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
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.Continue reading “Book Notes: Whole Earth Discipline”