’s Two Cybernetic Frontiers (which included one of the first uses of the term “personal computer”); The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT; How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built; and The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility. I spoke to him in Los Angeles, just hours before he was scheduled to do a radio interview. He was energetic, focused, and optimistic. When I followed up by telephone a couple of months later, he was at his home, a sixty-four-foot tugboat docked in the Sausalito, California, marina. As he was saying something that might spark disagreement from colleagues, a hailstorm hit Sausalito. “Do you think that was a message?” Brand asked, laughing. “My deity is weather. It’s the only one I actually believe in.”
Cooper: You say that, since we’re responsible for climate change, we should be able to fix it. Do you think we have the time?
Brand: I think we have thirty years before we face disaster: Europe, North America, and China becoming unable to grow food, mega wildfires, melting glaciers. Reversing current problems before something catastrophic happens will probably require buying time with climate-engineering approaches, such as putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere the way volcanoes do, to reflect more sunlight back into space. We’ve still got to get the carbon-dioxide levels down — along with methane, nitrous oxide, and the rest of it — but that will take a long time, because there’s so much industrial and political momentum to overcome. Many climatologists who were originally opposed to direct intervention in the climate are now saying we may have to do some form of “global dimming” to buy time. They’re astounded that there’s been such a slow and limited response to their warnings.
Cooper: Has the slow response been due more to political pressure or to general inertia?
Brand: Unfortunately climate change has become a partisan issue, at least in the U.S. and Europe. If liberals and environmentalists think something is critically important, conservatives automatically dismiss it. They’re blinded by the mistaken idea that climatologists have some sort of hidden liberal agenda.
I’m trying to convince the conservatives and the environmentalists to follow the science right across the board, not just where it’s convenient or supports their ideology. And the science itself needs to move forward quickly. We do not have enough data, especially in terms of how the oceans affect the climate. We don’t have climate models that can predict what will happen or even understand some things that are already happening, such as the melting of Arctic ice.
Cooper: The public seems to be falling in line with the global-warming deniers.
Brand: I don’t think there’s been much movement either way. Although Al Gore won prizes for his global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, polls show that people’s concern over climate change hasn’t budged even 1 percent since its release. When people are concerned with other issues, as they are now, climate change drops down the priority list. Northerners look out and see snow and think, What warming? But those in drought-afflicted areas will have no problem at all believing that global warming is happening.
It remains to be seen whether recent erratic weather patterns are part of a long-term trend toward more-violent weather. James Hansen at NASA makes a good case that powerful storms come from global warming: the northern atmosphere stays cool because the melting ice is keeping the ocean cold, while the temperate zones get warmer, and the increasing contrast between the warm and cold makes for fiercer weather. I say maybe, maybe not. Any change in weather patterns that lasts less than ten years can’t be blamed on climate change yet.
Cooper: You want us to trust scientists, but don’t they often fall prey to groupthink, career motivations, and the desire to be famous, or simply to be declared right?
Brand: Scientists are like everyone else in those respects, but in order to stay in their profession, they’re obliged to admit mistakes, put up with a lot of argument, seek out better data, and sometimes give up their pet theories. That doesn’t happen much in politics or literature or even history, but it happens in science all the time.
Cooper: You’ve critiqued the environmental movement for its reluctance to embrace climate engineering.
Brand: Some environmentalists have a knee-jerk response that says we must not play god or intervene in nature. But if climate change is as serious as environmentalists are saying, then our responses to it need to be effective in the time we have. People who live in the developing world are moving toward using more grid power and electricity, thus putting more carbon into the atmosphere. That’s why nuclear power, which doesn’t create much carbon pollution, looks good to me. Climate change is a planetary problem, and the responses need to be planetary.
Cooper: You’ve said that the green agenda is outdated, in large part due to “eco-pessimism.”
Brand: The environmentalist stance has long been one of heroic despair: We’re in the midst of a tragedy. Civilization is going to hell, and all we can do is stand proudly and hopelessly against that trend. The essence of a tragedy is that it cannot be fixed; it’s this horrible situation that you’re stuck in.
I want to get people out of that tragic frame of mind and into a scientific, adaptive frame of mind. Emotion and ideology have a place, because they supply a lot of power to the movement, but in terms of guiding policy, I think the challenges we face are serious enough that emotion and ideology should be left out of the picture for a while. They’re not serving us well.
Cooper: Environmental writer Bill McKibben says that the “end of nature” began two hundred years ago with the Industrial Revolution. You say it began ten thousand years ago with the development of agriculture.
Brand: Agriculture was a large enough event that it started to impinge upon atmosphere and climate, and it certainly impinged on the amount of so-called wilderness. Today somewhere on the order of 40 percent of all the ice-free land on the globe is dedicated to agriculture. It’s had the most disastrous effect on the environment of any human activity.
Cooper: Some would think the Native Americans had a hands-off approach to the environment, but you quote author Charles Mann, who says that before the Europeans came, the North American continent was a “managed landscape,” and afterward it was an “abandoned garden that the Europeans misinterpreted as wilderness.”
Brand: In North America and elsewhere in the world, indigenous people were using fire to amend the landscape on a large scale and improve access to game — in essence as a very large form of gardening. Mann’s 1491 describes the continent just before Columbus showed up and discusses how the Native Americans were “terraforming” the Amazon, smoldering their plant and agricultural waste and amending the charcoal into the soil, turning infertile tropical soil into very fertile soil that’s still there thousands of years later.
Cooper: How did your personal experience with Native Americans shape your thinking?
Brand: In the early sixties, when I was a young guy just out of the army, I hung out on Indian reservations in the summers. I was in the Native American Church and went to peyote meetings and even ran some for whites. I married an American Indian, Lois Jennings, who’d grown up in Washington, DC. During that time I developed a connection to the earth. The Native Americans have skills that have helped them live here for a very long time, and they are willing to impart those skills to us.
Cooper: What were the peyote meetings you ran like?
Brand: The whites were coming to it cold. All of the Native Americans who went to these meetings had been prepared by hearing about them all their lives. By the time they’re finally brought in, they’re well versed in the whole tradition.
I worked with a group of artists in New York State and later with a group of psychiatric clients on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific. What impressed me in both cases was that the design of the ritual was so strong that it worked even with non-Indians who had no preparation. It just works, and you don’t have to be part of some particular tribe or tradition to get value out of it.
If climate change is as serious as environmentalists are saying, then our responses to it need to be effective in the time we have. . . . That’s why nuclear power, which doesn’t create much carbon pollution, looks good to me.
Cooper: What kind of value?
Brand: Native Americans refer to the peyote as “medicine.” You take it because you’re not as well as you should be. It’s also seen as a way to keep drunks off the booze — which is a big problem in many tribes. If some people are going off to college or to war, the tribe will have a peyote meeting in their honor, so they will know that the whole tribe is behind them. And it’s a way of dealing with illness, both physical and mental. It’s not used lightly or recreationally. It’s a big hassle to stay up all night and eat this absolutely vile-tasting cactus [laughs] or drink the tea. Vomiting is normal. It tastes about as bad as anything. There’s a reason the peyote cactus has no spines: it doesn’t need them.
Cooper: What’s particularly skillful about the way that Native Americans relate to the land?
Brand: They have this odd mix of reverence and humor. Anytime they’re telling you about something really sacred, they’re also laughing at themselves. There’s a comfortable, sane multimindedness about their approach. Take the Zuni Shalako ceremony, for example. It’s a profound and serious ritual, but there are also these clowns called “mudheads.” They wear cloth sacks over their heads and have knots over their eyes that look like assholes. They make fun of everybody, including the gods. It’s the sacred and profane blended together.
Cooper: What are some misconceptions about Native Americans?
Brand: There’s a notion that all natives everywhere have bonded with nature in this perfect way. In some sense it’s true, but in a lot of ways it’s not, because everywhere humans have settled, the first thing they’ve done is kill and eat everything large or threatening. The first people who came to North America across the Bering Strait were able to kill off the mastodons and other large mammals that were here, and they changed the landscape. We can imagine what is missing in North America by going to east Africa, with its beautiful patchwork landscape of savannah mixed with forest and grassland and plenty of large herbivores and carnivores. It’s ecologically much richer. And all of that was destroyed by the first peoples who came to this continent.
Cooper: Speaking of ecological diversity, you advocate creating an “all-species inventory.” Why is this important?
Brand: I got involved with Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity” to describe the state of having many different kinds of life. We don’t even know how many different species there are, because we’ve never cataloged them the way we have the stars. I cofounded the All Species Project with my wife, Ryan Phelan, and Kevin Kelly, whose idea it was. It’s now called the “Encyclopedia of Life” and is taking advantage of technology like bar coding for rapid identification of species and subspecies.
We are finally getting the ability to inventory microbial life, which is the most numerous form of life. It’s basically been a mystery to us all these years because most microbes could not be cultured in a lab. We have a great personal stake in understanding microbial biology. Remember, nine-tenths of the cells in the human body are microbes. They are in the thick of a lot of disease processes. They are responsible for the makeup of most of the atmosphere. Once we understand these creatures, we’ll be a lot further along in understanding how climate works and what we need to do and not do to keep the climate relatively stable. It’s crucial, for example, to figure out how sensitive microbes are to air-temperature changes and the acidification of the oceans. That will tell us a lot about how climate change might actually play out. It may be good news, and the oceans will provide much more of a buffer than we realize. How much they balance these various gas ratios in the air remains to be seen.
Biotech is the main emerging technology now. There are various attempts to turn coal directly into methane using microbes, thereby saving a lot of carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. A company called Amyris is working with engineered microbes to make both malaria treatments and jet fuel. Steven Chu, the secretary of energy, likes to say that if we can get the cocktail of microbes that live in the hind gut of the termite working for us, we can turn a sheet of paper into usable hydrogen. A lot of this technology is biomimicry at its best. By tweaking a couple of genes here and there, we can avoid having huge solar-power, wind-power, or agricultural footprints on the land. Biotechnology has been around for a long time. Diabetics have been taking insulin from engineered microbes for twenty-five to thirty years now. Most of the cheese we eat and the beer we drink comes from engineered microbes.
Cooper: Could cataloging all species in any way threaten undiscovered species?
Brand: The discovery of a new species almost always promotes protection. These are not hunters doing the research; these are scientists who are studying the kinds of habitat that let such species exist and are helping to make sure those habitats get preserved. The Endangered Species Act is a direct result of such discoveries.
Cooper: The environmental movement has roots in the “back-to-the-land” mind-set, which you’ve criticized. What’s wrong with it?
Brand: The strongest spokesperson for living off the land is Wendell Berry, who is doing artisanal farming, but his real cash crop is poetry. His goal isn’t to make a lot of food for the market but to create something great and inspiring. Globally, however, we have 6.8 billion people to feed. Artisanal farming and slow food are really good only in areas where the biggest nutritional problem is obesity. In most of the world you have nutritional issues like not getting enough vitamin A, and the dominant lifestyle is still subsistence agriculture, which has been romanticized by some environmentalists as the right way to live. Indeed many of us tried it in the sixties. By and large it sucked. [Laughs.] Few people lasted three winters, because it was so damn hard.
In the developing world, people living by subsistence farming are typically using up marginal lands, cutting down all the woody plants for firewood, killing all the wild animals for bush meat, and living dangerous and backbreaking lives. When they get a sense of the opportunities that exist in towns and cities, they move. And then good things happen: The women have fewer children. They educate their children better. They get access to medical care.
Famine is a rural phenomenon. Because the subsistence farmers aren’t part of the cash economy, when bad weather comes along, they don’t lose money; they go without food. As rough and tough and dangerous as the slums are, the fact that a billion people have moved there tells you it was pretty difficult where they were. If environmentalists want to be realists — and I hope we do — then we need to be realistic about what living off the land entails.
Cooper: What’s your vision for how we’re going to grow our food in the future? Is it something like the vertical-farming concept — using skyscrapers with different crops on different levels?
Brand: That’s happening in squatter cities today, where people in developing countries have moved to the city and built illegally on land they don’t own or inhabited abandoned buildings, growing crops in old Clorox bottles up on third stories and raising pigs on fourth stories. But it’s a little bit like solar panels on rooftops: a good localized solution that doesn’t scale up very well. I’d like to see what [agricultural ecologist] Sir Gordon Conway calls the “doubly green revolution,” which is taking the breakthroughs of the original green revolution and bringing genetic engineering to bear on the next generation of seeds, which we’re already doing. They’re ecologically and nutritionally much better, plus they offer higher yields. This allows more land to return to its natural state, and it allows people to move from subsistence farming to raising cash crops that can be sold in larger markets. In a sense what I want to do is take what farmers do anyway and make it more economically viable.
I suppose to someone whose idea of farming is to get up in the morning and milk the cow, that sounds like a factory farm, but that’s how an Amish farm works. They’re regarded by many as the best farmers in the U.S., and they’re the most dubious about new technology, but they’re comfortable with GE [genetically engineered] food crops. As I understand it, the Amish standard for accepting a new technology is whether it helps or hurts the community. To them something like Bt corn, which has been engineered to be resistant to pests, fits right in. Likewise all through the developing world, once you get past the governments that have been frightened by European attitudes about GE food crops, the farmers love them.
By tweaking a couple of genes here and there, we can avoid having huge solar-power, wind-power, or agricultural footprints on the land. Biotechnology has been around for a long time. Diabetics have been taking insulin from engineered microbes for twenty-five to thirty years now.
Cooper: Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder,” postulates that many of our psychological problems stem from lack of access to nature. Can you find real nature in a city with 20 million people?
Brand: I agree that we need nature. I grew up in a relatively small city of a hundred thousand in Illinois, and I was dashing around the countryside all through my youth. I feel sorry for those who can’t do that. But what’s “real” nature? It’s all nature. Ecologists have been slow to pick up on the whole notion of urban ecology. Yes, streams that move through cities are different than those that flow through the countryside, and you can turn them into nasty ditches, as we have done in cities such as Los Angeles. But now we’re waking up to urban watercourses as a part of nature and figuring out ways to keep the water from rushing out to the ocean so it can feed the aquifer. This involves cleaning up the water, getting the fish back, and planting trees around these watercourses. In Korea, Seoul turned a freeway back into a river, and the city came alive.
Cooper: If most of us will be living in cities, what will we do with the wilderness that surrounds them?
Brand: Let the countryside grow back. One of the astounding numbers I came across in my research is that while we’re still cutting down primary rain forest, fifty-five times more rain forest than we’re cutting down is coming back as second growth, because of the shift to cities and more-efficient agriculture. Because plants grow quicker in the tropics, the whole array of species and biodiversity is returning within a couple of decades. As long as the people either stay out of the land or step gently on it, we’re seeing a revival, much as we’ve seen in New England. It’s a little-known fact that 1845, the year Henry David Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, was the maximum point of deforestation in New England. The trees have been growing back ever since. That’s why when you walk around an eastern forest, you often see stone walls left from old farm properties.
With genetic engineering, we’re even bringing back the American chestnut, which almost became extinct because of an invasive fungus back in 1910 or so. I expect to see chestnuts come back any year now.
Cooper: Another aspect of urbanization is its impact on population. Can you explain?
Brand: Paul Ehrlich, one of my teachers at Stanford, was a population biologist who studied butterflies. He and Peter Raven came up with the important concept of coevolution. Because he was a natural-born political activist, Ehrlich later moved over into the field of human population and wrote his book The Population Bomb in 1968. At the time I took the subject very seriously, organizing a group of people to starve for a week as an example of the mass starvation we saw coming. Indeed population continues to be a serious issue, because it expands agriculture and increases humanity’s impact on the landscape.
Ehrlich’s view was that it was going to take ferocious government action to head off disaster. But professional demographers said there would be “democratic transition,” which means that when people became better off, they would have fewer children. So the population problem would solve itself. And to a large extent that’s what is happening. We’ve found that people don’t even have to get richer to have fewer children; they just need to have greater opportunity, as they do when they move to cities.
When women move to town, birth rates go down to fewer than 2.1 children per woman — the human replacement rate — because they’re busy doing other things and want to educate their kids. Developed countries already have negative population growth, and the developing countries are curtailing their growth more rapidly than expected. I believe we will see a peak population of between 8 and 9 billion. Then it will go down. Edward O. Wilson refers to a “bottleneck” that we’ll be passing through in the next few decades as the last of the population growth plays out. Everything depends on the rate at which climate change lowers the planet’s human carrying capacity. If it lowers capacity to less than 8 or 9 billion, then we are looking at serious resource wars and loss of life.
The big issue is that, as people have access to more jobs and opportunity, they have fewer children, but they develop lower-middle-class rates of consumption. The “global South” is on the rise economically, and the climate in the global South is pretty hot. As soon as people there can afford it, they are going to get air conditioning, and their energy is going to come from coal-fired plants. If that happens, we’re in deep trouble.
Cooper: I guess this is a good time to ask you about nuclear power. How did your thinking on the topic shift?
Brand: Unlike genetic engineering, which I thought was fine all along, nuclear energy is something I’ve changed my position on. For decades I believed that it’s environmentally destructive, because dealing with nuclear waste involves putting a deadly poison in the environment for thousands of years. We should not place that burden on our descendants, I believed. Also I’d been afraid of atomic weapons as a child. The switch from fearing nuclear weapons to fearing nuclear energy was easy to make for a lot of people, but it’s a pretty tenuous leap when you look at it in detail.
As I took climate change more and more seriously, I realized that a relatively carbon-free energy source like nuclear was a vast improvement over coal and natural gas. Was there an epiphany moment for me? Not really, but I did take a trip to the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository back in 2001 with the members of the board of the Long Now Foundation as part of our research for the ten-thousand-year clock. It became clear to me on that trip that this was an absolutely trouble-free place to put nuclear waste, since the water table would never get to the waste and become contaminated, and the nearest town is forty miles away. It suddenly seemed strange to me that people were imagining the Yucca Mountain dump would contaminate water supplies. The government was building a double titanium shield around the place where the spent fuel would be stored. It was overkill. I thought, We’re spending billions of dollars trying to solve this imaginary problem.
This was troubling for the Long Now board because we were saying that if you think in ten-thousand-year terms, good things will happen, and here we saw a ten-thousand-year plan for storing waste that was absurd. Was there such a thing as thinking too far ahead?
Our conclusion was that you can’t control the future for ten thousand years. What we encourage with the Long Now Foundation is basically keeping our options open. You can really only plan for short intervals. Canada’s nuclear-waste-management organization adopted a seven-generations time frame — or 175 years — to be responsible for the spent fuel that’s coming out of Canadian reactors today. In that period of time Canada will be making up its mind about whether it wants to recycle that spent fuel, reprocess it, or feed it directly into the next-generation breeder reactors that run much hotter. They don’t need to decide that now, because they have realized — as have other countries with nuclear reactors and spent fuel — that it’s perfectly safe in large storage casks at the reactor site for a few centuries while they think about what to do with it. If you do want to put it in the ground, the U.S. government has a place near Carlsbad, New Mexico, where it’s been storing nuclear waste for ten years now. It’s a huge salt formation, three thousand feet thick, and they’re putting the waste halfway down, right in the middle. This is a formation that has been there for 250 million years. It isn’t going anywhere. Water doesn’t come in or go out. It’s a great place to stash the waste and forget about it.
Cooper: Why are environmentalists so opposed to nuclear power?
Brand: I think they haven’t thought about it in twenty years. It’s good to go back and revisit one’s theories and beliefs from time to time, to see if the data or the situation has changed. In this case both the data and the situation — i.e., the climate — are different. As British economist John Maynard Keynes said to someone who accused him of changing his position on an issue, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” [Laughs.]
Cooper: But storage is just one issue. What about a connection between nuclear power and nuclear-weapons proliferation?
Brand: Are we worried that if we had more nuclear reactors in the United States, we might become a nuclear power? Too late! [Laughs.] The same goes for China and India. So you’re left with a few places like Iran, which is threatening to become a nuclear power. But Iran really does need nuclear energy, and, like the other Gulf nations, it’s moving ahead with it. So instead of opposing Iran’s nuclear program, we should get Iran to sign international agreements about the handling of nuclear fuel and waste. Then there’s an apparatus in place that is basically antiproliferation.
What President Obama and his administration are saying is that if foreign countries want peaceful nuclear energy, we want them to have it. It’s good for the climate. It’s good for lifting people out of poverty. And I think it’s what’s coming anyway.
I’m expecting that we’ll attempt to dim the sun because we’re realizing that we’re not going to slow down the production of greenhouse gases fast enough. That said, it would clearly be better not to do it.
Cooper: I appreciate your enthusiasm for science, but obviously scientists have made many incorrect predictions, new technologies can have unanticipated side effects, and scientific advancements have been put to diabolical uses. Shouldn’t we proceed with caution? Maybe nuclear power needs to be scaled back.
Brand: Nuclear is an old technology, not a new one. We’ve had it for decades and know what kinds of dangers it does and doesn’t pose. And new developments are fixing some of the old problems.
As for proceeding with caution in general, climate engineering is one area of technology we need to think carefully about. It’s dangerous to alter the climate, and that’s why absolutely nobody wants to mess with it. I know dozens of people doing climate-engineering research, and their dream is to somehow undo the damage by curtailing emissions of greenhouse gases. But lackadaisical reactions by governments to twenty years of climate-change evidence indicate that’s not going to happen. We’re already doing “climate engineering” by putting so much carbon in the atmosphere. So we may have to implement plan B, which is to ameliorate our bad, inadvertent climate engineering with some good, conscious climate engineering.
Cooper: Which engineering approach do you think is going to rise to the top?
Brand: I’m hoping new ones will emerge. There are only about a dozen so far. The two most prominent are injecting sulfur dioxide — basically volcanic ash — into the stratosphere, which I mentioned earlier, and the “cloud-brightening” scheme, in which we would spray seawater into clouds above the ocean, increasing their reflectivity and thus their cooling effect. The latter may or may not work as planned.
One I like that doesn’t get any press, because it’s just so straightforward, comes from Gregory Benford at the University of California at Irvine. He says about a third of the carbon-based biomass from agricultural crops, like the corn silk and husks, can just be baled up and dropped in the ocean. All that baled carbon will stay there in perpetuity, and we can start the plan on Tuesday. It’s so straightforward it sort of takes your breath away. Even if you factor in the fuel to bale and transport the carbon, you’re still ahead of the game. But carbon sequestering is a lot slower than getting in the way of sunlight, which is the quick solution. I’m expecting that we’ll attempt to dim the sun because we’re realizing that we’re not going to slow down the production of greenhouse gases fast enough. That said, it would clearly be better not to do it.
The slowest method of all would be population control. If there were a great pandemic, and the human population suddenly dropped back to 2 billion people, that would largely solve the problem, but that would be horrific. I’ve heard environmentalists talk in private over the years about famine, saying that if we feed the starving people today, there are going to be five times as many starving people later. Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution, always said, “Feed them, and they will know what to do.” He was right, of course, and I think the others were wrong.
Cooper: What about solar and wind power?
Brand: Solar doesn’t add a whole lot of power to the grid, but it’s valuable in individual situations. We have a solar-powered electric fence to keep the cattle out of places where we’re restoring the landscape. But the big solar farms being installed in Southern California are raising concerns. As I understand it, the California Native Plant Society is alarmed because solar-farm projects will end up bulldozing a thousand square miles. There are areas where that’s probably fine — tapped-out agricultural land or creosote salt flats — but a lot of it is thriving desert, and turning it into solar farms is not a good trade. Every gigawatt of electricity produced requires on the order of fifty square miles to be bulldozed flat.
Wind farms are far less intrusive. At least, cattle can put up with them. Though I don’t think people want to live under wind turbines, the farms are beautiful to visit. The problem is we haven’t figured out how to store all the energy, and it’s still only a fraction of what we need.
Cooper: Hence nuclear.
Brand: Yes, as part of the mix with wind, solar, and hydro-electric.
Cooper: Any idea how many nuclear plants we’d need to cover our energy needs?
Brand: [Inventor and engineer] Saul Griffith says that if we really want to level off greenhouse-gas emissions, we need thirteen terawatts of new, clean energy. Even with thousands of square miles of solar panels and wind power and the rest, we will still need three terawatts of nuclear, and that’s on the order of 3,900 new reactors in the next twenty-five years.
It sounds like a lot, but it’s not too different from the rate at which reactors were being built in this country and in France in the sixties and seventies. France is now 80 percent nuclear and sells electricity to Germany, which is still mining coal and burning it. France shut down its last coal-fired plant in 2004. Italy is tired of buying electricity from France, so they’re building new reactors, too, and England is looking toward a reactor renaissance. The next generation of reactors will be smaller, more efficient, cheaper, and safer. And they’re getting more distributable. I think fifty- to two-hundred-megawatt reactors will take off in the developing world. Russia’s developing a small, floating-barge reactor they’re going to use on the north coast, where the ice is melting, and they’re working on selling the technology to developing countries with coastlines. I’ve gone pronuclear to the point now that even if greenhouse gases were not an issue, I’d still be pronuclear, because coal’s so much worse for the environment, spewing not just carbon into the atmosphere but also heavy metals and even low-dose radiation. [When asked in a follow-up whether Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident had caused him to reconsider, Brand said his position hadn’t changed and referred us to a March 22, 2011, article in Foreign Policy, in which he says that newer reactors are much safer than the older ones at the Fukushima plant and points out that when a dam break causes loss of life, no one calls for a halt in hydroelectric energy production. — Ed.]
Cooper: You’ve said that “the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about.”
Brand: Yes, we’ve held up the spread of “biofortified” foods and thus starved people. This is where environmentalists have really known sin, I think. In Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa, Robert Paarlberg documents what happened in Africa when Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth International went to great lengths to terrify African governments about GE food crops. The worst moment was when Zambia had a couple of years of severe drought around 2002, and its people were starving. The United States sent tons of corn, and environmentalists persuaded the leader of Zambia that it was poison because one-third of it was genetically engineered Bt corn. So the government refused to open the warehouses. Environmentalists are directly responsible for that. I don’t think anyone can ask anyone else to starve for his or her ideology.
Cooper: Why is Europe so opposed to GE crops?
Brand: There are various theories. For one thing, GE crops came along around the same time as mad-cow disease, and people had lost their faith that the government was going to take care of them. Many felt that you had to use the precautionary principle in dealing with any new technology, though personally I don’t think GE crops are in any way “new.” I have yet to find a strong argument that genetic engineering is somehow qualitatively different from the selective breeding that farmers have done for millenniums. But the precautionary principle says that you always take expected risks more seriously than expected benefits. It’s an effective formula for not making things happen.
Opponents of GE foods thought there would be fish genes in strawberries. There may well be someday, but not yet. There’s a genetically engineered pig that has healthy omega-3 fatty acids in it, so you can tell your children to eat more bacon! [Laughs.] The gene that makes the omega-3 came from a roundworm. Do we think there’s going to be roundworm in our pork now? The classic fallacy of “transferred essence” says that if you take a tiny bit of genetic code from one creature and put it into another, it contaminates it. That’s like saying that if you’re designing a Web page and you take some of the source code from another site, your site is now “contaminated” by the content of that other site. Some opponents of GE foods say we have to worry that the “terminator gene” [a gene that sterilizes seeds, ensuring that farmers have to buy new seed each season] could spread sterility in other plants and threaten the food supply. I have to ask, by what mechanism do they imagine that sterility reproduces itself? [Laughs.]
In any case Europe fell for the argument, and so we have anti-genetic-engineering activists preventing research, burning fields, threatening researchers, and shutting down labs. Ingo Potrykus, who developed golden rice in Switzerland, had to request a grenade-proof greenhouse from the government. Here was a man who was trying to save millions of lives and prevent blindness in millions of kids, and he was being threatened by environmentalists. I think that’s disgraceful.
Opponents of genetic engineering are operating under this delusion that something “unnatural” is going on with engineered crops. But the benefits to the environment and nutrition and the poor are so huge that you’ve got to prove some significant harm to turn me against GE foods. It’s not enough to say that something bad might happen. And if, as time goes by, nothing bad happens, you’re supposed to stop fighting it. We’ve been eating GE food for almost fifteen years in the U.S. with no harm to our health. Is it doing great harm to the environment? No more than regular agriculture is doing, and significantly less in a couple of cases. For one, Bt cotton requires half as much pesticide, which is huge. And soybeans are now engineered to be herbicide tolerant, which means they can be grown without plowing to prevent weeds. It’s the environmentalists’ dream of “no-till agriculture.” The soil gets ever richer, and the greenhouse gases from the plow are not emitted.
We’ve been working on corn and wheat for so long in the global North that it’s hard to get higher yields at this point, but in tropical agriculture there’s plenty of room for improvement. Genetically engineered cassava produces eight different kinds of improvement. The GE version not only increases the zinc and iron; it also removes the cyanide. That’s a tremendous benefit.
Cooper: But aren’t there legitimate concerns that GE crops could contaminate other seed stock and make them susceptible to new strains of diseases?
Brand: Contamination is a funny word. A lot of people are afraid Bt corn will somehow kill off native corn in Mexico, where farmers have used selective breeding for centuries to produce hundreds of different varieties. Many of those varieties are gradually disappearing, not because of contamination but because everyone is giving up farming and moving to the cities. If the son doesn’t carry on the father’s tradition, all the farmer can do is send the seed to the great repository in Mexico City and hope that somebody else will grow it someday.
In his book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, Noel Kingsbury writes about how eight or nine years ago the biotech company Monsanto came to India with Bt cotton, which repels the caterpillar. Antiglobalization activists said the seeds were “poison.” Monsanto planted a test field of the cotton anyway, and the plants kept disappearing. It wasn’t vandalism or activism; it was theft. Local farmers saw this caterpillar-proof cotton and nabbed some to breed with their own cotton. Soon there were thirty new varieties of caterpillar-proof cotton in that part of India. [Laughs.] These farmers are finally getting a boost after suffering huge losses every year. In just a couple of seasons India went from being a cotton importer to a cotton exporter. Kingsbury wishes Monsanto luck trying to control its “improved” crops.
Cooper: What about the fact that a GE seed is “intellectual property”?
Brand: That’s the issue I’m most concerned about. Seven or so major biotech agricultural companies, including Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, have locked up a lot of seeds by patenting them. They were able to do this partly because environmentalists pressured for stronger regulations on research, and many smaller companies were put out of business because they couldn’t jump through the regulatory hoops to get a new engineered food crop to market. So power is concentrated within these few companies, who have tried to suppress competition by suppressing research. Monsanto is not going to get into the sorghum or cassava business, but it wants to prevent other companies from doing just that. Environmentalists are saying Monsanto’s bad because it makes GE food crops. I’m saying it’s bad because it’s slowing the development of GE food.
Academics and charitable foundations, especially the Gates, Rockefeller, and McKnight foundations, are trying to find some work-around on this intellectual-property issue. Some regulatory changes have finally gone through. Corporations are still standing in the way of new genetic-engineering research, but companies like Monsanto have been shamed into being more helpful.
Again, new data has emerged. The facts have changed. Do the minds change along with the facts? That’s what we’re hoping for here.
Cooper: It seems you view large corporations as a necessary evil for the kinds of projects you envision, but how do we prevent the profit motive from spoiling our attempts to save the planet?
Brand: I think business-management expert Peter Drucker had a sensible line about profit. He said, “Profit is the cost of staying in business.” I’ve worked with businesses through the Global Business Network for decades now, and my main activity has been to help companies stay in business by staying profitable. Any company that’s got more expenses than income is going to disappear.
So I don’t buy the idea of profit being evil. The same goes for large corporations. Size isn’t everything. There are lots of mean, harmful little companies that are not public and have no real accountability to anyone. They’re dumping poisons in the ground, and nobody tries to stop them because they’re just little companies.
Cooper: What do Native Americans think of food engineering and plunging nuclear waste into salt flats?
Brand: Which has done more harm, both to the Native Americans and to the atmosphere: coal power or nuclear power? There’s been more coal dug out of Navajo country than there has been uranium by far. The coal mining goes on with Peabody’s Kayenta mine in Arizona to this day. As usual, within the Navajo tribe there are people who are adamantly for the coal mine, saying it brings good jobs, and those who are adamantly against it, saying it’s not the green thing to do. There’s nothing whatsoever I could say that is true of Native Americans as a whole. [Laughs.] I do know there have been complaints on Navajo reservations about the murky pollution coming out of the coal-fired power plants. The sky matters a lot to the Navajos. So smoke in your blue sky versus radioactive waste a half mile down in a salt formation — I’d guess most of them would probably prefer to have their sky back.
Cooper: You advocate both genetic engineering and organic farming. I find that counterintuitive.
Brand: There’s a book called Tomorrow’s Table, coauthored by Raoul Adamchak, who teaches organic farming at the University of California at Davis, and his wife, Pamela Ronald, a genetic engineer at UC Davis who specializes in making disease- and flood-resistant GE rice for the developing world. They see the combination as quite intuitive. Both organic farming and genetic engineering are great for reducing the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, all of which can have harmful effects on the landscape. Right now organic farmers are prevented from growing GE food crops in the U.S., and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has likewise refused even to consider any genetically engineered tree plantations. GE tree plantations are, I think, potentially one of the greenest things we can do, because for every plantation tree that’s used for pulp or lumber, there’s a wild tree not being cut down. I’d like to see environmentalists and organic farmers and the FSC all support GE technology.
Cooper: Physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson predicts that the “domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years.” What can we look forward to in that area?
Brand: Biotech is one of those technologies that are self-accelerating, like computer technology: each new improvement makes the next improvement come faster. With biotech it’s because every new development becomes a tool for doing cheaper and smarter research. Today high-school and college kids are creating microbes to perform fun tasks. A lot of the research is frivolous. A company in Japan called Suntory Limited has just developed a blue rose, formerly an impossible color. But there’s also more serious research dealing with biofuels, food, and buildings. Will we grow buildings? That’s been my hope for thirty years, including making parts of them edible. We’re sitting in a room that has old-fashioned, energy-intensive air conditioning. It could be that someday all walls will be made of engineered living tissue that takes up carbon dioxide and replaces it with nice, clean oxygen while keeping the temperature of the room comfortable for humans and allowing all the microbes in the room to do their jobs.
Cooper: You seem pretty optimistic.
Brand: I’m probably wrongly optimistic because I see so many new beneficial tools and skills, and I imagine, as optimists always do, that these tools can be deployed quickly. There are time lags everywhere. Most of the developed world is run by lawyers, who make a living on disagreement. [Laughs.] The result is you have to go through trial and retrial and so on. I’m not including that in my time frame. Maybe I should step back and say to myself: You idiot! Be pessimistic. But I don’t like living that way.