Thinking the unthinkable

A new book by Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, challenges green orthodoxy and considers some frightening scenarios, writes John Elkington.

Imagine Karl Marx calling for capitalism, Gandhi advocating war or the Pope embracing atheism. That is the scale of the disbelief that will likely greet a new book by one of my favourite thinkers, Stewart Brand. He is perhaps best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog series, a powerful icon of the Sixties counterculture, recently described by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a forerunner of the World Wide Web. From 1968 on, this was a basic reference for people like me, focusing on back-to-the-land pioneers, appropriate technology, renewable energy, self-sufficiency and sustainability, though we didn’t then use that word.

So it will come as a huge shock to many to find Brand arguing robustly for rapid urbanisation, the urgent application of genetic engineering, the widespread adoption of nuclear power technology and the development of new forms of geoengineering, all of which are seen as almost satanic forces by most environmentalists.

Don’t get me wrong—I like and admire most environmentalists. Indeed, almost 50 years ago, in 1961, I became one, raising money for the World Wildlife Fund in its first year. At the time, environmentalists were seen by many as some sort of weird mutation. Now, in the face of climate change, you risk being seen as a mutant if you are not an environmentalist. But, as Stewart Brand argues in a new book, Whole Earth Discipline, the tipping point where almost everyone becomes an environmentalist is “tough not just for people who have been comfortable thinking of themselves as antienvironmentalist; it’s even tougher for long-term Greens.”

At a time when much of the environmental movement is morphing into a climate-change movement, Brand argues that the greens “are no longer strictly the defenders of natural systems against the incursions of civilization; now they’re the defenders of civilization as well.” And the climate challenge to civilisation is going to force us all to think – and do – the currently unthinkable.

The central problem is that environmentalism, at root, is an ideology, “and ideologies hate to shift.” Worse, we are not simply talking about an ideological shift but a paradigm shift, something that happens very rarely. The scale is planetary, the scope will be measured in centuries – and the stakes are now civilisational.

The key feature of the climate challenge, Brand argues, still escapes many of those who have been negotiating global policy in the build-up to the Copenhagen COP15 climate conference. This thing doesn’t go in straight lines, it is discontinuous. For example, some years back the Global Business Network (GBN), which Brand also co-founded, predicted that the melting of Arctic ice would lead to massive releases of freshwater into the Atlantic, in turn triggering abrupt climate change – with the result that by 2020 much of Europe would suffer a climate like Siberia’s.

Instead of dealing with predictable climate trajectories, we are dealing with a system that is intrinsically unstable – and is characterised by what scientists call “positive feedback”. So, for example, as the highly reflective Arctic ice melts, it is replaced by dark, energy-absorbing seawater, which accelerates a vicious cycle of warming and of the release of powerful greenhouse gases like methane from the tundra. As the process of climate change accelerates, Brand argues that there is a growing risk that the twenty-first century will see an unparalleled “die-back” in human numbers, measured in billions of deaths.

Given current – and likely future – human population numbers, back-to-the-land policies, renewable energy and the like are not going to save us if the climate starts to go haywire. Instead, Brand insists, we must abandon key parts of our old ideologies and embrace genuinely transformative solutions. Foremost among these, he believes, will be a radical acceleration of urbanisation worldwide, with slum-dwellers seen as the leading edge of this trajectory. Whereas half the world’s human population now lives in cities, the goal should be at least 80% by mid-century. Why? Well, partly because the more concentrated cities are intrinsically more resource-efficient than rural settlement patterns – and because as rural areas are progressively abandoned, nature will move back in, cutting back on greenhouse emissions.

Even more controversial, however, will be Brand’s conclusions on genetic engineering (which he argues can help create crops that use less land, less pesticide and less water), nuclear power (the carbon footprint of which is dramatically lower than that for fossil fuel-powered electricity generation) and geoengineering (ranging from ships that create artificial clouds over the oceans to giant space mirrors, both designed to bounce back incoming solar radiation into space).

What is most striking about Brand’s vision of the future is not so much the nature of the solutions proposed but the long time-scales he envisages governments, business, financial markets and communities being forced to embrace. “We’re facing multidecade, multigeneration problems and solutions,” he concludes. “Accomplishing what is needed will take diligence and patience—a sustained bearing down, over human lifetimes, to bridge the long lag times and lead times in climatic, biological, ands social dynamics, and to work through the long series of iterations necessary for any apparent solution to become practical.”

Brand is worried that environmentalists won’t change fast enough, so that we will see the emergence of what he calls “Post-Greens, Greens-plus, Greens 2.0, Off-Greens—who knows?” Whoever ends up doing what needs to be done, the rules of the game are likely to run along the following lines: “Find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1.0, then (f) iterating rapidly.”

Very much, in fact, as the environmental movement began. With China planning to build three times more nuclear reactors than the rest of the world over the next decade, some may recall what happened last time a major nation went nuclear fast. The United States was shaken by controversies around reactors at Diablo Canyon and Three Mile Island, helping launch modern environmentalism. Will history repeat itself?

John Elkington is co-founder of SustainAbility and of Volans.

The homepage image is a detail from the cover of Whole Earth Catalog (Fall 1969 issue), published by Stewart Brand.