Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline

I’ve deeply enjoyed every one of the Long Now seminars, but it wasn’t until this one by Stewart Brand in October that I really got what he’s up to as the convener of this remarkable series of talks. In October he appeared as speaker rather than host/interviewer, and he summarized his new book Whole Earth Discipline. Kevin Kelly calls the book “a short course on how to change your mind intelligently” — in this case, about cities, nuclear power, and genetic and planetary engineering. These are all things that Steward Brand once regarded with suspicion but now sees as crucial tools for a sustainable world.

The book weaves together insights from many of my favorite Long Now talks, including:

I guess the Long Now seminars is the long version of a course on changing your mind. I was already on board with genetic and planetary engineering, but now I think very differently about cities and nuclear power. The book joins these to a common principle: concentrate the harmful stuff. High-density populations and casks of nuclear waste do less harm than scattered populations and dispersed coal residue.

Don’t miss the annotations — a website that reproduces every paragraph that includes citations, links to their sources, and adds updates.


  1. Jon – I just finished reading Brand’s book and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s “The Ingenuity Gap”. They make excellent complementary reading. If you’re looking for something else to follow Brand, I recommend “The Ingenuity Gap”. Homer-Dixon is more pessimistic than Brand, but like Brand often has a fresh and unconventional take on important issues.

  2. With all due respect to Stewart Brand (I love most of his Long Now seminars and am very grateful he has made them available to the world via the web — and in fact I think the rival the closed society of TED).

    Steward is a master at synthesizing. However, in the process of synthesizing, he is also depending on super duper specialists. For example, climate models used to predict the future are written by super specialists. How many people on Earth are competent enough to author or co-author something as complex as a global climate model? Just because we have visualization tools like Google Earth that make the world appear small on our computer screens as we spin the globe with the flick of a mouse or laptop touchpad doesn’t mean its not complex.

    There is a reason why atmospheric science (meteorology, climatology) is just a hair away from rocket science literally. The University of North Dakota, for example, houses the Department of Atmospheric Science within the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. Yes, “aerospace”. This school also includes Aviation, Space Studies, Earth System Sciences and Computer Science). And btw, Buzz Aldrin was once on staff at the Univ. of North Dakota. This isn’t a commercial promo of UND, but the point to be made that a lot of people think they can look at a few IPCC charts here and there, have some tea and crumpets with a climate modeler and presto, they’re instantly able to judge how “good” a climatologist (who sub specializes in climate change) is and her/his models.

    FYI — operational numerical weather prediction models which use finite differencing and finite elements forms of partial differential equations on grid cube vertices (let alone climate models) can not yet resolve clouds (clouds are incorporated into weather prediction models using a kind of “guess” called parameterization). Fully resolving clouds in weather and cloud models is a petascale super computing challenge. This may happen in weather models in 15 – 30 years, and maybe in 50 years in climate models.

  3. oops, sorry for some of my spelling / grammar errors (for example second paragraph should be “Stewart” not Steward)

    1. Thanks for the pointer to that excellent analysis.

      I hope Amory Lovins is right, and that we can do it all without nukes, and that we’re on course to make that happen.

      My own rethinking of the nuclear option was prompted by a couple of Long Now talks, one by Gwyneth Cravens and Rip Anderson, the other by Saul Griffith.

      I note that Amory Lovins twice mentions “novelist Gwyneth Cravens” in his critique but never mentions scientist/engineers Anderson and Griffith.

      I’m a huge fan of both Amory Lovins and Stewart Brand. I’m not sure what’s going on between those guys, but there’s clearly some bad blood. It reminds me of the feud that Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell have been having lately — search for “Igon Values” if you haven’t heard about this.

      1. This stuff is too important to leave it as an agree-to-disagree between two really smart people like Brand and Lovins. I’m not an energy expert and don’t have time to become one. The two people I’ve found who seem to be most solidly grounded in facts are Amory Lovins and Arjun Makhijani (a nuclear engineer who has written a superb book laying out a cost-effective path to a zero-CO2 economy for the US:

        When Rip Anderson says, “We only really have three options for base load electrical energy. They are hydro, fossil fuels and nuclear.”, he loses a lot of credibility for me. That is the old way of thinking about energy. We’re headed for a grid that is more distributed than centralized and probably one in which vehicle-to-grid (V2G) plays a key role. In that world, baseload looks very different.

        If you want a second opinion independent of Lovins, read Makhijani. He does not have an axe to grind, just the facts, m’am. It’s fantastic.

      2. > This stuff is too important to
        > leave it as an agree to
        > disagree

        Indeed. Thanks for the pointer to Makhijani. What I’m looking for is a way to reconcile this analysis by Griffith (slides 25 and following):

        His targets include wildly aggressive numbers for new solar thermal, solar PV, wind, and geothermal. Even so there’s a hefty nuclear component in the mix.

      3. But Griffith is not in any way claiming that nuclear has to be in the mix. His point is all about the scale of the effort that we need, and he just includes every option for illustration’s sake.

        I have no reason to think he’d disagree with Lovins who argues that nuclear is far less effective at displacing carbon energy sources than other viable (and rapidly improving) options.

      4. I asked Saul to weigh in, and here is his response, quoted with permission from email:

        i chose a roughly balanced mix of everything to create 16TW BY 2030.

        2TW Solar thermal, 2TW Solar PV, 2TW wind, 2TW geothermal, 3TW nukes, 0.5TW biofuels.

        they were round-ish numbers that added up to 11.5 which is the amount of the 16TW globally you’d need to replace to guarantee hitting and staying below 450.

        This looks like the world has to keep its consumption at 16TW, which is true, except there would be much more energy available because those nuclear, wind, and solar watts are real delivered watts, not primary fuel watts that are lost in conversion with fossil fuels.

        Anyway, this in no way was meant to be the recommendation of the correct path, just a technology agnostic selection of enough low C power production to hit a nice target. In some respects I would like to do less nuclear (personally) but I suspect we will need to do much more. It can be brought on-line quickly, (though you wouldn’t think of it that way given the bureaucracy). It is baseload, and we know it works today.

      5. Jon, thanks for pursuing this. It would be interesting to know Griffith’s take on Lovins. It’s too bad he left us with a bit of a waffle. We need people of his stature to take sides on the nuclear question.

      6. BTW here’s where Makhijani lost me (p. 167):

        The last item [direct solar production of hydrogen] is, at present, in the stage of research. The other items in the list involve technologies that are already known and economical under some circumstances, or are within a factor of five of becoming economical.

        The Lovins critique you pointed to seems far more cogent, I need to spend more time with it.

      7. It’s important to point out that the section you quoted is mainly on the question of whether we could accelerate the transition to zero carbon from 2050 (Makhijani’s “reference” scenario) to 2040.

        I definitely wish M’s writing was clearer and better organized. But I think he is pragmatic and honest about where the technology risks are, and he has been very careful to factor those risks into his analysis.

        I would also add that Lovins, in Winning the Oil Endgame, also makes a compelling case that we can get into the hydrogen economy earlier than many people think.

  4. FYI: Stewart Brand has also endorsed my insider novel of nuclear power, “Rad Decision”, as an lay person’s entertaining guide to the topic. I’ve worked in US nuclear plants over twenty years and seen the good and the bad. The book is available free online, and also now in paperback at online retailers. See the website homepage for reviews.

    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand

  5. This isn’t a commercial promo of UND, but the point to be made that a lot of people think they can look at a few IPCC charts here and there, have some tea and crumpets with a climate modeler and presto, they’re instantly able to judge how “good” a climatologist (who sub specializes in climate change) is and her/his models

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