Green 2.0

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One of the pleasures of reading Stewart Brand's new book, "Whole Earth Discipline", is that when it comes to managing the Earth's ecosystem, he is unconstrained by conventional wisdom.

In a break with many old-school environmentalists, Brand argues that the established Green agenda is outdated, too negative, too tradition bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided to address the scale of environmental problems that we face today.

Who better to challenge the rigidity of the long-respected environmental movement than the distinguished writer, lecturer and author of the classic Whole Earth Catalog, which won the national book award in 1972?

"Whole Earth Disciplines" offers a radical rethinking of the traditional "green" movement whose battle against modern technologies often appears to be antithetical to the goals it professes to achieve, seemingly eternally stuck in a bygone era. Especially in his chapters on nuclear energy and genetic engineering, Brand's progressiveness, willingness to grapple with the science and well-thought out vision shines through. "Ecological balance is too important for sentiment. It requires science," says Brand.

Brand believes that the environmental movement is driven by two powerful forces-romanticism and science that are often in opposition. "The romantics are moralistic and dismissive of any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change directions. The scientists are ethical rather than moralistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm". A romantic loves the tree not its genome. A scientist loves both.

The book is extremely well-researched with references and illustrated annotations of the chapters available on-line.

Part memoir, part history of the environment al movement and part manifesto for the future, Whole Earth discipline will delight the reader with its stories and characters. Over the years, Brand seems to have conversed with everyone ever involved in the environmental movement and many of these old friends appear in his book.

The reader will encounter Jim Lovelock, one of the founders of the Gaia's hypothesis that the Earth functions as a kind of superorganism; Amory Lovins, beloved advocate of "soft energy technologies"; David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth"; California governor Jerry Brown, for whom Brand arranged meetings with leading intellectuals; James Watson, a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA; Paul Erhlich, author of 1968 book "The Population Bomb" as well as Brand's undergraduate advisor when he was a student at Stanford; and the Hopi spiritual interpreter Thomas Banyacya, who advised Brand on the best way to collect herbs (do not harvest everything, leave some to grow back).

Even Vice President Al Gore has a brief appearance: " When I mentioned [the idea of solar shades] it to him, he said, 'Oh right, Brand. Let's just experiment with the whole planet!'"

You will laugh when you read this book- the prose is clear and bright and witty. You will also be reminded again of the seriousness of our situation and the need for science-based dialog and action to sustain Earth for generations to come.

This book is both a manifesto for a more progressive green movement (which Brand calls Green 2.0) and an enjoyable tour in the life of a brilliant thinker and writer.

The one serious omission from this book? The lack of inclusion of ScienceBlogs, the largest internet resource for science, on his list of recommended reading.

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Say, would you mind very much responding to this? I can argue some of it, but I'd like to have some firmer facts at my back.

By MadGastronomer (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

MadGastronomer it don't look like your link came through clearly.

(Great review BTW. I'm ordering a copy for myself, and will be giving another to my father at Christmas if he doesn't found out about it on his own before then.)

James, I am glad the review was useful in selling a couple of these wonderful books

MG- do send the link, although because I am leaving town may not have time to respond...

Flicked through it briefly - am sure that Pam would do a far better in depth critique, but for what it's worth.....

The piece starts with a little information on where GM crops are grown, and focuses the attention on the fact that at present they're grown mostly in developed countries, and that in developing countries account for only a small %age of land usage - quoting 3% useage in India and China by total Ag land - and primarily cotton - although fails to point out that on this 3% cotton land in India the technology (primarily IR) has led to increases in yield and farm income of anywhere between 50 and 150%.

He then moves on to further back up the fact that GM crops currently are used primarily for export out of impoverished countries (which for the most part I would guess is true - at the moment, although has literally no bearing on whether or not GM crops could be used to feed the world).

Next he points out that disease resistant crops are practically non-existant - this must come as at least a marginal surprise to people working in the field of virus resistance etc - although it appears that what the statement is comparing to is total production, where it is hardly a surprise that newly emerging technologies are not at the same scale as industrialized agriculture.

I'm assuming his point on soybean yield being lower refers to RR technology in soybeans, and not RR2Y (not a surprise - as I believe at present RR2Y is only available in the US, with global release over the next few years) - which US farmers have been incredibly pleased with this year - personally I have great hopes that this tech when released more broadly will have huge benefits.

It goes on to state that the, and here I had to supress a giggle, "most authoritative independant study to date" (although I'm sure this would be redacted now and replaced with the 13 year garbage rather than the 9 year garbage) shows that GM crops, in the US, increased pesticide useage (this is on a lbs of active ingredient basis, isnt particularly accurate, doesnt take into account the environmental impact of the pesticides used, and what really generated the giggles, is that there are peer reviewed works on exactly the same topic, yet somehow a non-peer reviewed report is apparently more authoritative)

He points out the yield drag of RR soybeans, which was a real thing (farmers adopted the tech because yield in terms of Bu/Ac is not as important as $/Ac in commercial farming, obviously) but which has been overcome by RR2Y Soybeans (which see a 7-14% (or is it 12%, I forget) yield increase over RR beans, or a 2-4% increase over non engineered (thanks to whatever technique they used, I had intended to get this information from my direct boss, who I believe worked on the project, but forgot, and possibly wouldnt be able to tell anyway) he states then that in India and China GM cotton farmers often apply the same amount of insecticide as non GM farmers - this is in direct contradiction of most of the evidence, although it is possible that some do - it's all bell curves, so the most extreme end of the GM scale is bound to fall in the range of the conventional scale. He also blames Indian farmer suicides on the cost of GM seed, which is disingenuous at best (based on some calculations I did in a similar discussion from peer reviewed work the extra cost of GM seeds only amounts to maybe a 10% increase in additional cost at best (I forget the exact cost) and I'd conclude that in this instance the debt left over after a failed crop would have exactly the same result whether it was 100% or 110% - and that when you also factor in the enormous average benefit (~50-150%) of the crops... well, one wonders how many farmers managed to escape the cycle of borrowing from loan sharks.

Percy Schmeisser is predictably brought up, with no mention of his deliberate action to ensure that his saved seed was RR rather than it being there by accident - the piece also points out that all GM crops are patented and tied to chemicals (which for most of their existance is pretty much true, although I'm sure insecticide manufacturers would argue that GM didnt do them too well) - although utterly fails to acknowledge that this need not be the case. The numbers in this section for farmers gone after by Monsanto appear to be around 2-3 orders of magnitude out (I forget the exact number, but its a vanishingly small number over >10 years)

Terminator tech as also brought up... for apparently no reason - it'd be worth a discussion of the value of this tech in protecting from 'genetic pollution' or indeed to protect farmers from ever being sued for seed saving, but alas it is mentioned then dropped, as if the existence of the tech is so obviously a bad thing that no discussion is needed.

Private profit replacing public interest - this is just weirdness, obviously a huge %age of GM will be controlled by corporations, who else can afford the $100M to get a trait to market under current regulatory conditions. Fails to mention however that plant breeding for non GM purposes is also done on a massive scale by the big ag companies.

The whole piece utterly ignores all efforts across the globe by non-commercial labs to develop GM crops, nor does it even attempt to weigh in on the viability of any of these projects, doesnt mention the WEMA project, in which Monsanto participates, and has offered its drought resistant gene technology free of charge - its pretty much a slap in the face for the whole of the academic effort to alleviate world hunger through GM tech - instead focusing on how the system was, or is, rather than on how it could be (I dont think anyone seriously believes that herbicide resistance will save the world, although it must be said that greater availability of herbicides would likely help (the green revolution was all about increasing chemical inputs, and saved a billion), insect resistance could be a big help, as could virus resistance, increased nutritional value, nitrogen use efficiency, salt tolerance, drought tolerance, intrinsic yield increases, etc etc)

Testing 123!

By Erin Johnson (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

Thanks for this Ewan! I would just add that by 2015, 50% of the GE crops are expected to be launched by national technology providers mostly in the developing world (JRC report, EU). That should help relieve the concern of many that Monsanto or other US corporations will control all the GE technology and therefore all the good seed.

Ewan: You said above (re: pesticide use and GE) "there are peer reviewed works on exactly the same topic". Do you have the references for these? Thanks (and nice overview too).


PDiff - done, too many links in post so it will need to be approved for appearance first... I'm far too lazy to go back and do manual citations....

Thanks Ewan. I'll keep an eye out.

In your beginning, you distinguish between environmentalists and scientists on the two sides of the debate. We now know there are two kinds of scientists, unfortunately. Those with a political agenda or pre-determined conclusions that may be data manipulators for a cause and shout down those who offer different scientific conclusions. Very sad...

Bill. The distinction is between scientists and romantics. Both under the umbrella of environmentalism.

It's interesting that you see environmentalism as disconnected from science, isn't it?

" We now know there are two kinds of scientists, unfortunately. Those with a political agenda or pre-determined conclusions that may be data manipulators for a cause and shout down those who offer different scientific conclusions."

....and then there are those who support GMs!

Ewan R,

I am not so sure that the purpose of GM's is to alleviate world hunger. I sure hope so. Many farmers in the EU, US and other countries destroy part of their crop because it is not perfect enough for the market (too big, too small, odd shapes in case of milk and eggs - for price control) - tonnes and tonnes of food. What I am saying is there is overproduction in some countries as is. Perhaps higher yields would not alleviate world hunger when all of this good food is being wasted as is -perhaps we need to think about distribution which gets into politics and other larger issues.

By Rock Star (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

Stewart Brand - I disagree with nuclear power being green. Nuclear power plants take quiet a bit of money to maintain and unfortunately can malfunction leading to very tragic outcomes. The waste products are difficult to dispose of and will be emitting radiation for eons to come. One thing to look into for sure is energy efficiency - reducing our need for electricity production in the first place.

By Rock Star (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

RS@#14 - Re-distribution of food doesn't address food security. The fact that in the EU and the US food is destroyed because it doesnt meet some aesthetic reflects both a sad aspect of food production (wasted resources in a world where resources are finite) and the food security in those nations - countries reliant on overproducing nations for food are in a bind - at any point that food can be cut off, utilization of GMOs to provide food security (and end/alleviate hunger) is one possible use of GMOs - not necessarily one they're being used for now.

Also, in terms of currently used GMOs - I don't know that they are subject to destruction in the same way that the produce you're discussing are - they're generally commodity grains, used for animal feed and production of raw materials in industry (I remain amazed that there's a pretty good chance that the gloss on the pages of your magazine is actually corn) - different grains get graded differently, but it'd be a really crappy grain that was completely rejected.

Higher yields in the US or Europe I agree would not go towards alleviating world hunger (although tangentially they may - if the demand for raw materials in the Western world becomes such that they cannot be supplied internally is anyone in the debate really naive enough to believe that we wouldn't just end up utilizing perfectly good cropping acreage in the developing world to provide our raw materials thus depriving people of their own locally grown food? Happens already anyway to a certain extent) - higher yields in the fields of nations where hunger is a constant, and where hunger strikes the actual farmers - that'd be a good first step (although at the same time distribution and politics definitely needs to be addressed - however, I'm neither a politician, nor a logistician)

@ Rock Star #15

How does nuclear power being expensive mean it isn't green? A huge disposal issue, yes, and potentially massively dangerous, yes... though the environment around the Chernobyl reactor seems to have benefited from the disaster.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 25 Jun 2010 #permalink