Stewart Brand in the sixties, before he  became an 'ecopragmatist'
Ted Streshinsky/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesStewart Brand in the sixties, before he became an “ecopragmatist”

As part of their ongoing training, commercial pilots sometimes listen in on the cockpit audio recordings of two of their own who focused on the wrong things and overlooked the easy corrections in the minutes before flying themselves and 200 passengers into the side of a mountain. This postmortem eavesdropping on what accident investigators call “controlled flight into terrain” has been known to leave pilots wiping tears from their eyes with fists clenched in rage. Listening in on old-guard Greens as they explain why they now love nuclear power may prompt similar reactions from lowercase greens—those of us who love the pristine wild, believed all along that nukes would help preserve it, and despised the nonsense that environmentalists have enshrined as America’s new pagan religion. Those who listen in for more than ten minutes will also be left wondering how long the Greens’ new faith in nukes will last.

Consider Stewart Brand’s meaty, well-informed, and mostly sensible new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. The man who used to be so California Hip that in 1968 he made a cameo appearance in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test now presents himself as a “hacker (lazy engineer) at heart,” ready to promote realistic responses to the great eco-existential crisis of our time—climate change. How can Greens fulfill their new mission, which is to save not only birds and trees but all humanity? The man who founded and then edited the Whole Earth Catalog for 16 years—a magazine guided by “biological understanding” and enamored with the planet-saving power of organic farming, solar, wind, insulation, bicycles, and handmade houses—now concludes: “Cities are Green. Nuclear energy is Green. Genetic engineering is Green.”

As a onetime engineer who spent a sliver of his professional life working on and inside commercial nuclear reactors, I have found solace in traveling the same road as Brand but in the opposite direction, away from eco-techno-pragmatism and toward the politico kind. Eight years ago, when asked to opine on the Bush administration’s proposed nuclear revival, I found I had grown too cynical about nuclear politics to pop open the champagne. The best I could do was suggest that the future of nuclear power hinged on who spoke for the Greens—the old, reflexively antinuclear ideologues, or a more rational new center. Brand’s book, sad to say, convinces me I was wrong. It makes the case for environmental policies practical and levelheaded enough for any conservative green to embrace. And simultaneously gives us every reason to fear that nobody will ever speak for the Greens. There’s no there there solid enough to speak for.

The question I ask myself now,” Brand tells us when he gets to nuclear power, is: “What took me so long? I could have looked into the realities of nuclear power many years earlier, if I weren’t so lazy.” When he got over his nuclear sloth, here’s what Brand learned. (Most of the words quoted here are Brand’s own, but some are Brand quoting others approvingly.) “Fear of radiation is a far more important health threat than radiation itself.” “Reactor safety is a problem already solved,” and the new reactors are even safer than the old. Waste isn’t a problem; we need the $10 billion Yucca mountain disposal site “about as much as we need a facility for imprisoning dangerous extraterrestrials.” Nuclear power isn’t just the cheapest practical carbon-free option around, but the cheapest, period, when not snarled up in green tape. Scientists “invariably poll high in support of nuclear.” The people so pragmatic that they actually keep the lights lit, he might have added, have polled that way for 40 years, on the strength of reams of data and analyses, as well as the operating experience of our nuclear navy and a wide range of commercial reactors scattered across the planet.

Other Greens, Brand reports, have experienced similar nuclear epiphanies as age moved them closer to a place hotter than tropical. Among them is Gwyneth Cravens, a novelist, former New Yorker editor, and activist who in her salad days “helped frighten the American nuclear industry to a standstill” by successfully crusading to kill a brand-new nuclear power plant in Shoreham, Long Island. And James Hansen, a NASA climatologist and the most outspoken American advocate of drastic reductions in carbon emissions. And founders and former high officials of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and “a surprising number of [other] prominent environmentalists.” Canada, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, England, and other countries that not long ago either froze new construction or resolved to shut down their nukes have flipped from red-hot aversion to tepid embrace.

But tepid may not suffice. “One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of antinuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions,” Brand writes, quoting Hansen. It’s an indubitable historical fact that the developed world was poised to break free from a carbon-centered energy economy 30 years ago. Greens locked us back into it. By demonizing nukes so effectively, they boosted U.S. coal consumption by about 400 million tons per year. We would instantly cut our coal consumption in half if we could simply conjure back into existence the 100-plus nuclear plants that were in the pipeline three decades ago. If global warming is a problem, Brand and his ex-friends own it.

Brand admits it. He’s equally candid about what finally energized his own thinking about energy. His book begins with a summary of the “worst case” scenarios advanced by two climate alarmists: a “mass extinction” caused by a “decade-long release of hundreds of gigatons of methane” currently locked in the oceans, and an earth about 9 degrees Celsius hotter by the year 2025, or 2040 at the latest. The latter, less-worst worst will leave us with a planet able to grow only enough food to support 5 billion fewer people than it does today.

Mass starvation is a future that Brand has seen before. He studied with Paul Ehrlich and then defended Ehrlich’s spectacularly wrong 1968 prediction of the “population bomb” that would trigger global famine in the 1970s, or 1980s at the latest. Right on schedule, new crops created by selective breeding delivered caloric plenty. In his Ehrlich days, Brand also scoffed at the view that as the poor grew less poor, they would have fewer children. And small was beautiful, villages especially, so Brand “pushed communes as a path to the future.” Today, Brand believes cities are green because they increase wealth, liberate women, and thus lead to “fewer, higher-quality children.” In describing how we can also “Green the hell out of the growing cities,” Brand foresees farms moved into ultra-efficient—and, one must suppose, climate-controlled—skyscraping greenhouses.

Brand likes genetically engineered crops for similar reasons—they reduce the environmental impact of deforestation and agriculture by producing more food on less land. Greens who shun engineered crops are “as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse ‘intelligent design’ or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and decision makers.” Though Brand says that he and Ehrlich defended the technology from the outset, Whole Earth “did indeed promote the intensely organic publications” of the day, “organic” was and remains the antithesis of “bioengineered,” and Brand’s followers did much to obstruct genetically engineered crops, especially in Europe. “I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.”

It’s here, about halfway through his book, that Brand finally begins addressing what Greens have dignified with a grand title: the Precautionary Principle. That sliver of vacuous pedantry, Brand acknowledges, has become “deliberately one-sided, a rejection of what is called risk balancing,” a single-minded determination “to prevent all the harm we can.” Or imagined harm. As the precautious mind-set calcified, “evidence of harm disappeared as a precautionary principle trigger, and science was explicitly devalued.” The Old Greens followed the science only when its predictions fit with a narrative of “decay,” “decline,” and “disaster.” This was a “formula for paralysis.” The New Brand supports the “freedom to try things,” subject to “ceaseless, fine-grained monitoring.”

It all comes down to how people think. Adopting Isaiah Berlin’s familiar taxonomy, Brand explains that Old Greens are intellectual “hedgehogs”—they start with a grand theory and then shore it up with mounds of factoids dredged up to reinforce what they already believe. “Foxes, on the other hand, are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events. Hedgehogs don’t notice or care when they’re wrong. Foxes learn. Hedgehogs are great proponents, but foxes are invariably better forecasters and policy makers.”

Which makes it that much odder that when the subject is climate change, Brand puts on a classic display of hedgehoggy thought and uncritical faith in speculative predictions. The planet, Brand reasons, has previously experienced quite abrupt changes in climate: 55 million years ago, 12,800 years ago, 8,200 years ago. Sometimes the earth got hotter, sometimes colder. What caused these shifts? Maybe a huge methane burp from the oceans or the Arctic tundra, or the loss of reflective ice leading to increased absorption of solar heat at the poles, or northward movement of the dark conifer forests that absorb solar heat. The one thing we now know for sure is that the earth’s climate is “a precariously balanced nonlinear system . . . that lurches between very different states of coldness, dryness, wetness, and warmth.”

And that’s why humanity must address the carbon crisis immediately. The scientific logic is so familiar and settled that Brand doesn’t bother recapping it. So I will. There’s very little scientific doubt that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has risen 25 percent or so in the past 250 years and that the CO2 molecule absorbs radiant heat of a certain wavelength. It is apparently on the strength of these two facts that Al Gore characterizes global warming as a “law of physics” and that Brand—by mid-book—is treating man-made climate change as settled “science.”

But these are both gross mischaracterizations. Of course scientific laws govern down at the very bottom—but if global warming is a “law of physics,” then a law of physics also explains why your Buick didn’t start this morning and why some precariously balanced, nonlinear ganglion in your brain then impelled you to smash the hood with a sledgehammer. The analysis of climate hinges on the messy methods of engineering, not on the pristinely reductionist laws of science.

Brand says as much in the early pages of his book. The earth’s climate is controlled by exceedingly complex interactions of burps, reflectivity, and such. A small, dead-battery burp sometimes becomes a big smashed hood. Other times, the burp just floats away, and the hood is saved. Sometimes a small positive burp triggers a just-the-right-size negative, as when your howl of rage impels your levelheaded spouse to rush out and supply the hug you so obviously need. Brand himself helped develop a 1987 analysis linking the sudden cooling that occurred 8,200 years ago to an abrupt change in the Gulf Stream, which (Brand believes) was caused by a sudden flow of freshwater into the North Atlantic—which was caused by global warming. That story reminds Brand of yet another instance of up triggering down. “The world’s land areas are absorbing more carbon dioxide than they’re releasing lately,” he writes. “Until the ‘mysterious sink’ for carbon is figured out, our climate models will remain frustratingly vague and unpredictive.”

So, to sum it all up, the only thing that really matters is crystal clear. “For hundreds of millions of years, a ‘crazily jumping climate’ has been the norm on Earth.” “These days, apparently, we are returning to that jumpy norm, thanks to abruptness mechanisms like positive feedback, trigger events, and threshold effects, none of which are well incorporated into the climate models yet.” Pellucid laws of physics notwithstanding, “climate models have thus far been unable to predict the past or present with the kind of accuracy we want.” Indeed, “climate is so full of surprises, it might even surprise us with a hidden stability.”

And then, with all this uncertainty duly acknowledged, Stewart Brand tells us exactly how certain Stewart Brand actually is. “Counting on that [hidden stability] . . . would be like playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded but one.” Five-bullet roulette ends badly 83 percent of the time. Two pages later, Brand respectfully quotes James Lovelock, who seems to have reached 100 percent: “The Earth system is now in positive feedback and is moving ineluctably toward . . . one of the past hot climates.” Which forces us to conclude that Brand—like all climate-propelled Greens—remains an incorrigible, precautious hedgehog.

Intellectually honest people, Brand declares later, admit their mistakes. He then lists a bunch of the Old Brand’s errors: wrong on villages being greener than cities, wrong on cocaine being harmless, wrong on nuclear power being bad, and wrong on how the 1973 oil crisis would “lead to police in the streets of the United States.”

Also “totally wrong” about one much-publicized frailty of computers. Brand’s error here, he confesses, “was based on a neat little story I told myself. My own PC was pathetically vulnerable to bugs in the software. . . . Surely, I presumed, the huge old mainframes of the world and their ancient software would be even more vulnerable to a bug as deeply embedded as I thought Y2K must be. The world was facing the blue screen of death!” Listening to Brand’s Y2K “rant” at a 1998 dinner, one of’s senior engineers sweetly inquired: “Do you also believe in fairies?” Surely not. Brand just turned a single, seemingly clear “law of physics”—computers were jumpy—into a grand prediction: blue-screen meltdown for the whole digital planet.

Precautious Greens reason that way all the time. Take a letter published in what Brand calls “England’s Green paranoia magazine,” The Ecologist. Organisms genetically modified to liquefy cellulose, the basic structural material of plants, will escape, adapt, proliferate, and “become a green plague, causing a meltdown of the vegetable kingdom,” the letter warned. As for nukes, even though the New Brand suggests (with atypical lack of candor) that the Old Green opposition hinged on “one particularly deep aversion”—the problem of waste disposal—the risk of catastrophic meltdown was the principal Green concern when the antinukes were doing their worst 30 years ago. Back then, most Greens—among them John P. Holdren, a zealous antinuke who now serves as President Obama’s science advisor—focused on the “zero-infinity dilemma,” the tiny risk of a huge consequence, the puddle of molten uranium tunneling its way from Oshkosh to Shanghai, the “China syndrome” starring Jane Fonda in the movie.

The problem with all such concerns is that they have nothing to do with either science or engineering. Neither discipline deals in zeroes or infinities, because it’s always possible that the seemingly impossible is still lurking somewhere out there, just over the horizon. As the great irascible physicist Wolfgang Pauli once remarked about a report he had been asked to review: “That paper isn’t even good enough to be wrong.” The only answer that good scientists or engineers can give to meltdown futurists is the rhetorical one given to Brand by Amazon’s fairy denier. Or else an answer much like Brand’s own curt dismissal of the vegetable-meltdown paranoiacs: James Watson, the Nobel Prize–winning discoverer of DNA, thinks they’re silly. “If green goo could thrive in the world,” Brand adds, “microbes would have invented it long ago. If we try to create green goo, microbes will defeat it.” So much for precarious-chemistry-meets-zucchini: flushed away with a one-sentence quotation from a Nobelist and a one-sentence echo from a biologist named Brand.

Brand has been equally quick to explain away concerns about jumpy green computers. He mentions climate scientist Stephen Schneider’s 1971 prediction of global cooling, “based on the previous three decades of cold weather and his model of how the increase of dust and particles in the air (called aerosols) from human activity might trigger an eventual ice age.” In 1974, however, “with better data and a better model,” Schneider concluded that his 1971 model had “overestimated aerosol effects and underestimated carbon dioxide effects” and flipped to “extreme concern about global warming.” In response to those who say that the models themselves are too jumpy to qualify as science, Brand quotes Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

But of course the aerosol facts didn’t change between 1971 and 1974; what changed was Schneider’s attempt to model their effects in his computer. Aerosols are tiny things that can flip climate-computer futures from ice to fire. Another certain fact—a fact that climate modelers hate to dwell on and that climate alarmists hate to concede—is that CO2 is a very weak greenhouse gas. None of the computer models predicts that CO2 alone can deliver much warming for a long time to come. What the models predict instead is that a small amount of CO2-induced warming will lead to a slight increase in the amount of water vapor in the air, which will then cause much sharper warming because water is a much more powerful greenhouse gas. But more water in the air means more clouds—water aerosols—which, depending on their shape and altitude, may either warm things further (by reflecting more outbound heat back to earth) or cool things down (by reflecting more inbound heat back into outer space).

To get things right, the computer must also correctly model the heat-reflecting capabilities of all the other aerosols, ice, tundra, and forests, and the carbon-sinking capabilities of all the life, soil, land, and water on the planet. And correctly model how every predicted change in climate might subtly change all those factors. Any mistake made in what’s predicted for 2020 will amplify the error in what’s predicted for 2030, and so on. Predictive models of all but very simple, stable systems amplify their own mistakes. Assume a jumpy world, concoct a jumpy computer model, predict an even jumpier world.

These problems bring us, in Brand’s final chapter, to the apotheosis of precautious paralysis. “The whirlwind is coming anyway,” Brand declares with gloomy, six-bullet certainty that now encompasses not just the science but also the global politics of carbon controls. “Currently imaginable efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions do not level off” at a point anywhere below “lethal.” When humanity finally comes to recognize this, it will launch a “frantic search for alternative paths.” Among the possibilities are injecting millions of tons of aerosols—sulfates or water vapor (clouds)—into the atmosphere, fertilizing or stirring up the oceans to breed plankton that will suck carbon out of the air, converting agricultural waste into stable charcoal, sucking carbon dioxide out of the air by chemical means, and launching enormous clouds of tiny mirrors into outer space to act as “sunglasses for the sun.” Brand sees real promise in some of these proposals—all of which, of course, involve tinkering with the things that the climate computers attempt to model. But he acknowledges that most Greens view all such schemes as lunatic. “How,” they ask, “can you engineer a system whose behavior you don’t understand?”

Good engineers demonstrate the strength of their understanding by building and operating practical things. Edward Teller, for example, helped build a precarious device that went devastatingly unstable exactly as planned on August 6, 1945. Invited to address the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in 1957, Teller suggested—on the strength of the basic physics alone—that the continued burning of carbon-based fuels might eventually melt the polar ice caps, raise sea levels, and submerge coastal cities. But rather than dwell on probabilities or timetables, he just pointed to the obvious antidote: commercial nuclear power.

Or take Freeman Dyson, another brilliant scientist and onetime deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He too accepts the basic physics of CO2-induced warming, but not what the physics confesses to when tortured by computer. “The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics and do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans,” Dyson states. “They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.” Brand apparently thinks highly of Dyson—he quotes him eight times in his book. But never on the subject of climate models.

Dyson learned about junk modeling the hard way, in an early attempt to model subatomic behavior. Enrico Fermi—yet another Nobel-caliber physicist—quickly dismissed the young Dyson’s model as worthless. “In desperation,” Dyson recounts, “I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, ‘How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?’ I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, ‘Four.’ He said, ‘I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.’ With that, the conversation was over.” Von Neumann was possibly the most brilliant mathematician of the twentieth century. And the early Dyson’s computer model is now long forgotten.

Today’s climate models consist of millions of lines of computer code, each one with as much potential power to make things jump as a flawed date register. The models strive to calculate the aggregate effect of all the elephants, butterflies, trees, microbes, ice sheets, clouds, aerosols, and burpy oceans. Every effect added to the models offers a new opportunity to wiggle its predictions, because there’s always wiggle room in the data we have about each effect. As Dyson says, the models “are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behavior in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere.” Only a true hedgehog—someone looking to confirm the one big fact he already knows to be true—can believe them.

Foxes, by contrast, know that everything in the universe will jump when whacked hard enough—that one is definitely a law of physics—but that many systems are highly stable and quickly settle back down when only nudged. Foxes also know that the planet-scale whacks we do understand have changed the earth’s climate quite a bit for a while but have consistently failed to whack it out of the park. A 47-degree annual variation in the earth’s tilt relative to the sun produces the sharp regional temperature variations called seasons. The earth’s 2-degree wobble on its own axis triggers major shifts in ocean currents that cause comparable swings in global temperature every two, four, and ten thousand years. Dust from Krakatoa-scale volcanic eruptions cancels a summer or two now and again, and Krakatoa was just a hiccup compared with the meteor whacks that our planet has experienced at random intervals throughout its history. To my lapsed-engineer eyes, at least, the surprising thing about the earth’s climate is how remarkably stable and resilient it seems to be.

One of the keys to understanding the twentieth century,” wrote the historian Paul Johnson in 1980, “is to identify the beneficiaries of the decline in formal religion. The religious impulse—with all the excesses of zealotry and intolerance it can produce—remains powerful, but expresses itself in secular substitutes.”

Over to Brand: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” he declared in the opening line of the first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. The epigraph to his new book replaces “might as well” with “HAVE to.”

Back to Johnson: the perils of technology and a “quasi-mystical vision of total purity” have emerged to provide “an unrivaled emotional outlet for educated, middle-class opinion. . . . Nuclear power is the new Sin against the Holy Ghost—radiating evil, as it were, over the whole planet and, like Original Sin, even infecting future generations.”

And back to Brand: “Sectarian groups such as some environmental organizations separate themselves from the world with infinite demands.” For them, “there can never be sufficient holiness or safety.” He’s referring to the organizations he hasn’t joined, the ones that shun bioengineered crops. For Brand himself, carbon now eclipses all other evil in the radiating-over-the-whole-planet line of work. And that alone, I suspect, is what has turned Brand’s old enemies, uranium and un-organic crops, into his new friends.

Like the tail on von Neumann’s elephant, Greens can wiggle out of—or into—anything. The only constant in their faith is that extremely bad things lie ahead and that only the green virtue du jour can save us. For passionate Greens, it will always be Russian roulette, imminent meltdown, zero-infinity, ineluctable, apocalypse now. Greens, the New as much as the Old, need a jumpy, unpredictable universe. All their precautious authority and influence depend on it.

Brand is a brilliant man with a precariously jumpy mind. Halfway through his book, tucked where it won’t distract any but the most careful reader, we read: “I have learned to suspect my excesses of optimism and pessimism. Apparently I often think that societies catch on faster than they do, and that large complex systems are more brittle than they are. Bear in mind that I might be that way about climate change. And many of my faulty opinions turn out to be based on ignorance; dismissing nuclear was one of them.”

Better late than never, I suppose. But still. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next