Steward Brand and the new nuke news

Ever since I first stumbled across issue number 57 of the Whole Earth Review many years ago, I’ve been a fan of Stewart Brand and his philosophy of access to tools and ideas. Among many other things, he’s been leading the Long Now Foundation for some years now, and their site of free seminar podcasts rivals TED in its extent and impact.

One of the recent seminars on the site is by Brand himself as he talks up his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline. I highly recommend listening to it. He gives a good summary of one of the major tenets of the book: coal is killing us, and nuclear energy is the only thing that can possibly fill its shoes. Wind, solar, and hydro can help daddy hold the tools, but they won’t come close to meeting the global demand for energy.

Fortunately, there are two good pieces of news. One is that long-term exposure to low levels of radiation doesn’t appear to be nearly as unhealthy as we once thought. The other is that better and safer nuclear technologies are on the way. Coincidentally, Wired magazine just ran an article on the potential of thorium fission. Let’s hope it works, because the alternatives are looking increasingly grim.

As Brand summed up in his talk, the original Whole Earth Catalog from 1968 began with the statement “We are as gods, so we may as well get good at it.” His new book begins with something more emphatic: “We are as gods, and we HAVE to get good at it.”

[Brand’s talk first spotted chez Jon Udell]

The hazards of misanthropic environmentalism

In a magazine with the unlikely title What Is Enlightenment, I came across an excellent review of the politics of the Green movement in America. The article, A Brighter Shade of Green: Rebooting Environmentalism for the 21st Century by Ross Robertson, touches on some history and the current diversity of opinions among Greens. In the process, it gave some structure to things I’ve been puzzling over. Especially this: if it’s so easy to see that Greens are often right, why are they so damned annoying? The answer is that they hate people.

I’ll take a step back from my oversimplification and clarify. Among certain elements of the Green movement, which Robertson calls the “Dark Greens”, modern man is characterized as a disease. This is the monkey-wrenching Edward Abbey/John Muir axis of the group. It’s a seductive line of reasoning; the sins of mankind stain every corner of the globe. But you don’t have to follow the logic very far to see that the only possible solution consistent with this naturalistic world view is a horrific depopulation and a return to a primitive agrarian lifestyle among the privileged few that remain. It’s a grim prospect, unlikely to inspire anyone but the clear-eyed believers and those rich enough to afford their own guilt. The trouble is, of course, that any movement that marginalizes people must necessarily marginalize itself. Depression does not inspire.

In contrast to these Dark Greens are the so-called Bright Greens. Two exemplars of this view are Bruce Sterling and Stewart Brand. Stewart Brand is one of my heroes. Formerly of Ken Kesey’s Pranksters and the Whole Earth Review, this is a guy who could easily live in a nostalgic hippie daydream. But instead:

…as he gets older, he recently told the New York Times, he continues to become “more rational and less romantic. . . . I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism of romanticism. It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind.

His investigations have led him to some surprising conclusions relative to typical Green rhetoric. For example: we need bigger cities and more nuclear power.

Regarding Dark Green guilt, I’ll close with an extended quote from Sterling:

It’s a question of tactics. Civil society does not respond at all well to moralistic scolding. There are small minority groups here and there who are perfectly aware that it is immoral to harm the lives of coming generations by massive consumption now: deep Greens, Amish, people practicing voluntary simplicity, Gandhian ashrams and so forth. These public-spirited voluntarists are not the problem. But they’re not the solution either, because most human beings won’t volunteer to live like they do. . . . However, contemporary civil society can be led anywhere that looks attractive, glamorous and seductive. The task at hand is therefore basically an act of social engineering. Society must become Green, and it must be a variety of Green that society will eagerly consume.

This makes abundant sense to me. Any fool can see that we are wrecking the planet, but we need to attack the problem with a positive attitude that has the potential to move millions. Sign me up! I’m ready to go Bright Green.

Read the whole article. It’s long but worthwhile.

Amory Lovins on Natural Capitalism

I recommend this series of lectures by the Rocky Mountain Institute‘s Amory Lovins. He delivered the lectures at Stanford, and they’re now hosted at the Social Innovation Conversations site.

I first came across these lectures on Jon Udell’s blog. Udell does a good job of describing them.

What you will hear, in these talks, is the distillation of a lifetime of experience in the creative optimization of the use of energy. The principles are all laid out in Natural Capitalism: integrative design, whole-system engineering, radical resource productivity, tunneling through the cost barrier. But it’s something else again to hear Lovins pile up the case studies, one after another, in a plain-spoken but cumulatively overwhelming stream of revelatory common sense.

Natural capitalism is wonderfully straightforward notion: essentially it states that capitalism is a reasonable framework for solving the world’s problems, so long as you assign reasonable value to the natural capital (clean air, forested land, mineral wealth) you consume and create. Everything belongs on the balance sheet. We suffer now because we thought of carbon dioxide emissions as a zero cost economic output that could go under the rug. Integrative design is another trend that I see rapidly becoming more prominent. And I was struck by Lovins’ use of this quote from Einstein: “I wouldn’t give a nickel for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

With these words still echoing in my ears, I was happy to read in this morning’s Boston Globe about a company called H2O Applied Technologies. According to the article, “They find ways to cut energy costs. They make energy-saving improvements. They buy and install new equipment. And they pay for everything.” They make their money by taking a cut of the resulting savings. It’s a beautiful model. No hand-wringing. No theatrics. No appeals to guilt or charity. Just profit-seeking capitalists trying to make money. If we do manage to save the world, this is how we’ll do it.

Here’s the link: Clients get energy savings, H2O shares the benefit – The Boston Globe (article may be behind a registration barrier).