Floating upstream

I've been re-reading Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, the latest book by Stewart Brand, a former colleague from GBN days. Back in January I caught one of his promotional presentations at the ICA in London. He is an inveterate showman and iconoclast, resplendent that day in black and turquoise to match the cover of the American edition, and an absolute master of arresting aphorism. He once told me that in the part of the US mid-west where he grew up, people used to say of the Brands that if you threw one in the river, they would float upstream.

True to form, while insisting he is an unwavering environmentalist, he is now provocatively arguing that nuclear power, transgenic organisms and cities are all desirable for genuinely pragmatic environmentalists. He prefaced his talk by saying that his book was largely journalistic, and that its conclusions were almost incidental—the stories were the main thing. Readers should feel free to draw different conclusions.

Well, it will be interesting to see how right he is over the years ahead. Listening to him, I almost agreed, but not quite. My hunch is that while biotechnology is certainly not going away, there are still major hurdles to overcome and in retrospect today’s transgenic efforts will look like crude early-stage technology. On nuclear, I agree we are facing an energy crunch with no clear solution, and the future of energy may well be something nuclear-ish, if your definition is elastic enough, but it will probably not be mainly nuclear reactors as we know them today. As for cities, they are certainly filling up fast and he may be right that we are all better off in them, but only if their prodigious footprint can be significantly diminished.

Much of his argument hinges on a pretty dismal view that the planet is going to hell in a huge anthropogenic handbasket and, although I agree up to a point, I am uneasy about some of his specific assumptions on this front. So maybe we should not allow fear to push us too quickly towards all his chosen solutions – I suspect the behaviours and technologies that ultimately succeed on the upside are likely to take a little while longer to emerge and be much more obviously acceptable than their distant forebears that he promotes today.