Day By Day

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Return of Sanity? Stewart Brand on Environmentalism

Technology Review recently published a interesting article by Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, co-founder of the Well, cofounder of the CoEvolution Quarterly, Founder of the Long Now Foundation. You get the idea -- he's one of the seminal hippy-dippy lefty activists.

Well, he's starting to grow up and is, well..., evolving. At least he's starting to shed some of the romantic extremism of his earlier work and is now taking a more realistic look at the world around him. His account still betrays a simplistic naivete and scientific credulousness that has characterized much of his earlier writing, but it does point in an important direction. He is, at last, rejecting the romantic fantasies that have fueled the popular environmental movement and is coming to terms with the real world.

He writes:
Over the next ten years, I predict, the mainstream of the environmental movement will reverse its opinion and activism in four major areas: population growth, urbani­zation, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power....

He goes on to explain:

The success of the environmental movement is driven by two powerful forces—romanticism and science—that are often in opposition. The romantics identify with natural systems; the scientists study natural systems. The romantics are moralistic, rebellious against the perceived dominant power, and combative against any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change direction. The scientists are ethicalistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm, and combative against each other. For them, admitting mistakes is what science is.

I think his view of scientists is a bit naive -- they can be as consumed by ideology and as narrow minded as the "romantics" -- but the distinction is useful. Science, if not scientists themselves, is always in a state of revision as new information and new perspectives emerge to challenge received wisdom. Environmental ideologues, however, see themselves as bearers of the truth and are reluctant to change their perspectives, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In each of the four areas mentioned Brand shows that romantic ideological certainty is being undermined by scientific revisionism.

With regard to population growth he writes:

For 50 years, the demographers in charge of human population projections for the United Nations released hard numbers that substantiated environmentalists’ greatest fears about indefinite exponential population increase. For a while, those projections proved fairly accurate. However, in the 1990s, the U.N. started taking a closer look at fertility patterns, and in 2002, it adopted a new theory that shocked many demographers: human population is leveling off rapidly, even precipitously, in developed countries, with the rest of the world soon to follow. Most environmentalists still haven't got the word.

Worldwide, birthrates are in free fall. Around one-third of countries now have birthrates below replacement level (2.1 children per woman) and sinking. Nowhere does the downward trend show signs of leveling off. Nations already in a birth dearth crisis include Japan, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Russia—whose population is now in absolute decline and is expected to be 30 percent lower by 2050. On every part of every continent and in every culture (even Mormon), birthrates are headed down. They reach replacement level and keep on dropping. It turns out that population decrease accelerates downward just as fiercely as population increase accelerated upward, for the same reason. Any variation from the 2.1 rate compounds over time.

Here Brand's account is a bit simplistic. The "demographic transition" was a commonplace for population scientists as early as the 1970's and the "birth dearth" was a matter of discussion in the 1980's. The UN came late to the realization of both phenomena after decades of denying mounting scientific evidence.

With regard to urbanization he writes:

Cities are population sinks-always have been. Although more children are an asset in the countryside, they’re a liability in the city. A global tipping point in urbanization is what stopped the population explosion. As of this year, 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, with 61 percent expected by 2030. In 1800 it was 3 percent; in 1900 it was 14 percent.

The environmentalist aesthetic is to love villages and despise cities. My mind got changed on the subject a few years ago by an Indian acquaintance who told me that in Indian villages the women obeyed their husbands and family elders, pounded grain, and sang. But, the acquaintance explained, when Indian women immigrated to cities, they got jobs, started businesses, and demanded their children be educated.

Once again his presentation is simplistic. Urbanization, the changing status of women, and the demographic transition to small families are related, but not in the manner he implies. Simply moving to the city is not the determining factor. And population redistribution is not the uni-directional movement into larger and larger cities he presents. There are several layers of complexity here that he does not recognize. Still, he makes an important point. The romantic pastoralism embraced by many environmentalists has led them to drastically undervalue urban existence.

With regard to biotechnology he notes:

Along with rethinking cities, environmentalists will need to rethink biotechnology. One area of biotech with huge promise and some drawbacks is genetic engineering, so far violently rejected by the environmental movement. That rejection is, I think, a mistake. Why was water fluoridization rejected by the political right and “frankenfood” by the political left? The answer, I suspect, is that fluoridization came from government and genetically modified (GM) crops from corporations. If the origins had been reversed—as they could have been—the positions would be reversed, too.

Here I cannot disagree. The anti-corporate bigotry of lefty environmentalists and the anti-government bigotry of the libertarian right are equally ridiculous.

After noting the many benefits attached to genetically modified crops he writes:

There has yet to be a public debate among environmentalists about genetic engineering. Most of the scare stories that go around (Monarch caterpillars harmed by GM pollen!) have as much substance as urban legends about toxic rat urine on Coke can lids. Solid research is seldom reported widely, partly because no news is not news.

He calls upon environmentalists to cast off their fantasies and to embrace a technology that has enormous potential for good.

Finally, he advocates that environmentalists get over their "quasi-religious aversion to nuclear energy." Nuclear power production, he notes, has enormous potential to benefit the environment.

The industry is mature, with a half-century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design. Nuclear power plants are very high yield, with low-cost fuel. Finally, they offer the best avenue to a “hydrogen economy,” combining high energy and high heat in one place for optimal hydrogen generation.

I would object to his equating Three-Mile Island with Chernobyl, but otherwise think he's on to something. Widespread adoption of nuclear power promises enormous benefits for the country.

Brand's article is important. In recent decades the idealistic, romantic popular environmental movement has trended farther and farther away from reality and has taken up permanent residence in cloud cuckooland. If committed lefties like him can begin to appreciate the wrongness of their position, there is hope that the environmental movement can engage seriously and constructively with American political culture. Let us hope that his prediction of a ten-year time frame for the transformation is accurate.


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