“Ecopragmatism”—Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline

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Watching efforts to forestall disaster at Japans’ Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant brought my attention back to Stewart Brand’s recent book Whole Earth Discipline and his call for a new “Ecopragmatism.” I thought of the book first because of the compelling case Brand presents for reconsidering nuclear power and how events in Japan today are making us question even the most persuasive of arguments.

But I thought of the book even more because, while events in Japan might seem of undermine Brand’s argument, I think in the end they do the opposite—underscore the need for the Ecopragmatism he describes. Certainly they make inescapable that no existent energy source can safely and sustainably meet future planetary needs—coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar. In the process they present a picture that confronts the ideological beliefs of environmentalists as inescapably as those who might deny real limits. While solar, wind, and geothermal may be carbon neutral and safe, they are not going to meet more than 5% of needs anytime soon. And while a “small is beautiful” ethic that says just use less power has its place, environmental types tend to forget that collapsing economies—the inevitable result of radically reduced energy options—would produce some of the most catastrophic of environmental and social consequences. If environmentalists are to sit effectively at the table in the critical energy conversations before us—and they must if those conversations are to produce worthwhile results—they need to bring a systemic sophistication to their thinking yet rare in environmental circles.

Brand’s book has pissed off a lot of environmentalists. Brand being one of the environmental movement’s founders (author of the original Whole Earth Catalogue) our ears should pick up on noting such response. You may not agree with all his conclusions (I don’t). But he tosses a challenge to his environmentalist compatriots that will result not just in more effective advocacy, but also in the advocating of more ultimately helpful policies.

As a Pacific Northwest outdoorsman, I comfortably consider myself an environmentalist. But I’ve also written about the traps environmental thinking all too readily falls into. Too often it is ideological in the polar sense, based on identification with nature and a demonizing of human effect. The common result is a narrow self-righteousness that misses the larger systemic picture, in the process turning people off and producing naively simplistic ideas about what needs to be done.

Brand is explicit about the need to move beyond such limited perspective and frames his challenge in culturally mature terms. In his words, “The shift is deeper than moving from one ideology to another; the shift is to discard ideology altogether.” He eloquently captures each extreme’s misplaced purity of belief. “ Conservatives think that the self-organizing properties of a market economy are a miracle that must not be messed with. Greens think that the self organizing properties of ecologies that are miracles that must not be messed with.”

In part Brand is driven to his Ecopragmatism through the evolution of his own worldview, in part by practical circumstances. Whole Earth Discipline’s focus is climate change and Brand doesn’t mince words about what he sees as the risks we face. He also doesn’t mince words about what he thinks addressing climate change will require. From the book’s preface: “Of the tools that come to hand, this book will examine four that environmentalists have distrusted and now need to embrace, plus one we love that has to be scaled back. The unwelcome four are urbanization, nuclear power, biotechnology, and geoengineering. The familiar one is natural system restoration…restoring Gaia’s health at every scale from local soil to the whole atmosphere.”

Of the unwelcome four, it is nuclear power that is most likely to raise the ire of traditional environmentalists. He may be right. He may not be. For the task of appreciating and engendering culturally mature perspective as important is how you in reading his suggestion find yourself responding. Do you immediately dismiss the idea, and Brand with it. Or do you go, “hmm, that is provocative. It is at least worth careful reflection.” The Fukushima Daiichi situation for some might offer ready escape from needing to deal with such concerns. The culturally mature environmentalist sees it as a call to confront head on just how profoundly complex and challenging the energy question is and will continue to be well into the future.

[In the language of Creative Systems Theory, the environmentalist’s polar identification with nature is a Unity Fallacy.]