The legendary Marin tree-hugger has changed his mind on some core
green issuesand even has nice things to say about Monsanto...
by Ronnie Cohen
June 25, 2010
Stewart Brandone of the architects of the environmental
movementstunned his followers by enthusiastically endorsing nuclear
power. At the same time the ultimate tree-hugger embraced an industry
linked to the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters, he turned
his back on the organic-food movement and many of his Marin County
neighbors by supporting what they call Frankenfood.
The 71-year-old maverick's recent actions might make him seem like a
contrarian. But in an interview in his Sausalito library, parked next
to an old fishing boat he uses as an office, he appears to be
anything but. Though tiredhe has just returned from a trip to Great
Britain, where he and his friend, novelist Ian McEwan, shared a stage
at the Dublin Writers Festivalhe appears gracious, good-humored and
thrilled to reconsider any of his points of view. He spends nearly
two-and-a-half hours talking about his most recent book, Whole Earth
Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, and the glee he feels when he
learns he has made a mistake. The man credited with being a major
force in starting Earth Day acts as if he feels compelled to atone
for the sins of his fellow knee-jerk environmentalists by keeping his
feet firmly planted in science.
After getting out of the U.S. Army, Brand, a Stanford University
graduate who hung out with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters during the
Acid Test days and worked for Jerry Brown when he was governor, moved
to Sausalito's squatter houseboat community in 1963. He won the
National Book Award for his legendary Whole Earth Catalog in 1972.
Apple's Steve Jobs called the catalog "one of the bibles of my
generation" and "Google in paperback form."
Today, Brand and his wife, Ryan Phelan, live on a working 1912
tugboat berthed near his Sausalito office and spend weekends in their
Petaluma home. Brand divides his work time between The Long Now
Foundation, dedicated to promoting long-term thinking, and the Global
Dressed in faded denim jeans and a matching shirt with a pen sticking
out of a sleeve pocket and reading glasses hanging around his neck,
Brand sits among stacks of books at a table with a pile of unopened
mail. He says he is working on an afterword for the paperback edition
of Whole Earth Discipline. The afterword will list the mistakes he
made in the hardcover bookhe should have supported clean coal and
fusion, and he should have seen that space solar would never fly.
Every quarter hour, his grandfather clock chimes.
What turned you around on the nuclear issue?
Spending more time with research on climate, nuclear and the hazards
of coal, not just the greenhouse gases but everything else that goes
wrong, and realizing that the nuclear-waste issue, which is the main
environmentalist issue and had been mine, is basically a non-issue.
It's a small and has been a very well-managed problem.
Unlike our oil problem?
All of these things have downsides. Clearly we're seeing...the Gulf
oil's downside. Natural gas keeps blowing people up. There's
downsides to wind, there's downsides to solar. You bulldoze 25 miles
of desert to get electricity, and it's still not very reliable. New
generations of so-called small modular nuclear reactors are looking
very good. There's even better prospects for fusion than I thought.
Basically, coal is still the cheapest source of electricity. So since
the book, I've been persuaded that clean coal is something probably
worth pursing. China and India are going to keep burning coal, even
if we don't. If someone can come up with a way to capture the CO2 and
turn it into something useful...
Is that a possibility?
There's engineered microbes that may be able to basically fix the
carbon there at the site and turn it into something useful. Then
there's trying to scrub it and bury it, which I don't like very much,
but it's better than having it go into the atmosphere.
And what do you suggest doing with nuclear waste?
The law in California is that we are not allowed to site any more
reactors until there's a nationally approved spent fuel-storage site.
That was going to be Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain's now off the
table. We've been storing nuclear waste in New Mexico in the WIPP,
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, for 10 years now, and that could be used
for nuclear-energy spent fuel. Obama shut down Yucca Mountain and
appointed a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a long-term policy
for nuclear-waste disposal in the U.S. They may wind up saying
there's plenty of room in the WIPP. The salt formation it's in has
been in place for 250 million years. Other things are coming along.
One is to do a deep borehole. Oil and gas guys routinely dig holes
three miles deep. You could do it at Diablo Canyon. Go down to the
basement rock. Dump the stuff down three miles, pour in some
concrete. It isn't going anywhere. Two miles down is really stable.
So why are people so resistant to nuclear?
Only one country has ever used nuclear weapons, and that was us. Our
aversion to nuclear anything has some of that guilt, shame,
abhorrence attached to it. What's interesting is that Japan, who was
the victim, is a ferociously nuclear nation. The other thing that
happened is that the environmental movement in the last 50 years has
become more and more identified with the left. The left was always
thoroughly against nuclear weapons. Those things got sort of
conflated. All these things added up to what became then just a
fairly universal common stance. Everybody borrowed the opinion from
each other. And I was one of those. If the Sierra Club says,
"Nuclear's bad," I guess it's bad. Once upon a time, the Sierra Club
was all for nuclear, when they thought it would replace dams, back in
the '60s and into the early '70s.
Do you worry about the use of nuclear for warfare?
There's two sides to it. One can worry that a nuclear renaissance,
which is going forward, will keep nuclear-weapons capability somehow
alive. There's so much effort now across the world to get rid of all
nuclear weapons. I think Obama's approach, the fuel-bank approach, is
right so that the United Arab Emirates, for example, when they get
their nuclear, will purchase fuel from an international consortium,
use it and turn it back over to that same consortium. The spent fuel
just goes back to whoever sold it to them, and they can bury it or
re-process it or use it for fuel in future reactors.
Do you think that mitigates the concern?
It does because then any new country that is taking on nuclear, if
they buy into the fuel-bank deal, there's close international
scrutiny of all the fissile material. None of the material is being
sidelined toward weapons grade. Some of the anti-nuclear weapon
people are welcoming the renaissance of nuclear power because it
basically funds the kind of surveillance that you want over all
fissile material. The other thing that nuclear energy does is that it
burns nuclear weapons as fuel. So 10 percent of our electricity comes
from decommissioned Russian warheads.
So it could go in the other direction?
So ideally, finessed well, the nuclear-power renaissance can be used
to basically shut down the nuclear-weapons business entirely toward
zero. And there are a lot of people all across the political spectrum
and the world who would like that to happen.
How does one make sure that happens?
Just bear in mind that the so-called megatons-to-megawatts program
that has been going on for 10 or 12 years now was never publicized.
It just quietly happened. One of the reasons I drew attention to it
in the book was to help encourage more such programs. I think that
particular program can start being noisy. Then that helps more people
keep the pressure on to forge these swords into plowshares.
You sound cautiously optimistic about that.
I am cautiously optimistic about it. As an environmentalist, nuclear
looks very good in terms of greenhouse gases, to put it mildly.
Clearly, we've got to go ahead with a fair amount of wind and a fair
amount of solar. But if we don't have to rely as much on those two, I
would be delighted because they have such a big footprint on the
landscape. I was just reading today that in Marin County, there's a
lot of resistance to wind farms.
There's resistance to everything here.
That's true. But it's a green on green fight. The environmentalists
are concerned about clean energy, saying we've got to do wind, and
the environmentalists are concerned aboutI want to keep my view.
Don't industrialize the landscape of Sonoma and Marin. [Or] saying,
"What about the power lines?" In the U.S. now, it's hard to put in
new power lines. What I would love to see is conversion of coal-fired
plants over time to nuclear-fired. Some of those new smaller reactors
are well-suited to do that. There you've got everything already in
place. You're just putting a different heat under the teakettle.
But energy demand continues to grow.
Five out of six of us who live in the developing world are moving to
cities and getting out of poverty on a scale that has never happened
before. As those people get out of poverty, it's good for the
landscape, which is greening up behind them, where they left. But in
town, they are going to get air conditioners. So the energy
demandboth for vehicle fuel and electricityis just going to keep
going up all over the world. Our energy policies of the past have put
most of the greenhouse gases up there. But most of the expected
greenhouse gases in the future are not coming so much from here as
from China, India, Latin American, Africa, South Asia.
The developing countries.
The developing countries. That's 5.7 billion people on the move. So
we can help improve the technology. We can set an example. We can
help lead in international agreements, such as fuel banking. But
until we get some really frightening and harmful climate events,
people just aren't going to do much.
How do we prove that they're climate events?
When the ice melts in the north, it's clearly climate. The ice
melting in the north doesn't affect very many people. In fact, the
sea routes are opening north of Canada and Russia. There's lots of
fossil fuel up there. If and when we get a serious typhoon coming up
the Bay of Bengal, hitting Bangladesh and drowning tens or hundreds
of thousands or forcing them to higher ground, then you will have the
kind of event that might change policy. But there will always be
people who say there have always been typhoons in the Bay of Bengal,
maybe this is just the 100-year storm. That's the problem with
climate. Any data that's shorter than 10 years or in some cases, 25
years, isn't climate. It's weather. My effort with the book on
climate is to try to move the debate from the political to the scientific.
I heard you're teaching people in the nuclear field how to be
I've talked twice at the Nuclear Energy Institute when they met here
in San Francisco a month ago. I basically begin my talks to nuclear
managers and engineers with the salutation: "Fellow
environmentalists." They're all sitting there in their red ties. Some
roll their eyes. The younger ones basically grin proudly. You've got
a younger generation of nuclear managers and engineers coming along
who see themselves as world savers, and that's terrific.
Some of them are coming to the party kicking and screaming?
No. They're just sort of more in the, "Oh please, just because I've
been right all along about clean energy," they would say, "you don't
get to tell me I'm anything different than I was." And they're right.
It's tricky for Republicans now because Republicans have been pushing
nuclear for a long time, and it's something they were right about.
Congratulations to them. So it's confusing for them to have a
Democratic administration so profoundly on board.
Do you think Obama's profoundly on board with nuclear?
Remember, he comes from Illinois. I also come from Illinois. Illinois
gets more than half its electricity from nuclear. As a state
politician and then as a senator, he had to become familiar with how
all that was working. He promoted nuclear during the campaign. He
appointed a nuclear-adept Nobel Prize-winner, Steven Chu, as his
What about Jerry Brown. Is he on board?
It's a conversation we've had many a time. He was involved in
anti-nuclear back when. He doesn't mind changing his mind. I think
the thing to watch there is who his appointees will be once he's
governor, which I expect he will be.
What do you think could have been done differently in the Gulf to
avoid the BP disaster?
I don't know enough. It's a bloody disaster, and I suppose the large
picture is it's encouraging us to get off of oil dependence. It's
interesting that methane was the culpritonce again. Methane keeps
blowing up and killing people. Environmentalists are sort of adopting
methane because it puts out half the greenhouse gases of coal. And
typically you can't have wind and solar, because they're inconstant,
without gas-fired plants. When the wind dies, you're using gas-fired
as the fill-in. With the new technique of extracting natural gas from
shale, that will keep the price of natural gas low enough for it to
be a bridge technology for a while for these gas-fired plants that
are better than coal plants. But still it's gas, and it's very
explosive and problematic.
Do you think there are lessons from the BP oil spill?
David Brooks had an amazing column in the New York Times basically
comparing state capitalism versus democratic capitalism. The oil and
gas companies of the world are basically run by nations. They are not
run for the convenience of shareholders. What we're seeing lately is
that the state-run apparatusproblematic and inefficient and in
Russia's case dangerous as it isnevertheless has some advantages of
heading off things like the Deepwater Horizon spill. Where did this
big spill come from? It wasn't China or Russia. It was us.
I believe we're responsible for the majority of the worst recent
major oil spills.
This may be one of those things where there are reasons to
nationalize oil and gas production. I'm not persuaded, but the
argument looks pretty good under the circumstances. And you could
even maybe say the same about nuclear. The French basically have a
national nuclear apparatus. That's why they were able to build 80
percent of their electricity from nuclear in 10 years and be selling
nuclear power to the rest of Europe. In the '70s and into the '80s,
we completely privatized nuclear power, and they became careless and
stupid. That was part of the problem. I'm alarmed to hear myself
saying all this. We may be onto something.
Can you talk about GE [genetically engineered] foods? Here in Marin...
Here in Marin, they're outlawed! It's going to be tough because
within the next couple of years, functional foods are coming along.
These are engineered foods not just for the developing world to get
vitamin A in their rice, but for us to get omega-3 fatty acids. There
will be vegetables that are as enriched as vitamin D-enriched milk.
There are dozens of foods being developed that will be slightly
engineered to be much more nutritious or to head off toxic effects
that are in the foods naturally.
For example, the University of Georgia developed a slightly
engineered, allergy-free peanut. I keep teasing my organic friends
that they are facing a situation where if they keep being opposed to
any engineered food crops, they will be left with a market that
consists entirely of people willing to pay extra for less healthy
food because that's what's comingengineered corn that's better for
you, engineered rutabagas that are better for you. Not just cheaper
for the farmer but better for the consumer. Some of it will be quite
medically profound. Omega-3 fatty acid doesn't do anything for taste,
but it really does a lot for your heart and brain.
So you could engineer food to put in omega-3?
Monsanto has developed an omega-3-fatty-acid-rich soybean. Instead of
using fish oil to keep your heart healthy, you'll be using the oil
from soybeans, something you would take as a pill or add to your
food. It means you don't have to eat a whole lot of salmon to keep
your brain and heart happy. People know we're way overfishing the
oceans. Some of the engineered advantages will have to do with
medical advantages, nutrition advantages, taste advantages,
storability advantages and, hopefully, ecological advantages.
What are the ecological advantages?
Higher yield, that's good; drought tolerant, that will be good; salt
tolerant, that might be good. You can improve yields, taste,
nutrition, add medical capabilities, probably lower price. What's not
to like? The reason there's just a few companies doing this in the
U.S. is because we made it impossible for small companies to exist
with the overdose of regulations we have. That's why the developing
world is moving ahead of the developed world now with transgenic crops.
You're not concerned about any of the issues that people raise about GE foods?
Well, we know it's not bad for you because we've been eating them for
10 years. It is possible to get so-called "superweeds." But that's
been the case always with herbicides. If you use just one kind of
herbicide, you will always get weeds that work around it. Anything
that reduces pesticides I regard as a good thing. Pesticides are just
so bloody awful to the environment. We've got fewer birds because
they've got fewer bugs to eat.
And you would argue that you can't scale organic?
Whole Foods has done a lot of serious scaling. I'm mainly concerned
about the pesticides. The herbicides are an issue but not as big an
issue. There's lots of parts of Africa where the very best thing you
can give the local farmers is synthetic fertilizer. One country that
has done that has flipped itself from being a food importer to a food
exporter. All of those things are really case-dependent. The two main
things I feel strongly about [are] less land use for agriculture,
more land being natural and/or restored.
You're saying the GMO [genetically modified] foods require less land
and fewer pesticides?
Oh yeah. They're famous for it. There's a study that just came out of
Stanford last week that documents it. The great thing is when you can
have no till. Because you use the herbicide just once, typically
glyphosateRoundupyou don't need to plow. By not plowing, the soil
just gets richer and richer from year to year. The microbes stay
there. They're not putting out a lot of greenhouse gases, which you
get when you turn the soil. Last year's byproducts of the crop just
lie in the field, acting as mulch and being habitat for lots of
little creatures. You come in the next year and put a seed in with a
dab of fertilizer. Your crop comes up, and your weeds come up at the
same time. You give them one blast of glyphosate, a relatively benign
herbicide, and that's it.
You don't feel bad about putting herbicides into the earth?
Glyphosate's pretty good because it doesn't last long. It doesn't get
into the water. It's not particularly toxic. And then there's
biocontrols, which I think will be engineered to a fare-thee-well. We
already use no end of bugs. They're very effective. If you can tune a
bug to go after yellow starthistle, that would be a boon for the
West, and I'm pretty sure that's coming.
Where do you shop for food?
The best stuff comes out of a garden we have in Sonoma County, where
we are on weekends. Like most people, once they've eaten out of a
garden, you realize everything else is second best. Farmers' market
stuff is always better, and it doesn't matter whether it's organic or
not. My wife and I will often pick organic because it's helping keep
pesticides out of the environment. Basically, it's people with a lot
of money that can afford organic food. It's like shopping for your
groceries at Tiffany's. I've been around some of the barons of the
organic and natural food industry, and they are obscenely rich. I
just ran into a collection of them that put together a conference of
organic and natural food nobility. They were all wearing jeans and very rich.
And they invited you?
They invited me to speak and then were horrified when I got up and
said, "Transgenic crops are the future. Get used to it."
You seem determined to keep your mind open.
I'm trying to keep everyone's mind open. The problem with buying into
an ideology is that you close your mind to contradictory evidence.
Have you been accused of getting bought out by the nuclear people
because you did work for them?
Actually, I've been pleasantly surprised that people have not
pretended that I'm not an environmentalist or that I've somehow been
bought out. I'm not paid to be pro-nuclear. The only thing the
nuclear guys pay me to do is come and tell them how to be green. I
tell them they should have a booth at green conferences and trade
fairswith bulletproof engineers. I tell them, "Now that you are
environmentalists, start acting like it."
Which means what?
Protect your local watershed. Participate in green activities. Join
one or more green organizations, proudly and boldly. Do not give
large quantities of money to green organizations because that would
be taken as tainting them. But if everybody at your reactor site
becomes a member, that has an impact. Because they arethey're green.
They can't help it. It's too late.
E-mail Ronnie at email@example.com.