For Earth Day, let’s celebrate Stewart Brand, the distinguished writer, lecturer and author of the classic Whole Earth Catalog, which won the national book award in 1972.

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He also has a new book called “Whole Earth Discipline” where he argues that the established Green agenda is outdated, too negative, too tradition bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided to address the scale of environmental problems that we face today.

You might want to check out John Tierney’s column.

“[Stewart Brand] was the one, after all, who helped inspire Earth Day by putting the first picture of the planet on the cover of his “Whole Earth Catalog” in 1968.”

One of the pleasures of reading “Whole Earth Discipline”, is that when it comes to managing the Earth’s ecosystem, he is unconstrained by conventional wisdom.

Tierney distills seven rules from the book. One of these rules is sure to provoke controversy:

“Rule #3. “Let them eat organic” is not a global option. For affluent humans in industrialized countries, organic food is pretty much a harmless luxury. Although there’s no convincing evidence that the food is any healthier or more nutritious than other food, if that label makes you feel healthier and more virtuous, then you can justify the extra cost.

But most people in the world are not affluent, and their food budgets are limited. If they’re convinced by green marketers that they need to choose higher-priced organic produce, they and their children are liable to end up eating fewer fruits and vegetables — and sometimes nothing at all, as occurred when Zambia rejected emergency food for starving citizens because the grain had been genetically engineered.”

This is a bit harsh. After all, if it weren’t for Rachel Carson and organic farmers, how much would the world know or care about the environmental harm caused by some pesticides? Organic farmers go to great lengths to reduce pesticide use and this is a good thing for the environment. It is true though that there is no scientific evidence that organic produce has any nutritional benefits over conventionally grown food. And it is expensive.

And what about Tierney’s Rule #4?

“Frankenfood, like Frankenstein, is fiction. The imagined horrors of “frankenfoods” have kept genetically engineered foods out of Europe and poor countries whose farmers want to export food to Europe. Americans, meanwhile, have been fearlessly growing and eating them for more than a decade — and the scare stories seem more unreal than ever.

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences reported that genetically engineered foods had helped consumers, farmers and the environment by lowering costs, reducing the use of pesticide and herbicide, and encouraging tillage techniques that reduce soil erosion and water pollution.”

This is what Brand himself has to say about genetically engineered crops:

“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.”

For other reviews of Brand’s new book, please click here and here.

Comments

  1. #1 weathercast forecaster
    March 26, 2011

    Um… maybe not so thoughtful after all:

    3. “Let them eat organic” is not a global option [because it costs more]. — Why does food grown with less inputs than heavily chemicalized food cost *more*? Isn’t that the real issue here?

    “Total reliance on organic farming would force African countries to devote twice as much land per crop as we do in the United States [Specter].” Hm… I looked into this recently, and there seems to be evidence that intensive, low input farming is equally or more efficient than high input farming. As long as efficiency is computed by so much food per worker or per acreage, then high input wins. If it is computed as output per acre minus inputs and externalities, low input wins. As common sense would affirm.

    4. Frankenfood, like Frankenstein, is fiction. — Well, it may be fiction, but crap-food isn’t. Why is it that so much of the research of the second half of the 20th century and on has given us crap-foods? This began way before genetic modification and continues unabated. More Red Delicious apples, anyone? Ugh.

  2. #2 Pdiff
    April 25, 2010

    I read his latest book and was delighted. I had the feeling that at least one person has not been drinking the “Green Machine’s” Koolaid. I think he is being quite honest in admitting he has been wrong on some things and very ballsy to openly question the green dogma.

    Please give more specifics, “Which Way”. Exactly what “bit of reality” did Mr. Brand take and how did he make “it fit the whole truth”? His arguments are laid out quite well, so I would be curious to hear the counter argument(s).

  3. #3 Which way the wind blow
    April 24, 2010

    I read his latest book and was deeply disappointed. I had a feeling he was not being honest. He took a bit of reality and made it fit the whole truth (sorry to use those words).
    Sorry, Mr Brand, I agree with Jeremy Rifkin (his title “Entropy : a new world view” is still valid today),and your imagined world will not stand on its own two feet.

  4. #4 Hinemoana
    April 23, 2010

    @vera

    I thought exactly the same thing when I saw your name :-)

  5. #5 vera
    April 23, 2010

    Hey, Ewan and Hinemoana showed up! That takes me back… :-)

  6. #6 Hinemoana
    April 23, 2010

    @ Ewan R #9

    Too right :-)

  7. #7 Hinemoana
    April 23, 2010

    @Pierce R. Butler #2

    And on a side note, ‘free-range’ does not equate to ‘organic’. Which I guess is kind of the point; that you can have plants (or animals, one day) grown in the most environmentally responsible way WITH with the benefits of modern technology like genetic engineering.

  8. #8 red pepper
    April 23, 2010

    Note also that modern tomatoes are products of “green revolution” agritech, requiring high levels of fertilizers, pesticides, and water at a time when we should be trying to do more with less of each of these.

  9. #9 Ewan R
    April 22, 2010

    I second Vera’s “no, we are not as gods” – we exist, and what we do makes a difference.

    /snarf

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    April 22, 2010

    pam @ # 4: A heritage tomato can be grown in any farming system.

    Grown, possibly. Grown and sold profitably, no.

    Supermarket tomatoes are like that because they’ve been bred to be harvested mechanically and trucked long distances, so toughness matters much more than flavor, nutrition, pest resistance or anything else. Note also that modern tomatoes are products of “green revolution” agritech, requiring high levels of fertilizers, pesticides, and water at a time when we should be trying to do more with less of each of these.

    Only locally-based food marketing systems can function sustainably using pre-industrial tomato varieties, however grown.

    As for eggs grown by pharmaceutical companies, do you mean eggs used to produce vaccines such as H1N1?

    No, I mean animal products of all sorts produced with gigantic quantities of antibiotics. What you find in Walgreen’s sold by the milligram is purchased by Tyson Foods et alia by the railroad tankcar-full – literally. It’s expensive, but it accelerates growth enough to be profitable – stresses to the animal and consequences to the rest of us be damned. The individual health impact of consuming such meat (eggs, milk, etc) may be ambiguous, but the public health outcome of increased antibiotic resistance in microbes is obvious to anyone with an elementary grasp of ecology/evolution.

    Kudos to Stewart Brand @ # 7 for clarifying his perspective! (He was, incidentally, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog series, not its author.)

  11. #11 Stewart Brand
    April 22, 2010

    John Tierney represented his views, not mine, on organic farming and gardening in his fine column. In my book (and life), I support the Tomorrow’s Table view of organic: it’s environmentally good, and will be even better with the addition of transgenic crops.

  12. #12 vera
    April 22, 2010

    Um… maybe not so thoughtful after all:

    3. “Let them eat organic” is not a global option [because it costs more]. — Why does food grown with less inputs than heavily chemicalized food cost *more*? Isn’t that the real issue here?

    “Total reliance on organic farming would force African countries to devote twice as much land per crop as we do in the United States [Specter].” Hm… I looked into this recently, and there seems to be evidence that intensive, low input farming is equally or more efficient than high input farming. As long as efficiency is computed by so much food per worker or per acreage, then high input wins. If it is computed as output per acre minus inputs and externalities, low input wins. As common sense would affirm.

    4. Frankenfood, like Frankenstein, is fiction. — Well, it may be fiction, but crap-food isn’t. Why is it that so much of the research of the second half of the 20th century and on has given us crap-foods? This began way before genetic modification and continues unabated. More Red Delicious apples, anyone? Ugh.

  13. #13 pam
    April 22, 2010

    Vera, well of course you right- on Earth day we should celebrate the Earth. But I for one am also going to celebrate the life of one particularly thoughtful human being now living here.

  14. #14 pam
    April 22, 2010

    Pierce, I completely agree that all food is not the same.

    I think the point Tierney is making is limited to the nutritional aspects of organically grown vs conventionally grown food. As indicated in the citation above, there are no measurable differences in the nutritional content of the two.

    A heritage tomato can be grown in any farming system.

    As for eggs grown by pharmaceutical companies, do you mean eggs used to produce vaccines such as H1N1? As far as I know, those cannot be eaten. At least I sure wouldnt eat it. I prefer to eat the eggs produced from our hens.

  15. #15 vera
    April 22, 2010

    Um… for Earth Day… let’s celebrate the Earth.

    And second um… no, we are not as gods. That’s called human hubris, and it has not been good for the Earth at all.

  16. #16 Pierce R. Butler
    April 22, 2010

    … organic food is pretty much a harmless luxury. Although there’s no convincing evidence that the food is any healthier or more nutritious than other food…

    Apparently Brand has yet to compare a homegrown heritage tomato with the pink tennis balls sold in major supermarkets, or a free-range hen’s egg with one from a battery chicken fed by beancounters and pharmaceutical corps. Claiming that “organic” food is always superior is questionable; saying all food is the same is ridiculous.

    I keep a little list of former progressives who’ve switched to the dark big money side, such as Wm. J. Bryan, Joseph Goebbels, David Horowitz, & quite a few more. It would be very disappointing to have to add Stewart Brand to that roster.

  17. #17 Michelle B
    April 22, 2010

    Mabus, please seek professional help (instead of bombarding hard working, intellectually honest folks on the net with your muddled, bizarre views).

    Great article, Pam. Brand is right in admitting how wrong he was. He is flexible enough to admit his errors and renounce the unthinking dogma that often is part and parcel of environmental groups.