Stewart Brand

by Russ Roberts on March 1, 2007

in Environment

John Tierney writes about Stewart Brand’s heresy:

Stewart Brand has become a heretic to environmentalism, a movement he
helped found, but he doesn’t plan to be isolated for long. He expects
that environmentalists will soon share his affection for nuclear power.
They’ll lose their fear of population growth and start appreciating
sprawling megacities. They’ll stop worrying about “frankenfoods” and
embrace genetic engineering.

My favorite part:

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 Simon, 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.”

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{ 3 comments }

Russell Nelson March 2, 2007 at 2:35 am

Brand famously recognized a brittleness in a simple system which only a complex system could address. During the last big earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area, Brand recognized that the official support systems had broken down, and that individuals were helping other individuals. Further, he recognized that this is how it's supposed to be, and used his bully pulpit to call for individuals to prepare to help in the next big disaster.

Too bad the people in New Orleans didn't read his call to action.

David Rossie March 3, 2007 at 10:41 am

"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"

A profound insight. The next step, of course, is believing that one person or small group can mold the complex system to its will.

Tony March 4, 2007 at 3:51 am

Well my respect for Stewart Brand has increased.

As to nuclear energy, there might well be something in fusion (yes fusion).

Can I suggest that people look at the google video of Dr Bussard (yes, the Robert Bussard of Bussard Ramjet fame) talking to some google people about work he is involved in. It's about 90 mins long, packed with information and commentary from Bussard on what is was like to work within an environment where "there is only one way to do fusion, and that's with a tokomak". I found it incredibly interesting, and have watched it several times to piece things together.
Key points;

  • This is a non-thermal device – you would take electricity directly from it
  • It is relatively small 1-5m (not the cathedral size tokomaks)
  • There is no neutron radition – none. The system uses a Boron-11 reaction (00:05:04 into the video), which fuses with a proton to give excited C12, which decays into He4 and Be6. As Dr Bussard says (00:05:37) "This is the only nuclear energy-releasing process in the whole world that releases fusion energy as 3 Helium atoms and no neutrons"

In typical cliff-hanger fashion, it seems their latest device was showing all the right outputs, but the project ran out of funding. Dr Bussard wants this to happen (the reason he got into fusion was as a power source for space flight), but is getting old fast. He had a slide (at 1:04:27 into the video) that said this;

Global Economics 1:

  • cheap, clean (no radiation), thermal/electric power readily available
  • fixed energy prices stabilize economy
  • low value cane in third world countries, becomes high value export product
  • third world nations can become economically viable
  • profitable industrialization possible

And another slide at 01:04:59 (the kicker)

Global Economics II:

  • Destroys world market for gasoline
  • eliminates effects of oil cartels
  • Oil states suffer drastic income loss, require funds to purchase food
  • Desalination plants allow irrigation of arid lands
  • cheap water allows effective agriculture

And finally at 01:05:20
Global Economics – Summary

  • Low cost power stabilizes industrial nations
  • Oil wars vanish
  • Mid East stabilized by economics
  • Third world becomes fiscally responsible

Oh, there's a neat slide on how to make a 100B$ business out of it at 01:05:52 ;)

The video is at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606

So what does this all mean? Well, if Dr Bussard is right, and if these devices can be made relatively cheaply (he suggested it was all engineering now, the physics is done), then it doesn't matter if the Chinese or anyone else buys all the oil they can get their hands on, as the US would be getting its energy far cheaper than any oil source could provide – with all that entails for desalination, ecology, transport and of course wealth creation.

Good times ahead!
Tone

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