'Whole Earth Catalog' gets a radical makeover

In the late 1980s, two men drifted away from the established environmental movement and began plotting their own ways to navigate through a future world they saw dominated by climate change.

Stewart Brand, now 74, was a Stanford-educated ecologist and an organizer in the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s. He published the "Whole Earth Catalog," a kind of field manual for his fellow hippies who were leaving polluted big cities and shunning high technology and big business for a supposedly freer, cleaner life in rural communes.

Amory Lovins, a physics student, had left Harvard University as an undergraduate to go to Oxford University in England, where, after two years, he so impressed his dons with his multidiscipline brilliance that the faculty voted to award him a Master of Arts degree, even though Lovins had dropped his effort to get a doctorate in physics.

And so, at the tender age of 21, Lovins set out with his M.A. to convince the world that clean energy would become a dominant issue in the future.


When it came to awareness of climate change, both men were very early and very different from mainstream environmentalists who lobbied Congress for government regulations as the fix to nearly every environmental problem because they forced solutions on the enemy -- big business. While environmentalists put great stock in climate change negotiations, both Brand and Lovins doubted that diplomats, by themselves, could ever reach an agreement that would lower the planet's greenhouse gas emissions.

Separately, they worked out a starkly different pathway to the future. They saw businesses, technological innovation and competitive markets -- not government mandates -- as the real forces that would reduce the mounting risks of climate change. In the late 1980s, a slowly growing awareness of climate issues presented them with a teachable moment, and they both set out to take advantage of it.

'A persistent learner'

Brand co-founded the Global Business Network (GBN), a consulting firm that presented climate change scenarios. Among its clients were Shell, AT&T and Volvo. The firm once presented Pentagon officials with a startling scenario of how global warming might stop the Gulf Stream and freeze Europe. "We were wrong," Brand recalled, noting how later scientific studies rejected the notion.

It was Brand's agility, his ability to cross disciplinary lines and to later reverse himself in cases where he was wrong, that impressed some of his colleagues. "Stewart is a persistent learner, constantly challenging himself; that's why I love working with him," explained Peter Schwartz, a rocket scientist who was chairman of the board of GBN. "He's a real pain in the ass, very demanding intellectually."

Both Brand and Schwartz came to respect one of the brightest stars of their consulting firm -- Lovins -- who mesmerized clients with his ideas about the economics of saving energy, which he sometimes describes as "elegant frugality." Brand attended Lovins' first wedding and watched admiringly as Lovins convinced environmental groups that some technologies, such as more fuel-efficient cars, would be beneficial because they reduced the warming impact of fossil fuels on the Earth's atmosphere.

Brand and Lovins had sharp pens and didn't hesitate to use them to skewer opponents in scientific debates. By 2009, Brand had almost completely reinvented himself. In his new book, "Whole Earth Discipline," he came out for big cities (denser, thus more energy-efficient), genetically modified food (more security against drought and insects), nuclear power and geoengineering research as being necessary in the future to minimize the potential damage from climate change.

For Brand, small was no longer beautiful, and going back to the land without the power and finances of the city to adapt to future climate changes might even be dangerous. "Fessing up aids learning," he wrote.

Leery of 'Renewistan' (and Lovins)

Brand accused some environmental groups -- which increased their memberships campaigning against the risks of nuclear power -- of being "romantics" who present visions of tragedy but oppose solutions. "If Greens don't embrace science and technology and jump ahead to a leading role in both, they may follow the Reds [communists] into oblivion," he wrote.

He took several jabs at Lovins, who had made a name for himself pushing energy efficiency, solar and wind power, and other forms of renewable energy. Nuclear power produces electricity without emitting greenhouse gases, and the dangers of climate change forced some experts to change their views about nuclear power's risks, but Lovins continued to forcefully argue that nuclear power was too expensive and too dangerous to use.

"How can someone so smart be so wrong about a subject he knows so well?" Brand wrote.

In Brand's view, solar and wind power won't be enough to power the more densely packed cities he sees evolving in the future. Solar and wind power, he argued in a recent interview, are a "dilute source" of energy. Their output is too thin and they take up too much land. The power generated goes rapidly up and down when breezes die and clouds cover the sun. This seesaw effect, he thinks, will make operating electric grids "problematic" if more than 20 percent of the energy load is renewable.

Brand sometimes ridicules renewable-energy-only enthusiasts as living in "Renewistan," a mythical country that will never materialize without the vast amounts of energy that nuclear power plants can produce. While his current enthusiasm about nuclear power was formed before the power plant meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, Brand remains undeterred. The greater damage, he asserts, will be done to the climate if the world turns away from nuclear power. "It means we've got to build a lot more fossil fuel plants."

Brand's conversion to support nuclear power, after spending decades opposing it, came in 2002 with a visit to Yucca Mountain, once proposed to be the Department of Energy's nuclear waste disposal site. Although the government has spent more than $9 billion on it, Yucca's storage facility is now paralyzed by political opposition and a dispute among experts who still disagree over how to dispose of nuclear wastes after more than 60 years of generating them.

'Seize the century'

The government's argument was that Yucca could safely store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. Environmental groups asserted that burying waste at Yucca was inherently unsafe. "It was a battlefield of ghosts," said Brand, who found it hard to believe either side. To Brand, it is folly to even pretend to plan 10,000 years ahead. If the government had said it would build Yucca to store wastes for 100 years, while it figured out how to safely recycle the waste into energy and other future uses, he thinks Yucca might have been completed.

(Brand's latest version of this idea is coming to theaters soon in the form of a documentary movie -- "Pandora's Promise" -- in which he and other onetime nuclear power skeptics explain how the threat of climate change caused them to challenge "the anti-nuclear orthodoxy that is a founding tenet of the mainstream environmental movement.")

The 10,000-year question at Yucca Mountain got Brand wondering whether democracies could really deal with problems that take a long time to sort out. "Climate is a classic long-term problem, at least a century-sized problem," he explained. So he has formed his latest venture, the Long Now Foundation. It is a think tank that brings in experts to explore realistic solutions for problems with long-term horizons, such as how to protect cities against sea level rise.

Even though climate change solutions may seem baffling, even impossible to many people, Brand thinks the growing public awareness that climate change is behind changes in familiar weather patterns presents another teachable moment. "We've gotten pretty good at building long-term infrastructure," he said. "If we think about climate change and sea-level rise as an infrastructure issue, then I think people can start to feel comfortable about it."

In short, according to Brand, we must "seize the century." Or, as he once put it in a movie about Earth Day that included Lovins: "We're engaging in a set of activities which go way beyond the individual life span, way beyond children, grandchildren. ... And once you've held it in your mind, what do you do on Monday?"

Tomorrow: Lovins strikes back.

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