Big Think Interview With Stewart Brand

  • Transcript


Question: What visionaries excited you growing up?

Stewart Brand: Growing up.  Well, my mother I guess was a thinker and a visionary because she was, among other things, focused on space exploration.  This was in the 1950's.  One result of that was when the Apollo Space Program came along in the ‘60’s; a lot of my fellow environmentalists were against it for various weirdly technical reasons.  And all I saw was pure adventure and let's get on with it.  And so, as a result of that, I was onboard with space and pushed, "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" in 1966. And then we got the photograph and that created the environmental movement out of almost nothing.

I was sort of acting as if I was lobbying NASA to get images of the earth from space, but I was really lobbying the populace of the world to pay attention to the image and to think about the image a little bit in advance so that when we got it, there would be that shock of recognition; we have this big new mirror to think about ourselves in regard to, and also to think about it as a finite, fragile-looking place that we live. 

I was pretty sure that that set of things would occur when we had the photograph.  Amazingly enough, they did occur, and that photograph became so iconic that it replaced the previous iconic image of the earth, which was the mushroom cloud of the Cold War, so you got rid of a bad image and got a very positive image that is still with us.  And that’s why I wanted it for the cover of my new book.

Question: Which shaped you more, the military or the Merry Pranksters?

Stewart Brand: Which was more important between Merry Prankster-dom and U.S. Infantry?  They're about equal and matched and are sort of bookends in a way because I was at Fort Dix and my weekends I was running basic training as a Second Lieutenant there.  And then my weekends were in the Lower East Side in New York hanging out with artists, with a group that would later be called **** and messing with psychedelic drugs and the weekend to week contrast was just the sort of life you want to have as a young man.

Question: How did your two separate lives affect one another?

Stewart Brand: Well, military training is fantastic, especially for an officer, I think especially for an infantry officer because you learn how to lead, you learn how to manage, you learn how to handle, at least small units.  And as a very young person, you learn how to take charge.  So, typically a 20 or 21-year-old isn't in charge of much in civilian life, but I was in charge of a platoon of 50 people including some very experienced Sergeants.  You find that you step up to the responsibilities you are handed and so, when I came out of that and went off into a kind of freelance civilian world, I expected to be in charge of things and I knew how to be.  So, one of the things I found with the Merry Pranksters and the Ken Kesey group is there were a number of ex-military people in that group.  Kesey was not, but his number two, Ken Babbs had been a helicopter pilot with the Marines in Vietnam, there were two other guys in the group who had been in the military, and that gave us a common language and a set of understandings and approach to field expedience that you can just accomplish your mission with whatever is at hand.  That's what you do in the military.  You never have enough stuff, you never have the right gear, you never have enough people, and so you figure out some way to make the right thing happen with what you've got.  And that's good training.

Question: Have the ‘60s done their work, or do we need a new counterculture?

Stewart Brand: I would love to see a counter – well in a way, the Whole Earth Catalog was part of the counterculture and treated as some as a kind of leader in the counterculture, but it was also a counter-counterculture phenomenon in the sense that a lot of the hippies of the time were a sort of eschewing technology, eschewing intellectual endeavor, but they were paying attention to people like Marshall MacLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, and I was carrying those people forward, but also the kinds of technologies that I thought fitted in with the “everything goes,” “let’s try stuff” approach that the hippies brought to the world.  I think we need that again now, that there's a younger generation who does not bear relation to the Cold War, which is what my generation did, is not liberated by drugs, which my generation was, is liberated maybe by communication technology and the crisis that the current generation is facing is climate change.  In their lifetime their world will change, and they're the ones that are going to be in charge of figuring out what to do about that.  And I think that that is going to be realized to be a somewhat revolutionary process because the older generation is dragging its feet in this matter and I think the younger generation is much more comfortable with technology.  Like bio-technology, we're starting to get "green bio-hackers," they're much more comfortable with communication technology obviously, so the cell phone revolution in the developing world is something that young people feel a part of.  And I think they are going to be much more comfortable with nuclear technology because they don’t have the Cold War legacy of fears about atomic weaponry.

Question: How does your new book build on your previous work?

Stewart Brand: Whole Earth Discipline is a pretty ambitious book.  It is basically putting out an environmental agenda across the board for saving the world from the worst of climate change, but also saving the environmental movement from the worst of it's misdirections, which is gone off – most of what the environmental movement has done, I think, has been superb and I've been a part of much of that.  Much of the book is acknowledging the things that we got right.  But I'm also trying to acknowledge the things that I think we got wrong, especially in light of climate change, especially in light of the way the world is rising out of poverty very, very quickly and five out of six people in the world are coming into middle class.  They have the energy needs of that, they have the food needs of that, they have the expectations of that, they have power, ingenuity and all this stuff.  And any environmental behavior, any program to deal with climate change that doesn't acknowledge those things, plus the rapid movement of biotechnology, I was trained as a biologist, so I’m alert and excited about that.  All of that stuff changes the world situation such that to be an effective environmentalist now I think involves some serious changes and that's what the book is about.

Question: In what ways is the current green movement impractical?

Stewart Brand: There's a lot of etiology in the environmental movement at this point.  Some of it is political, there's a kind of a left bias, which I think hurts us terribly.  There is a romantic bias of humans being one with nature, which is great because it gives a lot of motivation from whatever was your deepest connection with nature.  It maybe was just a book about nature.  But that approach can then blind people to taking science seriously in areas that are inconvenient for a standard environmental approach.  So, genetic engineering, GMO's and all of that, are scientifically profound, valid, the engineering is superb, they have great benefits for the environment.  But if there is this kind of romantic notion that that somehow goes against nature, it's not only a romantic notion, it's an ignorant notion.  So, what I'm trying to bring to bear is here's a lot of the data and science that's out there and we've been living with these things for 10 years now and 1) they don't hurt you to eat, 2) they're great for the environment for these various reasons, and so rather than fight this technology, let's green it up and really run with it.  

That sort of thing is what I think I'm trying to do here.

Question: What technologies must environmentalists learn to accept?

Stewart Brand: I think the main technology that should be green right down to the core is biotechnology.  So much of the environmental movement is biologically based for a long time, and we were called the ecologists, though very few of us were though I was once.  And we listened to the science about climate and then deafened ourselves to the science about biotechnology.   

There is so much juice to that domain, I think it's going to dominate a lot of what’s going on in this century anyway, and for environmentalists to stand in it's way will just make us look stupid, and has already made us look dangerous because in places like Africa that badly needs food crops that are adapted to the tropical agricultural situation they are in, environmentalist, especially based in Europe have stood in the way of that technology and said it is bad for you, it's poison, it's against nature and all this nonsense.  And as a result, people have been seriously harmed, the technology has been delayed by a decade or more and I sort of don’t mind whether the environmental movement making a mistake when it is neutral, but when we do harm, I mind a lot.

Question: Why do you advocate embracing nuclear power?

Stewart Brand: The main argument now, the main green argument for nuclear power is the climate one.  This is basically zero carbon source of base load electricity which is what you need to run cities and so on and the world is now half cities and is heading toward 80% urban people.  So, we're going to want a lot of that kind of electricity and it either comes from coal, or from nuclear.  And the coal based, which is hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere is tremendously deleterious in terms of climate, plus all the other stuff that come out of there, mercury and so on.  Whereas, the waste from nuclear is very limited in size and in scale, it's heavy, but you put it into these dry casks storage containers out back of the parking lot of the reactor sites and there's not very much of it, and it doesn't add up very quickly, you're getting a lot of juice out of it.  And then it's relatively easy to either put in the ground.  I think the best site for it is New Mexico in what's called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that's already been dealing with nuclear waste for 10 years; or leave it where it is for 50-100 years while we think about whether we want to reprocess it, the way the French do, or completely burn it in a fourth generation faster reactors that are very comfortable treating that waste as fuel.

Question: How can nuclear reactors be kept safe from terrorist attack?

Stewart Brand: I think the U.S. has done more harm to itself by worrying about terrorism than terrorists ever did.  And so, we bend everything to think in terms of, "Oh my gosh, what would be a terrible terrorist do with this?"  It's been quite a long time now since there's been that kind of attack.  It would take an exceptionally stupid terrorist to try to do something harmful with what goes on with nuclear power.  One, the sites are isolated and incredibly well guarded, the stuff in the way it's transported is very, very safe and they run **** images and videos of trains running into the containers and no bad thing happening and so on.  One environmentalist said to me, "Well, you know, you can get a shape charge and blow a hole in that container and then get at that spent fuel."  And then you have to say, "Okay, and then what?"  No bad thing has happened yet, it just has a hole in it.  Do you want to go deal with it?  It's too hot, it will hurt you.  And you're off in the bush somewhere.  It's just that it's science fiction to try to imagine tricky ways that terrorists might do bad things with nuclear as it is used in nuclear power.  You can find lots more scary things to do as real terrorists really do with many other parts of the infrastructure, the electrical grid, and various gases, like chlorine gas and so on, natural gases are moved around in compressed form.  These are much more vulnerable. 

But I think the question of what would terrorists do with nuclear power stuff is one of the ways we try to persuade ourselves not to take this seriously and an environmentalist are always looking for something.  Oh it's too expensive, and therefore we can't do it, even though wind is incredibly expensive, but that doesn't stop us from doing it.  And it's fine, I hope to see lots of wind.  Or, oh gosh, there's a problem with the nuclear waste, therefore we can't do it.  And it's a very prejudiced, I think, ideological set of arguments that emerge, but I wound up in this book I just finished having to go through every single one of the objections and say, well, let's look at it realistically, pragmatically, you know, ideology aside for a minute.  How does it play out in those terms and I'm persuaded, I used to be against nuclear power, kind of in a knee-jerk mode.  As I look through all of the details of the alternatives with coal, how nuclear actually works, the prospects of the next generation reactors that are coming along, it looks to me like, in terms of climate, and in terms of everything else, nuclear is a good thing to expand.  It's obviously going to be just part of what we do about energy and it still doesn't add up, so we are looking at serious climate problems, frankly, no matter what we do.  And that's another issue that I'm trying to get environmentalists off, this kind of Al Gore, “Don't worry, we'll all get jobs and we'll all do a few of the right things and wave our hands really fast and the climate problem will go away."  I just don't see it happening that way.

Question: How do you assess the future of wind and solar technology?

Stewart Brand: I think that environmentalists kind of grasp at straws a little bit with wind and with solar.  They're absolutely right about efficiency and cutting back on the excessive and stupid use of energy has a long way to go.  For example, the Chinese, we are saying, "Well, you know, they are now emitting more greenhouse gases than the US."  Well, per whole country, but per capita they emit 1/6 of the greenhouse gases we use.  We have a long way to come down to where they are.  And they are probably really going to go up a bit from where they are just because they're getting out of poverty.

So those things are right and good, I think what we're just realizing is the size of the footprint, as it's called, of both wind and solar.  A typical 1 GW nuclear plant is maybe a third of a square mile, and a 1 GW solar power plant is about 25 square miles of bulldozed desert.  And as a protector of desert, I don't like that trade off very much.  It’s something we're discovering in California now is the various solar projects are going forward and they've put dibbies on 1,000 square miles in southern California.  They want to basically does it flat and click the solar farms on it.

So, I'm all for solar on rooftops and for new solar technology that can put it on streets and paint and anywhere that you can somehow turn sunlight into electricity, I think that's great, but to imagine that there's no hard trade-offs is an illusion.  And that's going to keep happening.  We've been here before.  Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when, again in California, we had a lot of hydroelectric dams coming in and the Sierra Club said, "This is unacceptable," and nuclear power was just coming on and for a few years there the Sierra Club said nuclear power is better than dams.  But they changed their minds about that, but actually I think they were right the first time.

Question: What’s a realistic best-case and worst-case scenario for climate change?

Stewart Brand: The worst-case scenario for climate, and where the environment might go, in this century is James Lovelock's.  He did a book called the Vanishing Face of Gaia; he's the Gaia hypothesis guy.  And he's basically saying there's good indication from past records that the earth might re-stabilize at a slightly higher temperature, 5°C warmer than now and then level off again.  One problem with that is the carrying capacity for humans in that world is about a billion to about a billion and a-half people.  In other words, the difference, six or seven billion at that point, would be killing each other off over vanishing resources because of drought and rising sea levels and so on.  So that's a future which we can see right now in **** of basically drought is war.  That's how it plays out.  It's resource wars, it's chaos wars, it's environmentally failed states, it's a really ugly world.  And I don't think many environmentalists would be the ones to be a part of the one or one and a-half billion at the end.  It would be military people.  That's a hard-fought world.

The best-case future, I don't think we've actually figured out yet because the current idea of the best case is that we use a whole lot of renewable and nuclear and everything else and basically get as someone named Saul Griffiths says, "Thirteen terawatts of new, clean energy is basically replacing coal, and to some extent natural gas and oil.  That involves tens of thousands of square miles of solar farms and wind farms and reactors and geothermal and on and on and on.  And when you add it all up and it’s pretty horrifying to contemplate building and contemplate connecting all of it to, by grid to where the people are, which is not usually where the wind or the sun is.  And doing all of that in a political environment which is still debating whether or not we even have the climate issue and time is wasting.

So, the best case so far is actually pretty grim, and then that forces me back to why is James Lovelock optimistic, why am I still smiling?  It may well be that the experience that we had in England and in America during the second world war gives us perhaps an unwarranted optimism that, you know, this is 1938 and we're doing various forms of Munich and pretending to ourselves that the problem is not as deep as we thought but lots of people are realizing and muttering to each other, you know the problem is really, really serious and it can become quite terrible and we don't know what we're going to do about that.  So, there's this strange period of denial, and argument going on.  But on the other side of it, if we mobilize and this time there's no human enemy, except ourselves in a weird way, so it would be a world mobilization.  It could be a pretty exciting time and it’s actually something that makes me regret being 70 years old because I'll probably miss the most exciting stuff in this century as the world deals with taking hold of the planet at planetary scale with things like geo-engineering, with things like radically redesigned agriculture, radically redesign cities I hope which would be way more fun than even they are now.  It's going to be an exciting time, a weird time, an unpredictable time, a fast-moving time, and I hate to miss it.

Question: Is too much information being given away for free?

Stewart Brand: I have a pretty profound faith in the market to always find a way to charge for stuff, if people find it valuable, and the scarcity issues keep moving around.  But, back when I said, “information wants to be free,” and information wants to be expensive, and then the constant battle between those two over the same material is driven forward by technology and also drives technology forward to some extent.  I don't think that contradiction is going to go away because it's not a contradiction; it's a paradox.  And a paradox is constantly restating its opposite, that's how it works.  So, the people who are managing expensive information are going to be continually feeling undermined by information coming along they feel is directly competitive and has this unfair price from their standpoint, for free.  And they will be forever finding more ways to casually create, distribute, consume information in this relatively free fashion.

But it's just like conversation.  Conversation has not been commoditized except to the extent that we've ran it through telephones for a long time, and even there the content was not commoditized it was just the dial tone; it was just the excess to another voice, another ear.  And so I think we see that kind of constant renegotiation of what we can charge for in terms of information, it's just going to be a perpetual debate and every now and then somebody says something like, "Well one thing China can never do is regulate the Internet."  And then China regulated the Internet.  So whatever we think is going to happen, it keeps showing us that something different is going to happen.  And you can say it's all going to be free, no it isn't.  You say it's all going to be expensive, no it isn't.

Question: Does Chris Anderson’s “Free” misappropriate your phrase?

Stewart Brand: No, far from it.  Chris Anderson's book, Free, has a whole chapter on my riff on “information wants to be free,” which dates back to 1984, and a very insightful one, I think.  He's thought about the issue more than I have, he studied it economically, partly from his own background more than I have and I think his book is outstanding and I would say that it is unfairly reviewed not once, but twice by the New York Times.

Question: Malcolm Gladwell has doubted that information can “want” anything. How do you respond?

Stewart Brand: Gladwell sometimes waxes eloquent and uses language to refer to things that are not technically precise, and that's part of what you do when you do creative writing, which he does brilliantly.  And that's what I was doing.  And one of the reasons we remember the phrase "information wants to be free" is because it imputes this as if willfulness, a kind of determinism, to the process which invites that second thought.  And so that is indeed exactly how it was analyzed in the book, "Free" and quite well, I think should have responded to that I think rather than invent his own, I think, inappropriate argument.

Question: What do you want for information?

Stewart Brand: More. Choice, options, sifting. Like everyone, I am relying more and more on various blogs to funnel information that I could not probably find directly on my own but indirectly through these blogs is a terrific way to collect it.  Because it's digital I can go there, I can click, click, click I'm there at the original source, two more clicks and I'm at their sources, I'm doing this myself, I have an online version of Whole Earth Discipline that has all of my research, live linked, with illustrations, charts, and all this other stuff that I've nabbed semi-legally from sources on the net.  So anybody who either agrees or disagrees with my book, with the arguments I'm making, can go and look at the material that those arguments are drawn from and draw their own conclusions.  That kind of access on the net is unlike anything we've had with nonfiction books before.  My expectation is that all nonfiction books will be expected to provide that kind of environmental apparatus of the stuff that the book is nested in and built right around it electronically.  That's easy to do now with the web.  So all of this is, I think, a fantastic gain.

Question: What advice would you give young environmentalists?

Stewart Brand: My strongest feeling is that anybody who wants to be active in the whole environmental realm needs to focus on science; many of them already are.  But not just ecology, but microbial ecology, because that's the breakthrough area.  We're finally understanding the beginnings of what's going on with microbes and they rule the world, so if we understand how we do that will have some sense on how to join their balancing act.  But I want everybody to study journalism so they know how to write to a deadline, to study acting so they know how to perform in front of a camera, to study anthropology so they get out of their own tiny little mindset, and go study a few languages, also to get out of their tiny little minds, to travel like mad and to get out of Dodge.

Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen