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Straight Talk for the Planetary Era: A Trio of Book Reviews

by Edward Wolf


Bikes, boats, and bodies align to spell “350” at events in 181 countries, sounding a worldwide call for climate stability. Congress takes halting steps toward passing a law to limit U.S. carbon emissions and advance clean energy. Diplomats from 193 countries prepare to hammer out a global climate treaty in Copenhagen. But few expect this year’s activism, politics, or diplomacy to change the game. The 21st century to-do list keeps growing. What will it take to accelerate change?

Three recent books say that it’s all about thinking. In The End of the Long Summer, Dianne Dumanoski tells how our thinking got us in planet-scale hot water; in Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand advocates heresy to get us out; in Thinking in Systems, the late Donella Meadows teaches a different way of thinking altogether.

While the subject matter of this trio of titles may sound familiar to Worldchanging readers, all three books deserve a careful read. Each of these authors is an elder with wisdom to impart. It’s up to the generation building a bright green future to match that wisdom to new challenges.


THE END OF THE LONG SUMMER: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth
by Dianne Dumanoski; Crown Publishers

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Award-winning science journalist Dianne Dumanoski considered her 1985 story on the science of the Antarctic ozone hole, published on the front page of the Boston Globe, “the most important story I had ever written.” Humanity had narrowly escaped full-scale disruption of a stratospheric chemical shield essential to our survival. Faulty assumptions and outright mistakes brought us – and all higher life – to the brink of calamity. How, Dumanoski wondered, could a banal, supposedly inert synthetic compound have triggered global jeopardy? How could its chemistry have been so thoroughly misunderstood, mis-measured, and misjudged?

Later, puzzling over the story’s meaning, she came to see it signaling “a new and ominous epoch when human activity began to disrupt the essential but invisible planetary systems that sustain a dynamic, living Earth.” Dumanoski was among the first journalists to break the news to general readers: Disrupting the planet’s metabolism was no longer a theoretical possibility. It was a fact. The ozone story called for new institutions, new economic arrangements, and a new understanding of the Earth.

In The End of the Long Summer, Dumanoski applies the lessons of the ozone story to the challenge she calls “a planetary emergency . . . that involves far more than the pressing problem of climate change.” She examines evolutionary and modern history for clues about our capacity – as a species and as a civilization – to act. Dumanoski’s criterion for success in the coming century is not prosperity, but survival. If she is right, success will boil down to our ability to “shockproof” societies to withstand changes unlike any confronted during the 10,000-year run of the civilization project.

Her storyline is not for the faint of heart. Human activities have destabilized several fundamental flows of the Earth system. The comparative climate stability experienced during the “long summer” of the last 10,700 years is the exception in Earth’s history. Big changes in climate are underway, no matter what actions societies take to control emissions. Abrupt climate changes are possible and growing more likely as carbon emissions rise. The thinking that built a globalized civilization capable of disrupting planetary systems also makes that civilization more vulnerable to the consequences of instability.

Against this sobering backdrop, Dumanoski embarks on a “search for honest hope.” She finds grounds for hope in three places: the fruits of science, the legacy of our species’ evolutionary past, and the creative gift of culture.

Dumanoski is well versed in the Earth system sciences. Reporting the ozone hole and other big picture stories, she’s acquainted with many prominent chemists, biologists, and climate scientists responsible for the emerging understanding of the Earth. She is especially sympathetic to the views of James Lovelock, originator of the theory that life in the aggregate is a creative partner in the planetary cycles that maintain conditions conducive to life. She reminds us that Lovelock invented the electron capture device first used to detect trace quantities of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere, a discovery that helped solve the mystery of the ozone hole. In Lovelock’s Gaia theory, Dumanoski sees contours on a new conceptual map for the planetary era.

She examines the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens during the chaotic Pleistocene climate swings that preceded recent millennia of stability. She notes three distinctive adaptations – large brains, skillful environmental manipulation, and cooking – that helped the species survive turbulent times. In the shifting climates and habitats of the Pleistocene, humankind became a “stormworthy species” with a smart generalist’s flexibility rather than the fine-tuned fitness of a specialist.

Finally, she considers the creative gift of culture, the means humankind forged to escape the constraints of purely biological evolution and to accelerate adjustment to changing circumstances. Brains and cultures evolved in tandem, bootstrapping change and setting the stage for civilization.

But culture is a paradox, both adaptive and maladaptive. Cultures have inertial tendencies that create dangerous inflexibility. Certain of those tendencies, designed to protect the integrity of distinct groups but exaggerated in the arrangements of a globalized economy, lock humanity into conflict with the planet. It’s a battle humanity cannot win. “Through most of our history, the human species has sailed into the storm in many boats,” Dumanoski writes. “Today, through globalization, we are all becoming passengers on one Titanic.”

Against this backdrop, Dumanoski surveys our options. A lengthy chapter devoted to geoengineering finds little merit in leading proposals to shade the Earth, boost biological absorption of carbon dioxide, or capture and sequester carbon where fuel is burned. She finds such proposals dangerous but alluring distractions from the work that must be done, products of the linear logic that put humankind afoul of nonlinear systems.

Instead, Dumanoski urges a strategy of survivability: deliberate steps to reduce our disruption of planetary systems coupled with efforts to reconfigure patterns in human systems that make our civilization dangerously vulnerable to shocks. In a nutshell, she counsels steps to reverse the “hypercoherence” of globalization, to pursue resilience, and to apply design features from natural systems to human arrangements. Through such adjustments she sees the best chance for shepherding the achievements of civilization through a disruptive century she expects to shake human arrangements to their foundations.

In the end, Dumanoski’s “honest hope” feels anemic. She doesn’t tell readers how to draw on the adaptive capacity she considers our species’ birthright, the hard-wired abilities that once made us “stormworthy.” Perhaps no one can tell us that. But the challenges of guiding a globalized civilization of 7 billion souls through global climate disruption are in any case hardly comparable to the challenges that faced migratory hominin bands enduring the whip-saw climates of the Pleistocene.

Yet like Rachel Carson before her, Dumanoski presents a compelling case. Her honesty is stark: “Bitter truths serve better than sweet lies.” As for hope, she quotes systems scientist C.S. “Buzz” Holling, who urges readers “to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living.”


WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
Stewart Brand; Viking

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Cue Stewart Brand, self-described “ecologist by training, futurist by profession, and hacker (lazy engineer) at heart.” Brand founded and published The Whole Earth Catalog, edited CoEvolution Quarterly (later Whole Earth Review), and has founded organizations including The Long Now Foundation and the Global Business Network, where he works part-time. Brand is a playful, inquisitive gadfly who wears a heretic’s robes with relish, challenging readers to reexamine assumptions and to change their minds.

Framed as a challenge to environmentalists, his new book Whole Earth Discipline presents four heresies: Cities are Green! Nukes are Green! Gene modification is Green! Geoengineering is Probably Necessary!

At first glance, Brand would seem to personify Dumanoski’s nightmare. His motto, “We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it!” positively drips with the hubris that Dumanoski detects at the heart of the planet’s emergency. But there is much the two authors agree on, beginning with their assessment of the climate crisis; in a TED Talk outlining the four heresies, Brand calls climate change “worse than we think, and coming faster than we think.” The two share heroes. Brand, like Dumanoski, is close to Gaia originator James Lovelock, and he is on friendly terms with prominent scientists including climatologist Paul Crutzen, biologists E.O. Wilson and Peter Raven, restoration ecologist Dan Janzen, genome decoder Craig Venter. When it comes to assessment of the planetary challenge and the people who understand it best, Dumanoski and Brand are on the same page.

Where Brand differs, and what makes Whole Earth Discipline a provocative companion to The End of the Long Summer, is his orientation. Brand admits to the “engineer’s bias”: the world is a set of design problems. Framed this way, the world’s problems a priori have solutions; the solutions must simply be found and applied. If his tone seems unusually chipper given the weight of those problems, it’s because Brand is at heart a gadget guy, eager to choose the right tool and get on with the job.

Brand claims that he is not out to convince anyone. He states flatly: “My opinion is not important, it’s just a tool.” He is out to force readers to examine their assumptions, a desirable talent in a world shifting at its foundations. Thus in his chapter titled “New Nukes,” Brand spars cheerfully with his friend Amory Lovins over the economic viability of nuclear power. Brand is unlikely to win this particular debate with Lovins, who has been engaged with nuclear issues about as long as the country’s oldest nuclear reactor (Oyster Creek in New Jersey) has been generating power, but if he has even dented the armor of reflexive opponents of nuclear expansion, then he has achieved his purpose.

Solar and renewable power appeal to Brand, and he contends “energy efficiency and conservation come first, last, and always.” He just doesn’t believe that clean, non-nuclear power sources can scale fast enough to meet the baseload demand of growing megacities or shut down coal fast enough to avoid climate disaster. He bases his views in part on the work of Saul Griffith, who has calculated the physical scale of renewable and nuclear power expansion needed to supply 17.5 terawatts of global power demand within 25 years. It’s an area the size of the United States – “Call it Renewistan,” Griffith says – and Brand thinks we’re unlikely to do that, but might go nuclear if we consider it Green.

“Science is the only news,” Brand proclaims with relish, brandishing headlines from Nature, Science, and specialized journals. His footnotes and annotations (available here online) are a treasure trove, and most readers will discover “hidden in plain sight” surprises from new research in his chapters on cities, genetic science, and the large-scale ecosystem restoration strategies he likes the term “megagardening” to describe. Sometimes, however, Brand’s enthusiasm for data blinds him to context. Brand sees “a ray of hope” in news that the abundant phytoplankton Emiliana huxleyi increases its rate of calcification at higher carbon dioxide concentrations – a finding that would portend increasing carbon capture by the oceans as climate change advanced. But he fails to mention reasons this laboratory result may not pertain under natural conditions in the ocean (where acidification puts other, larger shellfish at risk). His wish for an elegant negative feedback mechanism reaches farther than available data can support.

Brand attempts to push “ecopragmatism” on a green movement he considers overly prone to sentiment and ideology. The critique rings true to me, and there is much to learn from Brand’s eclectic appetite for solutions. Doom fills the book, but not gloom; his favorite adjective is “thrilling.” Seeing vitality where others see only chaos and decay, Brand is a sort of countercultural Tom Friedman. One senses that his first response to disastrous news like a “methane burp” from the melting permafrost of Siberia would be “Wow! Cool! What are we gonna do now?”

Echoing Pogo’s famous line, Brand points out that “the key positive feedback in the current earth system is us.” To understand feedbacks and their influence on the structures, stocks, and flows of systems of all kinds is a central aim of Donella Meadows’s posthumous Thinking in Systems. Trained as a biophysicist, Meadows was lead author of The Limits to Growth (1973) and achieved distinction as a professor, author, syndicated columnist, and organic farmer. Though she died unexpectedly after a short illness in 2001, her work remains timely and exceptionally relevant to challenges of the scale and urgency laid out by Dumanoski and Brand.


THINKING IN SYSTEMS: A Primer
Donella Meadows (edited by Diana Wright); Chelsea Green

ThinkinginSystems.jpg

Meadows’s long-time associate Diana Wright has edited an unfinished 1993 manuscript into humane, pertinent, and delightful book. Thinking in Systems reflects Meadows’s lifelong effort to understand systems at all scales – their resilience, their pathologies, their response to perturbations, their capacity to defy prediction. A reader seeking to understand the anomalies of our time and to prepare mentally for the likelihood of disruptive change needs this book.

“A system,” Meadows writes, “is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.” Systems thinking can reveal interconnections, explain behavior, and anticipate outcomes. Changing outcomes – slowing climate disruption, spreading new crop varieties, containing an epidemic – requires action to change a system’s elements, the interconnections among them, or (more likely) both.

Much of the book is devoted to introducing and illustrating systems concepts. Early chapters combine taut explanation with well-chosen examples to make a palatable primer. The book’s final section, “Creating Change – in Systems and in our Philosophy,” sheds welcome light on topics covered in The End of the Long Summer and Whole Earth Discipline. Chapter 6, “Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System” (first published in essay form in Brand’s Whole Earth Review) outlines twelve points of influence over the behavior of complex systems. Chapter 7, “Living in a World of Systems,” takes a step toward an ethics for a new human story, offering a humble acknowledgment that the systems view entails new responsibilities exercised in unfamiliar ways.

Dianne Dumanoski is afraid a stable earth can’t live with us; Stewart Brand is pretty sure it can’t live without us. Do systems thinkers have the chops to guide us through the treacherous straits that separate those views? Can a systems-savvy ecopragmatism yield honest hope? Dana Meadows counsels that “systems thinking by itself cannot bridge that gap (between understanding and action), but it can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond – to what can and must be done by the human spirit.” Just past that edge is where the activism, politics, diplomacy – and innovation – of this century really begins.

Edward Wolf was a contributing author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the Twenty-First Century. A board member of Focus the Nation, he lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Comments

An insightful presentation of these three books. Thanks also for your own thoughtful and illuminating comments that helped me further understand the bigger picture and how these books fit into it.


Posted by: karen mckay on 2 Nov 09

As an engineer I admit to the same kind of bias Stewart Brand has. I also work in the nuclear industry. Mr. Brand was kind enough to endorse my book "Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power" which provides an insider's look at this rather unknown world, both good and bad. Most experts in the media on this topic have never generated a kilowatt. If you want to understand cab driving, shouldn't you listen to a cabbie? My book is a chance to get this inside perspective - it's unique. It is also available free online at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . I have no corporate sponsorship, no advertisers, and I earn no royalties.

I think there are many possibilities for our future, both with and without nuclear power, but I also believe we'll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand


Posted by: James Aach on 5 Nov 09

"...shouldn't you listen to a cabbie?"

But cabs exist for what purpose? To carry passengers. And we are all passengers in the nuclear power "cab", whether we want to be or not. So we have a say in this. Besides, expecting objectivity from the nuclear-power industry doesn't seem much different from expecting objectivity from the tobacco industry...


Posted by: Dave Spicer on 9 Nov 09

As if the homework set out in those three books wasn't enough, after we master being good earthlings, we must do it all again ad infinitum.

Industrialists who whine at the prospect of first grade homework are going to flunk The Test.


Posted by: Dredd on 23 Nov 09

Today is my lucky day :)
My mom had promised me to gift a nintendo wii this christmas. But I got it for free, yeee. While looking for some place where I could get it cheap or with some discount, I found this website http://bit.ly/5PYFPX which offered a chance to win nintendo wii, as a special christmas promotion. All I needed to do was to enter my mobile number to enter into the contest. And yup, I won it. Lucky me. Now I am thinking what to ask my mom as a gift. :P
What do you guy's suggest?


Posted by: Rachel on 18 Dec 09

Today is my lucky day :)
My mom had promised me to gift a nintendo wii this christmas. But I got it for free, yeee. While looking for some place where I could get it cheap or with some discount, I found this website http://bit.ly/5PYFPX which offered a chance to win nintendo wii, as a special christmas promotion. All I needed to do was to enter my mobile number to enter into the contest. And yup, I won it. Lucky me. Now I am thinking what to ask my mom as a gift. :P
What do you guy's suggest?


Posted by: Cynthia on 18 Dec 09

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