Rewiring the Mind or the Planet?

By Keith Kloor | May 25, 2010 11:45 am

I have a modest proposal: let’s get Paul Ehrlich and Stewart Brand on tour. If we want to have a real debate on how to address climate change, decarbonize energy, feed the world, etc., let’s get these two icons of environmentalism together, on the same stage, at college campuses, town halls, and YMCA’s.

Because Ehrlich and Brand, each who helped popularize environmentalism when the movement was in its early 1970s heyday, now offer two very different paths to sustainability. Ehrlich, in a recent PloS Biology essay, says overconsumption is dooming the human race and the earth. The larger problem, though, he argues, is that we’re like addicts who can’t stop the self-destruction. So we need help.

To that end, Ehlrich lays out the rationale for an intiative called the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior. In PloS, he writes:

The admittedly ambitious aim is to change human behavior to avoid a collapse of global civilization.

That is indeed ambitious. What we’re talking about here is a re-engineering of the human mind. Whereas Stuart Brand, in his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, advocates a re-engineering of the earth to make it more habitable for ourselves. To that end, Brand offers four “environmental heresies,” which he laid out in this July 2009 TED talk.

What I like most about Ehrlich’s Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior project is that it intends

to generate a global discussion of the human predicament, what people desire, and what goals are possible to achieve in a sustainable society.

So let’s have that discussion. A great way to fuel it would be to bring two of the biggest legends in environmentalism together on a speaking tour, where they can debate their respective approaches to sustainability.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: sustainability
  • Lewis

    I think your idea is, of course, to be commended, if it where possible. Both seem to represent that disastrous and absurd episode at the end of Platos’ life when he fled to the tyrant of Syracuse in search of his Philosopher King and, therefore, Utopia – a very dangerous lure as we know. Or, to be kinder, something out of Gulliver’s Travels.
    History will continue it’s maybe, inevitable, rhythms but, at the same time, mankind is much more ingenious and practical than is believed. An approach that involves a new (once more!) ‘engineering of souls’ history will always shrug off (unfortunately, sometimes, after much blood shed) and reject. And re-engineering of our environment sounds almost as bad.
    But your idea is good and I would certainly be fascinated at that clash of idea?

  • Stephen Leahy

    Being in Nairobi and seeing the state of infrastructure and stunning poverty where a million people literally live on trash heap I’d like to see Brand practice his ‘ecopragmatist’ fantasy here before I’d sign on to his approach.

    Ehrlich is the more realistic and pragmatic in my view – we live on a planet w limited resources and there are a lot of us. I have been in communities where people have nothing but are rich in spirit, laughter and family. They cannot comprehend that in our rich western culture children kill themselves because they are so unhappy.
    There are better ways of living and we do need an urgent and  ongoing conversation about that

  • Lewis

    Kieth, I was looking again at the thread of  ‘Rotting journalism’ , and, what struck me most, is the incredible self-importance of certain posters, who, only by an insistence of their own, seem to dominate what could otherwise be a very interesting discussion. It’s a pity but I suppose that’s reality. It’s a pity because it shows a polarized rancour which I don’t believe is representative. I, personally, try to avoid all that and merely make light and sometimes specious comments. Perhaps, because I know history as a much more complicated and, indeed, ‘unconscious’ process which happens despite us ( a la John Lennons’ song) rather than because of us. I think you feel the same – about the over-representation of certain, shall we say, archetypes – but there’s very little one could do? That’s why when I do post, my intention is to say “Good luck and keep it up”!

  • Lewis

    Stephen Leahy, it’s sad what you allude to and indeed brings one to tears – but has there ever been a ‘solution’ to the ‘miseries of this world’  that has not, in fact, made it ten times worse. Europe is littered with these hideous ‘experiments’ -Lenin, Stalin, Hitler – and then Mao in China and the non plus ultra of Pol Pot. Can we really entertain the idea of a ‘new’ philosophy that could ‘help’ our children?

  • Michael Tobis

    I’m not sure Brand would agree with Keith’s summary of his position.
    Nor do I think he’s unaware of places like Nairobi. Leahy’s is a peculiar criticism when directed at Brand, because for what that’s worth, slums in the developing world are a core theme for him.

  • Lewis

    Sorry, I should have put that better – I do not mean that you or I cannot help, personally, or even, that we are impotent in front of ‘history’ – I mean prescriptive solutions always fail. What is needed is what the Greeks called ‘persuasion’ – consent in it’s widest aspect – I think we have discovered consent is what really matters!

  • Keith Kloor

    Michael (5):

    Have you watched the TED talk that I linked to. Once you do, you’ll see that he’s very well aware of slums and in fact, has a very interesting take on them.

  • Lewis

    To ‘change human behaviour’ –  hasn’t this been the old cry from time immemorial? What does it mean from environmentalists back to feminists to hippies to fascists in the thirties to the Fabians to the Methodists to the puritans etc etc all the way back to Zoroastrianism this has been a wish of ‘intellectuals’ and priest probably before word was written on a page. It is a meaningless and foolish idea, since any change in the human soul takes millennium and will not solve your problem.
    So, we have the alleged alternative of a radical re-engineering of the planet – but, hey, that’s happening anyway – like the result?

  • Lewis

    Sorry, Kieth, for taking over your post  – I didn’t mean too – and, of course, it’s slightly ironic considering my former comment – but you on the west coast only wake up when I, in england, go to sleep – so, sorry, though I’m laughing my head of!
    Both Ehrlich and Brand would agree on the ‘problem’ but disagree on the solution? I used to be pretty heavily into Marx and both remind me of what he called ‘utopian socialists’ and I represent the ‘Marxist’ position that history produces it’s own solutions, as well as it’s own ‘gravediggers’.
    The reason I’m laughing out loud: all of them were wrong!

  • Lewis

    This last comment might seem absurd – but what is the exceptional quality of the species, human beings – that he/she speaks and paints and produces music – what I’m saying is to continue our massive engorging of this planet we must justify this existents. The fact that 6 people or 6 billion live on this planet is, as far as nature is concerned, a matter of difference – but, for us humans, it is of extraordinary import – that we have need justification to be here. For me the test is the arts. But what is both touching and difficult for us all in the west is our tender guilt!

  • Lewis

    I apologies for the bad spelling in that last post – and, I noticed, I forgot science in the alleged virtues of ‘human being’s – perhaps I have that radical skeptism of my Puritan ancestors – that all truth is beyond us. Though I’m no deist. Wish I was!

  • Keith Kloor

    Stephen (2)

    To combat climate change, Brand argues in favor of nuclear power (just like Jim Hansen). To put food in more mouths, he advocates for biotechnology. Both of these avenues strike me as pretty pragmatic.

    Most envronmentalists, as you know, find both nuclear and GMO’s anathema. They’re coming around to the value of cities, which Brand is also a big fan of (as I am).


  • Stephen Leahy

    I like cities too but haven’t been in any sustainable ones yet.

    As for biotech it has failed to deliver anything but profits for a few corpos – i have covered this extensively. And if nuclear power wasn’t so freaking expensive and complex a technology I might support it out of desperation. But it is not pragmatic or cost effective – surely you do know Amory Lovins detailed  & pragmatic critique?

  • Keith Kloor


    I guess you haven’t been to the city where I live, or others like it. I’ll match my carbon footprint with just about anyone on this blog.

    I think your dismissal of biotech is a bit simplistic, but I’m willing to read your pieces and return to that subject on another post.

    As for nuclear power, no argument that the up-front costs are prohibitive and the waste is still a big problem, but James Hansen seems to think it represents the most realistic chance climate advocates have. Also, France sure has made it work. Then again, they got a big nudge in 1973.

    No nudges big enough yet, I suppose, from climate change, to make greens abandon their ideological opposition to nuclear. It’ll be interesting to see how long they can hold out.

  • Michael Tobis

    Keith (7), to quote Inspector Clouseau, “euhrr, beut zet ees eexectly wheut I said”.

  • Michael Tobis

    PS: I have been a big fan of Brand’s forever. I have about five editions of the Whole Earth Catalog.

  • Keith Kloor


    On your blog, you’ve posted often about the”growth imperative” and how this dominant economic/cultural model presents a wee bitty problem for sustainability. This is certainly what Ehrlich is saying in the  PLoS essay I quote from.

    On a related note, let me point you and others to a recent interview at Yale 360 with David Orr. From the intro:

    Orr says that for America and the industrialized world to move onto a truly sustainable footing, society must awaken to what he calls the “profoundly disquieting” effects of the “frantic search for more money and more stuff.”

    Again, this is the sort of thing  Ehrlich wants to have a “global discussion” on, which I’m all for. But let’s be honest: even a paradigm-shifting revolution in human behavior along these lines will not happen any time soon, if at all in our lifetime. So to me it makes sense to expand this conversation to include the kinds of solutions Brand is advocating (e.g., nuclear power, biotechnology, urban density, etc).

    Lest anyone on this thread wonders: I don’t mean to put Ehrlich’s and Brand’s ideas in opposition. I’d just like to see it all be part of the public debate.

    So Michael, would you like to see a discussion like that, as both a fan of Brand and a critic of the growth imperative?

  • Stephen Leahy

    Keith (14) I’d be very surprised if your town grows all its own food, generates all its own power, etc. The word sustainable means whatever you want it to. And your carbon footprint is 10x that of the majority of the world.

    Having spent time with French energy experts, the French nuclear miracle is a sham involving huge ongoing subsidies and deranged energy policies that practically gave away millions of electric baseboard heaters and totally ignored insulation and energy effeciency.

    See: “Nuclear Steals Billions from Other Technologies

  • Hank Roberts

    I think they’re prominent now in the public debate, quite visibly:“Stewart+Brand”+”Paul+Ehrlich”

  • Michael Tobis

    I would go see either of them, and I’d love to see a Bloggingheads type conversation between them (actually, I prefer to read transcripts) or a panel on which they both appeared.
    I am not sure I like the idea of real-time “debates” at all. I see their utility in elections, because they are revealing of both the character and intelligence of the candidates. But they are not very revealing of the issues and I don’t see them as generally useful.

  • Keith Kloor

    Stephen (18):

    Sustainability is indeed an overused and loosely defined concept. But if you’re inferring that locally-produced food and goods is the measuring stick, forget it, we don’t live in that world. And we’re not going back to it.

    I was really comparing my footprint to the people who visit this blog, not to the rest of the developing world, which would be overjoyed to live half as well as I do. And since they are striving for that, perhaps we in the U.S. who get to discuss sustainability as an academic exercise, perhaps we ought to think what kind of realistic model might fit best for the strivers to emulate. I submit the walkable, pedestrian friendly, urban lifestyle, in which nearly all mine and my family’s needs are met within a few blocks radius of our very modestly sized apartment (okay, it’s a shoebox).

    As for the nuclear issue, yeah, it’s quite problematic. So is coal, so is scaling up wind and solar. All I can say it must be infuriating for the anti-nuke crowd to hear Jim Hansen waxing on about the new generation of reactors.

  • Sashka


    I disagree with characterization of intended revolution in human behavior as an idea. A pipe-dream would be more like it.

  • Stephen Leahy

    Hansen is a desperate man.

  • Alex Smith

    Add “ecological footprint” inventor Dr. Bill Rees to the Ehrlich camp of “overshooting” ourselves to death.
    I’ve just posted a new speech by Bill Rees, where he notes we have three brains really (reptilian, mammalian, neo-cortex) and the lower brains appear to be winning, despite what we know about Peak Oil and climate change,  not to mention the economy or the BP gusher.
    It’s one hour, 14 MB here:
    Or read the transcript here:

  • Brian Smith

    Two things really struck me as I was reading the comments:
    1)  What is really the mechanism for changing human behaviors in a radical and rapid fashion?  The market mechanism is quite effective for what is being proposed, but since we have been unable to utilize “true cost” pricing to this point, I don’t hold out much hope.
    2)  We have been engaged in optimizing the Earth to our benefit for the last 10,000 years.  destroying its biodiversity brings with it vulnerabilities and risks that we have yet to imagine.
    I think that both approaches highlight the fact that we are still taking linear approaches to complex questions.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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