by Stuart Kendall
On Governments, Guilds, and Getting Things Done
Stewart Brand is arguably best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s, but he’s been an activist for environmental and related causes for over forty years. His book How Buildings Learn addressed architectural reuse and longevity, something he’s also explored in his work with the Long Now Foundation. His latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, explores the science and the social science behind the challenges of climate change. Stuart Kendall recently spoke with Brand for Boom.
SK: You are well known for your advocacy of amateur innovations and personal technologies, but in Whole Earth Discipline, you aren’t as distrustful of the government or of large-scale, multinational corporations as many of your fellow environmental activists might like. Was there a change in your thinking at some point? Why are you willing to work with government agencies and corporations when so many of your colleagues in the environmental movement are not?
Brand: I’ve done work for the government, a fair amount through Global Business Network, primarily with national security and intelligence people. I like very much working with them because they are serious people who take the long term seriously. They study to learn things about any event that they are a part of, and they often apply the lessons they learn, and I enjoy that.
I think I’m useful to them because partly I’m outside the beltway. The Global Business Network is intentionally based on the West Coast where we can draw upon the whole gamut of creative stuff going on here. That’s one of the things that we’re valued for by companies all over the world and other governments, like Singapore, as well as our own government in Washington and indeed here in Sacramento.
But personally, I prefer a bottom up solution to problems because I think it is much more appropriate to the situation since it is close to it. In Whole Earth Discipline, I pay a good deal of attention to squatter cities and slums where people are bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. I guess it’s no accident that I live in a former squatter community in Sausalito, in the houseboat area, where again a bunch of relatively impoverished maritime artisans and artists and riffraff got themselves a place to live and defended it until it got gentrified and became a legal part of the town. That’s happening all over the world to people by the billion.
SK: You write that most innovation comes from amateurs, since enthusiastic amateurs who aren’t bound by institutional limitations often have a great deal of freedom.
Brand: Yes, that’s exactly right. Hackers have always interested me. In another part of Whole Earth Discipline, I try to encourage bio-hacking. I would like to see the same thing in biotech that happened with computer hackers in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and on to this day with cell phone or smartphone hacking or web hacking.
More broadly, there is now set in motion, partly by Tim O’Reilly, this whole Maker phenomenon, Maker Faires, Maker magazine, etc. Some of the same thing is going on in science from iGEM gatherings [International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition], which are MIT-based and the FIRST robotic competitions that Dean Kamen set in motion, he’s also East Coast-based. Tim O’Reilly though is very Californian in orientation and his publications are coder empowering with Whole Earth Catalog-like access to tools kind of stuff, access to techniques in most cases there. Grassroots is abounding.
Of course, that’s not the only story. There’s lots of stuff that is done by proper well-paid engineers in proper profitable corporations and I think the combination is part of what makes everything go forward.
SK: Many of your projects over the years have involved working with groups of close friends or collaborators, several of whom have been consistent even as the projects have changed.
Brand: [Laughs] Yeah.
SK: One the one hand, from a managerial standpoint, a lesson in teambuilding might be gleaned from those experiences, but on the other hand, they might just evidence the importance of friendship in community-building, in life and in work. Have you been trying to balance friendship and work or maybe familiarity and reliability of insight with a diversity of opinions in these groups?
Brand: I put my theory of guilds up on John Brockman’s theedge.org World Question Center. I said that the most effective people I know have a close cadre of people whose work and thoughts they pay close attention to and who pay close attention to them. I got to looking around and indeed discovered that there were six or seven people whose thoughts I always want to know.
And sometimes we publically collaborate on projects. Kevin Kelly and I have started several things, starting back with the Hackers Conference and the WELL [the Whole Earth Electronic Link, several things with the Long Now Foundation where he is very thickly involved. A while ago we did an All Species Inventory project. My wife was also involved with that one, as she had been with the Hackers Conference. As you point out these are very different subjects but we knew how to work together and there is no greater shortcut to getting things done than a few people who know how to work together.
There are other people I pay attention to all the time. One of whom I seldom see physically is Brian Eno. We exchange email practically daily and have been for twelve years or so. Peter Schwartz is a formal co-founder at Global Business Network. Alexander Rose and Danny Hillis are in the thick of the Long Now Foundation, as I am. And I’m married to one of my guild, Ryan Phelan, so we’re basically conspiring all of the time.
Whether this is common or in any way Californian, I don’t know. But I think it is more common than has been noticed and it is probably something worth drawing out when you talk to people about their design life: who are the non-direct reports that they work with?
There are a lot us who are not interested in a lot of people’s opinions but rather in a few people’s opinions.
SK: In that sense, you would describe yourself as an elitist?
Brand: Oh yeah, absolutely. My feeling is that elite is how things used to get done in the world and it’s all over the place. Hackers were an elite. Beat poets were an elite. An elite is a kind of self-selecting meritocracy that gets a sense of itself as a group, a flock or something, birds of a feather of some sort. The individuals within the group give each other permission to be better than they already are and sometimes they rise to amazing heights. So I’m all in favor of elites.
SK: The subtitle of Whole Earth Discipline, in its hardcover edition, was an eco-pragmatist manifesto. What is eco-pragmatism?
Brand: Desperation. I had more trouble subtitling that book … in fact, I changed the subtitle for the paperback edition because the book was not doing all that well. The publisher and the agent expected the book to be a huge bestseller and they were shocked that it wasn’t, so we made adjustments in the paperback.
With the term eco-pragmatism, I was trying to do something similar to what I did with the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a counter-counter-culture publication. I was immersed enough in the counter-culture to see that there were some things that I thought were not being perceived properly, mainly just practical, how to do things. So the Whole Earth Catalog was technology friendly, and technique friendly, and had no politics at all. I was partly following Buckminster Fuller’s lead in that respect.
Whole Earth Discipline was me trying to bring environmentalists to a problem-solving mode rather than a mode of endless complaint, of slowing everything down, to get them away from the Romantic notions that we had gotten into partly from the successes that we’d had in the 70s and 80s, and the moral leadership that we elected to follow, and so on. All of that was proving to be completely inadequate to thinking about or actually dealing with things like climate change. So Whole Earth Discipline was in a sense a counter-environmental publication trying to bring practicality and pragmatism to a movement that had let itself become non-, even anti-pragmatic, almost.
There’s been some success in that direction. I’ve heard the leadership of the Nature Conservancy has adopted the book as a guide and I see it surfacing in funny places in funny ways. But it has not sold quite as well as Silent Spring.
SK: [Laughs] Give it time.
Brand: We’ll see. There are other books coming along in the same vein. Mark Lynas’ book The God Species is very much in the same frame and better in some respects. Both books are intended to be green programs for this century.
SK: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline presents the notion of geo-engineering, effecting large-scale positive change to the earth over long periods of time.
Brand: The basic environmental project really is managing the commons. The commons is the oceans and the atmosphere and biodiversity and so on, all that was here before us. We can bang on it pretty hard, a lot of it is extremely robust but it goes better if we back off half a turn and don’t hit natural systems quite as hard, quite as often. But some of this stuff has been bashed on so long that it is headed over a cliff. Greenhouse gases and global temperature are one area. Acidification of the oceans may be another. In those cases, it is not just a matter of protecting but of repairing.
When the damage is at a global atmospheric scale and you want to repair it, your actions need to be at a global atmospheric scale. To the extent that you can do that by just cutting back on greenhouse gases, on carbon, bio-char, whatever, those solutions are best, but if that is not enough, then you need to think about taking action to undo the previous action.
We’ve been terra-forming Earth badly. We don’t have the choice of stopping. We only have the choice of doing it well. And we’re in the process of learning what that means. Just because we don’t know enough now doesn’t mean that we won’t know enough soon. And the only way to get there is to do the research.
SK: It’s less a question of backing off or setting protection as our limit and more of thinking in terms of repairing and indeed building something that can flourish.
Brand: Also, in terms of protection, here I’m following Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy, protection becomes a little illusory when you tell yourself that what you are protecting is pristine, pristine forest, pristine tundra or whatever. Telling yourself that you have to protect it very assiduously because it is very fragile. Both of those things are wrong. Nothing is pristine and it hasn’t been for a long time. And few things are fragile.
Alien invasive species, for example, which I have developed the aesthetic of being against … I used to be against eucalyptus trees, in California, but time went by, and by and by, I saw what the wind does to the leaves and that they are green all year long, which is rather nice, and full moonlight on a eucalyptus tree is one of the most beautiful things in the world, and they seem to be prospering here and they aren’t really doing that much harm. It’s time they got their green card.
But there are forms of alien invasives that are tremendously harmful. One of them, especially on remote islands, is any new kind of predator, like the brown tree snake in Guam, which can wreak total havoc. Goats and rats on islands. Take the goats off and a lot of biodiversity comes back.
So nothing is across the board.
Nothing is quite pristine, so don’t bother to protect that. And alien invasives are not the spawn of the devil, so don’t get too worked up about that. And then basically it’s gardening and negotiating. Neither of those things is particularly romantic, but it’s the reality. Our impact on natural systems is increasingly a gardener’s role. And we’ve got to negotiate with each other on how to make that go forward in a way that gets better over time rather than worse over time.
SK: It seems like friendship matters here as well, in the role of the gardener, who needs to know the garden best, what to trust and what not to.
Brand: One of the things gardeners learn is distrust. Plants never do quite what you had in mind. You can hammer on them until they do, then you wind up with bonsai. But by and large it’s a comic dialogue between species that goes on in the garden. Michael Pollan said that and he’s right.
In terms of design, and this is maybe a design aesthetic that we are talking about here, the total design approach is that one is going to dominate every single aspect of the designed entity. I suppose that is one of the things that I was inveighing against in my book How Buildings Learn. When that happens you have an unlivable building. To make it livable, the occupants and remodelers are going to have to undermine the purity that the signature architect wrought. The architect will go away all pissed off and that’s just too bad. Hopefully the building is forgiving enough that the people who are living and working there find it to be a place they can feel pretty good about. A theme that is emerging here is suspicion of purity in all its forms.
SK: And along with that, a more measured approach: there you have the eco-pragmatist.
Brand: Yeah, the eco-pragmatist is aware of theories and agendas but is really an engineer who is just looking for what works.
SK: Rather than seeing things in black and white, us and them, as was fairly common in the 1960s, the approach that you’ve taken more recently has been more synthetic, appropriately suspicious but not absolutely against anything, not ruling anything out too quickly, but not accepting anything too quickly either. Being willing to change your mind.
Brand: Yeah, I expect that’s right. There are two heuristics going on there. One I quoted in Whole Earth Discipline: I wonder how many things I’m dead wrong about. And then, the opposite version of that: you never know who is going to be right. For all I know, there’s some Tea Partier out there, who I generally disapprove of, who has actually got something right. We gotta keep an eye out for that.