From Radio Ecoshock 101015


By Alex Smith


There are so many holes and howlers in former Whole Earther Stewart Brand's green/anti-green position, it's hard to know where to start. 


I am still formulating my reply, based on the online book (“Whole Earth Discipline, an Ecopragmatist Manifesto”, his "conversation" I recorded, and his speech the same night at the University of British Columbia which is online now.


The Stewart Brand many knew and loved is dead, replaced by the new green businessman, who tells us we are Gods.  We should push risky technology until we make it, or go extinct trying.  Just wait until you hear what his billionaire "friends" are up to....




Here is one exchange we had at the "conversation" I recorded in Vancouver on October 5th, 2010.  From my first question, Brand interrupted with "funny" comments.  He snorted at the idea of going "back to the land" - when all the people of the world are fleeing the countryside, to the city slums....


Alex Smith: "The argument could be made, that you see the answer to the climate being rectified by technology, or one might say human hubris.  More technology and more hubris.  We can see how that has fouled up so badly so far."


Stewart Brand: "We haven't fouled up so badly.  C'mon.  You don't like your cell phone?"


Alex: "Actually I don't and a seldom use one.  The thing is: technology..."


Brand: "But you are using the tape recorder..."


Alex: "We're in big, big trouble.  And it isn't because of the people who were growing rice the way they grew it for a thousand years, over parts of China and India...."


Brand: "Farmers of forty centuries. I'd love the book."


Alex: (frustrated) "I won't go further.  I think you know what I am talking about.  I wonder how do you respond?"




How can Stewart Brand say "We haven't fouled up so badly" - right after warning us that climate change may drive us to extinction?  Things aren't so bad?


Or this exchange, where I ask Brand to explain his former self, as a self-sufficiency communal sort-of-guy, versus his present big money boosterism. He belittles the question...


Alex Smith: "You started out with the back to the land, putting out a book for people to be self-supportive.  In those days of the Whole Earth Catalog - that's where I came to know you.  But you've moved completely away from that."


Brand: "I haven't at all."


Alex: "I haven't heard anything about that.  I haven't heard anything about chickens.  We haven't learned about how to grow your own food...."


Brand: "Geo-engineered chickens, with even more nutrition, and more melodious clucks.  That is coming, not by any large corporation.  But people are going to do that in their back yard: chickens that sing like canaries."


In fact, as we hear in the Radio Ecoshock interview on Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations - chickens have been mutilated by big business.  They are shut in cages with no movement, cannot walk, have their beak clipped off.  Not much "singing like canaries" in that corporate design.


And everything in Stewart Brand's speech indicated he has moved very far from his origins.  He talks of the fabulously wealth saving the world, with big tech adventures like nuclear power.


Later, evaluating the back to the land movement which he championed, Brand found little of value from that period, beyond sexual diseases.


"AIDS might have been one outcome of the sexual promiscuousness."  


Then Brand adds: "'A case of crabs instead of revolution'  was how one person described the sixties." 


Sexual diseases were the only outcome of the sexual revolution, Stewart?  Remember when you were supposed to marry a Virgin, and THEN find out if the sexual chemistry worked?  Should everyone have stayed in their closets?


People don't need to bother going back to growing their own food.  The country, Brand tells us, is a place to be shunned, left to the wilds of nature (and, we presume, the factory farms containing the heavenly genetic-made pigs and chickens in their tiny pens... to feed the urban folk.)  If the masses in Asia are heading into the slums, you should stay in the city, too.


Really it was a sad verdict on the old Stewart Brand, rather than a generation. 




"Most of the hippies I know who survived that period, became business people.  Much to their own surprise. 


And I'll tell you why that happened.  Because business people were the first people to take us long hairs seriously.  Everybody else thought that we were a danger to society.  But one of our peculiarities was that we were honest.  And in business, nothing gains trust like being honest."


The latest saga of business hardly suggests that money-makers love honesty.  Such B.S.  Oh, and by the way, many of the "hippies" did not become businessmen.  Some went to academia to teach, others to non-profits trying to better the world.  I suppose some are just older hippies.




Then Stewart Brand goes into an appreciation of the multi-billionaires, acting where governments are grid-locked.  Men such as Andrew Carnegie, who founded so many libraries. 


"The Rockefeller Foundation, I know one of the Rockefellers, and they've been an astounding dynasty, not only wonderful people, generation after generation.  But really smart philanthropy, generation after generation."


He missed the source of that great Rockefeller wealth, monopolistic oil - the climate toxin.  Apparently he has not read another appreciation of the Rockefellers "Thy Will Be Done - The Conquest of the Amazon.  Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil."  A good Baptist Christian tale of not so wonderful people taking over the lands of other people. 


And what about the dark history of David Rockefeller's Citi Group?  All those petro-dollars, and narco-dollars recycled.  The espionage and intrigue - were they all wonderful people?


I do not know if the Rockefeller fortunes have divested themselves of oil holdings.  Do they still have major stock in Exxon, that cash cow?  The Rockefeller Brothers philanthropy has indeed helped some environmental causes, including donations to the Great Bear Rainforest campaign.  But did you see their renunciation of fossil fuels, and their giant campaign to save the climate of the Earth?  Neither did I.


Brand tries to appear like a person very plugged in.  He goes to important meetings - just back from one in Washington D.C!  Billionaires are his friends.  He has become an apologist for this system which is eating the earth, the sea, and the sky. 


His idol Warren Buffett, held out as an example of true capitalism in the recorded conversation, could make a sincere change.  Namely: stop hauling endless trainloads of coal out of the West, to the Mid-West power plants, using his train company.  No sign of that.  In an earlier Radio Ecoshock piece, I have already covered Warren Buffet's non-statements about the coming climate crisis. 


Richard Branson could denounce senseless travel on super-polluting air planes on Virgin airlines, and his exotic travel destinations.  He has not renounced his bread and butter - but dabbles in space tourism as well, as though that atmospheric damaging hobby is what the world needs now....


Bill Gates has been extremely slow to the global climate change table, and has produced nothing there yet, except an idea for a new type of traveling wave reactor, sometime in the long distant future.


None of these charitable billionaires seems able to keep up with the darker side of money: people like the notorious Koch Brothers who are sabotaging both rational politics and climate change action.


We can hardly talk about all the other multi-billionaires.  The Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Indians, and so on.  What are their beneficial intentions?  Where are they on climate change, except solidly on the wrong side, condemning our children to the heat, floods, and rising seas?  Most are holding on hard to their fortunes, jewels, and power.


All the solutions assume the capitalist financial system will survive, fortunes of the beneficent wealthy will remain intact, and we'll fly higher, even higher, into becoming the Gods of technology.  I think the system is bankrupt, and I am not alone.




"NASA hasn't done anything useful for three decades." Brand proclaims.


(NASA was a driving force, with the Germans, in launching the GRACE satellites that, among many other things, show the massive ice loss in Greenland, by measuring the change in gravity.  Plus many other ways of monitoring the Earth...)


This is part of a continuing plea that governments are useless, so his "friends" - the multi-millionaires and billionaires, should step in and take private action.  He almost threatens that these individuals may step in with geoengineering.  They have the money - it only takes $300 million a year, he says.  And Stewart Brand is meeting with other very rich people from the Silicon valley to independently fund research into human cooling of the planet by injecting more pollution....


"One of my friends, two of my friends - Richard Branson, - three of my friends actually - Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, all have their own space programs.  They can afford it - why not? Elon Musk is going to be the go-to guy for rockets."




About geoengineering.  After saying no government would fund it, Brand says, with a slide showing a futuristic sail-powered ship with large stacks...


Stewart Brand (conversation 101005 recorded by Alex Smith):


"This one, is being funded by retired Silicon valley engineers.  And this beautiful thing is a Stephen Salter, a British engineer, design Catamaran with Flettner sails, sails cross the wind, and the force of that drives these propeller turbines which then atomize the sea water, send it out the top.  The atomized sea water immediately dries into little salt particles which then become the nuclei of water droplets which then brighten the clouds, which then brighten the Albedo of that part of the planet, cool that part of the ocean.  Keep it healthy and... do enough of that, and they've figured out that a fleet of 300 of those might make the difference to keep it cool, to keep the planet cool. 


No government is funding it.  Not the American government, not the British government, not the Canadian government.  Private guys are, in Britain and the United States.  That will happen for a while, until there's enough traction there, or enough worry, that some kind of 'GreenFinger' as he might be called, will save the world....


Then the governments will step up.


So I see personal philanthropy as a huge work-around to a lot of these issues."


In Brand's speech to the UBC students the same night, he quickly mentioned ocean acidification coming out of geoengineering, admitting it was a drawback.  The plan isn't perfect, but still necessary, he says. 


Ocean acidification is a land-mine waiting to blow up in the public consciousness.  The realization of the full meaning of turning the ocean more acid is unknown to most.  Brand does a disservice by minimizing this risk - but then he minimizes all risks, even the most hair-raising things, like nuclear waste, and dirty bombs, and wild genetic engineering done by the general public, to create more pleasant chickens.....





I was almost at a loss to explain my complex take on Stewart Brand, as a social phenomenon.  He claims to be a green, but a new kind of green, that denounces everything before him, especially Greenpeace.  He laments regulation, even environmental regulation, as an impediment to free invention and business.  He likes everything that requires big business to do.  He's a kind of green anti-environmentalist, who renounces even his former self, as an explorer back-to-the-land, self-sufficiency, everything.


I turned to my listeners email from last week's program.  I couldn't do this show without such highly intelligent Ecoshock listeners.  I'm going to continue with some of my emails to them.


Brand still believes the market should solve most problems.  But where it cannot work, private billionaires should step in, until the solution can be re-launched into the private sphere.  The billionaires will get into a league to save us.  That seems naive to me, to say the least.  And can we wait for such saviors, doing little ourselves to change the culture of death?


"Ideology will take you down blind alleys."  That, Brand says is the point of his book: it is time to put ideologies on the shelf, and become very pragmatic.  Whatever works is good, he seems to say, especially in these times of crisis.


At the end of his speech to University of British Columbia staff and students, Stewart Brand said:


"This is a whatever it takes deal, folks... We may not get out of this century alive...."  But, he says, it is all a great adventure.




Meanwhile, the nuclear power push is moot in the United States.  See this.  Brand didn't tell his students that the fossil fuel industry has stalled any big nuclear until decades to late to help us avert catastrophe.  Even the huge international plans will likely founder on the coming Depression's destruction of capital.  Most will never be built.


Exelon Corp. Chief Executive Officer John Rowe told the press in New York that a new Maryland nuclear plant would not be built, because it is not economic to build nuclear with the price of natural gas so low.  He the nuclear renaissance has been stalled for a decade or two - killed off by the fossil fuel industry.  The planned Maryland reactor will not be built - despite the $7.5 billion dollar government loan and other huge subsidies.


So why is Stewart Brand still flogging nuclear power as a solution in the United States?




Brand did not talk about the global dimming problem, arising from geoengineering schemes that he promotes.  Dimming is already extreme, with about 10% less sunlight reaching Chinese fields.  Think about that!  What a huge change, just since 1950 (figures from Scripps Institute).  How dare we darken the sky, blot out the Sun!


Some techies' say they want to put ships pumping sulfur into the Southern Hemisphere, in the "empty" Pacific where the automatons won't run into shipping traffic.  Never mind the impact on algae in the Pacific that provide much or our oxygen.


The potential for acid rain, and greater cloudiness, falls on Australia, South America, South Africa.... as the particles stay generally in the hemisphere where they are created, due to wind patterns (just as most industrial pollution stays with us in the North).  But how convenient for the powerful North to decide the South should get the added pollution!


It goes on.  I interviewed Tim Garrett, a cloud expert from the University of Utah.  He had doubts "cloud whitening" would work anyway.  He suspects that other clouds will just get darker.  He's working on that theory. 


Meanwhile, the only real way we can know such large-scale climate tinkering can work - is if we try it out!  There is no research model that can really determine workability, other than releasing the hounds, and see what happens to the sky....


Still, humanity may become so desperate one extra hot year, that we try it.  Meanwhile, the dream of a technical fix allows us to go ahead and pollute some more.  We'll make it all better some time in the future, somehow, because we are Gods.....Stewart Brand said so.




Brand is certainly now representing himself a "friend" and apologist for some American and British billionaires, and other movers-and-shakers.


He became a pollinator, from the counter-culture to the business world, and in my opinion, became a kind of character to inspire one's dinner table, or corporate meeting.  a little too harsh, perhaps, since Brand is also an organizer, but that is my take.


As such, Stewart Brand serves a purpose in his public talks: to elucidate what the response, or non-response, of some English-speaking wealthy men is.  Listen to him, because you will hear the progressive capitalist buzz.  Surprise, surprise - all it takes is more technology and big business, and it will be run by the very rich.  Brand said he didn't see much difference between governments and corporations - they are just different ways of organizing people.  I see a big difference, don't you?


There are gigantic holes in Brand's simplifications.  Some of his statements in the afternoon were preposterous.  I could create a short list of laughable/awful Brandisms from just one afternoon. 


Nature is what we make of it.  We are Gods.  We just need to improve.  There is nothing wrong with technology, we just need a lot more of it.  We can fix every mistake.


Everyone will be performing genetic experiments in their garden sheds, Brand says.  If some horrible life form results, we'll find it and exterminate it with some other life form.  As if one can take such mistakes back.....  He sees the genetic "game" to be like computer hacking.  Mistakes just make the system stronger.  Try taking back life forms like rabbits in Australia, zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, and all the invasive species we already introduce.  Now try to correct the super bug created in a University lab contest...


I could go on.


I don't classify Brand as a climate denier.  He is a true believer, the most desperate, and still manages to profit from both the corporate world, and the crisis, in his own way.  He is a businessman.


As an idea pollinator, moving between some powerful money, and some bright minds, Stewart Brand does bring us some fresh perspectives.  He can roll out the California hype like few others.  I recommend listening to him to see what one big money line is, these days.


I disagree with Brand's hubris, and his ideas.  In fact, now that I have met him, I don't like Stewart Brand.  I felt he didn't like me.


To be fair - Stewart immediately allowed me to record his conversation - he believes in open media, open source.  And it was an off-the-cuff conversation, rather than a prepared speech (taking the risk of thinking out loud).  And Brand had a slight cold.


Still, I felt Stewart Brand made it apparent that we, as a small audience, had failed him that afternoon.  I asked him if he would like an mp3 of the recording.  "No, there is nothing there I have not heard before, many times...."


He is so great, and we so small.  Likely, we don't know any billionaires at all.


Alex Smith

Radio Ecoshock