Book Notes: Whole Earth Discipline

The following are my notes from 2014 on the book “Whole Earth Discipline” by Stewart Brand. This book was recently recommended by Marc Andreessen along with a handful of other great books related to progress and building the future.

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

Ecological balance is too important for sentiment. It requires science. The health of natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity. It requires engineering. What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable. We live one life.

We are forced to learn planet craft — in both senses of the word: craft as a skill and craft as cunning. The forces in play in the Earth system are astronomically massive and unimaginably complex. Our participation has to be subtle and tentative, and then cumulative in a stabilizing direction. If we make the right moves at the right time, all may yet be well.

“Find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1.0, then (f) iterating rapidly.” — Paul Graham

For sensitive ecosystem engineering at planet scale, what we need most is better knowledge of how the Earth system works. We are model-rich and data-poor. We need to monitor in detail and map in detail what’s really going on, and the measuring has to be sustained and consistent. Donella Meadows laid down the commandment: “Thou shalt not distort, delay, or sequester information.” You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, accurate, and complete information. We must build a digital Gaia.

“A project is sustainable if it is cheap enough to be the first of a series continuing indefinitely into the future. A project is unsustainable if it is so expensive that it cannot be repeated without major political battles. A sustainable project marks the beginning of a new era. An unsustainable project marks the end of an old era.” — Freeman Dyson

Climate change

One important negative feedback may be operative. The world’s land areas are absorbing more carbon dioxide than they’re releasing lately. “Believe it or not, plant life is growing faster than it’s dying. This means land is a net sink for carbon dioxide, rather than a net source.” This might be due to simple CO2 fertilization–additional CO2 stimulates plant growth.

In Jim Lovelock’s worst-case climate scenario, Earth stabilizes at 9°F warmer; a fraction of the present human population survives. But the exact outcome in such a complex system is unpredictable. Threshold effects are sneaky. At some point, though, a threshold is reached. Then in an unstoppable cascade the rain forests melt like Arctic ice, leaving savannah, scrub, and desert in their place.

Humanity currently runs on about 16 terawatts of power. We have to cut our fossil fuel use to around 3 terawatts a year, and we have to do it in about 25 years.

On the old astronomical schedule, a new ice age should have begun a couple thousand years ago. “A glaciation is now overdue, and we are the reason.”

Our terraforming thus far has been unintentional. Now that we have the curse and blessing of knowing what’s going on, unintentional is no longer an option. We finesse climate, or climate finesses us.

Urbanization: Concentrating people in cities is good

In 1800 the world was 3% urban; in 1900, 14% urban; in 2007 50% urban. At the current rate, humanity will be 80% urban by mid-century.

What drives a city’s innovation engine (and thus its wealth engine) is its multitude of contrasts. The more and greater the contrasts, and the more they are marbled together, the better. The most productive city is one with many cultures, many languages, many neighborhoods, and more kinds of urban experience available than any citizen can keep track of.

55 times more tropical rain forest is growing back each year than is being cut, according to a 2005 report on world forests from the UN: 38 million acres of primary forest is cut, but 2.1 billion acres of secondary forest is growing back on land that was once farmed, logged, or burned.

Motivation plus ingenuity, when manifest in a hell of a lot of newly urban people tired of being poor, drives innovation of world-changing originality and scale.

The magic number is 2.1. If every woman in the world has 2.1 children, on average, then the growth rate is exactly zero. The average birthrate in long-urbanized developed nations is down to 1.56, in some places it’s below 1.2. Those are extinction numbers. This means more resources per person–good news both for the people and the resources. But from another angle, it could mean perpetual economic crisis, which would be terrible news for the environment.

New Urbanism has become the dominant force in city planning, promoting high density, mixed use, walkability, mass transit, eclectic design, and regionalism. It drew one of its major ideas from the squatter community. Shopping areas could be more like the lanes in squatter cities, with a dense interplay of retail and services–one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables.


Future cities could grow most of their food inside city limits, in ultraefficient greenhouses. A 30-story farm on one city block could feed 50,000 people with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat. Upper floors would grow hydroponic crops; lower floors would house chickens and fish that consume plant waste.

Humanity’s first venture into genetic modification–agriculture–was a global event. We exploited the genetic malleability of dozens of plants in at least 10 independent centers of agricultural innovation.

Opponents of genetic engineering are right to suspect GE crops of being ecologically harmful, because all crops are ecologically harmful. Critics of GE focus on soil effects, on quantities of herbicides and pesticides in the environment, and on the potential for creating superweeds and superbugs. Exhaustive studies have been made on all these questions, and the data is in.

One very proper subject for criticism of any new kind of crop is how well or badly it fits in with the local ecology–the agroecology. It is legitimately something to worry about with new GE crop genes. New glyphosate-resistant weeds are turning up, not so much through gene borrowing as through the usual evolutionary response to the increased selection pressure of any highly successful, overemployed, deadly technique.

One consequence of the precautionary principle is that, in practice, it can be self-canceling. It says to wait for the results of further research, but it declares that the research is too dangerous to do. More useful wording would be something like “precautionary measure should be taken during early stages while the preponderance and trend of relevant scientific evidence becomes established, and then the measures should respond to that evidence.”

Jimmy Wales: “When you try to prevent people from doing bad things, the very obvious side effect is that you prevent them from doing good things.” The astronomical success of Wikipedia comes from its principle of not trying to solve imaginary problems but instead putting all of the community’s effort into close attention to what actually goes on, noting genuine problems as they emerge, and then solving them as locally as possible with speed and efficiency. The whole system is success driven rather than problem driven.

I would not replace the precautionary principle. But I would shift its bias away from inaction toward action with a supplement–the vigilance principle, whose entire text is: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Precaution + vigilance would seek to move quickly on new things.

Soil holds more carbon in it than all living vegetation and the atmosphere put together. (Earth’s soil holds about 1,500 gigatons of carbon, versus 600 gigatons in living plants and 830 gigatons in the atmosphere.) Tilling releases that carbon. Sustained no-till farming can bring the carbon content back to a level the equal of wildland soil, such as in tallgrass prairies, according to soil microbiologist Charles Rice. More and more of GE agriculture is shifting to no-till.

All plants and animals have closely associated microbial communities that make necessary nutrients, metals, and vitamins available to their hosts. Microbes can “eat” rocks, “breathe” metals, transform the inorganic to the organic, and crack the toughest of chemical compounds. They achieve these amazing feats in a sort of microbial “bucket brigade”–each microbe performs its own task. The ultimate goal, perhaps in sight by 2027, would be a metacommunity model that seeks to explain and predict (and retrodict) the behavior of the biosphere as though it were a single superorganism.

Indeed, microbes make up 80% of Earth’s total biomass, says famed microbial taxonomist Carl Woese. 90% of you isn’t you–only a tenth of the cells in your body are human; the rest are microbes. We are a portable swamp (estimates are that microbes weigh nearly 3 pounds, about the weight of our brain). “It is inescapable,” says the Metagenomics book, “that we are superorganisms composed of both microbial and human parts.

New discoveries about viruses indicate that “taken together, virus-like genes represent a staggering 90% of the human genome.” Most of the genes are baggage, but some turn out to have been behind crucial evolutionary innovations. “It is looking more and more as though the biosphere is an interconnected network of continuously circulated genes–a pangenome.” It’s a transgenic world.


The French were able to build a fleet of 56 reactors providing nearly all of the nation’s electricity in just 20 years. France has the cleanest air in Europe, the lowest electrical bills, and a $4 billion export business selling energy to all its neighbors. France shut down its last coal-fired plant in 2004. It emits 70% less CO2 per capita than the U.S.

One option is building a thorium breeder that runs for 50 years without refueling. It is buried deep underground, and after the thorium is burned, it stays in the ground. No more mining, no more enrichment operations, zero spent-fuel handling, no reprocessing or waste storage facilities, and the reactor vessel is the (robust) burial cask.

Megagardening: Natural-system restoration

A Southern Sierra Miwok elder, James Rust, said that “The white man ruined this country. It’s turned back to wilderness.” The American continent that had originally been tamed with spears, fire, and plant-tending women was overrun by a new set of ecosystem engineers armed with guns, germs, and steel.

We’re not the only ecosystem engineers. Beavers perform niche construction when they create ponds with their dams, as do earthworms when they remake soil to suit themselves. In the process, both make richer environments for other organisms, and that qualifies them as ecosystem engineers. But humans are “The Ultimate Ecosystem Engineers”.

Ecosystem engineering can be beneficial or pathological. It can enhance biodiversity or decrease it. It can self-stabilize or go chaotic.

The long-term successful society, in a world with many societies, will be the one that grows when it can and fights when it runs out of resources. It is useless to live an ecologically sustainable existence in the Garden of Eden unless the neighbors do so as well.

To protect a wilderness permanently, Daniel Janzen insists it has to be treated not just as a garden, but as a commercial garden. The wildland must pay its way or perish. “The ecotourist crop in Costa Rica is worth more than the combined coffee crop, banana crop, and cattle crop together, and Costa Rica is the #2 banana producer in the world.” Costa Rica is “the first tropical nation to reverse deforestation. Thanks to conservation and replanting, its forest cover has increased from 21% in 1987 to 52% today.”

Converting 2 billion acres of farmland to agro-forestry (which integrates trees, shrubs, livestock, and row crops) would remove 50 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

We need a “Pleistocene rewilding.” Wolves, cougars, lynx, wolverines, grizzly and black bears, jaguars, sea otters, and other top carnivores need to be restored throughout North America in ecologically effective densities. We can introduce “surrogate” replacements for the lost North American megafauna. African cheetahs would replace the long-vanished American cheetah that made our pronghorn antelopes so speedy. As would Bactrian camels, African and Indian elephants replacing mastodons, and possibly revived mammoths. For a long period of research, the animals would be contained within very large fenced parks, which would pay part of their way with ecotourism.

Dave Foreman also thinks at continent scale. His rewilding vision is based on the idea that “nature must be big and connecting.” Existing parks, wildernesses, and roadless areas, he insists, need to be linked by protected corridors–four “continental mega-linkages” going up the Pacific mountain ranges, the Atlantic mountain ranges, the continental divide, and across the Artic-Boreal far north.

Secret: Alien invasives increase biodiversity. New Zealand is a famously invaded place. It has 2,065 native plants, but 2,069 alien plants. Biodiversity has doubled, at a cost of just 3 documented plant extinctions. “Out of a total flora of approximately 6,000 vascular plant species, California has more than 1,000 naturalized exotics; yet fewer than 30 natives are known to have become extinct.”

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