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Great writing, poor thinking
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.