In 1968, Stewart Brand launched the first Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of tools, designs, and ideas that started off as required reading for back-to-the-landers, and gradually became a counterculture classic. Publication of the catalog has since ceased, but Brand hasn’t stopped thinking about how people interact with the earth. A founding member of the Long Now Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting “slower, better thinking” in the age of the ever-shortening attention span, Brand believes that the solutions to Earth’s problems require serious perspective (think 10,000 years of foresight). Brand, 68, gave Plenty the long view on nuclear power, world population, and the importance of slowing down.
What does the earth have to gain through “slower, better thinking”?
Life systems and climatic systems tend to work big and slow, and as we’re finding with climate change, engaging them takes a kind of patient activity. The best ecological studies are those that go on for decades, and preferably centuries, because many of the patterns you’re looking for have those kinds of cycles in them. Our way of grasping that time frame, symbolically at least, is by building a 10,000-year clock inside a mountain in eastern Nevada. When it’s completed, we hope it will be visited in a monumental way—like going to the Statue of Liberty or something — just to contemplate that time frame.
If I were going to visit the clock, what would I see?
It’s not there yet. It will be, we expect, something that you climb to in the mountain. There will be a sequence of chambers and hallways—somewhat mysterious, somewhat labyrinthine. Eventually you’ll come to the display of the clock, which shows you where you are on a 20,000-year time frame. Power for the display of the clock will be provided by the visitors, who will have to wind the clock to see what time it is.
Some of that long-term thinking has led you to become an advocate of nuclear power. There’s a long tradition of being antinuclear within the environmental community. What would it take for environmentalists to go nuclear?
It’s a question of taking climate change really, really seriously, of realizing it’s actually a civilization-threatening — as well as a natural environment-threatening — disaster in the making. And once you take it that seriously, you take nothing off the table when you’re thinking about what to do to alleviate, if not fix, the problem.
The major attraction of nuclear power is that the atmospheric effect from operating nuclear reactors is zero. Westinghouse, General Electric, and researchers in China, South Africa, and Germany have been looking into safer nuclear reactors. They’re realizing that smaller plants can be built faster, and that there can be more of them so you lose less power in long transmission lines.
But safety is still a concern.
This is a pretty mature industry by now. We have half a century of experience all over the world and thousands of reactors. France gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, never had an accident. No great issues with storage of their spent fuel. We know this can be done, and it can be done pretty safely and quickly.
You’ve also argued that in the not-too-distant future, human population growth will level off, and that the decline isn’t necessarily a good thing. Why? Doesn’t having fewer people on Earth mean less impact on the environment?
It’s absolutely a good thing, generally. But it’s happening pretty suddenly — and in some interesting ways. Cities are growing by about 1.3 million people per week worldwide. When women move away from the countryside into the cities, it’s easier for them to get jobs, start businesses, and to get education for their kids. All of that leads to, in most cases, an immediately lower birth rate. So in the developing world, where you’re getting megacities now, those are mostly full of young people, while developed countries will have whole cities full of old people for the next few decades. There are a number of countries in the developed world that are already way below replacement level. Italy, Spain, and Germany are so worried they’re trying to figure out how to subsidize more babies. When you lose a lot of people, especially a lot of young people, as happens in these aging societies, the economy is hit in a hard way.
We have to ask: Would a 1968-style Whole Earth Catalog make sense in 2006?
No. No need. The Internet is whatever the catalog was vaguely gesturing at. I got a demonstration yesterday at Google about Google Earth. The experience of zooming in from outer space to whatever part of the world you’re interested in, that’s a cognitive jump of the sort that there was when there was a photograph of the whole earth from space for the first time in 1969. Only now, instead of being something that came through the eyes of the astronauts, and you took their word for it, now it’s your own personal experience of exploring the earth.
Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.