Why Stewart Brand's New Book is a Must-Read

Why Stewart Brand's New Book is a Must-Read

Many books shaped my thinking about business, economics and the environment during 2009. Last year was the year that I discovered Nassim Nicholas Taleb and The Black Swan, to my great delight, as well as the year that I began to explore behavioral economics by reading Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. I enjoyed my friend Russell Roberts’ libertarian romance (yep) The Invisible Heart, and I learned a lot from The Myth of the Rational Market, a timely and readable history of the economics of markets by my ex-Fortune colleague Justin Fox.  The Good Soldiers by David Finkel is a searing up-close look at the surge in Iraq that should be read by any American citizen who wants to better understand the human costs of the wars being waged by our government.

But the book that I most want to recommend to readers of this blog is Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand. It’s brilliant, controversial, unconventional and lively. Nothing I read in 2009 changed my thinking more.

I’m not alone in my admiration for Stewart’s book. Paul Hawken calls it “likely one of the most original and important books of the century.…” Edward O. Wilson says it is “ominous and exhilirating.” Larry Brilliant says it is “an absolutely seminal work, extraordinarily well written, a tour de force of so many interconnected worlds and lives and studies.” Nice blurbs, no?

The praise is all the more remarkable because Whole Earth Discipline argues that we need nuclear power to combat global warming, that we need biotechnology to feed the world and that we need to take  geo-engineering seriously — ideas that are anathema to much, though not all, of the environmental movement that Stewart helped create roughly 40 years ago.

For those of you (younger readers) who aren’t familiar with his work, Stewart, who is a vigorous 72-year-old, is best known as the editor of Whole Earth Catalog, an influential compendium of all things countercultural, published in the late 1960s and 1970s, with a photo of the earth seen from space on its cover. After an LSD-induced experience that got him thinking about the curve of the earth, Stewart campaigned to have NASA release the picture. Later, he wrote:

It is no accident of history that the first Earth Day, in April 1970, came so soon after color photographs of the whole earth from space were made by homesick astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission to the moon in December 1968. Those riveting Earth photos reframed everything. For the first time humanity saw itself from outside… Humanity’s habitat looked tiny, fragile and rare. Suddenly humans had a planet to tend to.

Since then, Stewart has been a writer, a speaker, an organizer, a pioneer of online communities as a founder of the WELL (the “Whole Eart ‘Lectronic Link,” where I first discovered the power of the Internet), a consultant to companies and the owner of a tugboat in San Francisco where he lives with his wife, Ryan Phelan. He writes:

Because I’m an ecologist by training, a futurist by profession and a hacker (lazy engineer) at heart, my bent is scientific rigor, geoeconomic perspective, and an engineer’s bias, which sees everything in terms of solving design problems.

Fun fact about Stewart: He owns the table where Otis Redding reportedly wrote “Dock of the Bay.”

I’m not going to try to summarize Stewart’s arguments about nukes, GMOs or geo-engineering here, but let me try to give you a flavor of his thinking and writing.

On nukes, he says, given the urgency of the climate crisis,  it’s a little nutty to worry about how to dispose of radioactive waste hundreds or even thousands of years from now since we can’t predict technological progress between now and then (although we can sure there will be lots of it). And, as he notes:

Nuclear waste is minuscule in size—on Coke can’s worth per person-lifetime of electricity if it was all nuclear…Coal waste is massive—68 tons of solid stuff and 77 tons of carbon dioxide per person-lifetime of strictly coal electricity.

France, which built a fleet of 56 reactors in about 20 years because of an efficient licensing process, now has

the cleanest air in Europe, the lowest electrical bills and a $4 billion export business selling energy to all its neighbors, including Green Germany and nuclear Britain (2 gigawatts a year flows west under the English Channel). France shut down its last coal-fired plant in 20094. It emits 70 percent less carbon dioxide per capita than the United States.

I didn’t know that. Did you?

On biotech food, Stewart is characteristically blunt:

I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.

He has a great rant about “natural food” (see page 133) as well as a fascinating account of the debate over genetic engineering inside the environmental movement in the 1970s which, among other things, led the scientists Lewis Thomas and Paul Ehrlich to part ways with Friends of the Earth. Since the mid-1990s, as Stewart notes, we (meaning earthlings) have conducted “the most massive dietary experiment in history” with most everyone in North America eating biotech foods and most everyone in Europe doing without them. The results are in, and no difference can be detected between the test and the control group. He goes on to write about what he calls a “GE-inclusive organic agriculture” as well as the potential of foods engineered to produce health benefits.

There’s much more to recommend in Whole Earth Discipline. It turns out that Stewart is a fan of urbanization, having abandoned what he calls his “Gandhiesque romanticism about villages.” Slums in the global south, he says, are hotbeds of innovation and cooperation, they cure overpopulation and they are better for people and the planet than the subsistence farms seen by many as “soulful and organic.”

I’ll save Stewart’s ideas about geo-engineering for another blogpost. Meanwhile, read this book. And, if you can, join us at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment, where I’m delighted that Stewart Brand will be one of the featured speakers.

Green Biz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com.