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October 24th, 2009


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11:16 pm - Impressed and Surprised: Whole Earth Discipline
I first encountered Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, and while it was somewhat interesting, I mostly found the sort of thing produced by people whose politics I mostly agree with, but who were the sorts of environmentalists that I also mostly consider to be technophobes and anti-urban pastoralists, so began ignoring it. So, when james_nicoll linked to a partial annotated version of Brand's recent book, which was recently published as Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto . The text up on the site is exceedingly (and in parts frustratingly) partial, and I have not read all of it, but from what I have seen, Brand is deeply concerned about global warming, while also being explicitly pro-urban, moderately pro-nuclear (sensibly, from my PoV, he sees fission as far less land intensive than solar or wind, & vastly superior to coal), and also pro-genetic engineering. He claims (also IMHO very sensibly) that GMO crops are far safer than pesticides or herbicides and that the massive fears about GMOs are vastly overblown. Also, it's clear that Brand has looked at recent data and understands that (as I discuss here) 1960s & 70s fears of massive overpopulation are completely unfounded.

While I'm certain that Brand's book will alienate pastoralists and technophobes who enjoyed his work in the 80s (I have no idea what the last 20 years of his work or his ideas have been like), I am impressed and will likely buy his book. I'm both pleased and utterly shocked that Brand's views agree with mine on all of these points.

On a general level, I think his message is very important. As I see it, modern science and technology are our only hope of solving current environmental problems w/o having a mass die off of humanity, and for far too long most environmentalism has been far to caught up in romantic pastoralist dreams of technologies and lifestyles that would condemn most of the world's population to either death or a mixture of grinding poverty and endless drudgery. What I've seen of this book makes me exceptionally hopeful that we can actually get people working towards useful solutions to problems.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

(13 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:alobar
Date:October 25th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)
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Stewart Brand is an idiot. His views on the safety of GMO crops are not based in any real dangers posed by GMO. He has bought the lies put out by GMO companies hook, line, and sinker.
http://www.responsibletechnology.org/GMFree/HealthRisks/NewVideoPage/index.cfm

He advocates nuclear power as a "green" power source because there is no carbon emissions. But he overlooks the incredibly toxic nuclear waste. Nuclear may be green, but it is still the most dangewrous power source ever devised by the human race.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:October 25th, 2009 10:58 am (UTC)
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Except that nuclear wastes are small and solid. You find a mine shaft where the bottom is well above the water table, you encase the stuff in glass blocks, you stick it in the mine shaft, and you place a door with a big lock and a warning sign on the mine shaft. Nuclear waste problem solved. If you use thorium instead of uranium, you don't have to worry about plutonium (there isn't any) and you can't make bombs out of the nuclear material.

Nuclear waste (along with nuclear power in general) was handled very badly in the 50s-70s, but it's certainly possible to handle well, and I'd rather have that than the noise pollution, massive eyesores, and flocks of dead birds that windfarms produce.

As for GMOs, what I see is people ignoring massive batteries of tests on their safety. I'm fine with ignoring tests done in the US - the FDA certainly has problems if large sums of money are involved, but no other nation has found problems either, and many nations in the EU have done fully independent testing. I do see some problems with GMOs, in terms of biodiversity issues and the vile and idiotic GMOs produced by Monsanto (and IIRC other presticide companies) that allow crops to survive levels of herbicides that kill everything else should definitely be banned. OTOH, from my PoV, the health risks are very low indeed.
[User Picture]
From:alobar
Date:October 25th, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC)
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No human civilization has ever lasted as long at radioactive waste has to be isolated.

Eventually, there is sufficient low level leakage in a reactor that the entire reactor & foundation become hazardous nuclear waste. Cost of decommissioning an entire reactor and transporting the waste, and isolating it makes the cost of electricity much more expensive than the proponents of nuclear power would like us to believe.

Watch the movie I linked to. Plenty of research demonstrating how incredibly dangerous GMOs are.
[User Picture]
From:pyat
Date:October 25th, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
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Several tons of coal ash are produced every second, currently, by conventional power plants. Coal ash is poisonous forever.

The uranium used in a power plant was already in the environment, already radioactive and poisonous. It hasn't been turned poisonous by being used in a power plant, unlike coal.

It has, I grant you, been made more dangerous by virtue of being taken out of the ground, concentrated, and used in a plant where industrial accidents happen. But it's not the poisonous byproduct of energy production, per se. It was already out there.
[User Picture]
From:alephnul
Date:October 25th, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC)
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This is exactly backwards. Burning coal purifies poisons that were already present in the coal (and often spreads the poisons over a large region). The purified U-238 and U-235 are not the concern in nuclear waste. Fission converts the less radioactive U-238 (half life of 4.5 billion years) into the much more radioactive plutonium (half life of 24,000 years) and into the hugely more radioactive isotopes like cesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60, etc. Also, many of the radioactive isotopes and the stable isotopes eventually produced in nuclear waste are much more chemically poisonous than the original uranium.

Fly ash is bad stuff, but it is just a concentration of the bad stuff in coal. Nuclear waste is bad stuff that is created by the process of generating nuclear energy.
[User Picture]
From:pyat
Date:October 25th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
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I'll will actually take your word for it, as my arguments came from a very pro-nuke science teacher I once had.

How about pebble bed reactors? Good? Bad?
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:October 25th, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC)
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The thorium fuel cycle looks fairly promising, and avoids plutonium (which means it's considerably harder to use for bomb-making). Used in gas core reactors (which are vastly more accident tolerant than water-cooled reactors), and with a relatively sane waste storage policy, and the result looks very good compared to coal.
[User Picture]
From:alobar
Date:October 25th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
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In its non-concentrated form, radioactive isotopes aren't all that dangerous & much of it is deep in the earth.

Comparing nuclear energy to coal derived energy is like unto saying that eating junk food is not nearly as harmful as smoking. That statement may be true, but does not addrress the basic premise that a healthy lifestyle is more healthy than either smoking or junk food.

I never suggested that coal was the way to go. One: we consume far too much energy these days, and that must stop. Two: We need distributed energy production based in wind, solar, etc., not coal, fossil fuel, or nuclear. And three: we need to do this instantly. The oil companies need to go the way of the whale oil industry. And that requires all corporations and special interests be prohibited from lobbying congress, and funding elections. Which the congress critters won't like one bit. As an interim partial solution, I never vote for any major party candidates. Not enough by any means, but it is something the individual can do.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:October 25th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
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Absolutely. That's definitely a case where a government-run utility sounds like a good idea.
[User Picture]
From:pompe
Date:October 25th, 2009 01:22 pm (UTC)
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Oh joy, A biologist writing about cities and spatial diffusion, and it comes with a recommendation from Lovelock. This might make Jared Diamond seem carefully researched.
[User Picture]
From:james_nicoll
Date:October 25th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)

have no idea what the last 20 years of his work or his ideas have been like

(Link)
Some of them can be seen in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, which I managed to read without connecting him to Space Colonies: Vision: A CoEvolution Book, which I reread and commented on here:

http://james-nicoll.livejournal.com/tag/space+colonies
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 25th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)

Stewart Brand and Nuclear

(Link)
FYI: Stewart was also kind enough to endorse my insider's account of nuclear power - the only one out there. "Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power" is available free online at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com as well as in paperback. It covers the good and the bad. No advertising, no corporate sponsorship and I get no royalties. James Aach

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand

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