The Heretical Environmentalist NY Times yesterday had a nice profile of Stewart Brand, focusing on his “heretical” embrace of nuclear power as a better alternative than global warming, as well as other controversial positions:

“He thinks the fears of genetically engineered bugs causing disaster are as overstated as the counterculture’s fears of computers turning into Big Brother. “Starting in the 1960s, hackers turned computers from organizational control machines into individual freedom machines,” he told Conservation magazine last year. “Where are the green biotech hackers?”


He’s also looking for green nuclear engineers, and says he feels guilty that he and his fellow environmentalists created so much fear of nuclear power. 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.

He may be right that we took a wrong turn 30 years ago, given what we know now, but I wonder if nuclear is the right answer today, given how long it takes to spin up a new plant. And I also don’t think that we’ve won the war against big brother. But he’s absolutely right that we need more energy hackers. And he’s absolutely right to challenge orthodox thinking. When we fear the future, we often fear the wrong things, and as in Greek tragedy, that which we seek to avoid finds us in the end. We need forethought, but we also need the ability to respond quickly to whatever comes at us.

My favorite bit in the article was at the end, where Stewart talks about risk-taking:

Mr. Brand would rather take a few risks.

“I get bored easily — on purpose,” he said, recalling advice from the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix. “Jim Watson said he looks for young scientists with low thresholds of boredom, because otherwise you get researchers who just keep on gilding their own lilies. You have to keep on trying new things.”

That’s a good strategy, whether you’re trying to build a sustainable career or a sustainable civilization. Ultimately, there’s no safety in clinging to a romanticized past or trying to plan a risk-free future. You have to keep looking for better tools and learning from mistakes. You have to keep on hacking.

Whether or not you agree with Stewart’s specific positions, you have to take seriously his vision of the right stance towards the future. It’s certainly my own position. And though Stewart is one of my heroes, and his work with The Whole Earth Catalog has been a lifelong inspiration to me, I trace that position back to another of my formative influences, science-fiction writer Frank Herbert. I summarized his position in the introduction to my first book, Frank Herbert, now nearly thirty years ago (hard to believe!):

One of [Herbert’s] central ideas is that human consciousness exists on–and by virtue of–a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes…. Herbert adds, however, that the effort of civilization to create and maintain security for its individual members, “necessarily creates the conditions of crisis because it fails to deal with change.”

While people still read Dune and its sequels, it’s a shame that Herbert’s thought-provoking essays like “Listening to the Left Hand” and “Science Fiction and A World in Crisis” are no longer in print. (I collected them into a book, now long out of print but still sometimes available used, entitled The Maker of Dune.)

(Incidentally, this is one small example of why I’ve been such a supporter of Google’s library scanning project. There is so much great stuff hidden behind publishers’ rights firewalls. They will never “opt in.” I tried to get my publisher to revert online rights to my original Frank Herbert book so I could put it online, but they never even bothered to respond to my letter, so I just did it, figuring that if they ever did care, that would be the best way to get their attention.)