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Stewart Brand on 'Environmental Heresies' 762

Posted by Hemos
from the good-piece dept.
FleaPlus writes "The MIT Technology Review has an article predicting where the mainstream of the environmental movement may likely reverse its collective stance in the next ten years. The four areas discussed are population growth, urbanization, genetically-engineered organisms, and nuclear power. The article is written by Stewart Brand, known for creating the Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL online community, and the Long Now Foundation. Brand also has some interesting comments regarding the sometimes-conflicting interaction between romantics and scientists in the environmental movement. There's an online debate between Brand and former DOE official Joseph Romm on TR Blogs." Frankly, unless humanity decides to undergo a massive collective personality change of not being consumption-focused, I don't see much other way around these particular issues. What we all need is an Arthur to keep us depressed and sleeping in darkened rooms to lower energy consumption.
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Stewart Brand on 'Environmental Heresies'

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  • Pragmatism (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stevesliva (648202) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:03AM (#12336590) Journal
    I'm glad someone has taken the time to lay this out. It has long been very frustrating to see environmentalist romantics fly in the face of reason in railing against genetically-modified plants as a possible solution to population pressures, or arguing against nuclear power as a clean energy source.

    Increasing demand for power and other resources isn't going away. Time to suck it up and deal with imperfect solutions.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Environmental romantics == hippies?
    • Re:Pragmatism (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bigberk (547360)

      Increasing demand for power and other resources isn't going away.

      Wow, it's interesting to watch the same mistakes in reasoning over and over again. A lot of the increase in demand for power and resources is artifically created. In other words, increase in demand for resource is not a necessity; it is a situation that exists due to the business environment.

      With increased government levvies, and education on future impacts of piggish consumption, overall demand can actually decrease. But such is not go

    • Re:Pragmatism (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Flying in the face of reason?

      Well, let's see: GM food--an attempt to take our food supply, which is already dangerously genetically uniform, and make it even more genetically uniform--which, if science is our guide, makes it more vulnerable to pandemic. Yes, short term yields should be great. However, food supplies should be STABLE, not boom-and-bust.

      Then there's nuclear (fission) power. Yes, it's clean and safe, relative to, say, coal. But there's the waste disposal issue. It hasn't been solved. Ye
      • Re:Pragmatism (Score:5, Insightful)

        by meringuoid (568297) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:43AM (#12337053)
        Then there's nuclear (fission) power. Yes, it's clean and safe, relative to, say, coal. But there's the waste disposal issue. It hasn't been solved.

        Has the waste disposal issue been solved for coal power plants? As far as I'm concerned, pumping that stuff into the atmosphere does not constitute safe disposal...

        • Re:Pragmatism (Score:4, Informative)

          by maxpublic (450413) on Monday April 25, 2005 @01:34PM (#12338452) Homepage
          Ironically, coal plants produce far more radiation per MW than nuclear power plants do...and they dump it all into the atmosphere. Most greenies seem ignorant of that fact, or simply skip ahead to the entirely unfeasible "let's use solar/wind/whatever" combined with "live the way I live, or you're immoral scum" arguments.

          The environmental extremists deserve about as much consideration as those lunatics from PETA.

          Max
    • Re:Pragmatism (Score:3, Informative)

      by Angostura (703910)
      It's an excellent article, refreshing. As a person of greenish hue, I've certainly moved my stance on nuclear power over the last few years.

      However I'd take issue with a couple of points.

      My degree is in Biological Sciences, specializing in genetics, and while I am quite happy to eat GM food on health grounds, to say that rejection of the technology on environmental grounds is pure romanticism is overly harsh.

      Back when I was doing my degree, (in the late 80s, just as the first GM plans were being worked o
    • Re:Pragmatism (Score:3, Interesting)

      by protohiro1 (590732)
      The anti-urban attitude is what drove me out of Boulder and into Denver. Cities are the future. Six billion people cannot live well in self-sustaining villages. The only way to reach the Boulder/Eugene vision of lots of pretty little towns surrounded by little organic farms is to kill about 3/4 of the world's population. Urbanization allows centralization of problematic features of modern life. Waste and pollution can be more easily managed, food production can be streamlined to feed more people better
    • "It has long been very frustrating to see environmentalist romantics fly in the face of reason in railing against genetically-modified plants as a possible solution to population pressures, or arguing against nuclear power as a clean energy source."

      Well if you ask a scientist if he knows what he is doing especially in his field of study, of course he will tell you he knows what he is doing, but at the same time the process they are involved in is making theories, testing theories, peer review tearing down
  • Urbanization (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 14erCleaner (745600) <FourteenerCleaner@yahoo.com> on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:05AM (#12336613) Homepage Journal
    In the article, Brand writes:

    The environmentalist aesthetic is to love villages and despise cities.

    as part of his observation that urbanization is slowing population growth (which he contends is slowing growth).

    Actually, my observation is exactly the opposite. I seem to hear more sympathy for packing everyone together than for spreading them out in the modern environmentalist rhetoric. That's why "sprawl" has become a cuss-word among this bunch.

    For another example, look at the current opinion of Walmart. Just today I heard an NPR story [npr.org] about Walmart that criticized them for their environmental impact (pollution and rainwater runoff from their parking lots, plus the extra air pollution from people driving there, I guess).

    I guess my point is that the "environmental movement" is a little conflicted; they apparently either like or dislike centralization and efficiencies of scale, depending on the context.

    • Re:Urbanization (Score:4, Insightful)

      by pestie (141370) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:17AM (#12336726) Homepage
      I guess my point is that the "environmental movement" is a little conflicted; they apparently either like or dislike centralization and efficiencies of scale, depending on the context.

      That could have something to do with the fact that such things are positive in some contexts and negative in others.
    • Re:Urbanization (Score:5, Insightful)

      by psin psycle (118560) <psinpsycle AT yahoo DOT com> on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:22AM (#12336783) Homepage
      Sprawl....

      There are good things and bad things about packing people together. There are good ways and bad ways to do it. The city sprawl that most environmentalists would be talking about is where everyone lives in their huge house in the suburbs with their chemical fertilized lawns and their SUV's driving downtown to work every day. This is very wasteful way to 'pack people together'. Small city in Canada called Calgary has more land mass than most larger cities, with fewer people. Lots of crop land was destroyed to sprawl people out in the city. Now all this land is lawn or highway instead of farm. This increases the per-person ecological footprint.

      The kind of packing people together that is better is where most people live in Apartment Buildings/Condos near to where they work, they don't have lawns or SUVs and they are able to walk to work and to the grocery store. This reduces the per-person ecological footprint.
      • Re:Urbanization (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jfengel (409917)
        In truly well-packed places, like Paris or New York, you get everywhere on foot or on public transportation and don't need a car at all. A car would be a liability, expensive to park and hard to use.

        But once you get to the sort of density where Wal-Mart likes, they've centralized some of the shopping but you still have to take a car to get there. Which means you have to own a car, so you're already paying to buy it, insure it, maintain it, regardless of how many miles you drive. So you might as well tak
    • Re:Urbanization (Score:3, Interesting)

      by duffbeer703 (177751)
      The environmental people are conflicted because they are classic suburbanites. They want to move to a beautiful village or suburban community and lock the door behind them.

      I went to a zoning board meeting to get a fence permit. I was stuck at this meeting until almost 1AM because some anti-sprawl activist group had about 20 speakers present to speak out against the environmental destruction that a Walgreens (!) would reap on an already bustling commercial corridor. They were demanding building moratoriums
    • Re:Urbanization (Score:3, Insightful)

      by misleb (129952)
      Actually, my observation is exactly the opposite. I seem to hear more sympathy for packing everyone together than for spreading them out in the modern environmentalist rhetoric. That's why "sprawl" has become a cuss-word among this bunch.

      That is because suburban sprawl is not the same as the supposed environmental aesthetic of "loving villages." Far from it. Suburban sprawl is "spreading out" in all the wrong ways. It consumes land inefficiently and expands the footprint of existing urban areas indefinit

  • GM crops (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Yusaku Godai (546058) <hyuga@guardi[ ]hyuga.net ['an-' in gap]> on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:08AM (#12336650) Homepage
    This is one issue that's always bugged the hell out of me about the wackier spectrum of environmentalists.
    GM crops have the potential, hell, they're *necessary* for a great number of third world countries to be able to grow enough food to feed their people. And these guys are trying to stop that for the sake of nonsensical political motivations.
    Then they go about using scare tactics, calling it "frankenfoods" and whatnot, as if there's something horrific about it. Excuse me, but we've been genetically modifying our crops for millenia. We've just gotten more sophisticated about it.
    • Re:GM crops (Score:5, Interesting)

      by hey! (33014) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:16AM (#12336717) Homepage Journal
      I read this article in dead tree form some weeks ago.

      One of the choice bits was Brand's assertion that left wing opposition to GM foods is a mirror image of right wing opposition to water flouridization. The right doesn't like flourdization because it comes from the government. The left doesn't like GM foods because they come from industry.
    • Re:GM crops (Score:4, Interesting)

      by cherokee158 (701472) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:18AM (#12336737)
      The real danger of genetically engineered ANYTHING is that you risk creating a monoculture, which could make an entire food crop or species vulnerable to rapid extinction under adverse conditions.

      The more specialized a species becomes, the more it needs a tightly defined environment in which to exist. If anything happens to change its environment...and it will...it can have catastrophic consequences.

      Engineered plants and animals can also overwhelm other wildlife in the same niches of the ecosystem, despite precautions, and throw the entire ecosystem out of balance. (In much the same way that non-native animals introduced to closed ecosystems can have very disruptive results...witness the Cane toad plague in Australia)

      Mother nature has spent millenia sorting out which species are best adapted to survive on our planet, and she does so without prejudice. Can you say the same for a profit-minded food corporation?

      • Re:GM crops (Score:3, Informative)

        by Yusaku Godai (546058)
        Profit-minded? Sure, no doubt that exists in corporate management. But there are real scientists with philanthropic goals doing the actual work here. You don't think these guys know what they're doing? They're *very* careful now when introducing new strains to the environment, and don't just do so willy-nilly. These are guys like Norman Borlaug [nobelprize.org], a Nobel peace prize winner, who've worked tirelessly to successfully introduce new strains of high-yeild, disease-resistant crops to needy people. Do you thin
    • Re:GM crops (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Being from a third-world country myself, I can tell you the problem we have with American companies' GM foods:
      They are specifically engineerd so that you can only use them once. So if you plant a patch of GM corn, you cannot use the seeds of the plants to grow new corn. They just don't grow. So now you have to buy the corn from the company every year, thereafter. And, worse, if the GM corn cross-polinate a field next-door, half that crop cannot reproduce anymore either.
      So the American companies are not in i
      • Re:GM crops (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 25, 2005 @12:04PM (#12337322)
        What do you expect us to do? Invade your country, overthrow the corrupt leadership, and establish a transitionary government until your citizens have the chance to draft a new constitution and elect a representative governing body? Why keep doing that when the rest of the world just shits all over us for doing so?
      • Re:GM crops (Score:4, Insightful)

        by RealAlaskan (576404) on Monday April 25, 2005 @12:48PM (#12337869) Homepage Journal
        ... if you plant a patch of GM corn, you cannot use the seeds of the plants to grow new corn.

        That is a huge problem. I'd advise subsistance farmers to stay away from store-bought seeds.

        They just don't grow.

        You'd better hope they don't grow, because if they do grow, you have even worse problems. Just ask the Canadian [savethepinebush.org] farmers [i-sis.org.uk] sued [non-gm-farmers.com] by Monsanto [organicconsumers.org].

        On Sept. 11 2001 about 3500 people died in New York. On that same day 44000 children died in Africa of hunger. Is there a war on hunger? NO.

        If you folks would like us to invade, overthrow your dictators for you, colonize and Americanise you, just say the word and we'll put you on our list. The whole process might take 100 years or more, and if you don't whole-heartedly embrace the Americanisation part, it just won't work (e.g., the Phillipines). Be aware that the list is already very long, and there is just no way that you're going to get ahead of Iran and North Korea, who have already signed up for the ``get civilized or get dead'' package.

        It might be quicker and easier for you to get rid of your Mugabes [66.102.7.104] yourself.

    • by Colin Smith (2679) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:28AM (#12336846)
      GM crops make a negligible difference to third world countries. The yields on GM crops are only marginally better than for regular crops, the difference is only significant for those huge agribusinesses who have tens of thousands of acres of the stuff.

      It's war, corruption, disease and import tariffs which decimate the farming populations of third world countries. What they need is good stable government and fair trade with the developed world, not GM crops.

      • I agree with the parent. The argument that "GM crops will help 3rd world countries" is appealing but fundamentally flawed. I am in favor of (regulated) research into GM crops, since there is much potential. However, (as many reviews in Science and Nature magazine have pointed out) it is silly to believe that GM crops will help out 3rd world countries anymore than modern bred crops have. After all, these GM crops are being designed by large western corporations. They are being optimized for conditions that a
      • Dwarf Wheat (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jabber01 (225154)
        Look up dwarf wheat sometime, and the difference it has made in the Indian subcontinent.

        GM is little more than deliberately engineered advantageous mutation.
    • Re:GM crops (Score:3, Insightful)

      by malsdavis (542216)
      My (and I gather a lot of other people's) problem with GM crops from an enviromental standpoint is mainly due to the current way they are used.

      Currently, GM crops are predominatly crops made resistant to a particular potent and extremely nasty chemical which can then be sprayed all over the countryside as the farmers know their crops won't die.

      The fact that everything else dies, and the land is made totally uninhabitable to any non-GM'ed plant or animal, sometimes for many years, is ignored in pursuit of
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:12AM (#12336689)
    My problem with a lot of environmental thought is its all tied up in a package of garbage ideas. Efficiency good, but technology bad. Walmart is EVIL! SUVs are EVIL! Globalism is evil! What's wrong with the Nature Conservancy approach? Buy up the land while trying to respect property rights. Look for approaches that make economic sense to the locals so they are sustainable. Be more efficient without hating SUVs or even nuclear power. Why does it all have to be tied to some lefty anti-capitalist, anti-globalist worldview?
    • No beef w/ Walmart, but SUVs are evil.

      I wrote that as a joke, but thinking about it, it's true. SUVs are today's form of conspicuous consumption. "Look, I can afford to buy a huge, expesive, gas guzzling car! Look at Me!!" Its just the same as the European old school upper class who would eat until they threw up and then eat again. Vans have more cargo space than SUVs, and no one ever uses them to offroad. SUVs are all about the statement: I'm cool, I drive a big expensive car.

      But Walmart... now t

  • Nuclear vs. Coal (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sznupi (719324) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:15AM (#12336708) Homepage
    Too bad that people don't realise that coal based energy production is much more hazardous to inveroment...furthermore, it's not only about what people typically understand as pollution, but also also radioactive "waste"! (typical nuclear plant doesn't release them to biosphere; typical coal plant releases some amount of it - radioactive elements that were in its fuel) And meanwhile almost 100% of electricity here comes from coal, and worst of all, 2/3 of it is brown coal :/ And probably public will block construction of nuclear power plant, that is planned in the next ~10/15 years...
    • Industrial safety (Score:5, Interesting)

      by kebes (861706) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:50AM (#12337151) Journal
      Just to add to this post... as someone who has worked in a nuclear reactor, I'd like to comment on the safety of nuclear vs. coal/petroleum industries. In addition to nuclear releasing far less pollution into the environment (and all its waste being very localized and contained), there is the issue of worker safety.

      The nuclear industry is very well regulated. Worker safety (and radiation exposure) is meticulously monitored and recorded. Because the entire system is so paranoid and regulated, it is very safe. The most dangerous thing about working in a nuclear plant is conventional industrial accidents (like a crane falling on you). The risk increase due to the presence of nuclear power is minimal.

      It is very strange that the public would be shocked and horrified if 10 people were killed in a nuclear power plant accident. However, many more than that are injured or killed every year in the coal/petroleum industry (think of fires on oil rigs, etc.) because this industry is far less safety-oriented. (It's also worth reminding that nuclear power is "more expensive" than other power sources mostly due to this level of regulation.)

      The number of injuries/deaths in the nuclear power industry, per year, is small compared to other power industries (and indeed compared to most industries in general). So from the point of view of worker safety, nuclear (in its current, regulated form) is the best.
  • by bigberk (547360) <bigberk@users.pc9.org> on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:15AM (#12336715)
    In the past few years I've woken up to the power of this thing called money, as a driving force in human motivation (at least in societies where material wealth is valued over social relationships). Money makes people say anything and do anything, for their personal gain. It's really a very powerful force, and it trumps logic, common sense, and in many cases, morals.

    Certainly, some environmentalists have financial motives but the majority do not. When scientists are concerned about global climate change, they are publishing these warnings in the hope of drawing attention to what they genuinely perceive as a serious problem. Ditto for polution concerns, supplies of natural resources, biological diversity and ecosystem damage. These are FACTS.

    In contrast, the news releases from industry which make their way across television and newspaper spread absolute lies. Examples:
    • there is no global climate change (flies in the face of 90%+ of scientific opinion)
    • business can continue as usual without worrying about environmental factors (a hope, for short term business as usual)
    • the economy can survive $100 oil
    • nuclear is the solution to our energy needs
    Here's the important point: a lot of scientists work for industry. So they have a distinct bias. In many cases they are providing reports for their employer. So next time you run into a scientific report, check the source... not all scientists are funded equally.
    • The fact of the matter is that there is intrinsic bias in any research funding, regardless of whether it comes from industrial or environmental concerns. Face it, neither side is truly objective about the whole thing, which really is the whole point of science, isn't it?
    • by mizhi (186984) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:33AM (#12336900) Homepage
      there is no global climate change (flies in the face of 90%+ of scientific opinion)

      Actually, I don't think anyone doubts that there is global climate change. What differs scientist to scientist are the causes of said change.

      business can continue as usual without worrying about environmental factors (a hope, for short term business as usual)

      This is true, but if you talk to responsible businessmen, they understand this. The problem is that people expect returns on their investments uberquickly, sometimes in short amount of time than is required to make ecologically sound expansions in production.

      the economy can survive $100 oil

      Why, in principle, can't the economy survive $100 oil? Perhaps not in its current form, but there's no universal law that says barrels of oil must be below $100.

      nuclear is the solution to our energy needs

      How is this a lie?

      Here's the important point: a lot of scientists work for industry. So they have a distinct bias. In many cases they are providing reports for their employer. So next time you run into a scientific report, check the source... not all scientists are funded equally.


      Unfortunately, what trickles down to us, non-experts, is some journalist's interpretation of highly complex work. We often get only half the story, and the half we get is usually incorrect.

      You also can't blithely ascribe bias to pure monetary gain. Scientists differ on causes and solutions. Science isn't always a clean field and there are periods of time where no one really knows what the fuck the correct answer is. Call it scientific evolution; the debate and refinement of theories until the correct ones remain. What matters at the end of the day is how well other scientists are able to replicate results and if the theories stand the test of time. Those that don't, will be forgotten, or relegate to crack-pot conspiracy theorists. If a scientist sells his objectivity to the highest bidder, then they will eventually be discovered and his theories and work discredited.

      The key point is that neither you (I'm assuming) nor I have the expertise required to make that call. We have to wait for what those in the field finally decide, if they ever come to a consensus.
    • And your post is an example of why I *won't* trust environmentalists.

      Your first point is an issue of trusting scientists, not environmentalists -- a policy you reject in your final paragraph. Which is it? Only trust them when they come to pre-approved conclusions? And your second is more slogan than argument.

      The last two, however, are more objectionable. What is your argument that the economy cannot survive $100/bbl oil? It's now four times higher than just a few years ago -- why does the next doubling sp

  • by G4from128k (686170) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:18AM (#12336739)
    This article [sciencenews.org] describes a GMO rice that is herbicide resistant. Scientists spliced in a human enzyme that is very effective at crunching toxins to create rice that can withstand a wider variety of weed-killers. This lets farmers rotate their weedkillers to reduce the chance that the weeds evolve resistance.

    The GMO rice provides two other important environmental benefits. First, the new enzyme is so efficient at detoxifying the herbicide that the resulting rice is relatively herbicide free (non-modified rice contains 20X more residual herbicide). Second, the GMO rice extracts herbicide from the soil, meaning less herbicide in run-off.
  • by KMitchell (223623) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:18AM (#12336740)
    What we all need is an Arthur to keep us depressed and sleeping darkened rooms.

    Unless the odd grammar above somehow changes the meaning of the sentence, I think Marvin was who you were going for there...


    As long as I'm nitpicking, when I think of "an Arthur" I think of http://www.thetick.ws/car8.html

  • by Colin Smith (2679) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:21AM (#12336769)
    "radical conservation in energy transmission and use"

    He says this like it's an insignificant thing. It's not. We literally throw away approximately 60% of the energy used to produce electricity as "waste heat". And this is at the power station itself (including nuclear)!

    We then go on to use most of the 40% of the energy we have actually transmitted to produce more heat. It's not what could be classed as clever.

    Changing this single inefficiency in our energy generation sector would do the job. It's not even particularly radical, the solution is a couple of hundred years old, it's just that until very recently it's been cheaper to just pump in more oil, gas or coal.

  • by karvind (833059) <karvindNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:22AM (#12336780) Journal
    Yep, yep, probably, and maybe. These are the environmental orthodoxies I've always felt most uncomfortable with, and Brand has captured why with concise, forceful arguments.

    On population, he points out that global population is close to leveling off and is declining precipitously in many countries. Why? Mostly it is the unprecedented worldwide migration from rural villages to cities, where having lots of children is less of an advantage. If those concerned with sustainability get out ahead of this trend and help guide it, it could be an environmental blessing. Cities put people close together, reducing their collective energy use. They free up rural areas for wildlife and wilderness (if protections are put in place).

    Regarding biotech: There's truth to this, though it's slightly facile. It does, after all, matter that GM has been developed by giant corporations and has been used primarily for their benefit. But the idea that the technology itself is intrinsically bad ... that doesn't make much sense to me. As Brand says, the proper reaction for greens ought to be to appropriate the technology and use it for their ends, particularly since, embrace or no embrace, it's gonna spread. Open-source biotech seems like a promising way for GM to do some environmental good. Brand offers some scenarios.

    Ultimately, I suspect that urbanization, GM crops, and nuclear power are inevitable. If all we do is stand on the sidelines shouting "no, no, no!" the process will proceed without us, guided by the worst actors. The smartest thing that those of us concerned about the health of humanity and the planet can do is get involved and try to steer toward an outcome that is equitable and sustainable.

  • by MichaelPenne (605299) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:29AM (#12336848) Homepage
    will be the first thing reversed.

    It's high time the top brass of the environmental movement admit that stopping Nuclear power was a mistake that has lead to greater devastation of the environment by coal plants [climateark.org].

    Even the nuclear waste issue pales in comparison to the the ecological damage coal plants have caused and will keep causing until we replace them (finally) with much cleaner nuclear technologies like Pebble Bed. [mit.edu] Coal of course has it's own waste issues. [energyjustice.net]

    The anti-nuclear power movement has been one of the best examples of the law of unintended consequences in our times.
  • by codyk (857932) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:30AM (#12336856)
    From TFA:

    "Their answer is "Not much," because they know from their own work how robust wild ecologies are in defending against new genes, no matter how exotic"

    "The second greatest cause of extinctions is coming from invasive species, where no solution is in sight. Kudzu takes over the American South, brown tree snakes take over Guam . . ."

    So why is kudzu a problem if wild ecologies are so good at defending against new genes?

  • by amightywind (691887) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:31AM (#12336872) Journal

    My mind got changed on the subject a few years ago by an Indian acquaintance who told me that in Indian villages the women obeyed their husbands and family elders, pounded grain, and sang. But, the acquaintance explained, when Indian women immigrated to cities, they got jobs, started businesses, and demanded their children be educated.

    When I read this I thought of Hillary Clinton's memorable tome, "It Takes a Village". In retrospect it was about a prescient as Bill Gates' "The Road Ahead". Did she get anything right?

  • by waffleman (697097) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:35AM (#12336932)
    Soil quality is a very big and very basic issue that no one talks about. Our agricultural fields are dying, folks. I'm sorry I'm only offering anecdotal evidence in this post, but I remember 20 years ago in southern Ontario seeing what crop yields were like and the difference today is bizarre. Fields that were then very fertile are now just gray dust. They suffer horribly from erosion and require huge amounts of chemical fertilizer to get a barely minimal yield.

    These are not isolated, ignorant farmers who just plant corn. These farmers are doing their hardest to follow best practices and be competitve in the agri-industry, and honestly, they're still killing their land. Unless we make a big change in how soil quality is treated, our ability to produce food is going to take nose dive. It's simple.

    And don't start on the vegetarianism rant. In North America, plant production with the overuse of petroleum based chemical fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides is what is killing soil - not grazing.

    • Manure is actually good for the soil. I don't know anyone would claim that grazing animals is bad for soil.

      On the other hand, agri-business beef production involves keeping animals on feedlots, often in barns. In this case the manure becomes a waste by-product that is produced in such great quantities so as to throw off the ecological balance of the area. In some cases, where there are huge cattle farms, manure is polluting the land and the water.

      The answer to the problem is to have smaller farms produ
  • by smchris (464899) on Monday April 25, 2005 @11:54AM (#12337207)
    Ehrlich may have underestimated the ability of technology to increase food production on the short term but I think he was right in principle. It is my understanding that the large fish population in the Atlantic is a minor fraction of what it was only 30 years ago. That is an epic planetary die-off that has already occurred in an extraordinarily short time. World-wide human starvation hasn't been seen (yet) because we are still in the transition process of stripping the planet bare. Why do we need _any_ population increase to finish the job?

    Haven't people heard the story about passenger pigeons:

    "It was Alvin Jones who told us about the Pigeon Roost Prairie which was near the Jones homestead. He said so many pigeons stopped to roost in the pines in this are that they broke the limbs off the trees and the trees died, so there was a prairie there. There wasn't a living tree for 150 acres, and it was called Pigeon Roost Prairie. That was virgin pine timber they killed. The pigeons were almost as big as a chicken, not the homing pigeon; they were two or three times larger, about the size of a pheasant. Not thousands of pigeons but millions of pigeons! I tried to learn all I could about this pigeon migration. I was interested in it. It was something to think about. There would be so, many they would darken the sun for three days, all going north."

    http://www.ulala.org/P_Pigeon/Texas.html

    Aren't people curious about how primitive cultures were able to feed themselves with sharpened sticks? I suspect it was because going down to the brook to spear a carp was only somewhat more inconvenient than going down to the freezer to find something to thaw.

    Like boiling frogs, the human lifespan is only 70+ years. Perhaps it is too short for people to actually experience ecological change and ingrain any feeling for the issue. As long as there is soylent green, some people will call it a balanced ecology. Others think more diversity is valuable.

    The point is that the planet was already damaged by population and industry before anyone on Slashdot was born. We should be discussing whether we are at the planetary coup de grace stage, not congratulating ourselves on how population isn't a problem.

    (AND, if we didn't have so many people, there would be one less argument for both GMO and nuclear.)

    • Aren't people curious about how primitive cultures were able to feed themselves with sharpened sticks?

      They didn't. Prior to the agricultural revolution meat only made up 10% of the average persons diet. The other 90% consisted of fruits and vegetables. Humans were lousy hunters but fairly good gatherers.

      Even so, starvation was so common it happened once every three years, on average.

      AND, if we didn't have so many people, there would be one less argument for both GMO and nuclear.

      Feel free to kill y
  • Brand is selling out (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Baldrson (78598) * on Monday April 25, 2005 @12:01PM (#12337292) Homepage Journal
    • His emphasis on urbanization as the way to control population is not only inhumane but ultimately ineffective.
      • It is inhumane because, except for a few notable exceptions, people are not well adapted to urban environments. The reason their fertility falls is similar to the reason the fertility of zoo animals falls. They are in an unnatural environment.
      • It is ineffective because:
      • Those exceptional cultures/genes that are adapted to the urban environment will, at a human ecology level, just eat the populations that can't adapt to urban environments and then go on exponentiating. He likes pointing out that "even" Mormon fertility is dropping but doesn't bother pointing out that other groups are reproducing at way above replacement levels within the urban setting. He knows better than to claim there is no human biodiversity at work in the cosmopolitan environments. His comments on invasive species demonstrates he sees how ecological panmixia destroys diversity by promoting unsustainable ecologies. Human ecologies are no different.
      • The most sociopathic urban cultures which Brand's "savvy" environmentalism is sadistically exponentiating will continue the destruction of the countryside and general environment because:
      • They will still need the photosynthetic basis for their food chain.
      • The food will have to be transported to the cities, requiring more transportation cost for each food calorie consumed.
      • Those cultures hey will lack the ability create new sources of food since they'll be purely political animals capable of manipulating and effectively eating other human groups but without the connection to the land of the humans they have digested.

    His reliance on nuclear energy as the solution to the greenhouse emission problem betrays exactly the sort of lack of creativity just described. Natural ecosystems need not suffer substantial presence of intensive agriculture and global warming CO2 can be sequestered from the atmosphere in the process.

    Agriculture need not be land intensive. In fact, it can be removed from the vast majority of existing ecosystems with a relatively minor amount of innovation in food processing and packaging.

    On about 108 acres, Earthrise Farms in the Imperial Valley desert, California is producing 67kg of protein per square meter per year using relatively little water. This is better than 20 times the yield of soybeans and includes one of the broadest spectrums of amino acids of any known source of protein. The crop is spirulina, a blue green algae that is a source of nutrition at the base of the aquatic food chain. They have been doubling their production every 5 years but have limited themselves to a niche market in health food or "nutriceuticals". The primary technology they need developed to make this protein directly consumable by humans as a staple of the diet is removal of nucleic acids -- something that may be feasible as an extension of their centrifugal drying process. In any case, it is an excellent feed stock for animals and can displace many times its own acreage in conventional agricultural uses.

    The late John Martin at Moss Landing hypothesized in 1987 that large sections of the tropical Pacific were ready to support ecosystems nearly as abundant as the oceans off the coast of Peru except for the lack of one key nutrient: Iron. In 1995, subsequent to his death, his team tested "the Iron hypothesis" by spreading a half ton of iron sulfate (available in huge cheap quantities as a byproduct of iron smelting) over a wide area of ocean. The south Pacific ocean turned from "crystal clear electric blue", virtually devoid of life, to duck pond green. They produced 25,000 tons of biomass for a factor of 50,000 gain from fertilizer to biomass. Once the ocean desert bloomed with phytoplankton, zooplankton, the next link up the food chain, began grazing. Had they kept going, zooplankton grazing fish could have been introduced, such as anchovies, but they terminated the ferti

  • Should the environmental movement favor nuclear power?

    Who cares!

    The four subjects he raises are fringe distractions from the major policy questions which have the largest impact on our environment, which are merely a symptom of wider deficits in our nation's democratic culture.

    Population growth is becoming a non-issue.

    I favor nuclear power as long as the details are right - if the public is going to take all the risks, we shouldn't allow some private entity to reap the profits off of it.

    I favor genetically modified organisms which are designed in a way that benefits farmers and/or the environment, rather than maximizing the profits of entrenched power.

    Likewise, urbanization is fine if it leads to prosperity, but as a result of people being driven off of the land by thugs (e.g. Columbia) it is a bad thing.

    The devil is in the details, as has always been the case. In ten years time the details may have changed enough that the present situation becomes unrecognizable; so I think trying to predict what we will be trying to do ten years from now is futile and silly.

    This isn't to bash futurism generally - we can't know what to work towards now if we don't have some concept of what the future will be like. But trying to predict the future of activism? Waste of time.

  • by dara (119068) on Monday April 25, 2005 @12:16PM (#12337465)
    Population is the most important issue in politics for me, so I read the section on this topic (but skipped the rest). I'm so tired of the descriptions of "doom and gloom" that will happen with low fertility rates and a shrinking population - these authors are a mirror image of the mistakes they claim that past environmental authors have made in predicting the future.

    There are some scientific facts on population that are rarely disputed:

    1] The earth has a finite carrying capacity

    Actual numbers will vary anywhere from 1 to 10 billion people, but it's obvious that constraints on food, water, energy, pollution sinks do constrain the number of us. My opinion is that the number is less than we are now, but we are getting by (some of us anyway) because of unsustainable oil and water use. Perhaps we could get by on renewable energy with around 2 billion people.

    2] Large numbers of humans cannot leave the earth

    There is no way we could move even 1/1000th the world population off the earth even if there was someplace to go. The resources/pollution needed to do this make it a non-starter for addressing population growth.

    3] Adjustments need to be made to run an economy with a declining population growth

    Not impossible, but obviously it is harder to operate a system that is shrinking instead of growing. Tricks like using lots of workers to support fewer retirees won't work. Any pyramid scheme seems great when you are on the growth side, but I'd prefer not to have the human race crash like a big pyramid scheme.

    4] Fertility rates can be adjusted by government action

    Coercive measures while espoused by some as necessary have been avoided in very successful transitions to lower fertility (e.g. Iran). We have less experience with going the other way, but some countries (e.g. Singapore) are trying incentives to raise the fertility rate. I see no reason that these rates can't be successfully adjusted if for some reason, 50 years from now, the world wide fertility rate dips down well below 2 and stays there so long that our population goes below 2 billion.

    Now, back to the article:

    In each country listed: Japan, Germany, Spain, Russia (I think) and Italy, they could stand to lose 30% of their population anyway. I think the U.S. is too crowded and Europe has much higher densities (and Japan is worse) in terms of population per arable land unit.

    "It turns out that population decrease accelerates downward just as fiercely as population increase accelerated upward, for the same reason."

    What does this mean? If you measure the increase or decrease of an exponential function (what he's talking abut here) as a percentage, then of course they have the same fierceness, but there is no concept of acceleration (percentage growth is constant). If you measure the amount in absolute numbers, then exponential increase is accelerating, but exponential decrease is always decelerating.

    As far as fertility going down everywhere, we in the U.S. are now at 2.08 and this is going up (albeit slowly). We were closer to 2 about 5 years ago I think. If you look at http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/ranko rder/2127rank.html [cia.gov], you will see there are still quite a few countries that have fertility rates above 2.1. (By the way, saying 2.1 is steady state assumes an average infant mortality rate that is pretty high. If you want the human race to all move into a the modern industrialized world, something under 2.05 is required). Granted, I don't have the plots of all countries fertility rates over time and some of these countries near the top may be declining, but I see absolutely no way we can declare success now. I expected better out of Technology Review, the magazine where I first learned about fuel cells for automotive use.

    Dara
  • I wonder... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PsiPsiStar (95676) on Monday April 25, 2005 @12:29PM (#12337633)
    If I was Monsanto's competitor, could I legally produce and release roundup-resistant weeds to nullify the benefits of roundup-ready soybeans?
  • Why nuclear? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by figa (25712) on Monday April 25, 2005 @12:43PM (#12337817) Journal
    Brand's first two assumptions are not necessarily correct. I consider myself an environmentalist, and I've been aware for several years now that the global population is flattening out. I regularly use his argument against racist anti-immigrant Malthusians on the right.

    When I moved to an urban area, I recognized instantly that I was lowering my environmental impact. I do not drive, I take up less land, and I take advantage of economies of scale for shipping and distribution of goods. I also have more options for recycling and co-op purchasing. Environmentalists are opposed largely to suburban sprawl that destroys habitats, wastes water for lawns, and makes mass transit impractical.

    Brand writes off environmentalists' opposition to GM crops and nuclear power as romantic, but an environmentalist would just as easily paint his glowing portrait of these technologies as naive scientific idealism. It's unfortunate that Brand is unwilling to see the highly rational thinking behind environmentalists' opposition to GM and nuclear power.

    Food and power "shortages" are in large part economic, which is to say they're a distribution problem, or ultimately a political problem. As an environmentalist, I do not see an inherent or immediate need for GM crops or additional nuclear power. I'm aware that we could already feed everybody on Earth with existing agricultural technologies, but we lack the political and economic will. Further, I do not trust corporations sponsoring genetic research. They are motivated by profit, not by environmental conservation, and will gladly wipe out everything that can't sue them on their way to profitability.

    Environmentalists have already seen corporations do massive damage to the environment, and there is no reason to believe that corporations have changed in any way. 50 years ago, scientists were using the same food shortage arguments to back the introduction of pesticides, hormones, and chemical fertilizers into the food chain. I would rather not see a repeat of DDT with GM crops, and as corporations gain legal impunity, I see no reason to trust them or the scientists in their employ. Rather, I would like to see an emphasis on organic, sustainable farming, with a slow, balanced introduction of GM species after careful scientific peer review and heavy governmental oversight. Unfortunately, we do not currently have the political structure to provide trustworthy governmental oversight of GM foods, and until we do, it would be better in my opinion to hold off.

    As for nuclear power, there are better options that have been ignored or underfunded in favor of GE's and MIT's pet projects. Whether it's tidal generators, solar, wind power, or bioenergy, I think it's worth focusing first on technologies that don't produce toxic wastes that will be around for thousands of years and can be used to make weapons, no matter how "safe" they are. It's not that nuclear energy is heresy, it's that it looks like a poor stopgap measure when we're on the way to genuinely sustainable power. Rather than invest in a nuclear power problem, it would be better to promote sustainable power and conservation in the meantime.

    • Re:Why nuclear? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TheSync (5291)
      Nuclear power is the environmental answer because it is the most dense source of energy.

      Tidal generators and wind power require huge amount of dispersed equipment. The environmental damage they cause will be spread over a wide area. We already know that wind power actively kills flying animals. I suspect that tidal generators will also be damaging to sea life.

      Another example is hydroelectric. Dams are now causing more greenhouse warming due to their emmissions of methane than they save in reduced CO2
  • by crush (19364) on Monday April 25, 2005 @12:55PM (#12337945)
    Brand's piece is long on rhetoric and short on information. It presents a breathless technological romanticism which ignores the difficulties in all of the "hopeful" proposals that he makes, e.g. the use of GM bacteria to attack invasive species. The problem of specifically targetting a host with a live organism and limiting it to that host is not likely to be solved any time soon. Not even if Brand waves the magic wonder wand of "GM" over it. The history of environmental remediation is littered with the introduction of live parasites which would supposedly prey upon the unwanted pests, cause a population crash and then die out with the pest. Environmental remediationists are now trying to figure out how to get rid of the live parasites which are doing just fine and have _adapted_ and _evolved_. GM is a solution looking for a problem: the favorite supposed problem is the worldwide food shortage. This supposed shortage is a distribution problem. It is caused by deliberate economic manipulation by the developed nations. I don't have the time to go into the problems with his lauding of the automobile as now being some sort of wonder vehicle because the yuppie-next-door is able to get 30mpg in her Prius. Overall a fairly unimpressive article that would fit in well with the anti-scientific, irrational technological fetishism of middle-class liberals that don't want to admit that there are hard societal problems to solve.

"Regardless of the legal speed limit, your Buick must be operated at speeds faster than 85 MPH (140kph)." -- 1987 Buick Grand National owners manual.

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