Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto

The American social entrepreneur and technology guru Stewart Brand's first significant contribution to the environmental movement came to him ashe sat on a rooftop in 1966. Tripping on LSD, he looked up at the stars and asked: "Why haven't we seen a picture of the whole earth yet?"

Forty years later, Brand has given up the drugs and mysticism of 1960s San Francisco, but he's still thinking about the planet. This time, he doesn't only want a photograph (that happened in 1968, leading to the first Earth Day in the United States); he wants "a constant, real-time high-resolution video of the earth turning in the sunlight" - the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), abandoned before launch by the Bush administration because it had been Al Gore's idea. Much more than DSCOVR, though, Brand wants us to break free from our various ideological shackles and to begin focusing on the task at hand - saving civilisation.

Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto is a rich, compelling guide to how old wisdom can combine with new technologies to help civilisation survive man-made climate change. But it should be read as much for its dissection of the way ideologies distort decision-making onscience and technology. Why, for example, did the anti-statist right oppose fluoridation and the anti-corporate left oppose genetically modified crops? "A political agenda is . . . poor at solving problems," writes Brand. "Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilisation, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilisation from a natural system." The ensuing ideological backflip will spread its own kind of chaos - a chaos budding ecopragmatists must learn to sidestep.

The book proposes three ideological heresies about to break on the shores of environmental consciousness. These concern urbanisation, GMcrops and nuclear power. The earth's population became mostly urban in 2007. The dream of going back to the land - an ideal that Brand won fame for promoting in The Whole Earth Catalogue, a kind of Sears for hippie communes - is wrong-headed, because cities turn out to be the green option.

Urbanisation slows population growth (as more women choose education and opportunity over large families), concentrates resource needs and gradually empties rural areas of subsistence farmers, allowing planned approaches to agriculture that reduce environmental impact and leave room for "natural" ecosystems that will mitigate climate harm.

But urban populations demand grid electricity, and that entails re-evaluating the nuclear option. The rejection of nuclear power stems from ourrevulsion at nuclear weapons; the "absolute" nature of our other concerns about it - those having to do with safety, cost and waste storage - all flow from here. Brand dismisses each objection with a mixture of hope and hard science.

A trip to the experimental Yucca mountain 10,000-year storage facility leaves him agreeing with James Lovelock - that "we need it about as much as we need a facility for imprisoning dangerous extraterrestrials". We should divert the $28bn set aside to store waste from the nuclear power we have already used towards research into new micro-reactors and the possibility of substituting uranium with thorium.

Brand's own ideological shift, here and elsewhere, is away from 1960s individualism and towards a 21st-century model of governance. And yet, post-Copenhagen, we might wish that his proposed blend of the internet-inspired engineer/hacker frame with approaches to economic planning that might alarm the folks back home was a little less vague.

Most compelling is the book's defence of GM agriculture. Here, Brand the trained biologist puts the leaders of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in the dock, alongside the leaders of ExxonMobil, for their crimes against science and humanity. Environmentalists who label GM "unnatural" have confused agriculture with nature; in fact, agriculture itself is one of the world's worst climate criminals.

For Brand, the work of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in demonising GM has left millions of Africans starving, in order to defend a misguided European ideology. The organic and GM movements must converge around the shared goal of soil quality through no-till agriculture. The only thing stopping them from doing so is moral panic. Brand drolly reminds us that Frankenstein was the inventor of a creature that the public mistook for a monster. "Of course, that's a rhetorical argument, devoid of meaning. But so is the term Frankenfood."

Urbanisation, nuclear power, GM - all will happen whether the environmental movement adopts Brand's manifesto or not. But if greens heed his call, and if they start working to "green the hell" out of the world's new mega­cities, go "glow-in-the-dark" green and make sure that nuclear power adoption is directed in the right way, or if they encourage GM technology out of the patent portfolios of Monsanto and into the hands of local specialists ("Biotech wants to be free"), all three will happen better. Like adolescents emerging into adulthood, we are finding that it's time to put away our inner grudges and get used to the idea that we alone are masters of our destiny: "We are as gods, and have to get good at it."

Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto
Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books, 336pp, £19.99

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war