Whole Earth Discipline

Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years, partly because it’s very well written and researched but mainly because it made me change my mind about some important issues.

Perhaps the easiest argument for me to accept (although I still learned a great deal) was the section on cities. It’s always made sense to me that cities are more efficient use of resources and are the driving force behind new ideas and problem solving. I’m a pretty big believer that new things happen when you bring people together who have different skills and experiences. You can either design those situations — as things like the Manhattan Project show — or you can just sit and watch as it happens in cities — the more cosmopolitan and connected the better. Of course, as cities grow they develop new problems, but they solve them just as quickly as they produce them.

The next section is about nuclear power. I think I’ve been through my own mini-version of Stewart’s conversion story. He was properly involved in the environmental movement, in fact with the Whole Earth Catalogue you could say that he, more than many people, invented it. But over the decades he’s come to be frustrated with the side of the movement which ignores science which is something I’v noticed too. For me, there is just no strong enough argument against nuclear power, especially in the UK. We have all the experience, we even have a whole bunch of sites that are already suitable and we’ve actually developed some of the best reprocessing technology in the world.

From my reading around, there is enough nuclear fuel to last us until the end of the century which should hopefully be enough to come up with something else. Chernobyl couldn’t happen again, because nobody is proposing building that type of reactor. Over the next 25 years I think it’s going to be cheaper than renewables and will take up much less space too. My only caveats would be that we should spend as much on energy efficiency as we do on new generating capacity and that all nuclear facilities should be open to the public.

Next Stewart takes on the opponents of genetically engineered crops. This is where I get a little bit more uncomfortable, but in the end he and a lot of other things I’ve learned over the past few years have won me over. We don’t know enough yet but the basic safety questions have been answered and we should find out more so I’m in favour of more field trials and in the cases where there is good safety information and economic or health benefit we should go for it.

Finally, the book turns to what Stewart admits is the most controversial topic — geoengineering. Here I’m not ready to say we should get stuck in. Research yes, but I don’t think we have any real idea what tools will work, and even if they did work whether the unintended consequences would be even worse than the problems the technologies set out to solve. I find the idea fascinating and want to learn much more but the evidence of successful approaches or of the immediate need to deploy these technologies isn’t strong enough for me yet.

It’s a great book by one of the smartest and most radical people I’ve ever come across. Well worth a read and I think should definitely be read by the new Government who are going to have to grapple with the energy issue in a much more radical way than the last Government ever did.

(I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while. This article in Wired and realising I’ll probably make it to the Long Now seminar in September prompted me to finish it off.)