Sunday, April 17, 2005


Stuart Brand and the Power-Up Heresy

In “Environmental Heresies,” Stuart Brand tells us that environmentalists are going to change their tune on nuclear power, population growth, urbanization, and GMOs. I won’t comment on everything here, but I would like to touch briefly on a few points.

Let me preface my short critique by saying that here I do not address the question of whether Brand’s predictions on trends will pan out as he says. Here I challenge his underlying assumptions.

Brand’s take on nuclear power falls squarely into the dominant “power-up” paradigm, which holds that modern human society cannot function without all the energy it now uses. In fact, for human society to function efficiently and effectively — and without going all the way back to the Stone Age — we can get by with a lot less energy. Cutting out the waste, extravagance, and idiocy, and redesigning economies under the “power-down” paradigm, will bring us back to planetary scale. Brand says that adding up conservation and all the renewables we can muster will be “still only a fraction of enough,” which is correct under the power-up paradigm, because the oil economy cannot be sustained by renewables. But he would have us keep churning out deadly poisonous nuclear waste in a vain effort to maintain the oil economy. “Enough” to Brand apparently means sustaining the waste and extravagance of the power-up economy.

On population, Brand says, “Although more children are an asset in the countryside, they’re a liability in the city.” This in itself is true if you assume that a small percentage of the population is going to grow the food for the rest. And since mechanized agriculture will become gradually unsustainable as fuel rises in price, a portion of the population will be relocating to the countryside to take up farming. And if those people are expected to grow food for the many city slickers who hunker down in town, they will be obliged to have more children as labor. Brand’s vision of the city as a population sink is untenable because modern cities and their long supply lines are sustained by cheap oil. I predict that over the next decade we will see a reversal of the population migration from the farm to the city. If we want to keep the population down without letting mass starvation do it, and without exploiting farmers, new strategies such as urban community gardening will be needed to keep pressure off professional farmers, and let them make do with small families.

History shows that peasants have been exploited since time immemorial to support the extravagant urban living of the dominant classes. In the Orient the supposed ranking of the social order was (1) scholar-officials, (2) peasants, (3) artisans, and (4) merchants, but just as everywhere else and throughout history, peasants have come dead last, ground under the heels of the other classes (the true order is of course 4-1-3-2). The concept of the city as a “population sink” is merely an extension of this screw-the-farmer mentality, as it assumes that a few peasants will work themselves into the ground supporting a vast elite, no doubt including Mr. Brand. Urban areas could and should be designed as places that mainly support farmers by providing them with complementary services and goods in a fair exchange, but unfortunately their emphasis has always been on exploiting farmers, while at the same time gobbling up farmland and forests like a malignant cancer.

To sum up, the main problems here are the “power-up” paradigm, a profound misunderstanding of what “the city” is, and the “screw-the-farmer” mentality.

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