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 canâ€™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 itâ€™s still only a fraction of enough. Massive carbon â€œsequestrationâ€? (extraction) from the atmosphere, perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but itâ€™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.