Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline

Drawing on one aspect of Stewart Brand’s new Whole Earth Discipline, this is a rather dense (mercifully short) note about the weakness of most discussion about the merits of action on climate change.

I admire Stewart Brand’s remarkable book not least for the frank exuberance of Brand’s realisation that being really green is quite different from being a normal green. Its seriousness and freshness reminds me of Mike Hulme’s recent work. It usefully expands on James Lovelock’s rewriting of green verities.  And, like Hulme and Lovelock, I think the rather robust Stewart seems to miss the real significance of some of his own messages.

This matters because almost all commentators are missing the moral and political importance of anticipating the likely failure of mankind’s much reducing greenhouse gases. Mr Brand (like Hulme and Lovelock) seems to believe that mankind won’t head-off climate change. Brand’s great value is in proposing that we will, instead, have to engineer a more benign climate. But he is light on some essential detail.

Stewart (I’ve enjoyed an hour or so with him in person, so claim acquaintance) argues that climate change will probably be very important and bad. He admits his own track record on predictions is not perfect, however, and notes lightly that no-one can be sure this will be one of his better ones. He can take comfort, and does – rightly – that people of the calibre of James Lovelock (they are mutually admiring) agree with him. So far, so routine.

He then points out how daunting it would be to try to switch quickly out of fossil fuels. Like Lovelock, he bigs-up nuclear power, as would Lovelock. He also favours genetic modification of crops as an energy-saver and much else. (I can’t remember if Lovelock’s a fan of GM, but I know I am.) It happens I am a mild fan of nuclear, but reckon there are lots of issues which might yet scupper its being a big player. Anyway, Mr Brand shapes up as a useful neo-Green. I am happy to say that there’s nothing he says which will shock a reader of my own Life On a Modern Planet  (Manchester University Press, 1995.)

Stewart then goes on to argue that we may well end up doing geo-engineering, whose potential power he admires. I think he’s saying that we won’t do meaningful alternatives to fossil fuels so we’re going to need to fix the system with cloud-making (or whatever). But there’s a gap. I think he needs to tell us whether he thinks that we needn’t bother with big investments in renewables. In particular, do we have to do his favoured nuclear? Or does he think we need huge amounts of both carbon reduction and climate control? How much does he like climate control as a bet? Is climate control engineering only a poorish Plan B to replace a good Plan A of climate control by greenhouse gas reduction? Is emissions reduction a policy whose failure we have – literally – to anticipate? Or is climate control only a halfway decent way to fill the gap left by half-hearted  carbon reduction?  Or is it a racing certainty that it will work so well we don’t have to worry about our present behaviour? (I do hope it is.)

Stewart is not making the Hulmean Move (that, firstly, we can’t achieve much climate benefit by anything we can or are willing to do and that, secondly, climate is far more like to improve man than man is likely to improve the climate). But Brand is Hulmean in this sense: he is of the AGW alarmist school and doesn’t propose carbon reduction as a runner.

Brand may be making a fresh version of the Lovelockian Fallacy. The venerable James has written that it will be very hard – actually, going on impossible – to avoid climate catastrophe. But Lovelock nonetheless argues for lots of nuclear and other investments and action, though (I am at pains to point out, since he isn’t) by his own argument the horse has already bolted. On Lovelock’s own analysis, we will be building nuclear power stations to power a civilisation which will have retreated to the caves.  Brand is less obviously contradictory than Lovelock, but would be more valuable if he was clearer on whether he thinks we can save ourselves the effort of trying to avoid causing a climate catastrophe and instead merely aim to fix the one we will have created.

For what it’s worth, you’ll see that I have written on Hulme and Lovelock at some length here and in the Social Affairs website.

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Publication date

12 February 2010


On books