“Cities are probably the greenest thing that humans do.”

A few years ago, environmental guru, Merry Prankster, and Whole Earth Catalog author Stewart Brand caused a minor stir with an article he wrote in the MIT publication, Technology Review.  Brand, who was an early advocate of the “back to the land” movement of the 1960s and 1970s, had done some re-thinking, and concluded that environmentalist opposition to things like urbanization, population growth, biotechnology, and nuclear power generation, was wrong and needed to change.

Now, Brand has written a new book, called Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, in which he takes on these environmental shibboleths in a more concerted fashion.  On American Public Radio’s Marketplace program yesterday, host Kai Ryssdal discussed the new book with Brand.  Asked what prompted him to write the book, Brand said that,

“My fellow environmentalists have been wrong about a couple of issues and were getting in the way of important things we should be doing, both with biotechnology and with nuclear technology, and in terms of how we think about cities, and in terms of how I know we’re going to think about geoengineering–that is, direct intervention in the climate.”

Ryssdal contrasted Brand’s earlier support for the back to the land movement with his current belief that big cities are better for the environment.

“Not only big cities, but big slums … that’s how [poor people in the developing world] are getting out of poverty.  They’re emptying out a lot of the subsistence farms that have been tough on the landscape all over the world, moving into towns for opportunity, building jobs for each other.  They’re also moving up what’s called the energy ladder, toward more and better grid electricity.  By and large the cities are probably the greenest thing that humans do.”

On his support for biotech crops, Brand said,

“Already, the crops we have now, the herbicide-tolerant and the insect-resistant crops … [are] getting what amounts to higher yields. You can raise more food on less land, and all of that is good for ecology in general and the climate particularly.”

Challenged that critics call them Frankenfoods, Brand replied,

“The idea there was that Dr. Frankenstein was doing something against nature, and that somehow the genetically engineered food crops are against nature.  And as a biologist, I’m just baffled by that line of argument because agriculture has been in that sense against nature for 10,000 years. That we’re finally able to do more precise tuning of the crops is a huge gain, not a loss.”