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Rogue Environmentalist Draws Protests

By Lucy Bellwood '12 on March 17, 2011 04:56 PM

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Earth-lovers of the world, hop off your solar-powered composting toilets. Environmental provocateur Stewart Brand is here to tell you that nuclear energy will save the planet.

With a thesis like that, it's little wonder that Brand drew an uncustomary crowd of Portland protesters to campus last Tuesday--in spite of a torrential spring downpour. The raincoated group distributing fliers were admittedly of the non-pitchfork-waving, middle-aged, friendly Oregon environmentalist mold, but a glance through their pamphlets warned students that they were in for a night of lively controversy.

Brand, who has the benevolent look of an outdoorsy grandpa with a halo of white hair to match, took to the podium in canvas work pants, a black shirt, and a bold red tie -- an odd combination that seemed to sum up his dual identity as an environmental innovator who lives on a tugboat in Sausalito and holds an Acid Test Diploma from none other than Neal Cassidy...

As president of The Long Now Foundation, TED Brain Trust member, and, most memorably, Whole Earth Catalogue founder, Brand has been active in the environmental scene for decades. His lecture, titled "Green Biotech, Green Slums, Green Nukes, and Green Geoengineering," draws from his latest book: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.

Brand laid down the standard environmentalist's opening barrage of harsh facts about global warming, overpopulation, and food shortages. "We have never dealt with problems as an entire species before," he declared, spreading his hands. "We don't know how to do it." Then came the provocative part of the lecture--his suggestions.

Pointing out the staggering growth of slum cities around the world, which Brand framed as simultaneous epicenters of brilliant innovation and brutal inequality, he proposed the adoption of genetically modified foods, and, perhaps most controversially, the thesis that nuclear power is the only viable solution to the world's rising energy crisis in the decades to come.

Brand wishes to redefine the global role of humanity as "ecosystem engineers"--a term inspired by Aldo Leopold to denote a species who benefit the biodiversity of their surroundings. "What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable," he said gravely, noting that we have been impacting the earth for better or worse (often the latter) for hundreds of years and that the time has come to push for more conscientious choices when it comes to engineering our existence.

Fielding questions about the dangers of radiation from the audience, Brand exclaimed "Well, Reed has its own reactor. These people have been around it. And they're not weird [Cue: whoops and hollers from Reactor operators in the audience] ...yet." But despite the ripple of laughter ran through the crowd, many attendees clearly remained skeptical about the virtues of nuclear power.

Two days later, a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan and pushed the Fukushima nuclear facility to the brink of meltdown. If Brand had delivered the same lecture after that, it seems likely that the debate would have gotten even more heated.