Shades of Green

Editor’s Note: An icon of the environmental and counterculture movements of the 1960s, Stewart Brand created and edited The Whole Earth Catalog (1968–1985). Since then, he has cofounded the Global Business Network, The Long Now Foundation, and the All Species Foundation. Here, we offer you a small taste of his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline.

Environmentalists own the color green. That’s extraordinary, an astonishing accomplishment. No movement has owned a color globally since the Communists took over red. Red means nothing now. How long will Green mean something?

My theory is that the success of the environmental movement is driven by two powerful forces—romanticism and science—that are often in opposition, with a third force emerging. The romantics identify with natural systems; the scientists study natural systems. The romantics are moralistic, rebellious against the perceived dominant power, and dismissive of any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change direction. The scientists are ethical rather than moralistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm, and combative against one another. For them, identifying mistakes is what science is, and direction change is the goal.

It’s fortunate that there are so many romantics in the movement, because they are the ones who inspire the majority in most developed societies to see themselves as environmentalists. But that also means that scientists and their perceptions are always in the minority; they are easily ignored, suppressed, or demonized when their views don’t fit the consensus story line.

A new set of environmental players is shifting the balance. Engineers are arriving who see any environmental problem as neither a romantic tragedy nor a scientific puzzle but simply something to fix. They look to the scientists for data to fix the problem with, and the scientists appreciate the engineers because new technology is what makes science go forward. The romantics distrust engineers—sometimes correctly—for their hubris and are uncomfortable with the prospect of fixing things because the essence of tragedy is that it can’t be fixed.

Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems.

When concern about climate change went mainstream all over the world in 2007, Greens everywhere felt vindicated. “Today’s torrent of environmental progress,” declared the head of Sierra Club that summer, “rivals that in the heady years around the first Earth Day in 1970.” The world was finally coming around to the Green point of view, and all environmentalists had to do was to seize the opportunity and bear down on their agenda to win final victory.

Wrong. The long-evolved Green agenda is suddenly outdated—too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem. Far from taking a new dominant role, environmentalists risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new tasks. Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system—climate dynamics.

It may seem hardest to change course when you think you’re triumphant, but it’s actually an opportune time. Resources abound; new people with new ideas show up.

Worldwide, the political stereotype these days is that Green equals left, left equals Green, and right equals anti-Green.

That may be helpful for liberals, grounding them in the science and practice of natural systems, but it blinds conservatives and badly hampers Green perspective. Becoming politically narrow limits Greens’ thinking and marginalizes their effectiveness, because whatever they say is automatically dismissed by anyone who has doubts about liberals. Countless conservatives refused to take climate change seriously because they couldn’t abide the idea of Al Gore being right. A romantic stance, or a political agenda, is fine for giving people a sense of identity and motivating their efforts; but it’s poor at solving problems. ❧

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand.  Copyright ©2009 Stewart Brand.


1 Comment

  • Shannon Cave March 3, 2010 at 3:53 pm


    I am a conservative and a conservationist. Since Earth Day number one, I have rued the choice of the environmental movement to make its home in the liberal wing of the Democrat Party; and the lazy choice by most conservatives to make “environmentalism” into a political whipping boy. Bad deal, both lost on it.

    “Conservative” and “conservationist” are more than etymologically akin. Environmental protection and economic security generally correlate positively. It’s ironic that our most effective environmental laws (clean air, clean water, endangered species acts) came over Richard Nixon’s signature. Wasting natural resources, big government and wasteful spending are birds of a feather.

    Climate change is historically a big issue for civilizations, accounting for rise and fall of many. We need no hockey stick or corrupt use of temperature data to see its importance. The biggest fools in the climate discussion are those ready to leapfrog common sense and science to identify a “solution.” You can be confident that climate is changing or that humans affect it without beginning to understand how to change it for the better.

    No one has or will benefit from tying climate issues to liberal Democrat philosophy and shibboleths. Conservative Republicans will never have a lasting majority until they replace environmental sarcasm with a positive conservation program. There is no fiscal discipline without a program maintaining the resources and processes of nature that shaped our government and built America’s wealth.

    Climate machinery is incredibly complex. CO2 may measure what’s happening, but it is far from being a control switch sure to change in a favorable directions. A lot of untested ideas are being proposed, and people want research money to explore them. The untested is not the place to fling money or commit the nation.

    Humans add CO2 in two basic ways. One is to bring up deep stored carbon (coal, oil, gas) and release it to the atmosphere. The other is to convert natural systems (wetland, prairie, forest) that store carbon into something less. The answer to the former is a combination of restraint and technology, but a realm where the world can focus for a lot of reasons. The answer to the second sounds a lot like traditional conservation — care for the land, restore and heal natural habitats, set land aside so that ecological processes can function.


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