My last post was prelude to pointing readers to “Environmental Heresies,” by Whole Earth Catalogue-founder Stewart Brand (via Commons). He begins this way:

Over the next ten years, I predict, the mainstream of the environmental movement will reverse its opinion and activism in four major areas: population growth, urbanization, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.

To which I would say:

Yep, yep, probably, and maybe. These are the environmental orthodoxies I’ve always felt most uncomfortable with, and Brand has captured why with concise, forceful arguments. Good on him.

On population, he points out that global population is close to leveling off and is declining precipitously in many countries. Why? Mostly it is the unprecedented worldwide migration from rural villages to cities, where having lots of children is less of an advantage. If those concerned with sustainability get out ahead of this trend and help guide it, it could be an environmental blessing. Cities put people close together, reducing their collective energy use. They free up rural areas for wildlife and wilderness (if protections are put in place).

On biotech, he says:

One area of biotech with huge promise and some drawbacks is genetic engineering, so far violently rejected by the environmental movement. That rejection is, I think, a mistake. Why was water fluoridization rejected by the political right and “frankenfood” by the political left? The answer, I suspect, is that fluoridization came from government and genetically modified (GM) crops from corporations. If the origins had been reversed — as they could have been — the positions would be reversed, too.

There’s truth to this, though it’s slightly facile. It does, after all, matter that GM has been developed by giant corporations and has been used primarily for their benefit. But the idea that the technology itself is intrinsically bad … that doesn’t make much sense to me. As Brand says, the proper reaction for greens ought to be to appropriate the technology and use it for their ends, particularly since, embrace or no embrace, it’s gonna spread. Open-source biotech seems like a promising way for GM to do some environmental good. Brand offers some scenarios.

And then there’s nuclear power, about which Gristmill readers are currently debating vigorously. I’m deeply ambivalent about the subject, and I will admit up front that I don’t know enough about it to make up my mind firmly one way or the other. There are lots and lots of variables involved, some at a time scale so large as to be virtually impossible to contemplate sensibly. I’ve heard lots of great anti-nuke arguments — the one I cited here, and those from Gristmill commenters here and here, and one quoted from Amory Lovins here, and of course plenty of others via google. But then there’s the big, overarching pro-nuke argument:

Can climate change be slowed and catastrophe avoided? They can to the degree that humanity influences climate dynamics. The primary cause of global climate change is our burning of fossil fuels for energy. So everything must be done to increase energy efficiency and decarbonize energy production. Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough. Massive carbon “sequestration” (extraction) from the atmosphere, perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but it’s just a hope. The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.

This argument strikes me as decisive if it’s true. But is it true? That’s an empirical question. I’m learning. I hope everyone is, and that no one has substituted quasi-religious anti-nuke dogma for that hard, careful work.

Ultimately, I suspect that urbanization, GM crops, and nuclear power are inevitable. If all we do is stand on the sidelines shouting “no, no, no!” the process will proceed without us, guided by the worst actors. The smartest thing that those of us concerned about the health of humanity and the planet can do is get involved and try to steer toward an outcome that is equitable and sustainable.