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on 23 March 2010
I did broadly change my mind as a result of reading this book about the potential advantages of progressive urbanisation - inevitable in any case - GM/GE organisms and nuclear power; the `main news' part of the book. Brand successfully includes these as possible solutions to the ecological crisis, part of the package needed. In this way his approach is refreshingly solution-orientated, identifying what is required as an engineering, problem-solving approach, in contrast to the tragic and pessimistic `decay narrative' of the romantic wing of environmentalism.

However there are serious lacks. Presumably because he is American, he does not imagine any alternative to corporate capitalism. He talks of `managing the commons' without recognising that one of the main thrusts of capitalism, for over four hundred years, is the privatisation of the commons for profit, more recently expropriating its intellectual property and patenting its DNA! He is clearly a technophile, but berates rather than understands the justified suspicion of science when it is in the service of this corporate capitalism. Western technological science co-arose with capitalism, is at best co-dependent with it, perhaps simply a product of it.

He fails to provide, therefore, any political economic context for his thesis or, for that matter, much cultural perspective. The future he imagines of successfully combating climate change could be either a utopia or a dystopia, depending whether the technical solutions are accompanied by a shift in values - or not....

Nevertheless he convincingly argues that the environmental movement will also have to shift its ground. The book's `eco-pragmatism' is therefore radical in suggesting some of the sacred cows it will have to abandon, and worth reading, even though the egocentric style is sometimes irritating, for Brand's encyclopaedic knowledge. It succeeds as a practical guide to changing one's mind and looking at difficult challenges in a new way.
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on 27 July 2010
There's nothing wrong with writing a book that champions your own particular views about how to tackle a problem, but if you genuinely value reason and open-mindedness - as Stewart Brand claims he does - then it behoves you to take contrary views seriously and to address the drawbacks of your favoured options. This Brand spectacularly fails to do. Fallacies, half-truths, and non-sequiturs leap out on virtually every page of this book, though many of them are concealed by Brand's exceptional writing skills. Maybe it wouldn't matter if the issues he's discussing weren't so important - sadly, the result of this book will probably be to make many people think that our environmental problems have already been largely solved by the experts, so that we can just carry on as before enjoying Brand's brand of caring Californian consumerism.

Here's a brief summary of his argument. The world is becoming urbanised, which is good. A lot of western environmentalists think peasant agriculture is soulful and organic, but actually rural life is hopeless. In fact, Brand comes close to arguing that rural PEOPLE are hopeless. You get famines in the country, but not in the city. That obviously can't be because it's harder to grow food in the country, but Brand doesn't stop to ask himself whether there may be economic forces at work that impoverish rural people to the benefit of urban (and rural) elites, because he's too busy painting a picture of life in urban slums as, well, soulful and organic. It doesn't occur to him that similar economic forces operate in the city to keep most of the poor in poverty - in fact there's virtually no proper economic analysis in the entire book, other than a touching faith in people's ability to haul themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps and in the benevolence of large multinational corporations.

Obviously, all these city folk will need a lot of grid energy to get rich, and it can't come from fossil fuel because that will torch the planet. Therefore we need clean, green nuclear power. Brand spends most of his chapter on nuclear energy reassuring us that it's safe, enabling him to avoid most of the pertinent issues. What is the real environmental footprint of nuclear energy, when you take all the hard rock mining of uranium ores into account? How do we deal with the problem that we're running low on uranium reserves? Brand says `in fact we're not, and it wouldn't matter if we did'. That's astonishingly cavalier for someone who wants to get people into the cities and using more grid power. He talks vaguely of thorium, fast breeder reactors and the like riding in to rescue us. Let's hope to God he's right. But if I were a rural farmer thinking of lighting out to the city, I wouldn't want to sell the family plot on that basis.

With the rural labour force off hawking matches in the city, where will our food come from? Brand, unsurprisingly, is a big fan of transgenic crops. And again, he spends most of this chapter reassuring us that they're safe, rather than looking at the real issues of how they fit into our ecological and economic systems. On page 161, when it suits his argument, Brand says `nothing is fully established scientifically, ever', yet when it comes to GM crops he boldly states `the science is in' (in favour of GM, naturally). But as his own analysis demonstrates, the science isn't `in' (how could it possibly be, with a technology only a few years old?). The publicity about superweeds irritates him, but Brand offers no convincing arguments against the emergence of pest resistance to transgenic crops, and has to fall back on integrated pest management as the way to overcome the problem - in other words, a tried and tested non-GM method. And, surprisingly for someone so concerned about biodiversity, he offers no thoughts on the long-term effects of transgenic crops and the herbicide regimens associated with them on soil biota, agricultural weeds and the animal life that relies on them. When Brand says on page 223 in relation to the failures of biomimetic engineering that `natural processes defy simple imitation because they are the irrational product of timeless evolution rather than design' you might ask why the same wouldn't also be true of simple gene-splicing in crop plants. But you won't find an answer here. The GM chapter reaches its nadir on page 157 when Brand claims that African soil is degraded partly because synthetic fertilisers aren't available. It's hard to take anything he says seriously after a howler like that.

Things do pick up a little after this low point, and once Brand has exhausted his ire against Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth he has genuinely interesting things to say about climate change, biotechnology, ecological restoration and so forth, even though they're compromised by his extraordinarily rosy view of how capitalism and globalisation works.

A really important book could be written about different possible paths to a sustainable future. It could compare the costs & benefits of all the high tech wizardry that enthuses Brand with other programmes such as rural land reform and female empowerment, local crop biodiversity etc. And it would look at how these policies would actually work on the ground in terms of their economic and social effects. It could offer a synthesis of plausible high tech and low tech approaches to get us out of the mire we're in. If he could only have seen beyond his parochial Californian utopianism Stewart Brand could have written such a book. But this isn't it.
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on 6 February 2010
Stewart Brands book on climate change, urbanization and biotechnology seems the only clear voice in the current climate change debate. Read it and see how the inventor of the pre-internet, the Whole Earth Catalogue, and one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation has remained well-informed, well connected and strikingly objective throughout the last 40 years, giving his clear view on what we should be doing to make sure humankind doesn't evaporate.

A scary, intelligent and uplifting read. Be ready to be converted and have your views changed - this man knows what he's talking about.
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on 13 September 2011
This extraordinary book should be read by all politicians and anyone concerned with our future. It is refreshing on many topics, and challenging to our preconceptions. It gives ground for hope, and tackles basic problems and concerns head on , without recourse to special arcane language. It questions so much, and proposes from a position of knowledge. One of the most refreshing books I have encountered. An unequivocal Five Star rating.
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on 27 February 2012
This is one of the best books I've read for a long time. It is full of great quotes and interesting titbits (my favourite being that kiwi fruits were selectively bred from gooseberries). It is almost worthwhile getting for the recommended reading section alone. Brand is an iconclast. I have heard of environmentalists being in favour of nuclear energy before, but not of slum cities or genetically engineered food. He regards himself as an eco-pragmistist, who looks to science to steer himself between two ideological positions: one, a deep green perspective that distrusts capitalism, western style consumerism and techno-fixes; the other, a reactionary refusal to believe environmental concerns are anything other than a green-socialist plot. It's the first book I've recommended to my friends on social networking sites. I thought two of the chapters, "Romantics, Scientists and Engineers" and "It's all Gardening" were slightly weaker than the others, but overall I thought it was excellent.

However when I raised the subject of GM food on one social network, it was the behaviour of the seed corporations (one in particular) that was most often objected to. This aspect was not entirely glossed over, but nor was it spelt out. Possibly this was because the author wanted to discuss the potential benefits of the technology rather than getting bogged down in the behaviour of over-powerful corporations, but arguably this is a weakness in the book. OTOH, one forum member suggested the author was some sort of contratrian or corporate paid stooge; it is clear he is not.
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on 29 October 2011
"Whole Earth Discipline" by Steward Brand is a Green book, but it's written from a distinctly heretical perspective. Brand argues in favour of urbanization, Third World development, nuclear power and Frankenfood.

In his opinion, only modernization and high tech can save humanity from climate change and its consequences. The book also contains more traditionally Green chapters on land management, wildlife preservation, etc. The bottom line is the same, however: if we want better land management, perhaps we need GE crops. If we want to preserve large wilderness preserves, we need to urbanize and make sure to develop eco-friendly technology. If we want to control population numbers, we need higher standards of living.

Brand's support for nuclear power and GE (or GM) crops will be particularly hard to swallow even for moderate Greens. Apart from Brand himself, I think James Lovelock is the only well-known Green who supports nuclear power. Interestingly, Paul Ehrlich seems to be positive to GM crops. Otherwise, opposition to both nuclear power and GM crops are almost defining features of the Green movement.

One thing is for sure. If Brand's eco-pragmatism turns out to be another failed strategy, we're in for a really rough ride...
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on 15 May 2016
An important book for anyone with an interest in the environment, climate change, population growth, GE crops or the green movement in general. Thought-provoking and detailed research. Explains why some long & deeply held beliefs within the green movement (anti-nuclear, anti-GE) are actually holding back science & political change detrimentally. I enjoyed the book thoroughly; it opened my eyes.
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on 26 April 2014
Very insightful book. I think most people who align themselves to green matra's should buy this just as much as people who wish to learn more about current sustainability discussions. The reason being is because you are certain to stumble across things you did not know so much about and in a way this feeds into surrounding topics like anthropology.
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on 15 July 2016
A free festival of ideas and energy into which to dip ones toe to find interesting and counterfactual facts to save the planet's ecology and environment (all of which are even more urgently required here in the UK now that climate change has been shunted into another department). The enthusiasm is infectious on every flick of the page. May the good times roll.
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on 29 February 2016
A deeply interesting book that can sometimes preach to the converted but at its best brilliantly re-examines the assumptions made when thinking about conservation to question some of the subjects once considered settled by those in environmental activism.
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