Posts Tagged ‘Stewart Brand’

Bring them back?

March 18, 2013

I look forward to hearing what everyone at my school did on Spring Break last week.

And what did I do, after returning from the American Philosophy conference in New Jersey? Well, I didn’t grade anything (so thanks in advance, students, for not asking about that). I didn’t blog, I didn’t tweet, I didn’t read email. I did spend plenty of quality time at the Middle & High School softball field, at Warner Parks, and at Radnor Lake, where I pondered the wisdom of Rabindranoth Tagore:

tagore

“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”

He also said:

“It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.”

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for she was born in another time.”

“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

I don’t know what it all means, precisely, but it’s just the sort of high-minded vagueness a brisk lake-&-ridge hike makes irresistible to a sensibility like mine in March. He and Einstein got along pretty well too.

But now Break’s over and Bioethics is back today, with more midterm reports. We’re all tanned, rested, & ready, right?

Here’s a follow-up of sorts to Andrew’s pre-break report on anthropomorphic speciesism, and a bioethical challenge: if innovations in biotechnology allow us to undo some of the damage of anthropogenic species extinction, should we proceed? Eco-pragmatist Stewart Brand‘s response:

Throughout humankind’s history, we’ve driven species after species extinct: the passenger pigeon, the Eastern cougar the dodo …. But now, says Stewart Brand, we have the technology (and the biology) to bring back species that humanity wiped out. So — should we? Which ones? He asks a big question whose answer is closer than you may think.

Some other stuff that came up while we were breaking:

Widespread Flaws Found in Ovarian Cancer Treatment

Most women with ovarian cancer, which kills 15,000 Americans a year, miss out on treatments that could add a year or more to their lives, a study found.

Too Many Colonoscopies in the Elderly

Nearly a quarter of colonoscopies in patients over age 70 were “potentially inappropriate,” a new analysis finds.

Mary and the Zombies: Can Science Explain Consciousness?

Is a purely physical, scientific account of subjective experience possible?

The Allergy Buster

An experimental new treatment seeks to release children from the terror of severe food allergies.

When Exercise Stresses You Out

Does the stress of being, in effect, forced to exercise, perhaps because your doctor or worried spouse has ordered it, cancel out the otherwise sturdy emotional benefits of physical activity?

Wary of Attack With Smallpox, U.S. Buys Up a Costly Drug

Some experts say a contract for two million doses of a treatment for a disease eradicated in 1980 has the government paying too high a price for too much of a new medicine.

Putting a Value to ‘Real’ in Medical Research

A Laboratory Grows Young Scientists

Stroke Prevention Device Misses Key Goal in Study

F.D.A. Raises Heart Alert on Antibiotic in Wide Use

Synthetic biology, life from life

January 30, 2013

And so we begin, in Bioethics, with the exciting new world of synthetic biology. Many will be tempted to lead with the question “How can this new thing hurt us?”

Stewart Brand, Whole Earther and Eco-pragmatist, calls that a misplaced “national security perspective” that would lock us into a paranoid position of self-defeating Luddism.  Far better, he thinks (and I agree) to ask how new developments in biotechnology, genomic and medical science (etc.) might possibly help us. Then, analyze and evaluate the risk and proceed, with caution. For

technoparanoia has a way of being self-fulfilling. It institutionalizes distrust [and] sees only threat and only enemies, and thereby helps to create both. Whether you’re defending a nation or the natural world, a more useful assumption with any new technology is that it is neutral, and so are the people creating it and using it. Your job is to help maximize its advantages and minimize its harm… the best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it…

That’s an interesting perspective, coming from an old counter-culturist who became a confidante and adviser of the Governor of his state (who, btw, is Governor again, this time without the Moonbeam aura). What a long strange trip, for him and for us all.

So, synthetic life? Bring it on, Craig Venter. We’ll see if Gaia has any objections.

The future of life, says Venter, depends on our learning to program life’s software. He says we can bio-engineer everything. He and his privately-funded colleagues are working on applications in food, medicine, and a clean fuel that eats CO2. “Playing God?” No, he says, just trying to understand and apply the rules of life.

So again, proceed with caution. But…

Excessive caution is not a good option either. [precautionary principle] Scott Sampson reminds us that we face a severely truncated future unless we do, umm, something or other. We’re definitely not the first with short-sighted and murderously exploitative intent. He must mean we’re the first to wield the weapons of potentially species-wide annihilation. It’s good, though no fun, to be reminded.

Craig Venter is happy to anticipate the re-design of life, having positioned himself to profit from it. Should it bother us that our master re-designers have a vested financial interest in overturning the genetic status quo, and that scientific method has become a corporate strategy? Obviously, we all have a stake in overturning genetic disease. But if there’s money in fixing what ain’t broke…? Is Venter really the new Frankenstein? Has he brought us to a turning point from which he cannot find our way home? [Spreading out]

Is Venter “playing god“? Or is it the other way around?
jesus and mo venter

Also on the docket today: intelligent design, psychopharmacolgy, and robot ethics.

This is gonna be fun!

[Synthetic biology in the nyt… Venter in the nyt… Venter in Wired (“Redefining the Origin of Species“… Twain’s techno-optimismGenome by Matt Ridley… A Life Decoded by Craig Venter… Venter on Sixty Minutes Generosity by Richard Powers… generosity 2]

Living Earth app puts the planet in perspective

June 9, 2011

When Stewart Brand had his roof-top ’60s epiphany about the transformational, consciousness-raising possibilities implicit in a picture of the “whole earth,” he wasn’t thinking of a killer app for the iPhone.

Brand was recently credited with inventing the term “online” in 1972, btw.

We hold so much in our hands these days, and have created such an amazing stock of tools for leveraging our thoughts and dreams. Sadly, we seem more stupidly attentive to their most inane applications. Politicians who share pics of their private parts, and a public that can’t stop commenting on them, are not part of the transformation we need.

Maybe we’ll do another 3.5 billion

April 27, 2011

Whole Earth Discipline 9, Afterword

Plenty to think about here at the end of Stewart Brand’s turquoise manifesto, but we need to get on with talking about our various report topics on this last day in Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom class.

Why turqoise? Well, for one thing it’s a revered traditional indigenous color. We learned in the previous chapter that Brand loves native gardening. We already knew that he loves science and technology. Turqs love both, and think the best way to preserve our position in the pecking order with Mother Earth is through an intervention. “While Greens worship Gaia, Turqs bargain with Gaia.” That’s because her “live value” is incalculable, but our ignorance is leagues deep.

DSCOVR, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, would help to address that… and would just be so cool, besides.

So would “solar shades.” We’re already “experimenting with the whole planet.”

As for those other geoengineering proposals– dimming, brightening et al– I don’t know. But if they’re our last safety net we’d better get ‘em on the drawing board. Amazonian biochar has already been tested, move it to the top.

Danny Hillis’s version of the Golden Rule makes a lot of sense to me, indigenous wisdom-wise: “Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you” (or wish it had done). Pay it forward.

Whitehead was right about the future too, but I’m sure he had no idea just how dangerous it could be. Have we?

Maybe I owe James Lovelock an apology, for thinking his “cheerful” apocalypticism had something to do with his advanced years. But is he really wishing another Battle of Britain on us all?

Brand concludes this book the same way he concluded the wonderful documentary film Earth Days [transcript], with an invitation to think longer-term than I can even begin to imagine.

While we are deeply engrossed with all of our little weekly issues, if we deal with them in this larger perspective, we are engaging a set of activities which go way beyond individual lifespan. Way beyond children and grandchildren, way beyond parents, grandparents, great grandparents, to the whole frame of at least human civilizational life. Once you get comfortable with that, then you start to go further out still to, 3.5 billion years back of life on earth, and maybe we’ll do another 3.5 billion years that’s pretty interesting to try to hold in your mind, and once you’ve held it in your mind, what do you do on Monday?

Well, I do know exactly what I’ll be doing this Monday: administering our last NW test. It won’t be Gaia’s last.

We went to the (bleeping) MOON!

April 25, 2011

Looking forward to three or four more presentations in NW today. It’s getting very near the end for our course. But optimistic eco-pragmatists like to think it’s near the beginning for our species.

In chapter seven of Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand (who considers himself a “green” as well as a pragmatist) complains of ideological narrowness among some environmentalists.

I saw a version of this narrowness played out after 1966, when I was inspired by a rooftop LSD trip to distribute buttons that read, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Everyone in the New Left opposed Kennedy’s space program, seeing it (correctly) as a cold war episode that they thought (incorrectly) was being carried out to no good purpose by crew-cut military squares. (Only Abbie Hoffman disagreed with his compatriots: “Are you kidding? We’re going to the fucking MOON!”) Environmentalists joined the leftist opposition to the space program: “We have to clean up the earth before we can leave it.”

That was a false dichotomy that got locked in as core environmentalist ideology. It’s not constructive, from an eco-pragmatic point of view. Is it?

We may differ about that, about “solidarity,” and about Brand, but I think most of us are glad his rooftop reverie inaugurated that first Earth Day in ’70 and has us thinking today about the future of life on this rock.

It takes all kinds. Romantics, scientists, and engineers are Brand’s “stock characters” but he knows there are countless, varied, particular, real people behind “the largest movement in the world.” They’re meliorists, not ideologues. They’re focused on results. Read Blessed Unrest and try to sustain a pessimistic mood, I dare you.

Biomimicry, I think we can claim to have learned in our course, is central to what we’ve been calling native wisdom. Ask not what we can extract from nature, but what she can teach us.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think the world is irreducibly complex, and those who think it can be explained strictly in terms (for instance) of hedgehogs and foxes. More stock characters. Contrary to the message of this clever little film, Einstein and Darwin both knew many things and had grand theories. The point Brand wants to make about successful politicians, statesmen, and friends of the earth is that they’re skeptical, flexible, and pragmatic, open-minded and experimental, not hidebound confirmation-biased ideologues.

Chapter Eight takes us back to the garden. Not to Eden, but to the pre-Columbian Americas of 1491 and before. “It’s All Gardening.” It’s not all a “bogus” tale of “native spiritual teachers who impart ancient wisdom.” Brand says beware The Education of Little Tree, The Teachings of Don Juan, and the like. Wonder what he’d think of our reading list this semester? More importantly, what do we think of it?

Yet, he (like Gary Snyder and Kat Anderson) claims to have learned important lessons from native Americans like “how to be an American in a way that had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance.” But it has plenty to do with the Conservation Pledge, both the Boy Scout and Buddhist versions. Give  life. Undo harm.

We’ve been planet-killers lately, and it’s hard to live sustainably in the Garden when our peers are trashing it. But the native wisdom we’ve been studying offers the encouraging lesson that we can “settle down” and pay closer attention to the conditions of life on our homeworld. We can protect it from ourselves and for ourselves, both tending the wild and leaving it alone as intelligence and empathy require.

We can do good work for the wild. We’re all native to this place, after all. We just need to “reinhabit” it, take the “Where You At” bio-regional quiz, and finally know our place. Then, we can explore other places without remorse. (Maybe even “boldly go” with Chakotay?) Call that the return of the native. And now we’ve come nearly full circle in our course.

technoparanoia will destroy ya

April 20, 2011

Stewart Brand identifies a recurrent question at the core of what he calls the “national-security perspective” on developing technology: “How can this new thing hurt us?”

Such technoparanoia has a way of being self-fulfilling. It institutionalizes distrust [and] sees only threat and only enemies, and thereby helps to create both. Whether you’re defending a nation or the natural world, a more useful assumption with any new technology is that it is neutral, and so are the people creating it and using it. Your job is to help maximize its advantages and minimize its harm… the best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it…

That’s an interesting perspective, coming from an old counter-culturist who became a confidante and adviser of the Governor of his state (who, btw, is Governor again, this time without the Moonbeam aura). What a long strange trip, for him and for us all.

So, synthetic life? Bring it on, Craig Venter. We’ll see if Gaia has any objections.

The future of life, says Venter, depends on our learning to program life’s software. He says we can bio-engineer everything. He and his privately-funded colleagues are working on applications in food, medicine, and a clean fuel that eats CO2. “Playing God?” No, he says, just trying to understand and apply the rules of life.

[Twain’s techno-optimismGenome by Matt Ridley… A Life Decoded by Craig Venter… Venter on Sixty Minutes Generosity by Richard Powers… generosity 2]

Nukes aren’t good just because coal’s bad.

April 18, 2011

It’s time again for report presentations in NW. Kayla, Harrison, & Josh C. will kick us off, followed by Colin, Meghan, Josh H., Paul, Jason U., Elizabeth, Jason C., Willie, & Garrett. We’ll be watching the clock this time, so let’s practice our TED-timing skills.

Meanwhile, as we continue plowing through Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand insists that the population bomb is not about to explode and the nuclear power industry will recover. In these debates he has been unwavering.

He’s still pro-nuke, in a new post-Fukushima interview:

What hasn’t changed is climate vulnerability and growing economic needs, especially in the developing world for clean, base-load electricity. And we’re learning some important new stuff on levels of safety under exceptional duress, which is what happened in Japan… Billions of people are getting out of poverty in the developing world. For that to go forward, one of the needs and demands they all have is for more electricity. So on those grounds alone I think there is a reason to proceed with nuclear.

Plus, nuclear energy could be put to much scarier uses again. Instead

we’re using the material in the warheads for nuclear fuel. Half of our nuclear electricity comes from recycled warheads. It’s kind of cool.

Cool? Sure, ok. But the fact that coal is really, really bad is hardly sufficient reason to believe that non-weapons grade nuclear energy is really good. I find Andrew Revkin’s recent  Dot Earth reflections on our nuclear ambivalence (Wall-E, Humanity as Assailant, Nukes Too Brittle?) more candid.

We are a young species with a short memory and only slowly-dawning awareness of three vital pieces of the challenge of meshing our aspirations with life on Earth: the planet’s dynamics, our capacity to jog the system and — perhaps most importantly — the distorting mix of rational, emotional and instinctual processes in our brains that shape our perceptions and actions.

So far, as I’ve written before, we’ve been in a full-tilt teen-style binge. But now we face the tough question: What do we want to be when we grow up?

As he asked earlier,”what policies and systems make the most sense as humanity’s growth spurt crests?” Maybe nuclear is the answer, but until we have a firmer sense of what’s happening in Japan [Fukushima update from the IAEA… robots venture inside…Guardian updates… nyt updates] it just seems ostrich-like to be as cockily confident as Brand has been in the nuclear solution. His glib endorsement of Roger Revelle’s glib statement that we ought to be more like the Japanese, who “haven’t got any phobias about [nukes],” may be in line for an update.

Brand did warn us, though, back at the beginning of this book: “my opinions are strongly stated and loosely held.” Unbending convictions are not constructive, beliefs finally are just tools. If he’s really the pragmatist he claims to be, he’ll honor that Conservation Pledge and “faithfully defend the natural resources of my country” against all enemies, nukes included, if that’s the way the wind blows.

Maybe the most interesting point to emerge from today’s text is the positive notice Brand takes of  “the ‘seven generations’ approach to future responsibility long credited to the Iroquois League.” Turns out 175 years may be a more responsible time-frame, at least for “planning” purposes, than 10,000 years. “We should not prejudge the needs and capabilities of the future.” No, but we’d sure better think about them.

So, welcome to Wall-E World. It’s not just elder-care those cute & clever bots are delivering.

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

April 13, 2011

Now that we’ve had our last longing look at Gaia’s “vanishing face,” we can invite Stewart Brand back to see if he can stiffen our spines with some Whole Earth Discipline. He started on-stage once before, in March, but was quickly yanked for James Lovelock. To repeat:

And so, let’s turn to the founder of Whole Earth and Long Now, the man who wanted to know why we hadn’t yet seen an image of Mother Earth in all her majestic entirety, even deep into the manned space program of the sixties.

Stewart Brand has always had a sense of the “greater organism.” Lately he’s also articulated his own version of “eco-pragmatism.” How well do they mesh? Do we really need dense cities, nuclear power, transgenic crops, and geoengineering? What would Wildcat, Eagle Man, and Greg Cajete say? We’ll try to find out as we commence reading Whole Earth Discipline.

The text is helpfully updated and annotated online, here… with some of his slidesCity Planet slideshow…

Brand on “squatter cities”:

Robert Neuwirth also talked at TED about “shadow cities“… [Brand at Googleat RSARethinking Green]

What’s changed for Brand since his initial “whole earth” epiphany?

In [Whole Earth Catalog] I focused on individual empowerment, and in [Whole Earth Discipline] the focus is on the aggregate effects of humans on things like climate. And some of these issues are of such scale that you got to have the governments doing things like making carbon expensive. Or making coal expensive to burn and putting all that carbon into the atmosphere. And individuals can’t do that, individual communities can’t do that. It takes national governments.

Brand notes the curious “whiplash moment” many greens are feeling lately, tasked by climate change to defend the very civilization they’ve long contended is our greatest threat. There’s an alt-med cure for this condition: pragmatism, the anti-ideology concerned with practical results. Note: the patient is not the planet, it’s you and me.

So what shade of green is Brand?

No tree-hugging Luddite or apocalyptic doomsayer, Brand [in the ’60s] had an optimistic outlook shaped by “a love of good tools, thoughtful technology, scientific inquiry and a Western libertarian skepticism of the government’s ability to take the lead in these areas.”

He hasn’t really changed much. His admirers (like Andrew Kirk) find him one of those “prescient few” who “stay two steps ahead of their peers, creating and riding the crest of important trends.” His detractors find him wrong.

If we can’t count on the IPCC, we’re definitely going to need to consult other physicians. At about the time they were basking with Al Gore in the Nobel spotlight they were also failing to detect Greenland’s rapid meltdown. It won’t be our last “oh shit” moment, either. Beware the Big Drought.

We know that James Lovelock is now profoundly pessimistic, though he still thinks “we” can survive, in much smaller numbers on much less terrain. What to do, mitigate, adapt, or ameliorate? Pragmatists typically love that last option best.

Can we build “Renewistan“? All we need, as Mr. Gore loves to say, is the political will. Is that all? Not quite. We need a major climate change recalculation, says Saul Griffith, and major lifestyle changes.

Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (and he has passed no one in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.

We’d all be better for it, for sure. But can we do it? “It’s damn near impossible, but it is necessary. And the world has to decide to do it.”

Greens and conservatives are mutually afflicted by an overweeing confidence in something they trust to run itself: planetary ecosystems and free markets, respectively. Pragmatists just want to see things run well, with assistance if necessary.

Gaia likes it cold and hot, without preference. She’s no Goldilocks.

Indigenous wisdom alert: native peoples are megagardeners. They can show us how to restore Gaia’s natural systems to health. But would they also show us how to move forward with technology? Brand says we dare not stand still. We’re going to need our infotech, biotech, and nanotech, along with the great harvest.

But gods cannot carelessly flout ecological integrity, they must be “benevolent ecosystem engineers”– like the beaver, the earthworm, and of course the native Americans.

[ “The idiocy of rural life“… Asia…  Kleiber’s LawPueblos… “woman power”…”On Point” interview… TED: “Four Environmental Heresies“… “Does the World Need Nuclear Energy?”… Counterculture Green nyt review… “Embracing New Heresies” (nyt)]

STUDENTS: I need to know today, if possible, if you’re planning to do a presentation for your final report. We’ll get started on those next week.

Lovelock’s “Gaia” before Brand’s “Whole Earth”

March 27, 2011

A note to NW STUDENTS:

On further consideration, I’ve decided it would make more sense– chronologically, thematically, hopefully– to read and discuss James Lovelock’s Vanishing Face of Gaia next, ahead of Steward Brand’s Whole Earth DisciplineBut neither will be on the Wednesday exam. Go ahead and begin reading Lovelock. Tomorrow’s main biz will be to review the earlier March material and get on with our interminable (but always enlightening) midterm presentations.

“We are all kernels on the same corncob”

March 23, 2011

Wrapping up Native Science today, if we can.

Western science needs Native science to examine its prevailing worldview and culture. Western science has often been caught up in an almost fanatic drive to objectify and fragment all of human experience so that it could somehow be better or more clearly understood  or controlled. But these methodologies often forget to recontextualize data bits, or to recycle that knowledge into a meaningful expression for human life and human situations. Indigenous science is a process of thinking and relating that refuses to decontextualize.

Point taken: the reductive analyses of scientific inquiry are useful tools, but their greatest use lies in reconstruction at the level of life as it is actually lived, in real places, by real people.  Science is an observational discipline whose discoveries must be integrated with the observers’ own lifeworlds, to have their appropriate impact in building relationships between persons and nature.

After all: “we are all kernels on the same corncob.”

POSTSCRIPT: In the spirit of bridge-building between native and mainstream western science, Gregory Cajete was interviewed prior to an appearance at NASA a couple of years ago:

The air that we breathe and that is finite we share with each other right now and eventually we will be breathing those same argon atoms again. The idea is that air is shared by all living, breathing entities and through that physical process we become related to each other. It is using those kinds of ways to describe the fact that physically, socially, even spiritually there is this interconnection and interrelatedness that human beings share with each other and that is referred to by saying we are all related. Mitakuye oyasin is the Lakota way of expressing that idea and that reality. There are words in other Indigenous languages that describe the same thing, that we are all related. We use a term in my language, because corn is kind of our sacramental plant, a staple of our traditional diet, we say we are all kernels on the same corn cob.

Earthzine: You write, “We are Earth becoming conscious of itself, and collectively, humans are the Earth’s most highly developed sense organ.” NASA just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Images of Earth from space have transformed the way we view the world. How have images of the Earth, our planetary siblings, our Sun, neighboring nebulae and distant galaxies affected native science?

Cajete: In many ways it helps us to visualize what native science has always been, in one way or another, trying to define, first of all that we are all interrelated, we all breathe the same air, we are made of the same elements of the earth, we are conveyors of the sun’s fire, we are participants in the activities of the biosphere no matter where we are and so this idea of the photographs of Earth, especially the newer technologies that allow us to see the Earth as it is evolving its processes, its weather patterns help us to visualize a living, breathing, active planet processes, the life process of the planet itself. And so those images and ways of understanding ourselves, really do add to the conceptions and perspectives of native science. A metaphor that is sometimes used in native science is “we are all members of Turtle Island”. This is an idea that has been popularized by the Iroquois Confederacy but it is really a notion or an idea that is held by all native tribes. The metaphor describes Earth as a living, breathing, super organism and that we as human beings ride the turtle’s back. The thoughts that we think, the actions that we perform, the understandings and the insights that we gain, the celebrations as well as the sadness that we feel are all registered on the Great Mother of the turtles’ back. And so, we affect the consciousness of the Earth as she affects ours. This idea of the super organism which is the planet Earth has been held by every Indigenous culture that I can remember ever studying and can be said to be the prime philosophy of native peoples. It is the understanding that one comes to naturally; if you are a good observer you can begin to see how life forces interact on the Earth or just in the place in which you live, and you begin to have a sense that there is this greater organism, this greater process that is a part of life.

And so, let’s turn to the founder of Whole Earth and Long Now, the man who wanted to know why we hadn’t yet seen an image of Mother Earth in all her majestic entirety, even deep into the manned space program of the sixties.

Stewart Brand has always had a sense of the “greater organism.” Lately he’s also articulated his own version of “eco-pragmatism.” How well do they mesh? Do we really need dense cities, nuclear power, transgenic crops, and geoengineering? What would Wildcat, Eagle Man, and Greg Cajete say? We’ll try to find out as we commence reading Whole Earth Discipline.


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