For Earth Day, 7 New Rules to Live By
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On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, is the middle-aged green movement ready to be revived by some iconoclastic young Turqs?
No, that's not a misspelling. The word is derived from Turquoise, which is Stewart Brand's term for a new breed of environmentalist combining traditional green with a shade of blue, as in blue-sky open-minded thinking. A Turq, he hopes, will be an environmentalist guided by science, not nostalgia or technophobia.
Ordinarily I'd be skeptical of either the word or the concept catching on, but I believe in never ignoring any trend spotted by Mr. Brand, especially on this topic. He was the one, after all, who helped inspire Earth Day by putting the first picture of the planet on the cover of his "Whole Earth Catalog" in 1968.
Now he has another book, "Whole Earth Discipline," in which he urges greens to "question convenient fables." In that spirit, let me offer a few suggestions gleaned from the four decades since Earth Day. Here are seven lessons for Turqs of all ages:
1. It's the climate, stupid. The orators at the first Earth Day didn't deliver speeches on global warming. That was partly because there weren't yet good climate models predicting warming in the 21st century and partly because the orators weren't sure civilization would survive that long anyway.
They figured that the "overpopulated" world was about to be decimated by famine, the exhaustion of fossil fuels, global shortages of vital minerals, pollution, pesticides, cancer epidemics, nuclear-reactor meltdowns, and assorted technological disasters. Who had time to worry about a distant danger from a natural substance like carbon dioxide?
Well, the expected apocalypses never occurred, and it's the unexpected problem of greenhouse gases that concerns scientists today. Greens say they've shifted their priorities, too, but by how much?
2. You can never not do just one thing. Environmentalists of the 1970s liked to justify their resistance to new technologies by warning that you could never do just one thing. It was a nice mantra and also quite accurate. New technologies do indeed come with unexpected side effects.
But resisting new technology produces its own unpleasant surprises. The "No Nukes" movement effectively led to more reliance on electricity generated by coal plants spewing carbon. The opposition to "industrial agriculture" led to the lower-yield farms that require more acreage, leaving less woodland to protect wildlife and absorb carbon.
3. "Let them eat organic" is not a global option. For affluent humans in industrialized countries, organic food is pretty much a harmless luxury. Although there's no convincing evidence that the food is any healthier or more nutritious than other food, if that label makes you feel healthier and more virtuous, then you can justify the extra cost.
But most people in the world are not affluent, and their food budgets are limited. If they're convinced by green marketers that they need to choose higher-priced organic produce, they and their children are liable to end up eating fewer fruits and vegetables -- and sometimes nothing at all, as occurred when Zambia rejected emergency food for starving citizens because the grain had been genetically engineered.
In "Denialism," a book about the spread of unscientific beliefs, Michael Specter criticizes the "organic fetish" as a "pernicious kind of denialism" being exported to poor countries.
"Total reliance on organic farming would force African countries to devote twice as much land per crop as we do in the United States," he writes. "An organic universe sounds delightful, but it could consign millions of people in Africa and throughout much of Asia to malnutrition and death."
4. Frankenfood, like Frankenstein, is fiction. The imagined horrors of "frankenfoods" have kept genetically engineered foods out of Europe and poor countries whose farmers want to export food to Europe. Americans, meanwhile, have been fearlessly growing and eating them for more than a decade -- and the scare stories seem more unreal than ever.
Last week, the National Academy of Sciences reported that genetically engineered foods had helped consumers, farmers and the environment by lowering costs, reducing the use of pesticide and herbicide, and encouraging tillage techniques that reduce soil erosion and water pollution.
"I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about," Mr. Brand writes in "Whole Earth Discipline." "We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool."
5. "Green" energy hasn't done much for greenery -- or anything else. Since the first Earth Day, wind and solar energy have been fashionable by a variety of names: alternative, appropriate, renewable, sustainable. But today, despite decades of subsidies and mandates, it provides less than 1 percent of the electrical power in the world, and people still shun it once they discover how much it costs and how much land it requires.
6. "New Nukes" is the new "No Nukes." In the 1980s, Gwyneth Cravens joined the greens who successfully prevented the Shoreham nuclear reactor from opening on Long Island. Then, after learning about global warming, she discovered that the reactor would have prevented the annual emission of three million tons of carbon dioxide. She wrote a book on the nuclear industry titled, "Power to Save the World."
Mr. Brand has also renounced his opposition to nuclear power and now promotes it as green energy because of its low-carbon emissions and its small footprint on the landscape. He wants to see the development of small modular reactors, and he quotes a warning from the climate scientist James Hansen, "One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of antinuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions."
Some groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, are still resisting nuclear power, just as groups like Greenpeace are fighting genetically engineered crops. But if Mr. Brand is right, maybe some greens will rediscover the enthusiasm for technology expressed in his famous line at the start of "The Whole Earth Catalog:" "We are as gods and might as well get good at it."
Technological progress, not nostalgia or asceticism, is the only reliable way for greens' visions of "sustainability" to be sustained. Wilderness and wildlife can be preserved only if the world's farmers have the best tools to feed everyone on the least amount of land. Solar power will be widely adopted only if there are breakthroughs that make it more efficient.
Greenhouse gases will keep accumulating unless engineers build economical sources of low-carbon energy or develop techniques for sequestering carbon. And if those advances aren't enough to stop global warming, we'll want new tools for directly engineering the climate. Given the seriousness of the danger, Mr. Brand supports climate-engineering research, and he has updated his famous line from four decades ago. The update makes a good concluding lesson for Turqs:
7. We are as gods and have to get good at it.
First Published April 21, 2010 2:00 am