One of the “godfathers of environmentalism” [has] a message that most greens will find both shocking and heretical... Stewart Brand told a 400-strong audience... [t]here was “no hope” of mitigating against climate change. Nuclear power was the only way we could provide enough clean energy for the world; Cities were greener than the countryside; Genetically modified crops were necessary to feed the world’s growing population. Brand is widely regarded as one of the great visionaries of the environmental movement...
If I may speak for at least this Green, I would personally characterize Brand's comments as, first of all, not so much shocking as just wrong, and even rather dumb as wrong ideas go. (I will elaborate these charges in the next section.) Furthermore, this litany of corporate-militarist articles of faith seems to me the farthest thing from heretical exactly, so much as simply the sort of thing a futurologist like Brand should be expected to say, since it is the sort of thing futurologists all say all the time and with almost perfect robotic mind-numbing predictability. (And I will elaborate these claims in the third and final section.)
This is the same Stewart Brand, after all, who handwaved about how world-changing the MIT Media Lab was, that incubator of "digirati" and techno-utopians who brought us irrational exuberance and the nanocornucopiasts and the cybernetic totalists and the literally jaw-dropping foolishness of the so-called Long Boom, who co-founded that brain trust of corporate-militarist futurological PR "scenario"-spinners, the Global Business Network, and who still thinks, together with the same coterie of futurological dead-enders that what would amount to an architectural folly in Marie Antoinette's Versailles, The Clock of the Long Now, constitutes a revolutionary intervention into the status quo.
Since I devote so much of this blog to deriding superlative futurology and connecting it to the more mainstream futurology of neoliberal global development discourse, I can't help but add that this is also the same Stewart Brand who wrote in the forward to a particularly egregious piece of techno-utopian nonsense, Unbounding the Future, an earnestly worded warning to readers about getting taken in by false and facile promises of "technofixes" while at once hilariously recommending the techno-fixated superlative futurology of drex-tech nano-cornucopiasts as panacaea for all ills.
Here's a taste, from the breezy buzzing opening passage of that hyperbolic little number:
"Nanotechnology. The science is good, the engineering is feasible, the paths of approach are many, the consequences are revolutionary-times-revolutionary, and the schedule is: in our lifetimes."
The Case: "Science!" "Feasible!" "Revolutionary-times-revolutionary!" "In our lifetimes!"
The Verdict: Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
You know, there's a sucker born every minute, and every futurologist you will ever meet is either one of them or hoping like hell you are.
I don't mean to diminish Brand's actual standing and celebrity in saying I don't personally consider him an environmental eminence. The Well was plenty nifty after all, and I enjoyed reading Whole Earth as much as the next geek back in the 80s, in the same way I enjoyed reading OMNI in High School.
As it happens, I actually teach the release of the NASA photograph of the whole earth as seen from space (famously shepherded by Brand into world view) as a key formative moment for the contemporary phase of environmental movement. But I would say that anybody who upon seeing the gorgeous life-trembling whole earth from space declares human beings to be, as Stewart Brand famously did, "as gods," rather than as entangled interdependent precarious earthlings, has never really truly seen the whole earth made available in that image at all.
I propose that the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was the indispensable beginning of the second wave of an American environmentalist politics that had been conservationist hitherto -- and in many ways also profoundly conservative. And what was so definitive in her environmental politics was her concentration on the need to educate everyday citizens, to provide media for technoscientific literacy, and to resist incumbent interested media misinformation campaigns, and all this to mobilize informed people to demand the regulative-legislative redress of shared environmental problems, peer to peer.
This seems to me an environmentalist politics still relevant to our circumstances. But, more to the point, I tend to see Brand's facile futurology as profoundly antithetical to Carson's educational-agitational-organization environmental politics. I see Carson and Brand less as partners in the dance of environmental politics in the near half-century from 1970-2010, than as rivals for its practical soul.
For a sense of why this might matter, I think there is merit in Van Jones' insistence that environmentalism is now moving into a third phase still, defined neither by of the conservationism and conservatism of the first, nor by the regulation and legislation of the second, but one devoted to what he calls "investment." What is crucial in my view is that we see to it that what is named by this emerging "investment"-formation -- if that indeed is what it is to be called -- must seek to mobilize long-term public investment in renewable infrastructure and stewardship lifeways, rather than just more of the same "innovation" via commons-capture and "profit-making" through the externalization environmental risks and costs. And it seems to me that choosing between Carson's actually educational and organizational environmentalism qua consensus science and consensual governance against Brand's hyperbolic promotional and self-promotional futurological pseudo-environmentalism qua elite-incumbent advertising discourse could well be determinative of the understanding of "investment" environmentalism takes up in this third moment in its political history, and hence determinative, frankly, of the survival and flourishing of civilization on earth. (I would also propose that these three phases or waves or chapters or epochs or whatever of environmental politics should not be seen so much as supplanting one another, but as supplementing and complicating one another.)
For all these reasons, I simply cannot grant that Stewart Brand is some kind of proper environmentalist "godfather." Given that folks like Emerson, Thoreau, Darwin, Muir, Leopold, Abbey, Naess, Mollison, Bookchin, Carson, Kovel, Foster, Maathai, Shiva are among the proper claimants to such a title, I simply do not agree that Brand has been anything like a deep or original environmentalist thinker, or that he has facilitated actually democratizing environmentalist politics. I tend to think he has easily contributed as much or more to rendering proper environmentalist thinking impossible as he has contributed to environmentalism as such.
Although I don't doubt that Stewart Brand is a joy to be around (I can only imagine the stories he has to tell given the marvelous company he's kept), the fact remains in my view that he was and remains a California Ideologist through and through, one of so many corporatists who continue to confuse so-called cyber-consumer culture with counterculture, one of so many beneficiaries of class and race and gender privilege who continue to confuse hegemony with spontaneous order and their vantage from that hegemonic summit as a kind of insight or personal accomplishment, one of too many edge.org and TED Talk kinda guys who are all too prone to confuse self-promotion and PR with thought, one of so many futurologists peddling retro-futures in the name of "The Future."
One has to take great care before describing California Ideologists as hippies or greens or lefties for the same reasons (and usually for exactly the same reasons) as one has to take great care before describing American libertarians as actual civil libertarians rather than simply as Republicans who want to smoke pot or chew some hooker's foot without fear of arrest but all the while otherwise continuing to enjoy the unearned class privileges the "Universe Has Provided."
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