August 25, 2005
Response to Stewart Brand

Someone asked me to comment on "Environmental Heresies", by Stewart Brand -- wherein he says that the environmental movement should "reverse its opinion" on population growth, urbanization, biotech, and nuclear energy. As I am wont to do, I got carried away, so I'm posting the response, sans editing, below.

1. Population growth & urbanization -- he's right about the facts as far as I know, but his account doesn't emphasize the right things. Developed countries are indeed declining in population, but are using urban immigrant populations to replace the low-end of their work forces, creating a tier of second- and third-class people who are denied basic rights, starting with security. The fight for those basic rights is primary in any consideration of how the environmental movement is going to address issues related to urbanization. Immigration laws and borders are the tools that are used to deny those rights.

Brand's focus is obviously on the (implicitly white, middle class, northern) environmental movement, but he misses the point when he cites Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities. The assumption that "environmentalists" should take a leadership role is one that needs to be shattered in a lot of ways. I haven't read Neuwirth’s book, but my sense is that he is saying that the rich north has a lot to learn about from the hundreds of millions living in slums worldwide. Before the environmentalists "get out in front of" urbanization, they need to understand what urbanization is, on the ground. (The agenda of "we need to get other movements to support us, because we know best" is rampant. I outlined these tendencies in another context in my critique of the National Conference for Media Reform --

Another problematic claim Brand makes is the false distinction between cities and "small towns"--as if those are the only two options. In the context of the status quo, "cities" means "massive megalopolises". In a corporate-driven world, this just happens to be the most efficient way to put the largest number of workers in the same place, resulting in optimal competition between workers for jobs and low infrastructure costs. It's also great for landlords and real estate moguls, due to inherent, perpetual housing shortages. Small coincidence that slum dwellers regularly have their entire neighbourhoods bulldozed, as happened recently in Mumbai, where hundreds of thousands of people had their homes destroyed overnight. If we're going to imagine sustainable (and thus humane) cities, we have to be able to imagine what they will look like when priorities other than those of capital are taken into account when planning takes place. In this respect, Cuba is interesting at least as a counterpoint. Instead of compounding housing shortages in Havana, the government has decentralized development to focus on smaller cities of thousands, not millions.

Brand and his ilk might respond that moving away from the grande ville capitaliste model is not *practical* or feasible. But if we're going to impoverish our imaginations before we ever get to questions of practicality, we're only ever going to make small tweaks to the status quo.

2. Biotech -- Brand writes:

"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."
Inexplicably, Brand ignores all but the most superficial objections to genetically modified food, limiting his scope to the much-stereotyped middle class environmentalist concerns about monarch butterflies, while ignoring a massive international movement of farmers who oppose GM crops for very concrete, material reasons. It's not a sentiment; it's the fact that corporate takeover of the food system and GM crops are so closely intertwined that livelihoods, cultures and ways of life are being threatened. Whether it's indigenous farmers in Mexico or organic farmers in Canada, corporate control of food is a war over ways of life and the future of agriculture, not a debate between people with differing opinions.

Does this mean that Brand is wrong when he says that "the best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it"? Sort of. For farmers and social movements (rather than "environmentalists"), the fight has never really been about genetic engineering, but about their livelihood, intellectual property as theft, sustainability, self-determination and their ability to grow crops without contamination. So they're way ahead of the curve, there.

Though Brand doesn't quite say it, it is true that regardless of whether genetic engineering is used for good, the white northern environmentalists have misused their considerable media clout to frame the debate as being about "frankenfoods" rather than corporate control over the food system, the damage of pesticide-driven monocultures, and the erasing of cultures and livelihoods. Now we're in the situation where the pro-GM side "wins" the debate if there isn't enough evidence to say that "frankenfood" is inherently bad. Big mistake.

My question to Brand is this: what does "embracing it" look like on the ground. How do you productively embrace Monsanto's development of terminator seeds, for example? There might be some interesting answers, but as to whether they're more effective than burning fields of GM crops, putting pressure on governments, and staging massive demonstrations--the burden of proof is on Brand.

3. Nuclear Power -- This is the one I'm least sure about. I'd like to see numbers on how much of our oil use is a) unnecessary and b) how much could be replaced by sustainable systems. It strikes me that arguing for nuclear power at this point distracts from the need for creating cheap, decentralized, sustainable sources of power. (Nuclear power *isn't* at least two of those things, at least for now.) It seems to me that nuclear power will be used if it is needed, but high-profile environmentalists talking about it now distracts from the much more pressing issue of cutting down our consumption overall. In the current setup, nuclear power would also be under corporate, as opposed to community or neighbourhood control, which is exactly what we don't need in an energy crisis.

posted by dru in politicsoftech