Joanne's Reviews > Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary

Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand
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's review
Feb 28, 2011

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bookshelves: social-commentary, non-fiction
Read from February 28 to May 03, 2011

This book was both fascinating and frustrating. He had me up to about mid-way through chapter four (New Nukes p.77-79) when he argues against long-term planning for the clean up and storage of nuclear waste. He describes such choices as paternalistic. I would suggest it is responsible. Instead he's in favour of leaving decisions about what to do with used plutonium and radioactive elements to our great-great grandchildren.

Although I'm in favour of continued research on nuclear energy (I still think it's the cleanest option but we have a lot of work ahead of us yet to find better and cleaner ways of extracting energy as well as storing spent fuel) it was ironic to be reading this rah-rah chapter during Japan's Fukushima reactor's partial meltdown (March 2011).

His chapter on Green Genes was extremely one-sided and anyone who has kind words for Monsanto and is in favour of DDT has me scratching my head (p.219). He argues that because DDT doesn't cause cancer and reduces deaths from malaria it should not have been banned but he fails to mention how it moves up the food chain in increasing toxicity and persists in the soil for up to 15 years and marine environments up to 150 years. As it's destroying the DNA and nervous systems of creatures in those environments it's also compounding the toxicity level in the foods people eat. His chapter on Gene Dreams was slightly less biased and had some interesting possibilities for useful genetic intervention and policy work around those issues.

His Cartesian worldview becomes most unpalatable in chapter seven when he eschews all things non-scientific. In this chapter Brand expostulates on the shortsightedness of putting your faith in anything other than scientific rationalism and empirical data. He claims that "science proposes, society disposes". He seems oblivious to the reality that science is a social project. Furthermore, he fails to recognize human needs that have been met through social projects (think hospitals, schools, universities, prisons, legal systems, governments, etc., etc.). So much for balance.

I found it ironic that his arguments to “depoliticize science” were so politically charged and polarizing. Brand's policies follow his politics which are clearly aligned with a pro-corporation, utilitarian ethic. His mantra is one of domination and control over a very frightening world.
Elsewhere he fails to be altogether truthful on a number of points that are clearly of little interest to him. For example, he states that "On a global basis, plastic bags aren't an issue." Any scientist worth his or her salt knows that every polymer created since the 1950s (when plastics were invented) still persist in our environment: in the soil, in the water, in our tissue. They don't break down, they don't go away. Instead we bury them, they fill the oceans and waterways and they end up in our bodies. Plastics are a global issue - but perhaps less so if you're only interested in a utilitarian approach to problem-solving. Another example: he argues that dams are an easy and effective solution for moderating flood-prone rivers while simultaneously harvesting greenhouse-free electricity. Sounds very simple and straightforward until you consider the ecological toll on downstream flora and fauna, silting of rivers, compounding of toxins and fertilizers in the catch basin, and impact on people and animals upstream whose territory is typically stolen by dam builders with no accountability to those living there. Oh, and there’s the cost in billions of dollars – nice for the world bank and those desiring to have more control over developing country economies, not so helpful for access to water, and improvement of issues tied to poverty and preservation of unique eco-systems.

In chapter eight he makes an abrupt left turn into the land of metaphor and myth. The writing does not at all align with his earlier arguments in favour of governance and rationalism. Instead he talks about indigenous peoples and their pre-scientific (!) approach to land management and even speaks in favour of such practices. Nonetheless, it’s not long until he’s back to his corporate stance for “commercializing the wild”. Of course, he’s right about that – people won’t want to save what they cannot enjoy; but he does seem to take a somewhat schizophrenic approach to identifying which ideas are best: leave it be (as in the case of the DMZ between North and South Korea and in Belarus’ Puszcza Bialowieska), or manage the hell out of it including reintroducing extinct mega fauna by DNA extraction and cloning.

By chapter nine Brand goes into outer space making recommendations not only to manage the earth’s atmosphere but also to tidy up local asteroid belts and dispatch incoming projectiles that could exterminate us all. At this point in the book I was reminded of his opening quote – which I thought a little odd at first reading: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” Indeed, Brand thinks like a god. He seems to believe that we have it in our mortal power (I’m assuming that he, like the rest of us, is indeed mortal) to make corrections and adjustments to a complex, integrated, evolving, life-system that existed before us and persists despite us. There is little room in his vaunted outlook for recognition of the incredible messes we have already made with our scientific meddling. There is no humble acknowledgement that the problems we face are caused by the very approach, and of course the “gods” within that system, that he espouses to correct it!

Much as I enjoyed the historical overview and the many useful resources he provides, I found this book left much wanting. Brand may be an old timer among Greens but his thinking and solutions bear close scrutiny for the underlying allegiances to the corporate values that have exploited nature for centuries. If you’re interested in learning about the green movement, thinking outside the box about scientific possibilities, and want to stretch your brain a little, this is a good read but do read it critically and take Brand’s remarks with a grain of salt. The best contribution this book makes is it’s manifold references to other resources.

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