Whole Earth Discipline

3 minutes estimated reading time

One of the problems that I have with many environmental tracts is that they articulate their message as an anti-science based dogma rather than as a discussion where you can make your own mind up. That issue and Stewart Brand’s status as a nexus point between green issues, counterculture, technology, web communities and futurism made Whole Earth Discipline a must-read book book for me.

The whole earth of the title is a nod to history: The story goes that Brand inspired by the use of acid started a campaign to get a photograph of the whole earth published. He sold badges with Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet? on them and found a grassroots movement around it. He rightly summised the image would be a powerful symbol. This was a key point in the history of the modern green movement.

Stewart was responsible for publishing The Whole Earth Catalog and The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). The Whole Earth Catalog was a regularly published book of useful information not mediated by authority that sprang out of hippie culture – a kind of Wikipedia of its day. The WELL is the proto-social network which connected a diverse range of technocrats, artists and journalists who would go on to play an important part in the modern web and set the libertarian point-of-view of the digerati – its got some great content on there and I would recommend that anyone interested join – my user name is ged if you want to reach out to me there. The netizen mantra that information wants to be free was taken from a speech that Brand gave in 1984 at the first Hackers Conference.

If you want to know more about Stewart I can recommend Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Its a big book but a great read that I completed cover-to-cover one time on a flight to Hong Kong.

Whole Earth Discipline breaks down into two distinct parts. The first part builds on the famous Environmental Heresies essay that Brand published in the MIT Technology Review five years ago. He brings this up to date by surveying the current knowledge on the planet and the solutions that we are likely to require such as widespread use of nuclear power, the use of solar energy as a personal household level and encouraging populations into cities, away from sprawling suburbs.

The second part of the book is demystifying some of the current green dogmas like the evils of genetic modification with a critical eye and taking an unvarnished look at some of the most prominent campaigning organisations out there such as Greenpeace and Friends of The Earth.  According to Brand tens of thousands of people died of starvation in Zambia because of a lobbying campaign to the country’s leadership by environmentalists complaining about poison Frankenfoods.

The book is a thoughtful, engaging, well-researched book on environmental issues that we all face together with ideas on how to address current and future challenges. It is also valuable for communications people working in difficult areas such as energy and biotechnology who are often faced with dogma-based campaigns by well-meaning but misguided organisations. More book reviews can be found here.


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