Monday, October 26

Whole Earth Discipline: from the land back to town

"Cities are probably the greenest thing humans do."

This quote comes from the man behind the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, in an interview with NPR's Marketplace. As a luminary for the back to the land movement from the 1970's, he wrote the original catalog to provide the tools necessary to live self-sufficiently. However, it was only a few years after adopting the rural lifestyle before he and many others in the movement went "back to town." He has now published a new book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto to, among other things, disabuse his fellow environmentalists of the notion that surrounding oneself in greenery and mimicking a primitive way of life is sufficient for meeting global environmental challenges.

Brand's version of environmentalism seems to be about the opposite of that of Thoreau and his followers. Instead of passively folding ourselves into the ecosystem and trying to interfere as little as possible, Brand sees the human role as much more active. We have the responsibility of being gardeners (more aptly geoengineers in his parlance) and we ought to avail ourselves of whatever tools we can. You see the general industriousness and reason from the Whole Earth Catalog, only magnified to a much larger scale. Cities just happen to be the best tool for energy and resource efficiency around.

Brand is quick to point out that humans don't have to be forced to live in cities; we generally want to. He notes that this is as true for Bismarck, North Dakota as it is for Lagos, Nigeria. The ongoing trend toward urbanization has gone on unabated. He has a special appreciation for the squatter cities evolving on the periphery of every city in the developing world. Formerly rural families want to better their lives by moving closer to the dynamic wealth-creation agglomerations while still shaping their environment as independent agents. They naturally form vibrant, walkable, mixed-use communities with both strong social ties and personal liberty.

In terms of design and development, he falls firmly on the side of self-organization over rational planning.

"To a planner’s eye, squatter cities look chaotic. To my biologist’s eye, they look organic."
I've wrestled with this question here before and mostly believe this laissez-faire approach is less helpful for the fully modernized West than it is for the developing world. But Brand doesn't see much of a future for the aging residents of the West, hence the scant attention.

Not that he has to cover ever single issue in one swing, but this would seem to be an oversight. Much of the world's consumption will still be in the West into the foreseeable future, and, as he notes, the slums will only gentrify in time raising the same issues. Then there's the fact that almost everyone reading this book will be from affluent nations. Knowing that sustainable and prosperous slums are emerging somewhere else doesn't strike me as particularly ecopragmatic in terms of managing our own challenges.

The Whole Earth Discipline seeks to slay several sacred cows of environmentalism. I can't speak to any of the others, but it is certainly refreshing to hear a person who has been a figurehead for romantic ruralism endorse vibrant human settlement so unequivocally. The first line of the book could easily be read as commentary on Genesis 1:26 (with emphasis on the "as"):

"We are as gods and have to get good at it."

Stewart Brand offers cities as a helpful tool toward meeting this responsibility of stewardship.


Zed said...

To call squatter villages or slums 'laissez-faire approach' or organic is naive at best, and deliberately deceptive at worst. They are the deliberate product of an economic and planning system that ensures cheap labor is readily available. That those people have to live in sub-par conditions, through little fault of their own, suggests much less free-choice than the free-market folks would have us consider.

Gore as many sacred environmental cows as you wish, relying upon human ingenuity to get us out of our current environmental malaise could be doomed to fail.

Daniel Nairn said...

Zed, I honestly can't say I know enough about slum conditions, but I do agree that Brand seems to be romanticizing them a bit much. His point is that they are at least a step up from the subsistence living many of the residents are coming from and they are able to work their way up from there. I agree that this narrative seems to ignore the overarching reality that there is such a discrepancy between global quality of life standards in the first place.

Is it fair to say that human ingenuity can be a part of the solution? The trouble arises when we presume technology will allow us to basically continue the status quo without any lifestyle changes. Yet, on the other side, I think people can fall into a state of complacency in thinking humans have no responsibility to care for the world.

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