Two views of our planet's future

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David Orr explains how two environmentalists' manifestos bracket the debate on climate change — one favouring technological solutions, the other local interventions.

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

by Stewart BrandViking/Atlantic: 2009/2010. 336 pp. / 325 pp. $25.95/£19.99 ISBN: 978-0670021215

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Environmentalists Stewart Brand and Bill McKibben mostly agree that the vital signs of our planet are worrying, but differ markedly in what they think should be done about it. Both accept that Earth has warmed by 0.8 °C since 1880, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, species are being driven into extinction and a larger global population and growing economies are destabilizing Earth systems and the biotic world. Brand favours technological fixes to stabilize the climate and maintain economic growth; McKibben proposes a more decentralized and resilient course. Taken together, their accounts raise questions about our collective failure to respond adequately to the global emergency and why it has been so difficult for those who presume to lead to do so.


Stewart Brand, founder of the Co-Evolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Catalog and a self-described 'ecopragmatist', recognizes the dangers implicit in the trends. If we do too little, he warns, we will “face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to a war of all against all”. He concludes that the planet is quickly and unavoidably urbanizing, that nuclear power is both inevitable and beneficial, that genetic engineering will be essential to providing agricultural systems productive enough to feed the burgeoning world population, and that geoengineering the atmosphere will be necessary to cool Earth. His message is: “Cities are green. Nuclear energy is green. Genetic engineering is green.”

Once thought of as an environmentalist far to the left of the mainstream, Brand has had a road-to-Damascus conversion. Having come in from the cold, he now dismisses many of his former green colleagues as ranters with inexplicable “deep aversions” to sensible things. He dismisses in particular those who believe that nuclear power is an expensive way to boil water and that it cannot compete in a fair market with the more agile, faster and cheaper opportunities of improved energy efficiency, solar and wind power. Brand thinks that “nuclear power will grow no matter what we do” and opposition will only make it grow “badly — slowly, expensively, unsystemically”.

Brand argues similarly that the environmental movement's opposition to genetic engineering has contributed to world hunger, hindered science and hurt the natural environment. Yet he is quiet on ongoing research in natural-systems agriculture and organic farming. He dismisses advocates of the 'precautionary principle' as fear-mongering and ignorant of science. Instead, Brand is thrilled by the possibilities of synthetic biology, looking forward to a day in which amateur bio-hackers will increase biodiversity. Buried in the euphoria are a few caveats about the dangers, but they are only whispered.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

by Bill McKibbenTimes Books: 2010. $24 ISBN: 978-0-8050-9056-7

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The environmental movement, Brand argues, should “become fearless about following science”. However, science is not one but many different things that share a common faith in data, logic, evidence and peer review. With equal rigour the scientific method can be directed to agribusiness, nuclear energy and geoengineering, as Brand proposes, or to ecologically grounded agriculture, efficiency and dispersed small-scale technologies. The difference of priorities is rooted in alternative visions about the future and the capabilities of humanity. Brooking little difference of opinion, Brand's agenda is to champion the pursuit of economic growth through heroic technology, control of natural systems and expansion of human agency justified by a planetary emergency. But as physicist Alvin Weinberg proposed, such things will require a priesthood to run them all: a possibility that Brand does not discuss.

The starting point of McKibben's book is similar, if more sharply etched and with higher voltage, but he arrives at opposite conclusions to Brand. His title Eaarth is meant to signify that we have already changed the familiar Earth into a planet that will be hotter, more threadbare and more capricious. The changes to our lives will unavoidably be “ongoing and large”. The only serious question for McKibben is what can be done to adapt to that emerging reality and to curb the worst of what is otherwise likely to occur.

The end of economic growth is the strangest and most terrifying change we face, he writes. Sharing none of Brand's breezy optimism about our ingenuity, McKibben thinks that we are unlikely to grow, build or innovate our way out of the situation, both because of the sheer scale of the human enterprise and because we will be contending with bigger storms, rising seas, declining biodiversity, longer and more severe droughts and the resultant political and economic turmoil. As he puts it: “There's more friction than we're used to. You have to work harder to get where you're going.”

He proposes that we choose to “manage our descent”. We should grow up, face reality, jettison excess consumption and work out how to live decently with a lot less stuff and a lot more neighbourliness and local self-reliance. In place of growth, our national projects will be about “keeping what we've got” and “holding on against the storm”. On a less forgiving 'Eaarth', McKibben writes, we will need local decision-making rather than centralization.

Brand's and McKibben's books bracket the rational debate about the human future in light of the perils of global destabilization. One admits the severity of climate change, but blinks in the face of it; the other is rather more fearless. One sees problems that are solvable; the other sees dilemmas that we cannot avoid but might learn to manage. Differences aside, the issues raised are long familiar. The questions are what can be done to avoid crossing the threshold of irreversible and adverse changes, and how we can bridge the chasm that separates science and the public discourse.

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  1. David Orr is Paul Sears Distinguished Professor at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio 44074, USA. He is author of Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse.

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  1. Report this comment #10362

    Mark Thompson said:

    I read Steward Brand's book, but I have yet to read Bill McKibben's book. I am also impressed, however, with some of David Orr's own published work on these matters. After reading Brand's book I wrote him a letter outlining some of the problems I see with his reasoning. I got a short one sentence response accepting that pesticides in wetlands are a problem, but this was the end of it – seems to be a trend in his way of presenting his argument. Brand does not go into the type of depth that is needed to fully flush out the arguments, he has put the blinders on and suggests that you do so as well. As a fellow ecologist I was surprised by the stance taken by Brand and think he is repeating many of the same mistakes he self identifies from his past. Foremost, his promotion of glyphosate as an environmentally friendly way of growing more crops is highly questionable and shocking to say the least. He makes no mention of the known ecological effects on wetlands and damage that is done to amphibian ecology, for example. There are also reports that pesticide use reduces mutualistic coupling in nitrogen fixing bacteria that reduces crop yield over the long term. Brand's so called ecological credentials seem highly questionable given the details and science that he glances over.

    In his sweeping push or environmental stamp of approval on GMO's he completely neglects the ecological consequences for doing so. I'm not talking about the straw-man arguments that Brand presents, such as 'Frankenfood' or genetic experiments escaping into the real world. I'm talking about the work done on the bench and in the lab. I work in a genetics lab and I can say with certainty that the work we do is not ecological benign. From the sterile plastic tips, hazardous waste to the network of systems that are in place to sustain the laboratory infrastructure, to engineer is human and by way of investment in these activities we are engineering an ecological footprint that far exceeds the biocapacity of the Earth. Brand suggests we need to think like earthworms to ecologically engineer our planet, but he seems to forget about ecosystems all together and thinks more like a technologist than an ecologist.

    Brand completely ignores the conservation psychology of urban dwellings and paints a Utopian view of cities. David Orr hit the nail on the head: "Buried in the euphoria are a few caveats about the dangers, but they are only whispered." More of a whimper than a whisper. Brand fails to mention the oppression via prostitution, slavery and war that runs rampant in human settlements around the globe. Nature experience and ecoliteracy is completely overlooked in Brand's self-delusional technological environmental Utopia which has no basis in social reality. The type of solutions that Brand offers, including global geoengineering, are reckless and narrow in scope. It is surprising that the book comes from the mind of an ecologist. Although the book is well-written, the ideas that Brand proposes are a disaster and lack the type of deep-thinking that is needed in these times. From the sounds of things, McKibben's book sounds like a much better read.

  2. Report this comment #10405

    Mark Thompson said:

    Thought I would follow-up with a few citations that should quickly ground Brand's technological euphoria.

    First, the role of pesticides in agriculture (many of us are already aware of the problem here, but thought I would throw in one citation that runs contrary to the views given by Brand):

    Fox et al. (2007). Pesticides reduce symbiotic efficiency of nitrogen-fixing rhizobia and host plants. PNAS,


    "The environmental consequences of synthetic chemicals compromising symbiotic nitrogen fixation are increased dependence on synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer, reduced soil fertility, and unsustainable long-term crop yields."

    Second, Brand revels in GE herbicide resistant crops and claims that glyphosate is an ecological miracle chemical:

    Relyea, R. A. (2005). The lethal impact of roundup on aquatic and terrestrial amphibians. Ecological Applications,,%202005,%20Ecolo%20Appli.pdf

    Chen et al. (2009). Multiple stress effects of Vision® herbicide, pH, and food on zooplankton and larval amphibian species from forest wetlands. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry,

    The list of published papers reporting on the negative non-target ecological impacts of glyphosate use is huge and goes well beyond amphibians, my area of expertise. How could any ecologist of sound mind ignore these critical links?

    Brand claims that densely concentrated cities are 'green', but fails to consider the psychological impact. For example,

    The second paper titled: 'The Impact of Nature Experience on Willingness to Support Conservation' drives home the message that ecological apartheid cannot nurture an ecologically sustainable culture. There are other papers on the topic of green space, global equity and health care. Brand feels that we need nuclear energy to meet our demands, but at what cost? Most of the power generation is going toward useless and wasteful applications that are infused by a culturally based euphoria over technological wizardry rather than ecological know-how. If we have an unlimited supply of power that does not release greenhouse gases, how will this stem our greed for items that lead to further accumulation of waste, e.g., (see also: As an ecologist, Brand seems to have completely forgotten or ignored the type of 'linking' or 'systems' thinking that is a hallmark of this discipline. There is scant mention of ecosystem services and the little that he does mention about natural capitalism leaves little to the imagination.

    I'm very concerned about Brand's book, because it seems to have the eyes and ears of the US administration and some influential thinkers. For example, the book has been reviewed by E. O. Wilson (one of my great heroes):

    "This is a very scary book by a very bright man, offering a picture of humanity?s future that is both ominous and exhilarating. I believe the world must have, and soon, a series of debates on the many inconvenient challenges facing us, employing a small number of intelligent, provocative texts at the core; and this should be one of them."

    How could things have gone so wrong? My only hope is that Wilson's message was more of a warning that this scary book is a recipe on how not to proceed.

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