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"Life Goes On" With Stewart Brand
Reflecting on over fifty years of environmental advocacy, a sober, scientific perspective warns against fear and apocalypticism. There’s work to be done.
The first batch of PALLADIUM 07: Garden Planet ships out tomorrow to Palladium members. Subscribe now to get your hands on it! It contains some of the best ecological writing today, an interview with nuclear energy activist and model Isabelle Boemeke, and a second interview with the environmentalist visionary Stewart Brand.
Describing Brand is difficult because he’s lived so many lives. A one-time soldier who founded the counterculture’s most celebrated publication, The Whole Earth Catalogue, his long-term thinking has always been a mainstay of his career as an environmental activist and writer. What has always set Brand apart from the rest is his ability to tell what projects have something new to bring to the world and get in on it early.
Editor-in-chief Wolf Tivy and executive editor Matt Ellison sat down with Stewart for a discussion on climate change, planetary civilization, nuclear war, and various aspects of scientific modeling. It’s an interview filled with gems, in large part due to Stewart’s natural storytelling ability and ample humor.
I think with the climate, it’s useful to ask what the things are that actually function at the scale that you want for the result that you need—in this case, a planetary scale. And thinking through that reversed my opinion about nations, in the sense that nation-states still pretty much control their tax systems. To the extent that you want to use the tax apparatus to make coal and gasoline expensive and clean forms of energy cheap with a carbon tax, the UN can’t do that. Nonprofits can’t do that, businesses can’t do that. Only governments can pass laws and enforce them. And likewise with geoengineering, with sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere you don’t have to go to planetary scales to start finding out to what extent it can work. You do it in tiny, tiny amounts. It actually changes things in the direction that you want, without causing regional problems like stopping the monsoon—that would starve India, or cook India.
But unilateral geoengineering has been treated as the great crime that might come out of taking geoengineering seriously. Somebody might just go off and do it without asking everyone else’s permission. And this is where you get into a really interesting mode of this century, having to think through global permission for planetary actions. Do you need to get total unanimity of everyone on Earth saying, “Okay, let’s do it”? Do you need to get unanimity of all the nations? Of most of the nations? Measuring how? These kinds of things will be worked through in this century.
Wolf: To continue the question of scale of action, this also gets to sort of what time-scale we are acting on. It’s like your idea of pace layering: you want to act and learn at the appropriate pace in relation to the phenomenon, or else you risk reacting too fast or slow.
When I was studying organic chemistry for my biology degree, it felt like special cases all the way down. But that’s not actually true. Physicists like Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute came along and said, well, there is a scaling effect. It is clearly the case that—they call it Kleiber’s law—that large animals have slower heartbeats and live a long time, and tiny animals have very rapid heartbeats and live a short time. It turns out that mice and elephants both have the same number of heartbeats in a lifetime. And the difference has to do with scale. Mice are small, but the network effects of being a mouse are quite different from the network effects of being an elephant.
Geoffrey West’s book Scale went on to look for Kleiber’s law in human institutions like cities. Cities, in particular, have a reverse relationship: the bigger they get, the faster they go, instead of slower. And this frightened him! At least, more than it frightened me. He believed that clearly the great thing about cities is, yeah, they create these extra problems, but because they’re faster at everything they can come up with solutions to the problems that they cause faster than they caused them. And therefore, they get bigger and more advantageous, and pretty soon you’ve got a whole urban global civilization. And then he just sort of hit some kind of interior wall, thinking “this can’t go on!”
He thought that infinite acceleration is not something that humans can live with, that it’s going to just slow down and break. So he was worried about a collapse that may come about from these cities getting bigger and bigger, faster and faster, until something breaks in a big way. I’m not persuaded by that. And maybe it’s because by training, I’m a biologist and he’s a physicist. I just see so many ameliorating Gaia-like mechanisms that biology has to manage big change.
I mean, the planet’s shift from anaerobic to aerobic life as the primary life form was a huge and seemingly catastrophic change. Certainly, if you’re an anaerobic microbe, you didn’t like it. But the great oxygenation worked out actually pretty well—so we oxygenating organisms say. You might think the anaerobic guys that have to hide down in the soil are saying, “Yeah well, fuck you! We’re down here hating you to this very moment!” But none of that happens. I’m pretty sure they don’t even know.
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Stewart is against the apocalyptic thinking that undergirds so many discussions of climate change right now. Planetary civilization is deeply resilient, in part because it has the ability to reflect on the trajectories of past civilizations. The learning process in learning to live with the environment will take time, but it’s not just us doing the learning—Earth does so at the same time, too. Wild animals like coyotes successfully adapting to urban living is one example of this. The division between human and natural activity remains, but they are in a constant coevolutionary relationship. And as Stewart says, it’s incredibly robust—even an event like a nuclear war can’t stop it:
Even then, life goes on. Exactly. This is what I’ve sort of realized, you know, if we had a major nuclear exchange—life would go on. Differently, but mostly in recognizable ways.
One great aspect of this interview is that many of its themes are elaborated on by other articles in PALLADIUM 07, which this interview appears in. For example, the discussion of geoengineering is pertinent to Patrick Mellor’s article. Thinking about the Earth in timescales that go back to the appearance of aerobic life is something that Wolf’s article, “The Rise of the Garden Empires” uses to project into the future of civilization. It goes into the political implications of a world where competing civilizations will be unilaterally using different forms of geoengineering to achieve their aims.
A new documentary, “We Are As Gods” was recently released that tells a lot of stories from Stewart’s life. We recommend you check it out!
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
“Life Goes On” With Stewart Brand as well as Wolf Tivy and Matt Ellison. Reflecting on over fifty years of environmental advocacy, a sober, scientific perspective warns against fear and apocalypticism. There’s work to be done.
Palladium Podcast 80: Ash Milton on the Wages of Revolution. Ash Milton joins Alexander Gelland to discuss his recent article on the life of the Abbé Henri Gregoire, a priest who was one of the leaders of the French Revolution.
The Rise of the Garden Empires by Wolf Tivy. Mankind’s environmental destiny is to build garden empires, synthesizing ecology and industry together into a new form of life.
The Apostle of the French Revolution by Ash Milton. Beginning his career as a countryside priest, Henri Gregoire was an unlikely figure of the French Revolution. Outrun by its upheavals at first, his ideas have become crucial in modernizing revolutions since.
Everyone Is Moving to the Metropole by Adam Van Buskirk. As young people flock to the global cities to work, what happens to the rest of the world?
That’s all for now.