Whole Earth Discipline

Reviewed by: Alana Westwood
Categories: Culture - Climate Change
Whole Earth Discipline book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Whole Earth Discipline \ Stewart Brand

The Earth’s climate is changing and our civilization is being threatened by rising sea level, drought and disease. With unchecked human population growth we may be on the brink of self-inflicted extinction. We’ve heard the environmental forecasts, but how can we avert disaster? In his book, Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering are Necessary, long-time environmentalist Stuart Brand explains how these sometimes-controversial ideas might help save humanity and our fragile biosphere as we know it.

Brand brings a lifetime of experience and wisdom from his 40-plus year environmental career to this thought-provoking work. He offers a refreshingly pragmatic and optimistic look at the central factors underlying climate change and the methods we might employ to address them. Rather than theorizing about these issues in a fatalistic tone, as many environmental books do, Brand succinctly reviews climate change in a historical and global context, and then offers many well-researched solutions. While many of these may make the average environmentalist reader uncomfortable, they do, at the very least, make the reader think twice about the green dogma to which many people so strictly adhere.

Unsettlingly, Brand argues in favour of many technologies that “greens” typically oppose: urbanization, nuclear power, and genetically modified crops. The standard environmentalist’s perspective is challenged and many dogmatic claims are countered with scientific literature and expert opinion. Brand’s analysis of each mechanism encourages readers to rethink long-held beliefs and seriously consider once-feared technologies. You may be convinced that the mass migration to cities from impoverished rural communities will provide prosperity, reduce birth rates, foster ingenuity and build the economy; that nuclear energy is the greenest, and ultimately the only, viable alternative to fossil fuel-based energy production; and that genetic modification of food crops can make industrial agriculture environmentally-friendly, abate hunger in the developing world, and ultimately solve the global food crisis.

But the same reader might wonder, at times, if this book was commissioned by the World Nuclear Association and Monsanto. Brand’s wholehearted support of nuclear power and transgenic crops as the way of the future overlooks, or too-readily dismisses, some major counter arguments. For nuclear, Brand presents a handful of case studies reporting that radiation exposure isn’t really that bad for our health, but that’s likely not enough to get most people embracing the technology. He also makes no mention of the associated environmental impact and economic cost of mining and refining fuels for nuclear reactors. This oversight is particularly relevant in Canada, given that we have some of the largest uranium deposits in the world, and controversy around uranium extraction is often in the news. And for genetically modified crops, Brand fails to adequately acknowledge our current agricultural system’s flaws and lack of sustainability, and the fact that transgenics, in large part, promote this system rather than help solve the food crisis.

Despite these issues, this book is a necessary read for any environmentalist. It is becoming increasingly apparent that as much as we greens would like to hold on to our romanticized view of the world’s future — back-to-the-land, small-scale local organic agriculture, emission-free transportation, decentralized living, clean (non-nuclear) energy — the answer to our current environmental crises will take more than hippie ideals, and Whole Earth Discipline might be a key instrument in the shift toward a more pragmatic view of our collective future.

Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand, New York: Penguin, 2010, 352 pages

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Reviewer Information

Alana Westwood is a Ph.D. candidate doing endangered species research in Nova Scotia. She was a member of the 2012 Canadian Youth Delegation to the UN climate change conference in Qatar, and you can follow her goings-on at www.alanawestwood.com.

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