Sunday, November 7, 2010

Intellectual Irony

In a wonderful illustration of intellectual irony, Stewart Brand (visionary creator of the Whole Earth Catalog and author of the Long Now) seems to have hoisted himself onto his own petard. The video below gives an example of how he has been rethinking his positions on cities, nuclear power, genetic modification and geo-engineering.

In a curmudgeonly take on the ideologically driven nature of some environmentalists, Brand has written that: "I would like to see an environmental movement that's comfortable noticing when it's wrong and announcing when it's wrong."

I'm fine with that and find some of Brand's views on the above issues compelling. But, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and it turns out Brand is now in a controversy with George Monbriot over the validity of the following passage from his book:
Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson's book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not) … In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said: 'The ban on DDT may have killed 20m children.'

It turns out that the 2001 Stockholm Convention which regulates DDT use worldwide a) doesn't ban DDT and b) explicitly allows use to control disease vectors (read kill the mosquitoes that carry malaria). Monbriot's blog traces a hilarious series of ineffective attempts to contact Brand and get him to address the issue .... sort of a text version of Michael Moore's Roger and Me. Brand even suggests that Monbriot's argument isn't with Brand but with Gwadz (who Brand quotes)!

Personally, I want science journalism that holds itself to higher standards than the ideological hacks that dominate political blogs and unthinkingly repeat whatever quote they can find that justifies their position. Michelle Bachman can claim that Obama's trip is costing $200 million per day and Fox News can amplify that claim all they want. It doesn't make it true. And pointing to a Indian blogger (or Gwadz) as the source doesn't free you from responsibility. By not assessing the claim for accuracy -- the explicit criteria Brand has laid down for the environmental movement -- both Brand and Bachman need to recognize that they (as well as the sources) were wrong.


  1. I saw Brand's presentation a while back. I was impressed with his point about urban density. I did not agree with his stance on the urbanization of peasant populations. Since then, I have come to learn (Jason Moore) that the strategy of global capitalism to move peasants off the land, which makes land available for foreign agribusiness to feed foreign 1st world populations. Secondly, it makes peasant populations available as cheap urban labor for factory work, which lowers the cost of 1st world goods. Third, it makes peasant populations totally dependent on the State and foreign "aid".

  2. I think I the Brand clip up earlier, I added it again to provide some context for the fight with Monbiot. Interesting how that works, I'm associating it with one thing, but you contrast it with something else. I hadn't though of Brand in relation to Moore.

    I really like Moore's work. Think he's the best of the world systems meets ecology crowd. As you note a beautiful connection between ecology and the transformation of labor. But he seems not to recognize the centrality of thermodynamics in the way Hornborg does -- a definite oversight in my opinion.