Environmental heretic sees Simon’s lesson

John Tierney does it again.  In Tierney’s profile today of Stewart Brand — a staunch environmentalist and the man who gave us the Whole Earth Catalog — readers learn that Brand is now a staunch proponent of genetic engineering and nuclear energy.

Here is Brand’s view of agricultural biotechnology — a scourge on the earth, according to many environmental groups:

“He sees genetic engineering as a tool for environmental protection: crops designed to grow on less land with less pesticide; new microbes that protect ecosystems against invasive species, produce new fuels and maybe sequester carbon.”

And here’s Brand’s take on nuclear energy:

“Alternative energy and conservation are fine steps to reduce carbon emissions, he says, but now nuclear power is a proven technology working on a scale to make a serious difference.”

What I particularly like about the article, though, are the insights that Brand framed from the results of the famous Ehrlich-Simon bet:  

Mr. Brand is the first to admit his own futurism isn’t always prescient. In 1969, he was so worried by population growth that he organized the Hunger Show, a weeklong fast in a parking lot to dramatize the coming global famine predicted by Paul Ehrlich, one of his mentors at Stanford.

The famine never arrived, and Professor Ehrlich’s theories of the coming “age of scarcity” were subsequently challenged by the economist Julian Sinon, who bet Mr. Ehrlich that the prices of natural resources would fall during the 1980s despite the growth in population. The prices fell, just as predicted by Professor Simon’s cornucopian theories.

Professor Ehrlich dismissed Professor Simon’s victory as a fluke, but Mr. Brand saw something his mentor didn’t. He considered the bet a useful lesson about the adaptability of humans — and the dangers of apocalyptic thinking.

“It is one of the great revelatory bets,” he now says. “Any time that people are forced to acknowledge publicly that they’re wrong, it’s really good for the commonweal. I love to be busted for apocalyptic proclamations that turned out to be 180 degrees wrong. In 1973 I thought the energy crisis was so intolerable that we’d have police on the streets by Christmas. The times I’ve been wrong is when I assume there’s a brittleness in a complex system that turns out to be way more resilient than I thought.”

Resiliency and adaptability are two of the features that mark mankind as the “ultimate resource” of Julian Simon. That’s a good lesson to learn.

(Note: Check out TierneyLab, where this science journalist will be checking out conventional wisdom about science issues.  Shades of Aaron Wildavsky.)