A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog


Steward Brand I: Environmentalism and Civil Society

posted by Gus diZerega


Stewart Brand is one of the most fascinating thinkers and doers to arise form the 60s. From his early involvement with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, here and here, to his editing the Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly (later Whole Earth Review ), founder of the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation, here and here, among a host of other things Stewart Brand is on my personal short list of most admired peope. In my mind he epitomizes the very best of what was possible to accomplish among the 60s generation.

Brand’s Pop!Tech topic was environmentalism and the future. Seth Zuckerman has a report on part of Brand’s talk, but our ears were slightly differently attuned. What captured his attention and what captured mine are somewhat different. At Pop!Tech two dimensions of Brand’s talk in particular struck me as worth discussing. I will be laudatory regarding one, more critical on the other. But even my criticisms are in the context of encountering the thoughts of one of the men I admire most.

This first post will be my laudatory one.

Brand’s described the extraordinary rise of environmental organizations rooted in civil society rather than government or the market, over 1,000,000 at this time. The phenomenon is world wide. I jotted three down as I saw hundreds flash across the creen during brand’s presentation. Monarch Watch, organized in Lawrence, Kansas, my favorite midwestern town. The Friends of the Gualala River in one of my most beloved parts of California, and One Sky out of that North American gem, British Columbia. These three groups are very diverse. but what they and over a million others like them have in common, is their being the result of independent actions by free men and women concerned about issues broader than their own pocket books and seeking to dwell successfully and with integrity in this earth. They have the potential of changing human civilization on this planet. Singly, each is tiny, hardly worthy of notice by the corporate oligarchs and their political allies. But they are not single and,march only to their own drummers, comprise a force changing culture and action at many levels and from many directions. That is their magic and their hope.

By comparison, the ideologies and organized interests of business and government today more resemble the once popular image of dinosaurs: powerful, slow, and obsolete.

These civil organizations are largely the outgrowth of modern technology and urbanization. This observation brings me to one of Brand’s major themes. Whereas many environmentalists look backwards towards a way of life that at least seemed to be in greater harmony with nature, the way out of our crisis is not in that direction. The world is urbanizing, and Brand thinks that is probably good and, good or not, it is inevitable. Next year, in 2007, the world’s population will be half urban. For comparison’s sake, the US population only crossed that line around the turn of the last century. So the speed of the transformation is breathtaking.

Greens need to think about how to handle an urbanized planet, where most people’s personal experience of the country is going there for recreation and relaxation. As a personal aside, some Greens have long thought about these topics. Richard Register’s work is particularly path-breaking and I have discussed these issues a bit myself nearly ten years ago. But it is true that this has been a minor theme in ecological discussions, and Brand wants to make it a major one. He is right to do so.

Brand is also one of a rather small group of thinkers to distinguish clearly between market based, government based, and civil society based organizations. Civil society is one of the most important and most invisible parts of the modern world. It is simply that network of voluntary associations into which we enter that are neither dominated by the search for money nor by the exercise of political power. Accordingly until recently civil society as a netowrk of cooperative action fell through the cracks of academic disciplines and most theoretical discourse. it was too complex, too seemingly disparate. Those able to see it clearly have to have first freed themselves from the destructive myopia that sees government as the custodian of public values and the market as the matrix of voluntary cooperation. Few were able. Thus, it is under emphasized by most liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Marxists, and others.

The enormous growth of environmental organizations is a spectacular flowering of civil society. Unlike either government or the market, both of which are basically tone deaf regarding ecological issues, people acting within civil society can incorporate the ethical depth and subtlety needed to harmonize the human world with that of nature. At a time when the mainstream ideologies, left, right, and center, have proven their almost complete inability to understand environmental issues, this upwelling of creative grass roots energy is a source of hope. And it is happening world wide. Brand announced that Paul Hawken (along with Amory and Hunter Lovins) was author of the excellent Natural Capital, is doing his next book on this subject. Given Hawken’s previous work, it should be excellent. Hawken’s work can be accessed here.

Cities and high technology are responsible for this amazing increase in the energy and creativity of civil organizations. Complex ecosystems are more creative than simple ones, as a comparison of the arctic and the Amazon can make clear. That I personally prefer the simplicities of the north to the abundance of the tropics is neither here nor there.

Cities are, as Jane Jacobs saw here and here perhaps better than anyone before her, social ecosystems of unimaginable complexity. If human creativity and ethics can somehow offset the abuses of human power and ignorance, it will be in cities that the core of this change is rooted. Here is where people can come together in unusual and unexpected groupings, cross fertilizing one another’s ideas, stimulating our minds, and producing the unexpected breakthroughs that we so badly need to make our future a decent one.

Even those of us who, like myself, love smaller communities, are attracted to those towns within the cultural influence of major creative urban centers such as San Francisco and Boston. Move the towns too far away and their mental energy slows to a crawl, their openness to the new and innovative dries up, and they begin to think Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are accurate sources of news. Creative small towns are utterly dependent on the cultural atmosphere of large cities not too far away.

This is part of why environmentalism has been overwhelmingly an urban phenomena, and even why modern nature religions have been rooted in urban areas, as I explain here. Brand argues that it is to citiews and the networks and technological creativity generated by urban life that we must look to reform our civilization, before we do irrevocable damage, in human terms at least, to the environment that sustains us.

I think he is half right.

The other half is based on my own studies of societies and sustainability. Even early societies possessed the power to radically degrade their environment, and some did. Those that did not appear to have managed to subordinate their technologies to an ethical framework that limited their use. For example, the Indians of the north Pacific possessed the means to extirpate salmon from most streams and rivers. They also possessed the motives, for dried salmon were valued trade goods. But when Lewis and Clark arrived the fish were abundant. Everywhere.

The reason was that these technologies were subordinated to ritual and ethical principles that limited their use. This approach appears to have worked for several thousand years.

Modern technology is too powerful, and the interests of corporations and governments too short sighted and out of step with nature, for technology alone to solve the problem. Indeed, to some degree the problem is that our technology far out steps our wisdom. Ethics, which places limits on power that override calculations of self interest, are equally a part of the solution, perhaps even more so. And with this, I move on to my more critical coverage of Brand’s talk.



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