Saturday, August 29, 2015

Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities,Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary

Book Review: Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary – by Stewart Brand (Penguin Books –Kindle Edition 2009, 2010)

Brand is a delight to read, an intelligent, dynamic, and clever soul dedicated to understanding human problems. He was trained in ecology and knows what he is talking about but no doubt is considered controversial in some circles and perhaps despised in some as well. He does not seem to hold fixed views and admits when he think he has been wrong about things. This is, I think, a useful and much needed quality in our human society. He suggests that we need to discard ideologies:

“When roles shift, ideologies have to shift, and ideologies hate to shift. The workaround is pragmatism - “a practical way of thinking concerned with results rather than with theories and principles.”

This is a really long review but there is so much fascinating info packed into this book that it is necessary.

Three narratives: climate change, urbanization, and biotechnology will dominate this century, he suggests. He first talks about ‘carrying-capacity,’ of humans’ access to adequate necessary resources like food. War was a common way to get at necessities when there were not enough. Climate change could potentially reduce carrying capacity and create havoc. The danger of climate change is that of positive feedback where new changes accelerate more changes in the same direction. There is evidence that this is already happening. There are also negative feedbacks that balance changes. These all continue to be quantified and more will be known through time. Accelerated ice melt and the possibility of very large methane releases from melted tundra and the ocean would be disastrous negative feedbacks that we could probably never control. It is hard to predict when thresholds will be crossed and hard to know they have been crossed until afterwards. Along with climate modeling some are also modeling how humans would react to dire climate change scenarios that were discovered abruptly. He mentions three strategies for dealing with climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and amelioration. Mitigation is simply cutting back on emissions, or “avoiding the unmanageable.” Adaptation, such as moving coastal populations to higher ground, would be “managing the unavoidable.” Amelioration would involve adjusting the earth system through geoengineering. 

The changes needed to keep emissions at 450ppm CO2 are daunting. It’s technically possible but it would literally take a political miracle or a vast amount of them.

He talks about the similarities between ecology and economics and one in particular: economists tend to think that self-regulating markets are not to be messed with and ecologists tend to think self-regulating ecosystems are not to be messed with. He mentions Paul Hawken’s and Amory Lovins’ proposal in Natural Capitalism to replace industrial capitalism, where natural capital is liquidated and called income, with a natural capitalism based on efficiency, biologically-inspired industry, focus on services instead of products, and restoration of natural systems. Brand likes to think of ecosystem services as infrastructure. Infrastructure offers support but also requires periodic upgrades. He notes that our infrastructures are often hidden rather than displayed – “working mines, container ship ports, power plants, power lines, cell phone towers, refineries, dumps, sewage.” Ecosystem infrastructure – watersheds, wetlands, fisheries, soil, and climate – are often taken for granted but we eventually notice when they are not working.

Brand mentions and plugs many interesting books throughout this work, explaining some of their key points. William Ruddiman, in Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum thinks that humans have been affecting climate through methane increases caused by irrigating rice fields beginning 5000 years ago and decreases in CO2 output occurred during plagues where human population decreased. So it is likely that we began affecting the climate long before the Industrial Revolution. We have been unintentionally terraforming the earth for thousands of years. 

He talks about autocatalytic technologies – those that spur new growth and new technologies exponentially: mainly infotech, biotech, and nanotech (which can blur into biotech). Brand thinks that we are about to enter an era of large-scale ecosystem engineering out of sheer necessity.
Cities create wealth. Cities and agriculture increase our carrying capacity and always have. In 1800 the world was 3% urban, in 1900 it was 14%, and in 2007 it was 50%. Cities are more efficient and less wasteful. Migration to cities continues. That is where the jobs and opportunities are. The biggest cities were mainly in Europe and the U.S. in 1900 but now they are mainly in Asia, but spread out throughout the world. Smaller cities offer linkage to rural areas for innovative social changes. Developing countries are urbanizing quickly. Cities are durable and seem to retain their identities. I can add that there is a self-organizing quality about cities – they can exhibit emergent properties or be an example of human macro-behavior. Even though cities ancient and modern are full of slums, there are still the best opportunities in cities to get out of poverty as well as getting out of being imprisoned by tradition, something that effects women quite a bit. Concentration and density make it easier to provide social services. Density accelerates economic activity. It was thought that agriculture invented cities but Jan Jacobs argued that trade probably created cities which then created agriculture {or at least refined it}. Lewis Mumford noted that the earliest definition for a town was “an enclosed or fortified place” which usually had walls and so the people were confined to varying extents.
Rural skills can function well in the city – for building shelter, something done extensively in slums. These squatter cities are quite problematic with sewage, utility, and sometimes crime problems but they are also vibrant and full of innovation. He gives Mumbai as an example where people are tightly packed but there is opportunity to get out of poverty or at least negotiate it without being confined to tradition. He mentions a book by journalist Robert Neuwirth – Shadow Cities. “Slums of hope” are distinguished from “slums of despair” by social cohesiveness. Women have more power in cities and often work for and run NGOs in countries like Bangladesh. Religion often offers support for slum dwellers as noted by Mike Davis in Planet of Slums. This was perhaps an unexpected development, and possibly a troubling one, but only if those religious movements are radical or intolerant. According to urban researchers squatters are now the main builders of cities throughout the world. Slums in Bangkok and Rio are equipped with basic technology – refrigerators, cell phones, TVs, washing machines, microwaves, and computers, and literacy rates have climbed drastically. People within are often smart and well-informed. People squatting in slums make up the “informal economy” which is significantly vast. Dense communities have social capital that can result in robust economic activity but most of it is “under the table.” In many cities slums are very close to affluent neighborhoods which makes for vibrant service industries. Unauthorized and illegal electric lines and water pipes fill slums. Bootleg electricity is dangerous and unreliable so deals were worked out with electric utilities – the examples are from Buenos Aires, Caracas, and Sao Paulo – where trust was developed between squatters and the utilities. They started coin or token-operated electric meters for intermittent use. 

One unexpected result of the study of slums and cities was (and perhaps anti-corporatists should take note):

“… that global corporations, thanks to global oversight by home governments and NGOs, often provided the best-paying jobs and best working conditions in developing-world cities, raising the standard for everybody.” 

Slums exist on the threshold of illicity and legitimacy and people can go either way. With government and corporate support they can go towards legitimacy. When houses are treated as homes rather than property, they are better maintained and upgraded.

Cities address overpopulation best, mainly by being efficient and communal. Cellphone usage has exploded in the third world. Widespread texting spreads literacy. Remanufactured cell phones are cheap and receiving messages is free. This helps get everyone connected. Prepaid SIM cards have boomed across Africa. Some just carry a card and borrow a phone when needed. Cell phone towers and rural phone charging stations were powered by inefficient diesel generators but renewable microgrids are ideal and the future. Connectivity = Productivity. In slums in India and Africa clever people have reverse-engineered cell phone repair and even produced their own repair manuals. Cell phones represent the fastest global diffusion of any technology in human history.

City dwellers have fewer children. Brand and others think that more urbanization means slower population growth and sooner population peaking. Brand was a student of Paul Ehrlich, whose book, The Population Bomb in 1968 quite incorrectly predicted mass food shortages and problems due to overpopulation that did not occur. He miscalculated human ingenuity but also failed to predict the success of things like the Green Revolution and other technological advances that helped people out of poverty. Brand admits he was wrong about a lot of things in the past, this included. He goes through several more recent influential books about population studies and concludes that it is mainly urbanization that has diffused the population bomb and will continue to do so. The U.N. thinks population will peak at 9 billion. Brand thinks 8 billion. After that it will begin to fall. Birth rates in many countries are falling quite a bit. This is mostly in developed countries: Japan, European countries, Brazil, and especially Russia. The Russian data was a bit disturbing, stating that the avg. Russian woman has seven abortions. I find that a bit hard to swallow but who knows? Addressing depopulation implosion (in certain places) should begin now he says, as it is likely to accelerate in the future. The U.S. and France have the highest birth rates in the world, he notes. The U.S. is perhaps inundated with the Christian dogma of fruitfully multiplying but also with first-generation immigrants who tend to make offspring, while France is perhaps influenced by socialist policies that encourage family growth. 
Predictions for the next three decades are for old people in old cities in the global north and young people in new cities in the global south. Brand and his wife live as squatters on a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay, although now the place is gentrified and more or less legit, though it wasn’t in the 70’s. Recycling is pretty much necessary in dense slums – people need things and things need to be moved to make space for people! People can make extra money by collecting things and recycling them. It is unquestionable that per capita cities are greener than towns or rural living. Water need not be piped far and electricity need not be lost through transport distances. I predict that rural places will tend to go off-grid and micro-grid, mostly with renewables and battery storage, in the future. Urban ecology is a “hot” topic and one that can yield useful results. Cities are “socioecological systems.” Urban farming has great potential – one I can see is that pilfering by wildlife and certain insects and weeds is easier to mitigate. Urban roofs have much potential for farming, beekeeping, green space, helping to cool and insulate buildings, etc. White roofs are back in trend to cool hot heat islands in cities. Incentives to promote “walkability” and bicycling, such as congestion taxes are now popular. Infrastructure always has to be rebuilt every few decades so incorporating green ideas is important. Cities also tend to concentrate pollution as well as crime so these problems need to be dealt with but cities also concentrate wealth and business opportunities.

The next chapter is about nuclear energy. Brand makes a pretty good case that it is not as dangerous as often made out to be. He was part of the “no nukes” activism era but now concedes that his view has changed. He mentions climate scientist James Hansen. Both Brand and Hansen argue that nukes are green. Brand’s mind was changed during a visit to the proposed nuclear suppository at Yucca Mountain in 2002. He visited with his Long Now Foundation which strives to foster long-term thinking and to consider effects of current actions projected 10,000 years into the future. The conditions inside the mountain were modeled for decades and billions were spent, all to make sure the nuclear waste would not be problematic for 10,000 years. Brand came to a Eureka moment where he realized that public fear of radioactivity was way overblown and such overcautious attitudes were self-defeating. Nuclear accidents are rare compared to fossil fuel accidents although there is of course potential and safety is most dire. Of course, this book was published a year before the Fukushima incident. In any case, Brand realized that the problem with the stored nuclear waste would not get worse over time, but eventually just vanish. Canadian policy for nuclear waste storage involves it being storable for a minimum of 175 years and remaining easily retrievable in case it needs to be reused – say for new nuclear technologies as these would utilize spent nuclear fuel. Waste storage is not that big of a problem, he thinks, and many of the costs of nuclear are about overspending for over-safety due to concerns prompted by the very preventable accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as well as the horrifying effects of the bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many former anti-nuke advocates have changed position. One is writer Gwyneth Cravens, who wrote the 2007 book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. She says that two things make nuclear most desirable: baseload and footprint. Baseload refers to uninteruptible power supply currently only able to be provided by fossil fuels, hydro-power, and nuclear – as renewables like solar and wind are intermittent. Regarding footprint, Cravens pointed out that a 1000 MW, or 1 GW, nuclear plant would take up 1/3 of a square mile, equivalent wind power would take up 200 square miles, and solar 50 square miles. Another thing of interest is the relative size of wastes: nuclear waste, if all energy was nuclear would be about a soda can in size per person per lifetime while coal waste, if all energy was coal would be about 68 tons of solid waste and 77 tons of CO2 waste per person per lifetime, not including the fly ashes and flue gases of coal (the world’s largest source of radioactivity) which are both toxic. Nuclear waste can be stored under controlled conditions indefinitely. Other pro-nuclear advocates include Jim Lovelock, Tim Flannery, Freeman Dyson, Patrick Moore, Jared Diamond, and many others. Even Bill McKibben is cautiously pro-nuclear.
Brand rightly concludes that the foremost strategy for climate change mitigation/emissions reduction is energy efficiency and conservation. “You get the most result for the least cost at the greatest speed.” The example of the state of California is most exemplary: from the 1970’s energy usage was kept level for three decades due to end-use efficiency mandates (refrigerators, cars, etc.), new regs on heat efficiency in buildings, and decoupling of profits from sales in energy/utility companies.
Older environmentalist ant-nuclear people note the four great problems that condemn it as a technology: safety, cost, waste storage, and proliferation – all negatives. Brand sees it from an engineering standpoint: baseload, footprint, portfolio, and government-scale – all positives. He sees the negatives as solvable and manageable rather than as insurmountable problems. He notes that with 16% of electricity coming from nuclear there have only been three major accidents (all preventable) – England’s Windscale fire in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979, and Chernobyl in 1986. Add Fukushima in 2011. But still it is small and one could easily argue that the calculated yearly deaths from coal pollution far outweigh the deaths from nuclear accidents. He notes that 100 times more people died from the Bhopal chemical accident than died at Chernobyl. He also notes that radiation from nuclear energy has not killed a single American. 

Apparently, there is much debate about how dangerous low level radiation actually is. Some researchers even suggest that low level radiation can be positive for health. He goes through the different yearly levels of radiation in different places, with different jobs (such as an astronaut), among cigarette smokers (pretty high), those who get CAT scans, and people who live in areas with very high naturally occurring radiation with no known health problems. Studies are being done in salt caverns with extremely low radiation to determine if lower radiation than background actually improves health at all. Suggestions are that it doesn’t and if so that means we are spending way too much on nuclear. 

The status of nuclear power is variable as some countries are abandoning it while others are scaling up by building new plants. Despite Amory Lovins’ claims that nuclear power is collapsing because it is “grossly uncompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete,” Brand shows that many countries are scaling up – although after Fukushima things changed a bit as Japan (3rd largest nuclear energy country) decided to slow down and Germany decided to phase out nuclear as well, yet Germany at the time still produced 16% of its electricity with nuclear. France produces 80% of its electricity with nuclear and has yet to have an issue. France even exports nuclear power to other countries like Italy. Market forces favor coal, with natural gas a close second – but in light of the dangers of both to health and to climate of coal, any kind of disincentive to use it will favor gas in the short term and any low emissions source – nuclear, renewables – in the long term. With Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the severe problems with air quality due to smog in China it is fairly clear that coal is beginning to be disincentivized. One problem in Europe is that the alternative to coal is often dependence on Russian gas and that comes with a geopolitical price. Recent breakthroughs in unconventional gas, particularly in the U.S., can help reduce such dependence. Countries like Germany are currently going all out for renewables but electricity there is three times the cost it is in the U.S. so they are paying dearly. However, it is not at all a bad idea for the long-term. The costs for nuclear and renewables are up-front costs while those for fossil fuels are less up-front but continuous costs for supply. Intermittency of wind power makes it avg. about 20% capacity so a 100 MW wind farm actually only produces about 20 MW. This is from 2007. Solar was at a meager 14% capacity. Nuclear was at 90% capacity. I think fossil fuels are in the 70-90 % range with the newer combined cycle natural gas power plants by far the most efficient – close to 90%. The conspicuous articles about parity with fossil fuels are usually based on this “nameplate capacity (the 100MW) which is basically dishonest and leads to misunderstanding. Wind could be more competitive with more universal smart grid technology and especially with effective and inexpensive storage technology, neither of which is cheap enough yet although some tech is there and improving. Among solar types, concentrated solar thermal is the most efficient but plants are expensive. Solar works well at the individual level. Wind works better at the infrastructure level but solar does not. 

CO2 sequestration for coal plants is daunting and will be a losing economic proposition unless carbon taxes are quite high, although there are several pilot projects going and many more in the works. However, in order to survive, coal producers are doing what they can. CO2 sequestration from natural gas plants is probably more do-able and they produce about half the CO2 so projects would be smaller. The carbon capture and sequestration tech needs to be continued becasuse coal will continue to be used despite its climate effects.

He mentions that nuclear waste is stored at WIPP in New Mexico, a state where nuclear weapons were developed at Los Alamos and Sandia. However, there has been vast resistance at Yucca Mountain in Nevada where the government owns 86% of the land and people seem to like resisting them. Obama finally gave up on Yucca Mountain. Jim Lovelock noted that 40 years of nuclear energy waste from the U.K. and France is stored glassified in containers about a meter underground with no noticeable increase in radiation above it. Some places like Finland have accommodated to nuclear power and have welcomed waste repositories. Currently in all 121 reactor sites in the U.S., waste cools for a few years in pools then is packed dry into containers behind the parking lots. Brand thinks the emerging rule is “plan short and option long,” since spent fuel may well be able to be recycled and reused in the future. A considerable part of the cost of nuclear is planning for super long-term waste storage. Current reprocessing techniques produce weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium – it is “hotter” - so Brand is cautious about it – even though European countries like France typically do it. The U.S.-Russia program “Megatons to Megawatts” reprocesses nuclear warheads into fuel, beginning in 1994. He says that 10% of U.S. electricity comes from reprocessed Russian warheads. Expanding nuclear energy may or may not lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons – the whole thing is quite debatable. Nations do not want nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, unless of course they are the state itself. That is perhaps the current argument against Iran but most of the countries that have nuclear energy (31) do not have nuclear weapons (7). Renting nuclear fuel may be the best option for much of the world as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) as one possible scenario but it does require the development of “proliferation-resistant reprocessing techniques and new reactor designs such as the sodium-cooled fast reactor, which breeds its own fuel, reducing traffic in nuclear fuel as well as reducing spent-fuel mass and longevity. Obama supports such fuel-cycle initiatives. Fast reactors that consume nuclear waste and thorium reactors – both in varying developmental stages – offer safer forms of nuclear energy utilization and research and implementation should be sped up, say advocates. Newer micro-reactors and bigger ones too can be buried deep underground with no need to add fuel and simply be replaced decades later when spent. Brand, along with McKibben, Hansen, and others see coal as the horror most thought nuclear would be. Slum dwellers in Third World countries have declared that grid electricity is a basic human right and if so then demand will increase as more people without it get it. Nuclear, especially if made cheaper and safer, could be a big part of future baseload electricity. 

Regarding genetic engineering (GE) Brand thinks that the environmental movement has done more harm than good: 

“We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.”

Having a biology background Brand was surprised by initial resistance by environmentalists to GE in the 1970’s when it was known as recombinant DNA research. It does not alarm most biologists as they see it merely as speeding up natural processes to look for biological advantages. Superweeds, allergies, gene flow, and transgenic novelty all occur in nature, in the wild and in agriculture. “In the wild you study it; in agriculture and restoration you tweak it.” Brand talks about a time in the 70’s when there was potential legislation in California against recombinant DNA research (aka gene-splicing) after a big conference was debated. Brand was working at the time as an assistant to Governor Jerry Brown and convened a meeting with James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA structure with Francis Crick. Watson was skeptical about gene-splicing early on but changed his position as did most scientists after seeing what it could do and seeing in greater detail that it was unlikely to be harmful. Genetic “monsters” are simply extremely unlikely as they have had time and chances to develop. A bit of tinkering and tweaking is unlikely to cause any drastic changes beyond those sought. A decade or two later, all of the biologists that had originally called for a moratorium changed their views to regard it as a safe technology. 

According to biodiversity and conservation expert Peter Raven: “There is no science to back up the reasons for concern about foods from GM plants at all. Hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM foods, and no one has ever gotten sick. Virtually all beers and cheeses are made with the assistance of GM microorganisms, and nobody gives a damn.”

Many prominent scientists, food safety agencies, and biologists echo these sentiments and yet most environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, etc. are still adamantly opposed. Bans have been in place in Europe, parts of Africa and Asia, and parts of the Americas but no health or environmental improvements are noted. Brand mentions the kiwi, developed through selective breeding of the Chinese gooseberry. It is eaten worldwide. Yet there are a very small amount of people who have allergies to it, sometimes severe allergies. If it had been developed through GE it would have been banned immediately as proof of the dangers of GE. Yet it is GE that has the potential to develop a non-allergenic version of kiwis and non-allergenic peanuts are also being developed. 

Plants develop toxicity as natural pesticides. Toxicity to animals has been bred unintentionally through agriculture but not through GE. Researchers have found that the average human ingests 5000 to 10000 natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Toxicity of anything is dependent on dose. Even though plants contain toxins they also contain micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Evidence shows that those who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to get less cancer. Some speculate that plant toxins at naturally-occurring low doses keep our detoxing mechanisms functional and in good shape. We humans are already full of transgenic DNA as science journalist Carl Zimmer notes: “Scientists have identified more than 98,000 viruses in the human genome, along with the mutant vestiges of 150,000 others.” Our evolution sped up when we left Africa and especially when we began co-evolving with agriculture, which led to population increase. All crop plants are products of human tinkering, he notes. Transgenic blending happened in the past: horse + donkey = mule, cabbage + turnip = rutabaga, wheat + rye = triticale. Radiation mutagenesis, or blasting seeds with intense radiation to cause the seedlings to mutate has been widely used by breeders since 1927 and is common on organic farms. Experiments have showed that this method is more likely to lead to unintended consequences than in transgenic crops that are not allowed among organic farmers. GE is way more precise than traditional cross-breeding. Brand gives the analogy that GM is a bug fix, precise but not disruptive. He also notes that:

“Where a gene comes from is irrelevant; the point is what it does.”

A quarter of all new drugs are made by GE, including insulin for diabetics and the new ebola vaccine. New rice varieties may be able to grow with less land flooding that causes large methane releases.
Agriculture itself is ecologically catastrophic. GE crops are harmful because all crops are harmful, he says. GE crops tolerate herbicides and resist insects which has made them the fastest adopted agricultural technology ever. GE herbicide-tolerant crops encourage no-till agriculture which is a sustainable technique that conserves soil, improves water filtration and conservation, sequesters carbon, and stops erosion. Plowed land is the source of gigatons of carbon. GE farmers can use no-till for they have crops designed for it but organic farmers cannot. 

Regarding superweeds: While some glyphosate-resistant weeds are showing up they are more a problem for farmers rather than wildlands and GE methods are always combined with other pest-management practices like crop rotation, timing, and bio-controls. Regarding superbugs: Bt toxin, a bacteria common in soil, has long been sprayed on crops by organic farmers because it tends to kill target insects without harming beneficial ones or animals or people. When Bt was engineered into crops they no longer needed to be sprayed which meant less Bt overall. Some corn borers could evade the spray but not the GE Bt. “The main ecological effect of Bt crops has been a drastic reduction in pesticide use.” Cotton, corn, and soy are now all mostly GE Bt varieties. This also cut down drastically on hospitalizations of farm workers over-exposed to pesticides. Peter Raven notes that GM techniques have been a great boon to biodiversity and in developing low-input agriculture. Farmers around the world are seeking out and choosing GE crops as soon as they are introduced perhaps because they know what works. GE farming is another route out of poverty for developing world farmers. Bt cotton has increased yields 50% and decreased pesticide use 50% in India. Brand goes through several of the debunked GMO “myths” including damage to monarch butterflies and transgenes in local landraces of Mexican corn. “Gene flow is the norm, in agriculture and in nature.” The easy fix to gene flow is sterile seeds – ie. the “terminator gene.” These Monsanto seeds have been charged with enslaving farmers by making them buy seeds annually. Actually most farmers including most organic farmers buy hybrid seeds annually for reasons of hybrid vigor, taste, yield, uniformity, and disease resistance. By 1970 about 96% of corn seeds were hybrid and yields increased by 8 times in 50 years of hybrid technology. Farmers saving crop seeds tends to cause loss of vigor and loss of disease resistance. Brand slams Amory Lovins’ anti-GE rhetoric, as well as his anti-nuke rhetoric although he does acknowledge respect for several of his other ideas such as those on natural capitalism and renewable energy. Regarding the trends of anti-corporatism Brand notes that: 

“Being generically against corporations is no more useful than being generically against nations. There are good ones and bad ones, and sometimes good ones do bad things, and vice versa.”  
I think that is an important statement. He also notes that the right tends to disagree with things that derive from government (such as fluoridation of water) while the left tends to disagree with things that derive from corporations (such as GE). However, non-corporate GE is starting to occur and this, he says, is where things could accelerate. GE papayas saves them from ring-spot virus while “golden rice” provides vitamin A to those who need it, despite anti-GE protests against both. Golden rice is likely a precursor to other GE plants that can increase nutrition, particularly to those who need it. Another pretty serious blight on European anti-GE forces is when GE corn was rejected by Zambia as poison when their people were starving. Indian anti-GE activist Vandana Shiva also encouraged withholding food to hungry people (after a devastating cyclone) to reject GE food aid. Of course, GE crops are not the solution to all agricultural problems. Organic farming, soil conservation, and sustainable farming methods are also needed. Tropical agriculture is much different than temperate agriculture and requires different approaches. Europeans have long favored the - Precautionary Principle - but Africans dealing with starving populations say that it could just as well be used to promote GE farming in Africa where the ecology is already suffering from overpopulation, drought, and environmental degradation. Europe has emerged as anti-GMO. It has been estimated that the radical Earth Liberation Front (ELF) caused about 43 million dollars in damage to GE crops from 1996-2004. Brand examines the Precautionary Principle – its origins in Europe and other places and situations where it has been invoked. It is a method of risk assessment that is in favor of avoiding risk in spite of benefits, thus it is one-sided, noted famed physicist Freeman Dyson. Friends of the Earth founder Dave Browser stated it thusly: “All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.” The lesson is perhaps that we can’t really solve problems before they actually occur. If we know something can cause good, ie. golden rice can prevent blindness in children, then possible risks should be managed as they come up rather than become the basis for abandoning the very likely benefits. The bottom line is perhaps that the Precautionary Principle is a barrier to progress. Once the tinkerers get ahold of the technologies any real dangers will become apparent quickly and have to be dealt with expediently, if they occur at all and that is doubtful at this point. While there may eventually be some issues with some GMOs revealed by long-term studies, nothing seems to have been revealed yet (after 20+ years of some GMOs on the market), even though anti-GMO groups have seized on every slight indication. Biologists, scientists, are by and far OK with GE, even though it only takes a few vocal non-GMO scientists to make it seem like this is not the case. Science education icon Bill Nye was recently convinced by Monsanto that anti-GMO rhetoric was mostly unfounded. 

Brand notes a conversation with Kathy Kohm, editor of Conservation magazine, who noted the untended consequences of engineering. She asked how we walk the fine line between hubris and humility. Brand replied that it is untended consequences and hubris that make news while intended consequences do not. He also noted that: “Technology emerges from science. Then we do science on the technology. Then we know what we know. The whole process works on a necessary blend of both hubris and humility.” Prince Charles, Pope Benedict, Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben, and many others think that with GE we are “playing God” or working in a domain we should not be involved in. They believe, especially Rifkin, that it should be banned altogether, that tinkering with nature is some sort of profanity. Lefty Stephen Jay Gould called Rifkin’s anti-GE book “anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship.” Rifkin is a smart guy but perhaps he should consider flexibilizing his views in light of new info. 

Next he delves into microbes and their genetic possibilities. They are the oldest and most adaptive life forms on the planet, they live in us, indeed they live in our every cell, they are immortal as they split, and they are everywhere in the biosphere. The new science of metagenomics, of studying microbes as superorganisms rather than individuals involves studying their DNA rather than culturing them since most cannot be cultured. He goes through the work of ex-surfer microbiologist Craig Venter in finding multitudes of microenvironments in drops of ocean water. Metagenomics shows that we are always sharing DNA with those around us, microbially. Microbes make up 80% of the Earth’s biomass. 90% of our human cells are microbes. The main metagenomics method is “shotgun sequencing” of microbial communities. In essence we are superorganisms composed of human and microbial parts. Microbes swap genes (illegal in Europe!) quite frequently (every few minutes). Such gene shuffling is a key part of bacterial behavior. Natural gene flow can occur in species that are totally unrelated – not even in the same genus or kingdom. New Scientist reports that virus-like genes represent up to 90% of the human genome. Gene-swapping through viruses may be the main driver of evolution, some scientists suspect. From the New Scientist report: “It is looking more and more as though the biosphere is an interconnected network of continuously circulated genes – a pangenome.” Brand adds: “It’s a transgenic world.”

Gene transfer has allowed microbes to “learn” through mechanisms such as chemical signaling and quorum sensing. Microbes have amazing properties and abilities. Some have been revived after 250 million years of dormancy in rocks. Some can withstand massive amounts of radiation, heat, and cold. Gene flow is also called horizontal gene transfer as distinguished from vertical gene transfer from parents to offspring. It is more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Freeman Dyson agrees that once biotech is freed from domination by large corporations it will be “domesticated” by an open-source biotech model and given to whoever has the skill to work with it and it will no longer be controversial. Calls for bans will no longer be practical (now) or possible (near future). Environmentalists are being left behind, Brand suggests. Synthetic biology consortiums are popping up all over the world to enhance the possibilities and reduce any potential problems.

Brand has long advocated organic farming. He mentions an interesting book: Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak. Here they advocate a collaboration between organic farming techniques and biotech/GE. This is likely the most useful and beneficial future of food, they say. Changing a single gene in rice can potentially confer “submergence tolerance” so that rice won’t be lost to flooding as annually enough to feed 30 million people is lost in India and Bangladesh. The definition of “organic” varies among different people and groups. Some use it simply to refer to techniques that help and conserve soil and reduce herbicide, pesticide and chemical fertilizer use. Currently, the USDA and other groups extend organic to include non-GMO and some groups go further and exclude anything deemed “unnatural” although such a term is relative. Food movements like slow food, locavore, CSAs, and bioregionalism are intuitively sensible and will continue. Brand notes that we can learn from both the successes and failures of the Green Revolution. Many environmentalists think it was a mistake but it saved billions of people from starvation. Now we can do things better because we know more about how excessive pesticide use can reduce soil fertility and increase soil erosion and poor water management can cause shortages. Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of food shortages did not happen primarily because of the Green Revolution. Plant geneticist Sambasivan Swaminathan advocates incorporating biotech into an overall ecotechnology framework:

“Our ability to face the challenges of global warming and sea level rise will depend upon our ability to harmonize organic farming and the new genetics.”

Agricultural ecologist Sir Gordon Conway helped pioneer “integrated pest management” which uses multiple and flexible techniques to manage flexible and adaptable pests. He wrote a book in 1999, The Doubly Green Revolution which noted the shortcomings of the original Green Revolution (excessive water use, advantage to wealthy farmers, neglect of soil maintenance). The Rockefeller, McKnight, and Gates Foundations have been working around intellectual property issues with a biotech that has been excessively privatized to get the technology applied in the developing world where it is needed most. As golden rice showed – biofortified food offers great help to the malnourished. Many biofortified food projects are happening in Africa. There are other projects: heart healthy GE bacon (not for me) and GE wine with several times the resveratrol. Vaccines against Alzheimer’s, cholera, and cavities are in the works. GE trees may lead to healthier forests in the future – through growing GE wood for lumber and leaving old growth and undisturbed forest alone. Bt poplar trees were released in China in 2002 for reforestation efforts. Some of such trees are also used for plywood and biofuel, genetically engineered for lower lignin content, so less toxic emissions. Gene flow will occur to non Bt poplars since it flows readily in these trees and it is a great circumstance to study gene flow and pesticide resistant bug development, says Brand. However, anti-GMO advocates say it will contaminate non-GMO forests with GMOs and cause environmental destruction as well as damage to indigenous peoples, forest ecosystems, soil and water depletion, a human health problems. It has been 13 years now and I have not heard anything about any problems from it.

Nitrogen fertilizer contributes to climate change by emitting nitrous oxide (300 times global warming potential of CO2 by amount). If GE agriculture reduces pesticide use as it does then it helps mitigate climate change. It also allows for no-till methods which keep CO2 sequestered in the soil. GE might be applied in other carbon emission mitigation schemes: decreasing enteric fermentation in livestock guts – source of well over 20% of carbon emissions, increasing plant’s abilities to sequester carbon, and as mentioned earlier – making rice need less water so that the flooded fields produce less methane. Brand notes that drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant crops being developed in Africa need to be combined with ecosystem analysis since successful crops in such environments could potentially go feral and come to over-dominate the landscape. First-generation biofuels turned out to be environmentally and economically unsound but second-generation biofuels incorporating biotech look more promising as GE microbes can be developed to breakdown cellulose in agricultural waste but anti-GE greens say such GE bacteria could escape and proliferate. However, James Watson’s earlier opinion along with the fact that bacteria are the longest-evolving and most adaptable of organisms and so would have done so long ago and even if they do they will be reined in by other microbes, the evidence suggests. Some are even trying to design plants that secrete burnable hydrocarbons. 

Brand talks about “technoparanoia” being self-fulfilling – among the national-security crowd and among the environmentalist crowd. It is a harm-benefit balance that can only be really known up-close through experimentation and discovery. Brand is waiting for the “green biotech hackers.” These are the folks that would give us knowledge right away of the potential harms and benefits of biotechnology. So far in this book Brand announces that: “Cities are Green. Nuclear energy is Green. Genetic engineering is Green.” The rest of the book is devoted to gently applying and tweaking fixes to problems that have already developed: restoring wildlands and geoengineering.

Brand theorizes that the environmental movement is driven by two forces – romanticism and science – often in opposition to one another. It is a kind of check-and-balance system but one that is often overwhelmed by the emotion of the romanticists. A new force – engineering – is emerging in the movement. These are those who focus on problem-solving. Oversimplified, he notes that:
“Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems.”
With climate change, environmentalists, traditionally trying to save natural systems from civilization, now must try to save civilization from natural systems. Traditional environmentalists were/are involved in a fight to the end against progress, corporations, consumerism, economic growth, etc. He calls them and many other intellectuals “calamatists,”imbued with historical and cultural pessimism. Eco-pessimism is rampant, he says, where selective bias and exaggeration can paint inaccurate pictures that prey on our emotions. This type of thinking has led much to the polarization of American politics where the “anti-progess progressives” offended the pro-progress conservatives who then went on to counter environmentalism as a whole. The equation of green with left and vice versa is limiting and problematic, he notes. He advocates for an “eco-pragmatism” as espoused by Daniel Farber in his 2000 book of the same name. He notes that romanticism is over-emphasized in environmentalism. Science should be the main driver. He mentions that is very important to be wary of confirmation bias and I agree this is a huge problem among environmentalists. He mentions his own bias that thought Y2K would be a big problem. He compares quasi-scientific propaganda against climate change from the right to quasi-scientific propaganda against genetic engineering from the left. He mentions the worldwide ban on DDT after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which she did not push, but those reacting to her book did. Yes it causes cancer but it has been estimated that it could have saved 20 million children from malaria. Groups like the World Wildlife Fund now recommend judicious use of DDT along with all the other measures to help control and hopefully eventually eliminate malaria. He gives two more cases of policy gone wrong: overfishing for cod in the Atlantic that was allowed to keep jobs but eventually ended up devastating cod populations so much that even after it was outlawed in 1992 they have yet to recover and may never recover; and the Exxon Valdez oil spill where the cleanup may have caused more damage than the spill itself. He also recounts some environmental successes like Amory Lovins’ focus on energy efficiency and conservation and his drive to make cars more efficient, and the development of LEED certification to improve efficiency in buildings. He notes the influence of Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry as a way nature can inspire engineering, although it has been quite difficult because nature’s intricacy inspired by millions of years of evolution is hard to imitate. 

Interestingly, China is heavy on engineers in the political arena and many big green projects are in the works. For all its faults, China does value science. Emotional environmentalism there might be seen as cultish and so disdained although health problems due to bad air quality may arouse people toward protest soon if not enough is done to curb it. In America there are also developing green engineering solutions. Paul Anastas’s “Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry” in mitigating pollution is one example. Environmentalists have tended to point out all the bad of technology while ignoring the massive good of technology. Statistician Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, noted that environmentalists mean well but always seem to overestimate dangers. However, scientist Peter Glieck refuted many of Lomborg’s conclusions in a review of his book, showing that Lomborg overly employed the selective use of data – another instance of confirmation bias, a well-used too of both the right and the left. Of course, we all have some biases due to our past experiences but we should endeavor to limit them and explore differing perspectives. When we are too sure about things this can become problematic. Flexibility of view is very important and the ability to change one’s view in light of new data is an essential requirement in science. Brand gives a long list of what he was wrong about in the past, some of it fairly obvious now, some even a bit embarrassing, but much based on ignorance – not being properly informed about the subject. Brand used a debate format that included stating the opposing view coherently in his Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT). The bottom line to the chapter is that greens are behind and sloppy if they don’t embrace science and technology. He is right, I think. 

Next we come to restoring wildlands and ecosystem engineering. First he talks about the ubiquity of bogus books about Native American spirituality and wisdom. Brand thinks that esoteric knowledge is of little use outside of its own culture. I tend to disagree with him here although it is probably best within the culture, but certainly not useless for others. Brand spent much time in summers among various tribes and was married to a Native American woman in the 70’s. He joined the peyote using Native American Church. He is quite right I think that tribes are strongly anchored spiritually to specific localities and to nature in general. He gives strong evidence that before the great native die-off from disease caused by European settlers, the Americas were a managed landscape. Climatologist William Ruddiman noted that after the forests were restored by the sheer reduction in native population with the corresponding reduction in agriculture, there was also a reduction in atmospheric CO2 as the new forest cover took in and sequestered more of it. Charles Mann suggested that the Europeans mistook the newly abandoned garden for a wilderness. He thinks that about two-thirds of the U.S. was planted in agriculture, salmon nets covered all the rivers of the northwest, mounds, and fires where everywhere. Fires kept the undergrowth down in forests. They developed maize, an astounding feat of genetic selection (engineering) that benefits us all today. The farming of the “three sisters” – corn, squash, and beans, along with avocados in the subtropics, provided excellent nutrition. They developed some quite sustainable methods. Some milpa fields in Mexico have been in continuous cultivation for 4000 years. Native Americans in the Amazon Basin developed a slash-and-char form of agriculture which enriched the soil and enabled dense human habitation. Biochar is all the rage today as a climate change strategy and sustainable farming method of enriching soil indefinitely. In California and other places, a main method of providing food was tending the wild, which involved tilling, weeding, harvesting, sowing, transplanting, selective burning, and providing habitat for game.

The term “ecosystem engineering” is connected to an evolutionary term: “niche construction” which is what beavers and worms do to mold the environment to their benefit. Dogs and bottle gourds “colonized the human niche,” says archeobiologist Bruce Smith. Elegant water-conserving rice terrace farming on the island of Bali is a well-known instance system of ecosystem engineering that was useful for over 1000 years, then abandoned for modern agriculture, and now returning. It requires water conservation agreements between upland and lowland growers that can be enforced somewhat and harmony was kept through a ritualistic system. Ecosystem engineering can be beneficial or detrimental. Overhunting large mammals as happened on several continents in the deep past was quite harmful to the overall ecosystem which had to seek out new homeostasis. Conserved wildlands are basically gardens, says ecologist Daniel Janzen. He advocates that wildlands be treated as commercial gardens as he is doing in Costa Rica, with bioprospecting for medical drugs, ecotourism, and enhancing the value of ecosystem services. Simply conserving land and leaving it alone is not enough for some lands, say many ecologists. In light of modern threats from people, advantaged and disadvantaged species, and climate changed, some wildlands need to be manage but others are best left alone as the thriving ecosystems in the Korean DMZ, the area around Chernobyl, and the ancient undisturbed forest on the border of Poland and Belarus attest. Brand notes that tending the wild and leaving it alone are not contradictory strategies. Both can be useful depending on circumstances. 

More holistic livestock management and strategies for wildlife management can help restore ecosystems both wild and human-influenced ones. Fire management is another issue and right now fire science experts in California and the West are saying they are getting more and bigger fires now due to past mismanagement. Forests fix carbon. For this and many other practical reasons reforesting efforts are underway worldwide, with the help of once common species being re-introduced. Brand notes that the term “invasive” is neutral, referring to a species that is increasing. The fear is that species will dominate and overtake other important native species. GE trees might do that say detractors but they might also accelerate reforestation efforts. When the Native Americans killed all the mammoths and saber-toothed tigers died off too, the landscape and forest types changed. Possible reintroduction of extinct species like mammoths through recreating them from DNA is being researched. Also being proposed are surrogate replacements of lost megafauna by similar types from other continents. Reintroduction of keystone predators is popular rewilding strategy to keep deer and elk population from getting too high. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone appears to have been successful in that regard. Some of the ideas of resurrecting (through DNA) large and fierce predators does not seem to me to be desirable. 

Brand advocates native plants and works to get rid of harmful invasives. That surprised me a bit with his stances on other issues. I would think he might find a way that they are beneficial. He does note that restorationists often resort to herbicides, the lesser of two evils perhaps. Some invasives increase the flammability of fire-prone areas. He recommends the Bradley method of regeneration which involves uprooting invasives where they are thin and letting the natives spread with encouragement. He does note that some alien invasives are good or become good. Many European natives have long been naturalized in the U.S. and are well tolerated. It has even been found that the zebra mussels that invaded the Great Lakes in the late 1980’s (I was in Buffalo in 1990 and they were a big problem seemingly lowering water quality and definitely eroding water taste) were eventually found to be beneficial as they aid filtration and help with problems of eutrophication due to phytoplankton. He notes that climate change favors weeds and plants adaptable to a range of climates. He also notes that biocontrol usually works – at least these days after the failures of the past (toads introduced to Australia and mongooses introduced to Hawaii are examples of failures). Genetically engineered biocontrol offers specific targeting of dangerous invasive species and may become a preferred means of biocontrol in the future. Brand was involved with Edward O. Wilson’s drive to identify more species. Such taxonomy is a great aid to ecology which is moving from the observation to the applied phase as ecosystems are beginning to be engineered through science. Handheld DNA barcoders can ID new species quickly and cheaply with 375,000 new ones ID’d by 2008 in this manner.
Beyond ecosystem engineering is geoengineering which involves tinkering with the climate and its global expression. Now that we are living in the human-dominated epoch known as the Anthropocene we need to begin to practice what Brand calls “planet craft.” Assessing the quantitative and qualitative value of natural infrastructure (ecosystem services) is as difficult as assessing the value of our artificial infrastructure. Global monitoring of many things has improved drastically with services like Google Earth and now Google Ocean. CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning can be better monitored globally as can illegal logging. On-line maps are more dynamic, flexible, and amenable to updating than paper ones. Science demands data – the more data the more accuracy is the typical formula. Ecological data can be gathered by better earth monitoring. Satellite climate observatories have been slow to be deployed but are finally being put up so that our climate knowledge can be refined. 

Support for geoengineering involves realizing that building a low carbon infrastructure is a daunting and expensive task and cannot be done quickly. Projections for greenhouse gases still are way above what most climate scientists say is the limit. More extreme weather events piling up might well have a realization effect about climate change, though there is still uncertainty.
Plausible geoengineering schemes include global dimming with stratospheric sulfates, brightening the earth (for greater reflectivity of sunlight) with clouds from ocean spray, feeding phytoplankton iron to uptake carbon reduce ocean acidification, making biochar with ag waste (less dangerous), air capture of CO2, and global dimming with mirrors in space. He does not mention utilizing basalt and olivine to accelerate rock weathering to fix carbon. Employing stratispheric sulfates will work as it does with volcanoes but there are potential effects - changes in weather patterns that might affect certain areas more than others that would have to be considered politically. The advantages of geoengineering such as stratospheric sulfates (aerosols) are that the results happen quickly. The technique would likely be first tested on a small scale in the Arctic. Increasing low stratocumulus clouds over the ocean is a means to increase the Earth’s albedo so that more sunlight will be reflected leading to cooling. James Lovelock likes this technique for the cloud machines could be turned off quickly if there are any problems. Feeding iron to plankton is the most controversial technique so far. There is quite a bit of environmental opposition to the technique until more is learned about what effects it could have. Of course those effects can’t be learned if they are banned from doing small scale experiments as they have been. Lovelock and a colleague advocated employing vertical pipes in the ocean to bring cold water up to increase algal growth. Coral reefs could also benefit and sun reflecting clouds would be increased as the pipes made small spray and waves. Dimethyl sulfide from shallow ocean life provides nuclei for forming clouds. Climate change has caused a 14% increase in ocean dead zones so less of this has been going on. Biochar is a way of sequestering carbon that keeps it there as 99% of ag and plant waste is typically re-released into the atmosphere as CO2 and methane. Lovelock thinks farmers can do it while selling off some of the biofuel from the combustion process for a small profit. Brand also mentions capturing carbon from the air that is being worked on by Klaus Lackner and the Wright brothers. Other ideas have involved sending a satellite to the Langrange-1 site of neutral gravity between the Earth and the Sun. This would dissipate the sunlight reaching the Earth. Cost would be in the trillions and might be better applied to renewable energy. Brand and Ken Caldeira think that the taboo against geoengineering adds to all or nothing views from the public when small-scale experiments should be quite feasible and safe. Brand seems to like the idea of sequestering carbon by sinking bales of agricultural waste into the deep ocean where it is more likely to stay longer. Climatologists point out that if stratospheric sulfates are needed, then applied in a hot world they would need to keep being applied even after emissions begin to decline or else temps will jump back up. The understanding among most of us is that geoengineering would be a method to be used in combination with reducing emissions. Politics and potential damage compensation issues would have to be worked out with geoengineering. Some advocate the development of “norms” rather than rules. Brand thinks of geoengineering as a planetary hack. Statistically, dangerous asteroid collisions with earth, though quite rare, are likely to occur at some point. Asteroid deflection is a geoengineering technique that may become necessary to save lives. It is quite do-able say astro-engineers if began early, as asteroids can be pushed since they tumble (they can also theoretically be tethered together) – reminds me of herding. Space agencies in cahoots with the U.N. have drafted a protocol for dealing with possible problematic asteroids. 

Brand hopes for a smarter more scientific-minded environmentalism that is less risk-averse than the current progressives. He mentions the split that seemed to begin in the late 80’s/early 90’s. He hopes for different factions to become complementary including conservative environmentalists.
Finally Brand offers a summary:

“Ecological balance is too important for sentiment. It requires science. The health of the natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity. It requires engineering. What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable. We live one life.”

In a NY Times op-ed Brand outlined four views of climate change: deniers, skeptics, calamitists, and warners. Only skeptics and warners are the ones ready to alter their view in light of new evidence. Calamitists and deniers hold fixed views.

In the Afterword he notes some things he was probably wrong about in light of new info, such as the feasibility of space-based solar, which Elon Musk says is not feasible due to costs. Also, nuclear fusion with hydrogen as fuel are progressing and could offer safe, waste-free nuclear possibilities for the future. The National Academy of Sciences confirmed the benefits of biotech: lower costs, higher yields, greater safety, less pesticides and herbicides, and no-till farming. Bt cotton in India made the first GM landraces with massive success as they were crossbred by small Indian farmers despite Vandana Shiva’s anti-GMO rhetoric. Craig Venter’s synthetic biology experiments are yielding results and new geoengineering schemes have been proposed. In any case, this book was so jam-packed full of interesting and useful ideas and great quotes, like Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, but in a different manner, that my review just had to be this long. Brand can seem like a bit of an ass at times but he is right about a lot of things.  

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