(He published)…the Whole Earth Catalog, he organized the first Hackers Conference, in 1984, and helped found The WELL, the early electronic community that was a sort of prototype of the Web. In Professor Turner’s history, he was the impresario who knew everyone and brought the counterculture and the cyberculture together, from the Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s to Wired magazine in the 1990s.
I first heard about the Whole Earth Catalog in Steve Jobs’s Keynote presentations. I rushed to the University library in Adelaide and started reading all the various versions. It was an amazing experience. That it was published in the 1970s was incredible. The idea, the combination, the presentation were inspiring and informative.
The “now” version of that is the World Changing book which I had a chance to contribute to. However, it does not still come near the original.
Stewart Brand is important to understand because “He expects that environmentalists will soon share his affection for nuclear power. They’ll lose their fear of population growth and start appreciating sprawling megacities. They’ll stop worrying about “frankenfoods” and embrace genetic engineering.”
These ideas are not discussed “heretic” in the environmental movement. However, as a wise friend once said, in a second best world we need second best ideas.
He is a person who clearly understands the difference between idealism or what he calls a romantic and a practical person or what he calls a scientist.
“My trend has been toward more rational and less romantic as the decades go by,” he says. “I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism of romanticism. It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind.”
And then he suggests the following,
On Nuclear power:
“There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective,” he says. “Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don’t know where it is and you don’t know what it’s doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody’s atmosphere.”
He now looks at the rapidly growing megacities of the third world not as a crisis but as good news: as villagers move to town, they find new opportunities and leave behind farms that can revert to forests and nature preserves. Instead of worrying about population growth, he’s afraid birth rates are declining too quickly, leaving future societies with a shortage of young people.
This makes a lot of sense. Coming from India I can understand the need for mega-cities. That is a far more sustainable option that living in 600,000 villages as is the current option in India. As Stewart says, lets work with the future trends rather than fighting for some idealistic situation.
What is more important is his thinking.
Mr. Brand would rather take a few risks.
“I get bored easily — on purpose,” he said, recalling advice from the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix. “Jim Watson said he looks for young scientists with low thresholds of boredom, because otherwise you get researchers who just keep on gilding their own lilies. You have to keep on trying new things.”
That’s a good strategy, whether you’re trying to build a sustainable career or a sustainable civilization. Ultimately, there’s no safety in clinging to a romanticized past or trying to plan a risk-free future. You have to keep looking for better tools and learning from mistakes. You have to keep on hacking.
It is important not to be idealistic but stick to facts and situations. Most importantly, is ok to change. Withought change there is no progress.
- Stewart Brand’s article in Technology Review where he spells out his ideas.
- An Interview with Stewart Brand.
- Stewart Brand Talks Slideshows