Stewart Brand on Green Romanticism

Stewart Brand has been a big thinker for a long, long time. The founder of the Global Business Network, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, the founder of the WELL, he now runs the Long Now Foundation.

From this long perspective, he offers the observation that environmentalism is on the rise. This will increase as the threats increase to the climate, turning environmentalists into civilization savers. Brand believes there are three kinds of environmentalists: romantics, scientists and engineers.

The romantics are in the majority – they “feel nature, and feel one with nature.” The romantic worldview – the world is doomed by global warming, polution, species loss, technology and globalization. We need to go back to the basics, to nature and the land, and to worship wilderness, Gaia and native people. There are, he argues, a million or more organizations based on these principles, showing us a video of a list of names of grassroots environmental organizations. (The database of organizations will be posted online shortly.)

Brand is skeptical of this sort of romanticism. He notes that the urban population worldwide is skyrocketing – from 3% of all population in 1800 to 14% in 1900 to 61% by 2030. Every week, 1.3 million new people arrive or are born in cities. In the cities of the developing world, these are very young people – in old European cities, they’re aging elders. Because birth rates are falling in cities, we may see the population level off at 7-9 billion, or shrink, if rates fall below the 2.1 children replacement rate to the 1.85 rates we’re seeing in some urban areas. In the meantime, rural communities are shrinking and even disappearing, especially when people have the choice to move to urban areas, as happened at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The leads to the rise of urban slums in Nairobi, Mumbai and every other developing world city. Brand is a big slums fan, and is cheered by the fact that these neighborhoods house a billion worldwide today, and possibly two billion more in the near future. Cities, he points out, have a smaller energy footprint than rural living, and that slum living has a very low footprint. Furthermore, Brand sees the cities as communities of people helping each other to strive and advance. But it’s hardly a romantic model of environmentalism.

Scientific environmentalists come at the subject from a different perspective – that of cautious research into the field instead of personal feeling. This means that the scientists find themselves on the other side of issues, like genetically modified crops. He points out that the Amish are big fans of genetically modified crops – :the Amish are the ones who hate technology, unless it’s really good.”

On the topic of really good – Brand is interested in getting environmentalists – probably the engineers first – excited about nuclear fission. He argues that we don’t need the 10,000 year solution to nuclear waste disposal – just a good way to keep that material safe for a while while we work out better solutions.

A final thought from Stewart – he talked to a geologist who argues that we’re in a new geological era – the anthroposcene. We’re terraforming the world – transforming the land through our actions. “We should try to get it right.”

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2 Responses to Stewart Brand on Green Romanticism

  1. Pingback: Gus diZerega » Steward Brand I: Environmentalism and Civil Society

  2. Nils Davis says:

    A lot of what Stewart said in this talk summarized much longer and more detailed talks by participants in the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long-Term Thinking (SALT) talks. These happen monthly in San Francisco, are fascinating, and are available as podcasts at http://longnow.org/projects/seminars/podcast.php. Definitely worth listening to to get the details of what Stewart is summarizing.

    BTW, I just listened to Stewart’s talk this week as a podcast, that’s why the late notice.

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