Environmental Heresies

Environmentalist / futurist Stewart Brand, who founded the original Whole Earth Catalog as well as the legendary electronic community The Well, and who is now involved with The Long Now Foundation has written an excellent piece for Technology Review on changes of heart — and needed changes of heart — within the environmental movement.

He starts by separating environmentalists into scientists, who “live to admit their mistakes,” and lay-environmentalists, who are often romantics and have trouble changing course. For example, while much of the environmental movement still clings to old ideas about indefinitely expanding populations being the greatest umbrella threat to the environment, world populations are actually in rapid freefall as rural areas empty out and people move to the city (life in the country encourages lots of children, life in the city discourages same). Most environmentalists have not yet gotten the message that population changes are now actually working in their favor.

He also makes some interesting cases about genetically modified foods. For example, the Amish, who are among the world’s best farmers, have enthusiastically embraced genetically modified crops. And he makes the point that environmental concerns like protecting wild spaces (a goal he embraces) are helpless against invasive species of flora and fauna, which do as much or more harm to the natural balance as man. “I can’t wait for some engineered organism, probably microbial, that will target bad actors like zebra mussels and eat them, or interrupt their reproductive pathway, and then die out.”

And then he gets to the zinger we knew was coming, re: climate change:

So everything must be done to increase energy efficiency and decarbonize energy production. Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough. Massive carbon “sequestration� (extraction) from the atmosphere, perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but it’s just a hope. The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.

I do disagree with Brand on this: “Gas-electric hybrid vehicles are now on the road, performing public good.” Hybrid vehicles may be less bad than gas-only cars, but “performing public good?” No matter how efficient, cars still take up way too much space in comparison to the number of passengers they typically transport, lead to congestion and the relentless paving over of the planet, and discourage bicycle and public transport. Hybrids are good, but they don’t “fix” the problem of cars in the larger picture.

There are other things to quibble with in Brand’s essay, but it seems clear that the environmental movement is entering a period of deep reflection. To achieve its goals, it will have to honestly question its positions on the very pillars of its philosophy. To save the planet, environmentalists have to be intellectually honest and begin debate on many of their fundamental planks. And that debate has barely started.

Related links at Metafilter.

Music: Joni Mitchell :: The Boho Dance

7 Replies to “Environmental Heresies”

  1. Scot:

    Do I detect the traditional environmentalist value “More public transportation, damn it!” ? :)

    The fact of the matter is most cities in America and indeed much of the post-industrial world are built around personal transportation. Long gone are the days when cities had an industrial center and everyone worked there. Today it’s a many to many problem, much like networking. In TCP-IP, packets are (usually) intelligently routed and traverse only the parts of the network they need to to get their payload to the destination. Likewise in sprawl, a small vehicle IS the most efficient way to get people from where they are to where they’re going in a timely manner. Busses and trains are more efficient than cars, after all, only when they are within a certain percentage of full.

    This is not to say our cars don’t need improvement. They do. Hybrids are the first step in this evolution, it gets technological evolution going at a fast rate on battery and motor systems, and on reducing the power demands of the platform. Also, Toshiba has developed a lithium battery that can recharge to 80% of full charge in one minute. If this thing scales, I expect we’ll see fully electric cars within the decade, it takes longer than a minute to fill your gas tank. Even if it doesn’t, the next step of auto evolution will be fuel cell cars, which will push the electric motor, motor controller technology, and reduced horsepower platforms further. These things take time, but as gas continues to get more expensive both at the pump and politically, the change will be mandated by consumers.

    Of course, a fully electric car will extend the demand for electrical power greatly, which, as you say, will definately push us into nuclear power. We should have been doing this for 20 years already, but after three mile island it wasn’t politically tenable. Here too technology will march on and *has* marched on, and hopefully the kind of shady dealing the owners of TMI did will no longer be tolerated when there are problems. Meantime the Navy has done a pretty good job not having meltdowns in the 50 years they’ve been operating nuclear reactors in a far more hostile environment than land based reactors, and in their hands the things have evolved considerably. Obviously solar, wind, and water power have an important role to play as well, but electric power has to be more reliable than sunlight, water, and wind, so until we get a quantum leap in power technology, the backbone of the system pretty much has to be nuclear.

    So will we be living in a non-combustion utopia? Nah. Our old friend fire will still be around, particularly in aircraft. Aircraft became practical with the advent and evolution of internal combustion engines and without them – again unless we have a quantum leap in power technology – aircraft will become extinct just as quickly, I don’t think the power to weight ratio is there or will be there any time soon to make large scale electric aircraft. But let’s be practical, the aircraft of the world don’t represent the biggest percentage of pollution.

    There’s a blog you might want to read that talks about (among other things) environmental technology. It’s here.


  2. Likewise in sprawl, a small vehicle IS the most efficient way to get people from where they are to where they’re going in a timely manner.

    Jim, I agree that this is true IF there’s limited public transport available and IF that transport is only fractionally utilized. But if it’s fractionally utilized because trains aren’t getting people to their destinations, then there’s a problem with the deployment of the train system in that area. When I lived in Boston, one of the things I loved about the T was that it “fingered” off into lots of little neighborhoods. So does NY’s subway. It’s far easier to get to most destinations in NY or Boston than it is in the Bay Area, where the BART system focuses on the long haul, not the neighborhoods. And, accordingly, the T and the NY subway are heavily used, and are running efficiently. BART runs at a loss, in part because ridership is low except at rush hour. People will use the systems if they actually have the right incentives to do so. And these incentives don’t have to be financial — people are willing to pay as much or more for public transport if it saves them grief AND gets them to their destination rather than leaving them two miles away.

    The IP packet analogy is interesting. Extend it a bit further : What happens when a network is getting over 50% utilization? Lots of packet collisions, and a corresponding drop in efficiency. Similar to how congestion drastically reduces the efficiency of the roadways, keeps people in cars longer, which burns more fuel and creates even more congestion. In most cities, there are no more places to build more roads. You can always install more backbones on the internet — it’s not the same with highways and roadways. So I strongly disagree that a car is the most efficient way to get a person to their destination. That position assumes there is no congestion, and assumes that cars can run (indirectly) on nuclear power.

    The solution is to invest more (lots more) in public transport, so the balance of efficiency is again on the train.

  3. Scot:

    The point I was making about public transportation is that in order to get the coverage to solve a many to many problem in a timely fashion, you loose the economy of scale, which is the sole advantage public transportation has. It works in a dense city like Boston or New York because for any given place public transportation and comes from goes, tens of thousands of people will want to make that particular journey.

    In a sprawl environment, the density of population is not there. You may want to go to the University, your neighbor may be going somewhere else entirely, and the third neighbor a third place. With a trunk and leaf public transport system, yes, you can all get where you’re going, but not in any reasonable amount of time.

    Also, I think perhaps you’re thinking of ethernet rather than IP in reference to collisions? Certainly it’s a good analogy, one need only look at the 101 during rush hour to see that.

    I don’t think there are easy solutions to the whole problem of getting from point A to point B in sprawl. Some public transportation probably makes sense. Efficient/minimally polluting cars make sense. Walking or biking makes sense. But if the problem were as easily solved as the dogmatic ‘more public transportation, damn it!’ suggests, I have to think it would have been done already, economic forces would have driven it.

    The only alternative I can see would be draconian laws that dictate where one can and cannot build businesses and homes, limiting them to areas where the public transportation infrastructure can serve them.


  4. Interesting article Scot – thanks for the pointer. I hadn’t heard of the whole population issue having flipped – very interesting turn-around.

    I’ve long lamented BART’s ineffectiveness especially vis-a-vis the T, one thing I dearly miss from my days in New England too. A greatly expanded system would certainly interest me, but in the meantime, I’m seriously considering trading-down to a turbo-diesel Golf (amazing efficiency and can be run on 100% Made-in-the-USA biodiesel – take THAT hybrids!). Get a smaller car that is not much of a PITA to park in the city and significantly reduce my personal dependence on foreign oil. Woo hoo!

  5. > economy of scale, which is the sole advantage public transportation has.

    Sole advantage? What about:

    – Less requirement to build more roads
    – Less human stress, more time for reading :)
    – Less overall space consumed per passenger
    – Ability to use all-electric systems NOW
    – Ability to move through dense areas quickly

    I suggest that tour arguments against the leaf-and-trunk model of public transport is based on there not being enough leaves. Hell, I can bike a lot of places faster than it takes to get to them in a car — certainly the same is true of many public transport routes. Even in the Bay Area, a BART commute from the East Bay to SF is 5 minutes, even when traffic congestion on the bridge above is making a 45-minute commute for cars. So I don’t think you can make blanket statements about the timeliness of one mode or the other – there are too many factors at work.

    But if the problem were as easily solved as the dogmatic ‘more public transportation, damn it!’ suggests, I have to think it would have been done already, economic forces would have driven it.

    Economic forces will drive it alright, as gas starts to approach the prices Europeans have been paying all along (although Americans are much more in love with their cars than Europeans are, so it will always be a harder sell here).

    Of course we can’t legislate the distance people are allowed to live from their workplaces. But it would be nice to incentive the construction of office parks etc. in suburban areas, away from cities (that’s not without its downside, but it would be effective against commute problems caused by sprawl).

  6. Interesting debate on public transportation. Used the Dallas system (DART) when I worked downtown years ago, but now that I both live and work in the ‘burbs it just isn’t practical. I’m mostly with Jim on this one – can see how it might work better if we lived in a dense, older Eastern city like NYC or Boston but not in the D/FW sprawl. I am lucky, however, that Plano, TX has a great system of bike trails. A bit more of that and I could get to a lot of local places w/o a car.

    As far as power generation, I’m with Brand and others. Nuclear has to be a major solution. Potentially safer fission designs like pebble-bed reactors to tide us over until we get fusion figured out. Abundant, non-carbon producing, non-Middle East oil dependent electricity will get us closer to electric cars, too :)

  7. Regarding Stewart Brand’s Environmental Heresies article in the May 2005 Technology Review, which you commented upon: Mr. Brand has been kind enough to endorse my book on nuclear power (written for the general audience). This book provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of the nuclear industry today and how a nuclear accident would be handled. It is called “Rad Decisionâ€?, and is currently running as a serial at RadDecision.blogspot.com. There is no cost to readers.

    “I’d like to see RAD DECISION widely read.â€? – – Stewart Brand.

    All sides of the nuclear power debate will find items to like, and dislike, within Rad Decision. I’m not sure myself what the future of nuclear energy should be. What I am sure of is that we will make better decisions if we understand what nuclear energy is right now.

    If you find Rad Decision worthwhile, I would appreciate it if you would pass the word along. Readers are what I’m looking for.

    James Aach

    20+ years in the nuclear industry


    (Stewart Brand quote used with permission.)

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