A Whole Earth Way Of Thinking About The Anthropocene

Whole Earth DisciplineBefore he published his first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, Steward Brand lobbied NASA to release the first snapshots of the Earth as seen from the moon, according to Wikipedia. “He thought the image might be a powerful symbol, evoking a sense of shared destiny and adaptive strategies from people,” the entry says. The catalog provided “access to tools”, mostly through books, but also through clothes and calculators. It was a hippie-dippy thing that seems to have grown up into “Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary”, which Brand published in 2009. Within just a few pages of one early edition, he offered The Dymaxion World of Buckminister Fuller by the man who gave us the geodesic dome, The Indian Tipi by a man who helped revive interest in animal-skin architecture, and Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth – three of the only four books I can recall ordering from the catalog (the fourth being Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The catalogs looked like they’d been run off a Xerox machine that someone had hijacked from a hippie commune, but Brand supplied philosophical reviews for each of the products he listed, and he also provided essays from guest authors like Bucky Fuller and Wendell Berry. Although I did order a few books, I mostly just read and re-read the catalogs themselves.

What it took to get listed in the Whole Earth Catalog

What it took to get listed in the Whole Earth Catalog

I mention all this because I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a chicken-or-egg thing going on with my love for Brand’s new book. Do I agree with it because he speaks complex truth in a language that’s simple and easy to understand? Or do I agree with him because he’s the one who implanted the ideas in my teenage brain that blossomed into my adult worldview? It’s the kind of question he encourages us to ask ourselves, because at its core, Whole Earth Discipline is less about the specific solutions that he explores (none of which he claims are new, because they aren’t) and more about how we as a society explore those solutions. It’s about questioning our premises and purging ideology from our thinking so that we can get real about the challenges we face today, and it’s about distinguishing experts from blowhards, as Brand says Philip Tetlock did in his 2006 book Expert Political Judgement:

The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong about what’s going to happen. The boring expert who afflicts you with a cloud of howevers is probably right. “There is an inverse relationship between what makes people attractive as public presenters and what makes them accurate in these forecasting exercises,” Tetlock told a San Francisco audience.

Tetlock uses a familiar allegory when differentiating between two types of thinkers: hedgehogs who have the strength of their conviction and foxes who pick their way through life pragmatically. It’s an allegory he traces from ancient Greek poet Archilochus (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) to 20th Century philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Tetlock writes that hedgehogs deploy a routine set of excuses when proven wrong: “I was almost right”; “I was just off on timing”; “I made the right mistake” (right policy, wrong prediction); “Happenstance went against me.” Each excuse provides an opportunity to explain one more time the deep rightness of the original theory.

It’s this type of rationalization that Brand attacks most aggressively – especially when exploring his own thinking. He even warns us that his own tendencies may feed some of his conclusions. “I often think that societies catch on faster than they do, and that large complex systems are more brittle than they are,” he explains, after rattling off a litany of his failed prognostications. Unfortunately, most hedgehogs aren’t so inclined, so we’re stuck with the same problem: while foxes are right more often than they’re wrong, it’s the hedgehogs who end up on cable TV. How do we get beyond this?

What we need is more brazen foxes who don’t mind strongly stating their loosely held views (this book tries to be an example), and audiences that honor honest opinion change. When some pontificator begins, “As I’ve always said,…” the right response is “Uh oh.”

And the ideas he expresses in Discipline do, in fact, differ from the hodgepodge of issues he covered in the Catalog. But there is also a logical progression: the catalog was about fascination, exploration, and morally living life on your own terms; the new book is about fascination and exploration as well, but it’s also about survival – not as individuals, but as a civilization. It’s a shift necessitated by the immediacy and universality of climate change. Brand explains the difference by pointing out that, in his Catalog days, his motto was, “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it,” while his motto today is, “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” (Emphasis added)

The scale of the climate challenge is so vast that it cannot be met solely by grassroots groups and corporations, no matter how Green. The situation requires government fiat to set rules and enforce them.

To prevent the climate from changing, he argues, society must change – and radically so.

Our civilization caused climate change, and now it is undertaking to cause climate nonchange. At the end of the exercise (if it’s successful), climate will be the same but civilization probably won’t. We will be more transformed by our efforts to stabilize climate than by anything else we do in this century. If we fail to stabilize climate, our civilization will either be gone or unrecognizable.

Table of Contents from the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, the entire edition of which is available at www.wholeearth.com

Table of Contents from the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, the entire edition of which can be viewed online at www.wholeearth.com

Structurally, the two works are more similar than they initially appear. His new book is a series of short essays built around other works that informed his worldview. He doesn’t just reference these other works, but summarizes them, dissects them, and links them together like a reading plan – or, if you will, like a catalog. That leaves him free to express his views without bogging down in details, so he extracts just what he needs to make his case and to set you up for the next essay while leaving you hungering for the source literature – all of which, by the way, is slowly becoming accessible through the online annotated version of the book, which performs the same function that his catalog did 40 years ago. Thematically, he begins with the climate and how, when it changes, wars follow. He offers a light, bright, and tight summary of climate science – a summary made readable by distilling the essence from each source and making it clear where we can find answers to the questions we have. He zips quickly from climate science to ecosystem services, heavily citing works that have become classics in both fields, like The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart and Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins. He repeatedly admonishes the greens for promoting unworkable Utopian solutions to environmental problems and the anti-greens for denying that such problems even exist. Climate change, he reminds us, presents a challenge so great that we can’t afford to be ideological, territorial, or petty.

In the face of climate change, everybody is an environmentalist. That’s tough not just for people who have been comfortable thinking of themselves as antienvironmentalist; it’s even tougher for long-time Greens. Activist Bill McKibben recently noted: “The environmental movement has morphed steadily into the climate change movement.” That means that Greens are no longer strictly the defenders of natural systems against the incursions of civilization; now they’re the defenders of civilization as well. It’s a whiplash moment for everyone. When roles shift, ideologies have to shift, and ideologies hate to shift. The workaround is pragmatism – “a practical way of thinking concerned with results rather than with theories and principles.” The shift is deeper than moving from one ideology to another; the shift is to discard ideology entirely.

Climate Change should be the alien invasion that unifies all the people of the Earth against a common enemy, but ideology prevents us from recognizing it for what it is. Later, he points out that ideologies adopt issues based more on irrational associations that shift over time than on real analysis.

In the old days, conservation was conservative, the proper activity of duck hunters and Teddy Roosevelts. And progress used to belong to progressives; but then it frightened them, and they turned on it. They came to oppose what they viewed as the technological threats of progress, the despoliation of nature by progress, and the capitalist engine of progress. That in turn offended the conservatives, who were fond of capitalism, and opposing the newly antiprogress progressives meant opposing their environmental programs as well. The flip was complete. It has become a problem. Worldwide, the political stereotype these days is that Green equals left, left equals Green, and right equals anti-Green. That may be helpful for liberals, grounding them in the science and practice of natural systems, but it blinds conservatives and badly hampers Green perspective. Becoming politically narrow limits Greens’ thinking and marginalizes their effectiveness, because whatever they say is automatically dismissed by anyone who has doubts about liberals. Countless conservatives refused to take climate change seriously because they couldn’t abide the idea of Al Gore being right.

On ecosystem services, he advocates for the stronger metaphor of a green infrastructure – and not just when talking about floodplains and mangroves.

A bridge is infrastructure, and so is the river under it. Both support our life, and both require maintenance, which has to be paid for somehow. Radio spectrum is infrastructure, and so is an intact ozone layer. Both support our life, and both require international agreements to avert a “tragedy of the commons.” Between headlong industrial capitalism and a necessarily patient natural capitalism is a pace gap that is hard to bridge. With infrastructure, however, we already think in terms of duration and responsibility, so it’s no stretch to extend that thinking to natural systems. When there are problems with built infrastructure, we’re used to solving them with science, engineering, collaborative public agreements, and financial instruments such as bonds and public-private contracts. Those tools apply just as well to natural infrastructure.

What makes this book so valuable is its call to open-mindedness, which it accomplishes in a way that’s joyful, playful, and frightening. For a detailed summary, check out this review that Graham Strouts wrote on his Skepteco blog, which “tries to separate the science from the ideology within the environmental movement.” But for a joyride into the apocalypse and back, pick up the book, read it from cover to cover, and then spend time with random passages every chance you get.

Steve Zwick

I edit Ecosystem Marketplace, which is a news service focused on environmental finance. With this blog, I hope to offer coverage that is a bit lighter and more holistic than what we offer on EM.

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