Stewart Brand’s Strange Trip: Whole Earth to Nuclear Power

When the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog embraces nuclear power, genetically engineered crops, and geoengineering schemes to cool the planet, you know things have changed in the environmental movement. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Stewart Brand explains how the passage of four decades — and the advent of global warming — have shifted his thinking about what it means to be green.

Stewart Brand helped shape the environmental consciousness of the 1960s and ‘70s with his Whole Earth Catalog, which became a bible of the counterculture and the back-to-the-land movement. An eclectic compendium of information and “tools” for innovative, environmentally friendly living, the Whole Earth Catalog reflected Brand’s ecological and technological interests, foreshadowing the rise of the San Francisco Bay Area’s computer and green cultures.

In the 1970s, Brand — a Stanford-trained biologist — started CoEvolutionary Quarterly to continue his exploration of environmental

Stewart Brand
Stewart Brand

issues and the rise of new technologies like the personal computer and genetic engineering. In between writing books on computing and space colonies, Brand served as an advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown. In the early 1980s, Brand co-founded The WELL — the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link — an early electronic community in the pre-Internet days with Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who later become the first director of Google’s philanthropic arm.

In recent years, Brand, 71, has begun to rethink his earlier opposition to nuclear power and has embraced genetic engineering, geoengineering of the earth’s climate system, and other issues that were anathema to the traditional environmental movement. This evolution of his thinking has led to his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.

In it, Brand calls for the rapid deployment of a new generation of nuclear power plants to combat global warming, arguing that technological advances have made nuclear energy safer and any potential danger from nuclear waste pales compared to the damage inflicted by burning coal.

“The air pollution from coal burning is estimated to cause 30,000 deaths a year from lung disease in the United States, and 350,000 a year in China,” writes Brand. “A 1-gigawatt coal plant burns three million tons of fuel a year and produces seven million tons of CO2, all of which immediately goes into everyone’s atmosphere, where no one can control it, and no one knows what it’s really up to.”

Likewise, he says, environmentalists are misguided in their long-standing opposition to the genetic engineering of crops to increase yields and reduce pesticide use. In a move sure to rankle the local-food movement, Brand says organic farmers should also embrace GE crops.

Brand argues that humans have been reshaping the natural environment for millennia and thus should start exploring planet-wide technological fixes to the pending catastrophe of climate change, everything from injecting sulfates into the atmosphere to constructing a gigantic space shield to block solar radiation. And if the Whole Earth Catalog catered to the anti-urbanists of the 1960s, Brand now finds ecological salvation in the world’s mega-cities and their sprawling slums as “concentrators of efficiency and innovation.”

Brand lives on a converted tugboat in Sausalito, Calif., with his wife Ryan Phelan, founder of DNA Direct, a genetic testing service. Environmental journalist Todd Woody met Brand in his book-lined office — located nearby in a beached fishing boat on the Sausalito waterfront — and conducted the following interview for Yale Environment 360.

Yale Environment 360: Who did you write this book for?

Stewart Brand: For two versions of environmentalists — the ones who already know their environmentalism and the ones who are finding out their environmentalism because of climate change.

An assertion I make in the first chapter is that in light of climate change everybody’s an environmentalist. And in light of climate change people who already know they’re environmentalists are facing a changed situation. And I’m trying to help adjust the course in light of the situation and the technologies that are emerging.

e360: Is the environmental movement ideologically stuck in the 1970s?

Brand: It’s moved on in some areas. The environmental movement used to hate cities and is now halfway toward loving cities. The Sierra Club has been very active in supporting compactness in cities. Environmentalists don’t call themselves ecologists any more, and that’s good.

e360: Why is that good?

Brand: It’s good because most weren’t, and most people who said they were part of the ecology movement wouldn’t know one trophic level from another, or what a trophic level is, or what a food web is, or why a niche is a niche, or much less why horizontal transgenic gene transfer is normal rather than unnatural. So not being called ecologists is fine.

e360: Do you see a generational dividing line on nuclear power?

Brand: I’m somewhat speculating that there is a generation gap there. I think it’s probably much stronger with genetic engineering. There is no iGEM [the undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine synthetic biology competition] for grownups as far as I know. I take that as pretty much a good sign because geneticists and microbiologists are going to just own so much of this century.

e360: For anyone who’s younger than 35, nuclear power has not been an issue because there have been no new nuclear power plants built in this country for decades.

Brand: Well, that’s my surmise. What one would want to look at is some young anti-nuclear person, do they say Chernobyl? Do they say Three Mile Island? I don’t think they say Hiroshima or Nagasaki because that’s so far in the past. Even for me.

e360: One of the main arguments against nuclear is economic — it’s not viable in the marketplace. How much should the market play in pushing these technologies, versus the government?

Brand: It’s a strange kind of desperate argument. Probably that question applies most in the developing world where coal really is king, is the cheapest. If the market rules, coal wins almost everywhere. I’ve been saying, and I say in the book, that we have to get used to the idea that there’s a very serious role for the government here, basically to make coal expensive, and let the rest fight it out.

It’s not an issue in France and that’s why they have 80 percent nuclear. A bit of arithmetic I haven’t seen done yet is, if the U.S. were 80 percent nuclear, how many gigatons of carbon dioxide would not be in the atmosphere? We could have done that.

We didn’t for reasons very different than France. France was shattered by [the] 1973 [Arab oil embargo] and didn’t have their own coal, didn’t have their own oil. To get some energy independence, not because of anything environmental, they just went dead at it. They respect engineers in France way more than we do here and made the right thing happen and now have a huge export industry with selling energy to everybody in Europe, including all the green countries.

e360: NPR recently interviewed an Obama administration official on whether nuclear power should be an option to fight global warming. That official tried very hard to avoid even saying the word nuclear.

Brand: It’s a hot-button issue. Whether I raise it or not in talks, that’s what people want to talk about. What’s interesting to me, I’m going to go on book tour in England in January. England has just committed to ten new reactors. They’re tired of buying two gigawatts of nuclear power from France, among other things.

Frankly, my book is getting more uptake in England — even though it hasn’t come out there yet — than here. So I’m not sure if it’s my name or the subject or if they’re okay with nuclear, or what’s going on.

e360:: You were an advisor to Jerry Brown when he was governor and anti-nuclear sentiment was at its peak. If Jerry Brown becomes governor again do you see changes in policy?

Brand: We’ve talked about it. He hasn’t said, “Tell me more.” Back in the ‘70s when he first got into office, I said space is actually pretty interesting. Fifty percent of space technology comes from California. He was interested. We hired [astronaut] Rusty Schweiker, he did Space Day, he went to the first shuttle launch and landing. So he became Governor Moonbeam.

I haven’t heard him go that far on nuclear. I think it is still a third rail for all these guys. And I suppose part of what I’m trying to do is to take the charge off the rail.

e360: You don’t talk much about renewable energy in your book.

Brand: I think its very well covered so I don’t have much to add there other than nod, nod, nod, so let’s now talk about something I think I have some fresher information on.

But I think the main point I’m making with this book — and that’s why there’s two chapters about squatter cities and what’s going on in the cities and urbanization and so on — is that five out of six people don’t live in the developed world that has all this excess energy use.

They’re living much closer to the bone, and the greenest people in the world probably are the squatters in the slums of the world — a billion people. How lucky we are that they’re there, they’re getting out of poverty, they’re green as hell but they would really like electricity 24/7 and fresh water and sanitation and some other things that are going to involve more energy use. That’s either coal or nuclear as far as I can tell.

Whether we go to nuclear or not is not as important as whether they do. Or something else that is clean, scalable, and constant.

e360: What about solar?

Brand: My hope, frankly, was space solar because it’s 24/7. [California entrepreneur] Elon Musk flattened my ear on this subject. He said, “Look I do SpaceX so I know a lot about space, I do SolarCity so I know a lot about solar. I’m trying to kill anybody’s sense that there’s some realistic way to do ‘space solar.’”

He said even if you could get your solar collectors into orbit for free it still wouldn’t work. The costs and difficulties of beaming down electricity as microwaves with antennas on the ground don’t work out. For the time being, I’m persuaded by Elon on the matter.

e360: Nuclear power plants consume an incredible amount of water. Is that a concern?

Brand: Yep, water is an issue everywhere and every how. The tech I’d like to see is something more direct. That’s all hand wringing at this point. I don’t know anyone who has figured out how to turn heat into electricity without water.

e360: What has been the reaction to your proposals on genetic engineering and food?

Brand: Well, I’m a little surprised that Michael Pollan hasn’t come over because he has busted the industrialization of organic food.

The local growing of basically artisanal food is absolutely fantastic in a country where the basic nutrition problem is obesity. That’s not the major nutrition problem in much or most of the world. What they need is volume, which is the very thing the Green Revolution spoke to and answered. The second Green Revolution is the next set of good technology in agriculture. Not only green in the sense the first one was — higher yield, lower cost, cheaper food, better distribution and all that — but also green ecologically, environmentally green in terms of climate.

Kind of working backward to what the world wants and needs, and what the climate wants and needs, and ecology wants and needs, then genetic engineering looks like a very important tool.

e360: A theme running through the book is that the rest of the world has a different perspective on nuclear power and genetic engineering.

Brand: We tend to be north-centric, developed-centric. China is going full bore on nuclear. I’ve heard numbers as high as they want to build 400 reactors. And no doubt there will be problems. But there’s problems with dams, there’s problems with all these things. I think that’s the engineering essence I’m trying to have Greens become comfortable with.

When you’re trying to design solutions, you really, really have to get used to the idea of tradeoffs, risk balancing, short-term versus long-term. All this stuff that engineers are comfortable with.

I don’t want the romantic stuff to go away. I don’t want people to stop loving nature or loving some experience they’ve had with nature. They can if they want. Just add this other stuff. And so the line about the romantic loves the tree, but not its genome, and the scientist loves both.

e360: One of your more controversial chapters is on geoengineering, which strikes a lot of people, including scientists, as crazy and dangerous.

Brand: That must be next year’s controversy. I expected some pushback on that one. And I haven’t encountered it at all. Not in person, not in print. But it clearly wants and needs to be there. I think there’s all kinds of things to say.

Actually, the strongest pushback and non-embrace was in Al Gore’s new book. It’s a sentence in which he says we’ve done enough experimentation with the planet, that geoengineering is experimentation with the planet we do not need to do. He goes on about biochar [transforming organic waste into a charcoal-like fertilizer], as he should, but doesn’t think or treat that as geoengineering. I do. I think that kind of effort is a form of grass rootsy, and therefore good, geoengineering.

e360: Do you have concerns that support for geoengineering will be used by others as an excuse to carry on with business as usual?

Brand: Well, I don’t want to eliminate business-as-usual as an okay goal. I want to set aside a potential business as usual that ain’t bad. Suppose we had energy that had that quality of way more than we could use or need, and it was clean.

There is another set of people in the environmental movement who are what I’m calling calamatists, who feel that industrial civilization has committed crimes, sins against nature, and retribution is coming and we must repent, reform, and redeem ourselves in light of these terrible crimes and this terrible sin.

The way you can tell if someone is of that mode is to raise this: Suppose we had clean, squanderable energy available, what do you think of that? The ones that have that frame of mind would say that is the worst thing that could happen.

Again, I think that is not a perspective that makes a lot of sense in the developing world. You can go to African peoples and say what do you think of clean, squanderable energy, they would say, “Yes please. How soon?”

e360: Hasn’t cheap energy in this country lead to our sprawling development and other environmental problems?

Brand: Maybe, maybe. But one of the things the new urbanists changed are that suburbs as they came to be designed are boring stupid places to live. It’s not a question of whether you save energy by walking to the market, you sort of save your mind by walking to the market, by being able to bicycle the kids to school. The idea of parents, smart busy adults, having to be chauffeurs for their children has nothing to do with environmental issues at all — it’s just a weird way to live.

I just want that one on the table. Suppose we do get clean, squanderable energy. Is that okay or not okay? One scenario is that it is okay. [Local-food advocate] Alice Waters’ approach to food — artisanal growing of food — is a better approach to growing food. But you need a certain amount of prosperity and density and all these other fun things for that to happen. That is also a product of highly industrialized civilization.

Alice Waters needs a city and in the absence of a city you don’t get Alice Waters or Michael Pollan. The city is a market. It’s a sophisticated market.

e360: Thirty or 40 years ago if you picked up a book advocating these ideas, what would you have thought?

Brand: So 30 to 40 years ago I think I would have said to all the genetic engineering stuff — hot dog! I did say at that time “yes” to solar in space because I was pushing space colonies. The only practical reason that we could think of was that a business model for space colonies was beaming down solar.

Nuclear I would have said, “Bad idea,” and I did. Not actively and overtly. I just went in a somewhat knee-jerk mode and my own mode of long-term thinking at the time that it was too big a penalty to exact from future generations, because of the nuclear waste issue.

I think a lot of this stuff is shifting, and this book is a next-30-years to next-100-years book. Most of the issues we’re dealing with — [like] climate — will be sorted out one way or the other in this century. It’s going to be a thrilling century because so much is in play and so many balls are in the air.