Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary
“Mr. Brand opens the reader’s eyes wide by opening the book with the biggest issue—climate change—in a description so heartbreaking and depressing, you’ll want to close your eyes tight and hide under the sofa for the rest of your life. But resist that urge: Prop your eyelids open and proceed to Chapter 2, because from that point onward, you’ll be breaking out the pompoms and jumping up and down cheering, “Yay team!’”
What kind of book takes you from the depths of despair, back up through surprise—fascination—astonishment—excitement, then leaves you brimming over with optimism about the human race?
Perhaps a dazzling techno-thriller or a science fiction epic from one of the masters. In this case, it’s a nonfiction book with the ponderous title Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, covering Stewart Brand’s transformation from an originator of Green thinking in the 1960s to a proponent of urbanization, nuclear energy, and genetic engineering today.
That transformation will come as a surprise to those who remember him from his Whole Earth Review and Co-Evolution Quarterly days. People who have kept up with Mr. Brand, however, will not find his progression startling. Mr. Brand is one of our era’s advanced thinkers, and he’s active among the movers and shakers in science, environmentalism, the arts, politics, communications, engineering, strategic thinking, human cultures, and global activism. So he knows what’s going on at the macro—and often, the micro—level and can translate it into layperson terms.
Hence the book’s manifesto format versus a scientific monograph. Mr. Brand skips citations and references in favor of crediting his sources as part of the narrative, so that his research and interviews unroll like a story. He includes a bibliography and an online address to footnote material, which allows readers to proceed undistracted without forcing them to take everything on faith.
This matters because many aspects of our planetary crisis are controversial, and faith must not be blind. Mr. Brand opens the reader’s eyes wide by opening the book with the biggest issue—climate change—in a description so heartbreaking and depressing, you’ll want to close your eyes tight and hide under the sofa for the rest of your life. But resist that urge: Prop your eyelids open and proceed to Chapter 2, because from that point onward, you’ll be breaking out the pompoms and jumping up and down cheering, “Yay team!”
For Whole Earth Discipline is a report about people teaming up around the world to solve what seem to be unsolvable problems. In fact, solutions abound, and millions of folks are enacting them every day. Mr. Brand walks us through the spectrum, separates myths from realities, presents opposing viewpoints, then describes why he supports the position he chooses. More, he ties the pieces together into a sensible whole that brings both comfort and credibility in a balanced perspective.
Note that “balance” here does not mean “exactly the same number of words and identical coverage for each element of every subject.” Mr. Brand clearly has personal biases, and he clearly acknowledges them, placing them on the same table with contradictory views. He favors some topics more than others and explores different ones to different degrees. By the end, however, his presentation comes out even, because personal passion is tempered by a dispassionate intellect.
They combine into a unique perspective, which is what makes the book important. Unlike subject-matter experts who pump data and polarized opinions into the planet-crisis cauldron, he draws from experience across multiple arenas to form an analysis both deep and broad. It gives equal weight to the primary components and views them in light of each other, showing how they add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Too bad he chose such a clunky title. It creates a barrier instead of an invitation to a population that could benefit from reading this book. Nevertheless, the title accurately describes what lies within—and this content tells us a lot more than the popular media from which most people get their information.
Or misinformation, as the case may be. Misinformation, disinformation, and incomplete information—along with the attitudes they inspire—are what Mr. Brand’s book seeks to counter. His underlying theme is the power of knowledge and the need to meld diverse interests into pursuit of a common cause. He highlights risk management and how misunderstanding of it interferes with positive action. But risk-managed positive action is the key to planetary success.
Given the scope of the work, it’s likely that Mr. Brand is wrong in one or more details; indeed, the book has already evoked criticism of the facts he presents and/or his interpretation of same, and/or his core concepts. He acknowledges this and does not apologize for fallibility. Rather, he seeks engagement and contradiction, because these are what bring truth to light and propel forward motion.
Overall, the book spins one’s head with its collection of success stories, potential for more, and knowledge about existing technologies that can be developed for global good. These are being developed and applied by the largest nations and the smallest households, and all sorts of groups in between. The tools and ideas open so many doors for job opportunities, economic recoveries, environmental restoration, disaster prevention, world peace, and elimination of hunger and illness that the gargantuan problem the book started with seems diminished by the challenge of integrating so many solutions.
Which makes Whole Earth Discipline not only an antidote to despair, but also a primer on how to achieve human and planetary potential combined. It would qualify as a utopian dream if it weren’t so practical.