Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Stewart Brand Gets Incorrect

Stewart Brand, known primarily as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, published an article (that I missed) in the Technology Review (thanks to commenter James Aach) explaining his four heresies against the romantic wing of the environmental movement. He thinks that the romantics will come around to the scientific point of view and accept the following propositions:
  1. Population decline is a problem now.
  2. Urbanization is good. The huge population shift from the countryside is taking pressure off the rural environment and allowing the resurgence of natural habitat. Globally, urban women are more economically free and productive. Education is one of their priorities. The associated urban tendency toward population decline, however, needs to be resisted.
  3. Genetic engineering is a good thing. GMOs can feed the hungry and fight dangerously successful invasive species.
  4. Nuclear power is good. It can be a major tool in addressing the problem of Global Warming.


Stewart Brand is the hero of a generation of the environmentally aware. I am extremely pleased to read his enlightened viewpoint on this. I haven’t been this happy since James Lovelock went pro-nuclear. Nevertheless, I need to demur a tiny bit. I agree whole-heartedly on items three and four. I am in partial agreement on item two, but I am distressed and opposed to item one. I will agree only to the extent of saying that the unfortunate distribution of population growth is a problem.

To the degree that urbanization helps relieve pressure on the surrounding countryside, I think it’s a good thing. There are two downsides, however. 1) Cities misuse their land and physical resources. They are often mislocated from an environmental perspective. Suburban sprawl is very destructive in terms of land and energy use. Network densities can reach chokepoints, such as daily gridlock. 2) Cities represent concentrated vulnerabilities. Social problems are foisted onto cities. Dense population collections represent targets both militarily and socially. Global Warming and catastrophic events are likely to claim a number of cities (and even a couple of countries) before the end of the century. Experience tells us, cities cannot be evacuated.

I would much rather see the emphasis on encouraging a network of smaller inland cities with varying characteristics. Geologic facts should be heeded. Energy efficiency and individual effectiveness should be encouraged. Humane amounts of greenspace should be mandated. It seems to me that we should incentivize rational internal migration. We have to tell Senator Schmokum that Metropolis will no longer get those big city doses of bread and circuses, but we will be glad to put empowerment zones in Rustyville and subsidize the public transit for Center City. And maybe we could slide some recreation dollars into the deal for reopening the old canal. Strategic thinking should influence policy choices. New Orleans represents an opportunity to do just that.

Now, as for my opinion on population growth. I am still opposed. Maybe Mr. Brand would think me unscientific, but I see the diversion of biomass into humans as being risky and redundant. Each life is precious, I know, but there are many with precious little to eat, precious little of everything, and what they do have they steal from the environment. Did you read about the guy who ate the last woodpecker? It was a good piece of meat, he said. I don’t know the precise nature of our Coming Collapse. Anyone who says they do risks sounding like an alarmist, but I do know it’s out there tempting us into its grasp.

Control of population growth is also not happening. Dream on. You may see certain subgroups lowering their reproduction rates, but these groups will, over time, become less and less important. Trust in the exponential arithmetic! Subgroups that have persistently high growth rates will squeeze out all the others. The world will eventually be populated entirely by those peoples who use growth as a weapon.

Remember, Malthus has never been proved wrong! Adam Smith and Norman Borlaug had something to say about bringing hope to the masses, but sooner or later we’re going to run out of tricks. I don’t know, I don’t know … maybe not … but it’s crazy irresponsible to run your train on a broken line, assuming that all the bridges will be fixed by the time you reach them. I believe the only cure is reforming the nature of society so that rational force and the force of rationality can be sensibly applied to our collective problems. Sounds impossible, I know, but I’m asking you to come up with the answer.

1/11/2006 11:55 PM

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