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on October 22, 2009
I was interviewing George Soros as the Dow rapidly shed 300 points and crashed through the 10,000 level.

"Is this it?" I asked.

Soros shrugged --- a very calm reaction from an investor who might have seen his portfolio shrink by hundreds of millions of dollars in a matter of minutes.

I lost much less that day, but I had a different reaction --- panic. The thing to do, I concluded, was to trade my beloved Classic 6 in Manhattan for a self-sustaining house in the country. Ten acres would suffice, as long as they had decent water, land suitable for a large garden and enough sunlight for the solar panels.

I bought a URL for the web site I planned to launch: [...]. This was no back-to-the-land hippie retreat. I would be stepping into the smart future: small town/rural purity (Woodsmoke) with the 21st century benefits of a fast Internet (Broadband) and Amazon.com's free shipping.

Given all that, you will understand that I was quite stunned to read "Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto" --- by Stewart Brand, creator of the 1960s and 1970s classic, the "Whole Earth Catalog" --- and discover that the last place its author would have me go is back to the land.

In these pages, Stewart Brand lays out a mind-blowing vision for the planet's salvation: migration to the cities, power generated by mini-nuclear reactors, healthier crops through genetic engineering.

This may well be the most important book I'll read this year. Certainly, it's the most aggressively optimistic book that's also closely reported --- Brand's a student who shows his work. Granted, a lot of it is technical. Skip those pages. Just read with a pencil. Mark what seems important and/or drives you crazy. Start reading more science news --- Brand recommends NewScientist --- and keep an open mind. That is, get ready to abandon your own long-held views. And be just as ready to disagree with Brand.

The book starts with climate change --- not as a phenomenon to debate with those who don't believe it's real, but as a factor in warfare, which has historically often followed changes in climate. In the past, "wholesale carnage was common, and so was cannibalism." But in the last three centuries, historians have found, only about 3% of the world's population dies in warfare. And in our own century, war has become absolutely humane --- we now kill only enough of the enemy to guarantee victory.

But what if we experienced severe climate change? "Humanity would revert to its norm of constant battles for diminishing resources," Brand writes. "Peace lovers would be killed and eaten by war lovers."

Now that he has your attention --- and with that image, he certainly has mine --- Brand makes his case for a Green movement that is smart about science. In other words, based on facts, not emotion. Rachel Carson, he notes, was a hero for her anti-pesticide book, "Silent Spring". But after DD was banned worldwide, malaria took off in Africa, possibly killing 20-30 million children. So he wishes us to consider the direct --- and indirect --- consequences of:
-- "We're now excessively carbon-loading the atmosphere toward inferno."
-- "Cellphones are the fastest global diffusion of any technology in human history."
-- For the next three decades, the world will be demographically split: in the global north, old cities full of old people; in the global south, new cities full of young people.
-- "A white roof saves the building's tenant 20% in cooling costs."
-- Because of its nuclear plants, France exports power to coal-burning countries.

But the big phenomenon for Brand, in his new way of thinking, is this: "The takeoff of cities is the dominant economic event of the first half of this century." And when we met in New York for a short interview, that's where we started.

You see more and more people moving to cities. Why do you applaud that?

Cities innovate faster as they grow bigger. They create enormous problems, but they also create solutions faster. Cities seem to know how to get out of their own way.

What's driving the attraction of cities?

Globally, the evolution of cell phones. Once people in the bush have smart phones, people can see the wealth creation in cities.

Won't this lead to more urban gridlock?

People don't move from the country to the capital cities. They go to the nearest city.

Okay, climate change. Care to predict the year when, if we haven't taken radical steps, it becomes just too late to save the planet for humans life?

No, because you can't find a hard edge.

Explain, please.

I used to think rising sea level was not significant. You can, after all, walk back from water. Then I realized most of the wealth and productivity and expensive real estate is on the coasts. In San Francisco, real estate along the shore is susceptible to inches. So rising water is more serious to those people than drought. Very simply, the rich will say: "Stop this!"

And for those who don't live on the coasts?

Ten years of drought would have an effect. At 15 years you realize it's not going away. And once drought stays, the area does die.

In either scenario, climate is the story.

It's the ongoing story: What does climate change mean to us?

But people don't want to hear it. Why?

People turn away from news that confuses them. And these problems resist easy understanding. There's much to disagree about on almost point. Like: every year, carbon comes out of the atmosphere. Does it go to oceans or continents?

You mention the good that would follow if we all painted our roofs white. Give me five more things that we can, as individuals, do to retard climate change.

In my "Whole Earth" days, that would be my focus. Now I don't think about painting your roof white, I think about painting whole cities white.

Can you see that time?

Soon enough, I can see streets that will be embedded with solar cells.

And our power coming from mini-nuclear plants?

Micro-reactors are game changers. China is talking about building 400.

This conversation unsettles me. On one hand, you speak of urgency. On the other, you're very calm. Why aren't you screaming?

I'm a biologist. That comes with a kind of fatalism.

Working out the ideas for this book, when do you realize you were making a break with your past?

As I was pursuing urbanization, I realized there was a nest of good news in what had been treated as bad news. As a journalist, this is what you look for --- suddenly I had a story. And my changed sense of "green" is a piece of that story. That's one advantage of being 70 and having been in the public eye for 40 years.

So is "Whole Earth Discipline" a repudiation of the "Whole Earth Catalog"?

The "Catalog" was not, as some thought, counter-culture. It was counter-counter culture. It matched the passion of the hippie movement with reasoned responses. "Discipline" is the same game.
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on October 21, 2009
This is the most revealing and compelling of Stewart Brand's writings to date, and I've read pretty much everything he has written in the past 40+ years. Brand is a conceptual artist whose medium is words. He specializes in developing, creating, and promulgating interesting and useful perspectives. Somehow he always manages to find whatever is exciting, important, or cool about whatever he is investigating and to reframe the subject at hand to make you want to learn more. His reframings are powerful. They are aimed to give you a new and improved perspective and point of view, and that is what they do, but they do so with your informed consent.

A lot of people have looked into squatter cities and shanty towns, but Brand does a better job of showing how they are part of an organic and evolutionary and even in some ways positive, optimistic process than most others I've read. There has been a lot of shouting on all sides of the debate on nuclear energy -- this is a really good attempt to get the pros and cons on the table in rational discourse and (mostly) dispense with the flame wars. Same goes for the discussions of genetically engineered crops and geo-engineering. We desperately need a much higher quality public dialog on all these subjects, and this book is a real contribution toward putting all these issues on the table in a discussable format. Stewart is right -- the time for allowing ideology and sentimentality to stand in front of what science is telling us is over, and we are going to be forced as a society to make some difficult decisions relating to the future of our climate and the management of our ecosystems. It is going to require massive involvement and a high level of innovation on the part of many actors, and it is going to require a lot of people to stretch their thinking and give up old prejudices. I don't know if Stewart is right about all the assertions in this book, but the nice thing is, neither does he, and he knows that and comes right out and says so. Loosely held opinions strongly stated. The service of this book is to unwedge the conversation, steer between Pollyanna and Chicken Little, and focus on the important issues that are surely coming our way.
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on October 21, 2009
When Stewart Brand captured a generation's imagination 40 years ago with The Whole Earth Catalog, his motto was "We are as gods, and might as well get good at it." With this book, as humankind confronts climate change and other vast, urgent threats largely of its own making, the motto has matured: "We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it." Brand's magisterial tour of urbanization, biotechnology, climate change, energy and agriculture is a feast of surprises, unorthodox opinions, startling insights, wry observations, and moments of reverence and wonder that will inspire and energize productive, practical people everywhere, whether they consider themselves green or not. I don't know if there is a National Book Award for manifestos ... but hey, there wasn't a National Book Award for catalogs when Brand's first great book won, back in the day. And never mind prizes; Whole Earth Discipline offers us a way for humankind to save its own skin.
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on October 23, 2009
I have long considered myself to be a pragmatist without a cause. Nonetheless, I have been fully convinced by reading this book that the time to start a major overhaul in the way we think about global issues is RIGHT NOW. Stewart Brand does a fantastic job laying the facts bare in a way that will convince anyone from the most rational pragmatist to the most ardent environmentalist that we need to start fixing our civilization RIGHT NOW. Not only that, but we must use every tool and technology that we have invented to help us achieve this goal.

His warnings are dire, but hopeful. His advice is strongly worded, but entirely justified. If you are looking for a rational voice in the debate about climate change, genetically modified organisms, the overpopulation "problem" and other issues whose specter is now cast over the future of our species, you must read this book.

It is rare to find a book that is balanced, informative and wholly engaging -- this is one of them.
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on October 29, 2011
"Whole Earth Discipline" by Steward Brand is a Green book, but it's written from a distinctly heretical perspective. Brand argues in favour of urbanization, Third World development, nuclear power and Frankenfood.

In his opinion, only modernization and high tech can save humanity from climate change and its consequences. The book also contains more traditionally Green chapters on land management, wildlife preservation, etc. The bottom line is the same, however: if we want better land management, perhaps we need GE crops. If we want to preserve large wilderness preserves, we need to urbanize and make sure to develop eco-friendly technology. If we want to control population numbers, we need higher standards of living.

Brand's support for nuclear power and GE (or GM) crops will be particularly hard to swallow even for moderate Greens. Apart from Brand himself, I think James Lovelock is the only well-known Green who supports nuclear power. Interestingly, Paul Ehrlich seems to be positive to GM crops. Otherwise, opposition to both nuclear power and GM crops are almost defining features of the Green movement.

One thing is for sure. If Brand's eco-pragmatism turns out to be another failed strategy, we're in for a really rough ride...
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on October 31, 2009
Don't read this book if you are looking for another confirmation that you have been right all along. Whether you are a Green Party tree hugger or a pro-nuke conservative, you will find parts of this book that will delight you and parts that will annoy you. This is a book that will make you think. If you want to participate in the ongoing conversation about global warming, energy production and environmentalism, you need to read it.
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on March 7, 2013
Brand's arguments are remarkable, logical, fact-based and simple. I read this book as a serious Green with great skepticism. Furthermore, it is page-turningly readable - exciting is not too strong a word, for it brings a sense of optimism to a challenging time in our evolution.

His fact-base (I checked) converted me on all fronts including GMO, particularly the Big 3 fears: 1. GMOs will get out into the wild (A: not because (like conventional crop hybrid seeds), they are not capable of taking on the wild. 2. They are dangerous to humans and animals (A: not a shred of evidence despite billions of people including you reding this consuming them for 15 years.) 3. They don't propagate and enslave farmers A: the Terminator Gene myth is simply not there. In fact GM crop seeds can be saved by farmers unlike conventional hybrids which lose most of their "vigor" in one generation (as my dad taught me 40 years ago.)

Whole Earth Discipline may turn out to be Mr. Brand's second Magnum Opus and is almost certainly more important than Whole Earth Catalog if it weren't for the fact that it would likely not exist if that book had not been published.

Science over dogma. Thankyou Mr. Brand.

Books rarely change lives or opinions - this one did for me.
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on July 3, 2011
Repudiating one's own life beliefs is difficult, especially for Eco-lefties. Stewart Brand shows, by a calm collation of impressive data, how science can reverse the doomsday scenarios laid bare by climate change and overpopulation.
Reversing many of his lifelong beliefs, he now believes nuclear power, GM foods and other bugbears are safe and that the environmental movement is scarred by irrational hysteria. If you protest loud enough, and damn all evidence to the contrary, you will be heard, and you will be believed. It says as much about human irrationality as anything else, and belief system manufacture. I was hooked, and will read the source material with great interest.
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on January 5, 2015
5 star because it is an immensely important book. Some critical comments could be made on the way it is structured, but there is no need to read it linearly, from its first page to its last -- although I did precisely that, because I could not stop reading it.
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on January 30, 2010
I'm not well informed enough to comment on whether or not Stewrt Brand is correct in all of the assertions he makes in this book. I don't keep up with the science and technology- and I certainly have no knowledge of the personalities in the Green movement that he uses as his foils. That's not what interested me in this book.

What sparked my interest is reading a book by a man who has changed him mind on so many things. Cities are good. Nuclear power is Green. Genetic engineering should be embraced by environmentalists.

What brought him here?

Two things: A conviction that climate change is a true and present danger to the planet, and that human beings are a part of nature, not some awful thing that should be eradicated. I deeply appreciate the second proposition- too often you find people in the environmental movement that don't look at people as a blessing, but as a burden. It has always been the biggest turn off about the Greens, for me.

This book is worth reading to help all people who care about the environment take a step back and re-evaluate our positions. As Brand states at the close of his book, the last thing environmentalism should ever become is anti-science. And being pro-science means that you need to sometimes take a step back and give a good hard look at your assumptions and paradigms.
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