Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Environmental Heresies

Stewart Brand, who's had his fingers in biology, architecture, computer geekery, futurism, and sustainability and who has the pedantic habit of denoting years anno Domini with 5 digits padded by leading zeros as (un)necessary, has written an essay entitled Environmental Heresies, which appears in the MIT Enterprise Technology Review. This essay explains Mr. Brand's belief that mainstream environmentalists will reverse course on four issues in the next decade. As proof that the environmental movement can change its position on an issue in the face of new evidence, i.e. commit heresy, Brand points to the shift from desiring the elimination of forest fire to considering wildfire vital to healthy forests.

Here's a summary of Brand's four heresies:

Population Growth
Brand predicts that environmentalists will cease to decry the imminent threat of an exponentially exploding world population. As evidence, Brand cites a 2002 UN theory that human population growth is slowing and is headed for zero growth. Brand says that birthrates are declining in every culture.
Brand attributes a number of environmental benefits, including decreased population growth and restoration of rural areas to natural habitat, to increased urbanization. Consequently, he prognosticates that environmentalists will reverse their belief that cities are evil and villages are virtuous.
Genetically Modified Organisms
Brand claims that ecosystems are extremely robust and are designed to adapt to the introduction of new genes. He uses this assertion as the basis to foretell the eventual acceptance of GMOs. Then, almost contradictorily, Brand says that a primarily motivator for this acceptance will be the need for GMOs to reverse the effects of the new genes that man has introduced in the form of invasive species to ecosystems which did not prove robust.
Nuclear Power
Brand portrays nuclear power and its accompanying waste recycling or sequestration requirements as the least worst option among continued fossil fuel consumption contributing to more atmospheric carbon and immature alternative energy generation technologies.

I've often hoped that GMOs and nuclear power could provide solutions to some of the environmental problems we face. Unfortunately, Brand doesn't present a convincing case that these technologies, particularly GMOs, have panacea potential. I still think designed organisms which are developed using genomically informed focused hybriding rather than engineering techniques hold great potential and have the ability to fly under the radar of GMO detractors. On the other hand, Brand's arguments for the slowing of population growth and the benefits of urbanization intrigue me; I really should investigate them further.

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