Meet Stewart Brand and his band of merry dematerialists, the Silicon Valley salesmen who undermined environmentalism with planet-saving fantasies that reek of technofetishism. Please share this episode with your friends and start a conversation.
Warning: This podcast occasionally uses spicy language.
For an entertaining deep dive into the theme of season five (Phalse Prophets), read the definitive peer-reviewed taxonomic analysis from our very own Jason Bradford, PhD.
- John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, 2022.
- Anna Wiener, “The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s ‘Whole Earth Catalog’,” The New Yorker, November 16, 2018.
- Wolf Tivy and Matt Ellison, “‘Life Goes On’ With Stewart Brand,” Palladium, September 14, 2022.
- “Ecomodernist Manifesto“
- Timothee Parrique, “A response to Paul Krugman: Growth is not as green as you might think,” Resilience, February 28, 2023.
- Low-Tech Magazine
- The Long Now Foundation
- Revive & Restore
How would you rate this episode’s Phalse Prophet on the Insufferability Index? Tell us in the comments below!
It’s time for the annual Crazy Town Hall! This exclusive webinar on June 6, 2023 is our way of thanking listeners who support the show financially. We hope you’ll join us!
Jason Bradford I’m Jason Bradford Asher Miller I’m Asher Miller. And I'm Rob Dietz. Welcome to Crazy Town where instead of incremental change, the government is interested in excremental change. Melody Allison Hi, This is Crazy Town producer Melody Allison. Thanks for listening. Here in season five, we’re exploring Phalse Prophets and the dangerous messages they’re so intent on spreading. If you like what you’re hearing, please let some friends know about this episode, or the podcast in general. Now on to the show. Jason Bradford Alright, guys, you of course know the movie, "Forrest Gump." Asher Miller Of course. Rob Dietz Well, life is like a big acid trip. You never know where you're gonna go. Jason Bradford That's exactly what I'm talking about. I actually had lunch with a Forrest Gump-like character. And I don't mean, - Asher Miller Like somebody in the movie? Jason Bradford No, and I don't mean some guy bumbling around with the IQ of 75 getting lucky. But I had this lunch with a guy, Stewart Brand is his name. That's who we're talking about today. And he bumped around and was so involved with some of the most iconic moments of the late 20th century, like Forrest Gump. Rob Dietz Like when he survived that hurricane on the shrimp boat. Jason Bradford Exactly. Asher Miller Yeah, when he when he picked up ping pong and he went to the White House. Rob Dietz When he ran cross country, wiped his face on a shirt, and invented the smiley face emoji. That was Stewart Brand? Jason Bradford That was Stewart Brand. Asher Miller Okay. Rob Dietz And you had lunch with him? Jason Bradford Well, I had lunch with him in the context of his work. It was probably early 2000, like 2003. So 20 years ago. I actually met his wife, Ryan Phelan, who was the CEO of, it's called the All Species Foundation. And of course, I was into biodiversity there and I had a research project in Peru and I was hoping to collaborate. You know, the idea here was, they were going to try to identify all the species on Earth. Like finally put the investment into that. And of course - Rob Dietz If they were living their values, they would have had like a chimpanzee as the CEO. It's the All Species Institute or Foundation. Jason Bradford Well, maybe they should have because it didn't last that long. But you know, it sort of was a precursor to the Encyclopedia of Life and the citizen science stuff we have today like iNaturalist and eBird. So the work goes on. Asher Miller So you met him at some luncheon for that thing? Jason Bradford I met him at this lunch, you know. Asher Miller And you guys hit it off. You're like super tight. Best friends. Jason Bradford No, he didn't say anything. He just sat next to me. Asher Miller Oh, okay. Jason Bradford And you know, near and dear to your heart, Asher, he helped make the Grateful Dead famous. Of course you know that. Asher Miller No, that's totally overstated. Okay? I mean, as far as I know, he was involved in like the early acid test stuff, you know, when the Grateful Dead weren't even called the Grateful Dead. They were like the Warlocks, you know. And they were hanging out with Ken Kesey, you know, those guys. Jason Bradford Another great name drop - Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters Rob Dietz That has to be one of the best band edits for a name in history. Going from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead. Jason Bradford Well, you know, there was this thing called the Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford. It brought the likes of Ken Kesey and all these iconic 20th century writers. Some people you know, right? Rob Dietz Yeah, including our guy, Wendell Berry, right. He was out there at Stanford writing away. Learning his craft. Jason Bradford Yep. And so this guy then has done amazingly cool stuff, part of the counterculture of music. And then of course, he was really into the computer revolution. And he obviously cares about the environment and biodiversity. So what's not to love, right? Rob Dietz It's not quite as cool as the Forrest Gump litany of things, but pretty good. I'll give you that. Asher Miller He's still alive. He's still got a chance. I don't know. Yes. Okay. He's gonna go to space probably next. Jason Bradford Well, there's so much going on with this guy that we have to just quickly run through his bio because we could just geek out on so many things. And very conveniently, there's a book that we are drawing upon from 2022. So just a year ago, John Markoff's, "Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand." I'm just gonna run through his life really quick. Okay, he was born in 1938 in Illinois, had a love of nature from a young age, ends up getting a degree in Biology from Stanford in 1960, went to the army for a couple of years, came back to San Francisco in '62. He was really studying then design and art. And then he, you know, that's I think how he got involved in the counterculture. Got into LSD, when it was quasi-legal with all the experimentation going on then. Obviously, the music scene, and because of his design and art, he was helping produce shows. Light shows and stuff – kind of new to that. And then he may have been instrumental in NASA taking the first picture of Earth from Space. He started publishing the "Whole Earth" catalog in 1968. Worked with Jerry Brown for a couple of years when he was Governor of California. Coevolutionary Quarterly was the next publication in 1974. He started an online chat room called, "The Well" in 1985. He ended up working for Shell Oil and scenario planning, then developing what's called the Global Business Network in the early 90s so corporations could understand globalization and computer networks and internet. Published a number of books, "The Media Lab: Inventing the future of MIT" in 87, "The Clock of the Long Now" in 1999, and "The Whole Earth Discipline" in 2009. Rob Dietz Okay, thank you for that quick tour. And now we're getting up to present day, or at least close to it and you can find Stewart Brand still active with the Long Now Foundation. And the idea of that is they're trying to construct this clock that keeps accurate time for 10,000 years to sort of try to have a long term perspective. He's working on a manual for civilization, which is to help rebuild the library after the apocalypse. They got something called long bets where people bet against each other on big time future events. I don't know if there's actually any set yet. Jason Bradford Oh, there are long bets out there. You can go on look at them right now. Asher Miller It's like Draft Kings or one of those like - Jason Bradford Similar. Rob Dietz The one we came up with, what year it is, Las Vegas become a ghost town? Well, and then, maybe more recently even, he's gotten involved in “revive and restore,” which is about bringing back extinct species. Jason Bradford And his wife Ryan actually is quite involved in that part of it now. Rob Dietz I'm pretty sure the main thing is they want to have Battle Royales. Like, see a woolly mammoth fight a tyrannosaurus rex or something. Jason Bradford Exactly. Asher Miller That sounds really cool. Well, so as you said, Jason, you know, we could have just spent hours really just exploring all these different things, and the different characters that Stuart Brand has been connected with over the years. There's a lot of really fascinating stuff in there. We're not going to do that. Because what we're actually here to do is to talk about Stewart Brand as a Phalse Prophet of eco-modernism specifically. And we're going to obviously focus on that, talk about that later, quite a bit. But I do think before we move on to that, it'd be good maybe just for each of us to spend a couple of minutes talking about maybe like one thing out of Stewart Brand's life and work that really struck us as very interesting. Rob Dietz Your favorite Forrest Gump moment of his. Asher Miller Jason, maybe you go first. Jason Bradford Yeah, and these are moments that I think kind of pre-stage the full blown ecomodernism that he up basically becoming a main leader of. And you can see that and elements of his of his work in early life. So the famous thing that got him started as a known public figure was, he had an LSD trip in downtown San Francisco and he imagined Earth from space while sitting on a rooftop. And he ended up making all these - Asher Miller That's not the Buddha, right? Buddha's origin story is the same. Jason Bradford Is it really? Asher Miller No, I'm just kidding. Jason Bradford I have no idea. Asher Miller Buddha was sitting under a tree. Rob Dietz I don't think taking psychedelics on top of a building is a great idea. Jason Bradford Hey, it worked out for Stewart Brand, okay. He's famous because of this. Asher Miller What are you talking about? Rob Dietz Okay. Well yeah, I'm usually wrong. We know this. Jason Bradford But he passes these buttons around that say, you know, why haven't we seen pictures of the whole earth? This gets to NASA. Suddenly, satellites and the astronauts are snapping pictures of earth. And he puts one of these on the front of his catalogue, the "Whole Earth" catalog in 1968. So I think that's the thing that really made him well known was this catalog. And it brought the attention of Buckminster Fuller. And it was about giving people the tools they needed to change how they can interact with the world. And it was instrumental in this back to the land movement, the hippies, and Markoff the author explains that the catalogue would go on to shape the worldview of an entire generation of young Americans, key engineers and entrepreneurs. They would soon become Silicon Valley and would pre-sage the 1970s environmental movement. Rob Dietz So can I just confess to you guys that I thought Stewart Brand would be kind of in the heroic category for us, like an iconic environmentalist. And until we started talking about the Phalse Prophets, I really didn't know that he had sort of, like Darth Vader, turned to the dark side. Asher Miller I think he was always conflicted with stuff. Jason Bradford I think that's what you find is this conflict, right? Because, you know, it's an odd period. He's developing all this work, this catalogue, during the pain of war and Civil Rights struggles. Asher Miller 1968 was an incredibly turbulent year in the United States. Jason Bradford Oh my god, yes. Exactly. So you have these people, these young people, his friends, wanting to leave society. Asher Miller And dropping out. Jason Bradford Dropping out and dropping acid listening to the Grateful Dead. And so he's both selling them these tools and teaching them how to use it and presenting this sort of libertarian philosophy. But you get a sense that it's kind of over the top. There's a lot of hubris here. So the first edition, "Statement of Purpose" included, quote, "We are as Gods and might as well get used to it." And it goes on, "A realm of intimate personal power is developing. Power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested." Rob Dietz That's a little different from other catalogs of the day, right? I don't really recall the Sears catalog saying anything like that. Jason Bradford Yeah, I mean, think about it. A lot is going on in this time with advanced technology, with sort of human potential type movements in the Bay Area. Rob Dietz With progressive people getting shot all over the place. Jason Bradford Yeah, I mean, it's a mess, right? And I think this is sort of an early sign of the schism between environmentalists. Some who are skeptical of technology and big institutions and want to sort of drop out and learn how to do it on their own. And they end up developing concepts like appropriate technology and simple living. And then Brand, who ends up really going on to embrace very advanced technologies as our salvation and humans as separate from nature. Asher Miller Before we move on to Rob, you talking about what really struck you about Stewart Brand's life and work, I think it's important for people to just to understand how incredibly influential it was. You you quoted, Markoff about this. But think about it, the 72 editions sold one and a half million copies. I mean, that really was like a huge counterculture kind of cultural mainstay for people. Jason Bradford And they're incredible pieces of work. Absolutely. Rob Dietz Well, and you gotta check my stats on this, but at that time, the United States only had 500,000 people. So everybody had 1.5 copies or 2. Asher Miller Well, they had that one in the bathroom, bedroom. One in the kitchen. Rob Dietz Yeah. Right. Well, okay. So actually, I think, on the tail of what you're talking about, Jason, is what fascinated me. And that's, his next publication is the Coevolutionary Quarterly. That I don't find fascinating. But it's the voices that he collected for this thing. And I'm not going to read all of them. But the way I looked at it is, he had two camps of voices. So you can make a Venn diagram, you know, you take the two ovals and smash them together. So one of those ovals is the ecological voices. And these are people like Donella Meadows, probably my top eco-hero, H.T. Odum, the famous ecologist. And our guy, Wendell Berry, right? And even a sci-fi writer, like Ursula Le Guin. So, some cool people that we are hearing from on that side. But then, he also has this over-the-top techno-utopian camp where people like Amory Lovins, and Kevin Kelly and the physicist, Gerard O'Neill come into play. And let me talk about him in just a sec. But if you want to think about the middle of that Venn diagram, where it squashes and you have overlap, you could see a voice like Paul Hawken, who's got one foot in the, you know, the eco side of things, and one foot in the capitalist growth and in techno-science. Asher Miller And lawn furniture. Rob Dietz Lawn furniture, what? Jason Bradford Yeah, so it is amazing. So in other words, he's really exploring the breadth of sort of philosophy with this journal. Which, coevolution, the term, actually came out about that time. And it was a Stanford professor, Paul Ehrlich with Peter Raven who actually wrote the paper on coevolution. Rob Dietz Well, kind of cool, yeah, to be wrestling with this stuff. But I think Stewart Brand was leaning very deeply into that techno-utopian side. And this comes from one of the early editions, fall of 1975, there was a 25-page cover story by the physicist Gerard O'Neill, who proposed, "Get the name, O'Neill space colonies." So the idea there is that - Well, okay, here's the exact title of it. It was, "O'Neill's Space Colonies: Practical, Desirable, Profitable, Ready in 15 years." Jason Bradford Order in the catalog. Asher Miller Yeah, I remember going up on one of those when I was like in high school. Rob Dietz But didn't the valedictorian of your high school get to go live in O'Neill space colony? Asher Miller Absolutely. Rob Dietz Alright, that one didn't quite work out. Well, so you know, I'm not just saying that Brand let this guy publish that in the in magazine. Brand wrote the introduction. And he said, I'm going to floor you with this quote, "Space colonies show promise of being able to solve, in order, the energy crisis, the food crisis, the arms race, and the population problem. Space is part of the wildness in which lies the preservation of the world." Asher Miller Yeah, so growing food in space, check. Wildness in the vacuum of space, double check. Jason Bradford Yeah, this is kind of bizarre and over the top. Rob Dietz And I'm so glad that no one has nuclear weapons pointed at each other anymore. Asher Miller Yeah, well and we solved the energy crisis as we well know. Rob Dietz Done. Asher Miller Alright. I want to talk about his involvement with the internet. With specifically early, sort of like online communities, and the interactions. So he actually co-founded with somebody I actually know personally, Larry Brilliant. Something that was called the Well, which stands for the Whole Earth Electronic Link. I don't know why the hell they did that. Jason Bradford That's cool. Asher Miller They must have been on acid when they came up with that name. Rob Dietz Well, it would have been Weel if it was the other way. Well sounds deeper. Asher Miller Grateful Dead had a great song called, "The Wheel." But it really was like the first online community. You know, it actually got started in 85 really before the Internet as we know it was around, right. And so people were having direct tie-ins to each other. And what was, to me, so interesting about it, and really a reflection of that time, was the early optimism of the Internet age. Which we're all kind of soured and cynical and pessimistic about, you know, the internet and specifically online interactions and community and stuff. But at the time, and I remember because my dad was very, my dad was intimately involved with the formation of the internet. My dad was super involved in the creation of like, DSL, high speed internet stuff, knew a lot of these guys, you know. And I remember going with him to meetings with people. And the way that people spoke - First of all, so many of those people, men, in Silicon Valley, primarily, were direct products of that '60s counterculture. There's a direct line from one to the other. Do you know what I mean? And they had this optimism. This idea of like, we can have free access to information and connection. We don't need anyone, you know, to sort of stop that stuff from happening. And the Well is really interesting. There are a lot of really interesting folks that were part of it early on. Early pioneers in the internet world, like the folks that were the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Craig of Craigslist fame was an early member of the Well. But very interestingly and tellingly, so was Mike Godwin. You guys know who Mike Godwin is? Rob Dietz No. Asher Miller You know Godwin's Law? Jason Bradford Oh, yeah. Asher Miller You've heard of that? Jason Bradford Yeah. Asher Miller So Godwin's Law, named after Mike Godwin, he coined this phrase or this law in 1990, based a lot on the interactions that he was starting to see at the Well, right. Which was this kind of decentralized, basically you come as yourself, you be your own voice, sort of community space. Well, he basically posited this law based upon kind of the interactions that he saw there. Basically, the law is this: Quote, "As online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis, approaches one." So Godwin's law basically is, an online conversation, you know, Twitter thread, comments on the YouTube video, it inevitably will lead to somebody calling somebody else Hitler. Jason Bradford And then it's done. Then it's useless. Rob Dietz Can I just make a quick comment? It amazes me that this was in 1985. Like, at that time, I felt like internet meant you call your friend on a rotary phone and play Atari at the same time. Like, they were actually connected - Asher Miller They were directly connecting with each other before there was anything like, you know, AOL, or whatever. And I gotta say, there are a lot of deadheads that were involved early on in the Well. And again, a lot of this through line of this counterculture, libertarian, do your own thing baby kind of energy. Now Markoff notes that despite early lessons and Brand's own misgivings, he remained really publicly optimistic about the internet and computer technology. He told one interviewer quote, "Computers suppress our animal presence. When you communicate through a computer, you communicate like an angel." Godwin's like, "Uhh. Have you seen the shit show over here? Rob Dietz He must have said that before, right? It was like a guess of how it was gonna be? Jason Bradford No, no, this is after. The point is, even after Godwin's Law. Asher Miller I don't know if this is after you know, Facebook, sort of the worst of that world. I don't know. But . . . Rob Dietz Well, you know how often you get called like Malthusian doom nightmare. Asher Miller I played for you guys recordings. Jason Bradford Luciferian. Rob Dietz Yeah, we did it in Crazy Town. Yeah, you are my favorite Luciferian. Asher Miller Thank you. Rob Dietz Well, so this is all leading to this idea of ecomodernism. And we've got to talk about Brand as a leader of, I hate to call it an ecomodernist movement, but I think it really is. Asher Miller I got to just say, the eco- part in it really sticks in my craw. Jason Bradford Yes, you can see why they call it that. There's a little element to that where you can sort of say, okay, they nod to eco. Rob Dietz Yeah, we can come up with a better name, right? We'll think about that as we go along. We'll re-Brand them. Asher Miller We'll rebrand Brand. Rob Dietz Yeah. So where he really started to come clean and let people know that he was on a different track was this book that he wrote called, "Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary." Asher Miller I liked one of those. Rob Dietz Yeah, that's what I'm saying. Asher Miller One of those. Rob Dietz One of five he got right. He has a 200 batting average, which is terrible. Asher Miller It's the Mendoza line. Rob Dietz Yeah, but you know, he's saying we gotta gather up in cities, we got to have nukes, all that. So What Markoff then says about Brand and his book is that, "He buried himself in his pro-technology vision of environmentalism, committed to countering the deleterious impact that humans were having on Earth by embracing technology rather than rejecting it. Jason Bradford Yeah, and this goes on. And so, now we can say it's part of an ecomodernist movement. Because in 2015, he was listed as an author, among 18 authors, of what's titled, "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." The manifesto thing just kills me, but that's what they call it. So they really dismiss any limits to growth. There's a quote in this that I find absolutely wonderful. Quote, "Remarkably little evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future. To the degree to which there are a fixed physical boundaries to human consumption, they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant." So not really listening to the Donella Meadows side of the equation here in the Venn diagram. Asher Miller I just need to pause this for a second because I want to talk about the breakthroughs - if that's okay? So Breakthrough Institute, I would say, were really the driving force behind this Ecomodernist Manifesto. And probably the predominant sort of organizational entity institution that's behind, I don't even want to call it a movement. Rob Dietz Can I jump in and tell you that after I finish my internship at the Cato Institute that I'm hoping to get a job at Breakthrough. So try to go easy on them, okay. Asher Miller Yeah, I don't know. If they look at your resume, Rob . . . Or listen to any of the podcast. Rob Dietz Like I can't lie on a resume, come on. Asher Miller So, Breakthrough Institute was started by these two guys, Ted Nordhaus, nephew of our very favorite economist, William Nordhaus. Rob Dietz Slightly edging out Herman Daly. Asher Miller And Michael Shellenberger. Some of our listeners might be familiar with him because he actually just ran for governor in California. Jason Bradford How'd he do? Asher Miller Fantastic. So well. Jason Bradford Oh. How many votes? Asher Miller I don't know. Jason Bradford Okay, Rob Dietz At least four. Asher Miller And they first got fame, Ted and Michael got fame for a paper they wrote in 2004, called "The Death of Environmentalism." That was actually really quite a sensation. And it challenged the status quo thinking, and the strategies of the environmental movement. I actually remember reading it. and thinking that there's a lot in there that was on point. Jason Bradford I believed that too. Asher Miller And it really did land like sort of a bomb. Now these guys were very good. Probably the thing that they're best at is self-promotion, you know. And they were really good at it then, hey continued to be really good at it. They formed BTI, which I think of, in some ways, as like a doppelganger organization for PCI. You know, they talk about the central importance of energy and fossil fuels, and particularly in an industrial society, as we have. But they of course, come out with completely different conclusions about what needs to be done, right. So their thing is about ramping up energy, lifting people out of energy poverty. And I gotta say, they're kind of assholes. Really. Jason Bradford Yeah, how so? Asher Miller I'll just give you a little example. Jason Bradford Okay. Asher Miller I mean, they're known to be assholes. I'm not the only one who said this. I'll give you an example. There was this interesting debate, I think it was Huffington Post, they had his weird debate format that they started which was like a chat debate online at one point. Rob Dietz It was like the Well. Asher Miller Yeah. And it was like the Well. But they forgot to invite Godwin to come in and referee. Because Ted Nordhaus was on there debating this guy, Josh Fox. And I don't know if you guys remember Josh Fox. Josh Fox made that movie, he made a series of movies actually, about fracking. He was a really big outspoken critic of fracking, the impacts of fracking on communities and the environment. Jason Bradford And BTI did a lot of work to help people that were working in that space have some facts about the possibilities . . . Asher Miller Yeah, understand the potential of it because it's so hyped. And, you know, one of the things that BTI and Nordhaus and Shellenberger have talked a lot about is sort of promoting natural gas as a transition fuel. We know natural gas, it's better than coal. And Nordhaus was on this debate. It was basically, and I mean this literally like verbatim, just saying to Fox, you just want children in China to die from air pollution from coal. Jason Bradford You just want that. That's what you want deep down in your heart. Asher Miller Yeah, basically. That's what you want. If you're sitting here opposing fracking, that's what you're basically asking for. That's absurd. And so it's just this aggressive, dickish approach. And then I'll just share one other thing, which is, it kind of broke my heart to discover that somebody who had been a very good friend of mine in college, is intimately involved with - Jason Bradford Big funder? Asher Miller Yeah, with Breakthrough Institute. And, you know, Rachel Pritzker, part of the Pritzker Family, and it makes me, I gotta say, it still totally bums me out. And it just shows you that we can all wind up in really different places in our journeys, looking at the same information. Which, you know, I think gets us back a little bit to Steward Brand because you could see that conflict in him, right. And let's say we all have a shared same sense of values or shared goals, it doesn't mean we arrive at the same conclusion. Jason Bradford Does Rachel know that you want people to starve in the dark? Asher Miller I don't know. I have not had that conversation with her. I'm sure that Ted and Michael have told her all about that. Rob Dietz How come we haven't gotten that into our mission statement yet? We want starvation. Unbelievable. Well, let's look in a little more depth at ecomodernism and what they're selling out there on the streets. And one of the main things that they pick up is this idea of decoupling, dematerialization. We've talked about this a little bit before. If you want to really nerd out, go into the peer reviewed literature on decoupling. You can find lots of math, lots of stories, but the idea essentially is that we can keep on building things in the economy, doing things in the economy, but we're going to be more efficient, we're going to use less energy and less materials to do it. Now, you've seen some of this happen. But you've also not seen any lowering in the overall material and energy throughput that we've seen. Worldwide we're still we're still using a lot. Jason Bradford Yes, their whole ideas that we can liberate the environment from the economy. That's my favorite quote in all this. The other thing that they argue as part of this liberation, of course, is that cities get bigger and larger, they become more efficient, both in material use and the ability to solve problems. So cities are these great problem-solving places because people can come together in cities easier than other places and meet the challenge of the future. So if bigger is better, then cities, Brand actually says this, conceivably could grow forever. And so this is basically getting people to not be reliant on nature. So when people are in cities, they are not cutting wood for growing food inefficiently so nature can be spared. That's their argument. We're just going to try to go through their arguments and later we're gonna rip them to shreds. Asher Miller Yeah, okay. I'm trying to bite my tongue here. Another key tenet, I would say that's pretty ubiquitous in the ecomodernist space is a belief in nuclear power. I'll use the Beakthrough Institute guys as an example. You know, they really understand how important energy is to modernization and industrial society. They question the ability of renewables to scale and fully replace you know, solar and wind in particular, to replace fossil fuels. A view I think that that we share in a lot of ways. But their solution or response to that is we need to basically double down, reinvest in nuclear energy technology, and modernize it. I mean, even Stewart Brand has gotten really enamored by the idea of these small-scale nuclear reactors. You get one. You get one. Just a closet-size nuclear reactor. Everyone can have one. Rob Dietz Bring back the catalog and sell them out of there. Asher Miller The local city hall has got, you know, a nuclear reactor in the basement. No problem. Rob Dietz Yeah, sweet. Well, Jason, try to hold back your tears on this one because there's another tenet of ecomodernism, which is intensification of agriculture. So more in the crop genetics, more in the synthetic fertilizer, more drones and combines and industrial equipment rolling over. And it's all for increasing yields to whatever infinite amount we can. Jason Bradford Yeah, totally. And what I find interesting is how Brand, who started out as a libertarian, now calls himself a post libertarian. You can really understand because these ecomodernists really are now institutionalists. They understand that back to the lander owners with their appropriate technology, they're not going to do any of these big fixes. These big fixes are going to require big government managing the planet. So they actually believe a lot in government investment, in well-regulated businesses. And so, he has this shift then in his outlook to align with this ecomodernist perspective. And, you know, he even says that, quote, "Whole Earth Catalog was very libertarian, but that's because it was about people in their 20s, and everybody that was reading Robert Heinlein and asserting themselves and all that stuff. We didn't know what government did. The whole government apparatus is quite wonderful and quite crucial. It makes me frantic that it's being taken away." So I think that's an important thing is managing the planet requires now a whole giant government apparatus. Rob Dietz So big tech, big government, big corporation. What could go wrong? Asher Miller So we were saying we, I was saying, I don't really like the ecomodernist name, right? Maybe we can come up with a new one. I'm thinking something like techno-neo-libertarian. Because they're not libertarians, right. They're neo liberals in the sense that they want government to play a role. To come in and to influence the system to get the outcomes they want. And the outcome they want is this sort of techno-utopian, highly complex - Jason Bradford Highly complex, highly managed. We are gods. Rob Dietz That's a little academic for me. How about big pile of techno-bullshit? Melody Allison How would you like to hang out with Asher, Rob and Jason? Well, your chance is coming up at the fourth annual Crazy Town Hall. The town hall is our most fun event of the year, where you can ask questions, play games, get insider information on the podcast, and share plenty of laughs. It's a special online event for the most dedicated crazy townies out there. And it's coming up on June 6, 2023 from 10 to 11:15am US Pacific Time. To get an invite, make a donation of any size. Go to post carbon.org/supportcrazytown. When you make a donation, we'll email you an exclusive link to join the Crazy Town Hall. If we get enough donations, maybe we can finally hire some decent hosts! Join us at the Crazy Town Hall on June 6, 2023. Again, to get your invitation go to postcarbon.org/supportcrazytown. Jason Bradford Okay, it's funny that we just were trying to come up with a name for these guys when of course, I mean, I wrote an entire paper about this, which is making the rounds right now. Asher Miller Yeah, #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Jason Bradford No, this is an academic paper, okay. The information is freely available to those who have the subscription. Rob Dietz He's way more interested in impact factor. So number of citations on Google Scholar. Jason Bradford Correct. Right, right. Okay, so the key part about about these guys, these ecomodernists and Stewart Brand is this notion that we can dematerialize. We can separate the economy from nature. And that is what is sort of diagnostic. And they have these very specific technologies they think are going to get us there. And so that's why the name, the official name of their species is Homo spiritus-industriae, which means basically in English, industrial breatharian. Asher Miller Industrial breatharian. Rob Dietz This is my favorite Phalse Prophet species. I have to say. I got a soft spot for these guys. Jason Bradford I think our original ad for the whole season was the Breatharians Cookbook. Rob Dietz So our sponsors even know - Jason Bradford How important Breatharianism is. Asher Miller It's too bad they paid us in the same form - nothingness. Just envision money. Rob Dietz Is that cryptocurrency? Asher Miller Envision being paid. Jason Bradford Well, it's this weird situation where the only way to maintain modernism is that energy becomes abundant and nearly free, machines end up doing all the work, and nearly all people live in cities so the Earth can rewild for essentially aesthetic reasons. Rob Dietz And I will give you kudos. Your description says that the species that they're envisioning are richer, non-molecular, American Airlines, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bed Bath and Beyond. Jason Bradford Yes, it's non-molecular. That's basically what it is. If you follow the logic you get to this absurdity is the problem. So anyway, they are wonderful and justful breatharians. And that's what I hope sticks. Rob Dietz Don't forget to look for pockets of habitat on top of San Francisco buildings with LSD lying around. So I'd like to thank you two for holding the eye rolling and the huffing and puffing as we were going through - Asher Miller I did pretty well. I have to give myself some credit. Jason Bradford Rob's slipped a little bit, a little. Rob Dietz A little. It's hard. It's so hard. Well, so now we're gonna get into it. So the very first thing I think you've got to look at is this just insane trust in technology. So you know, we're talking about different names for these guys. And I think something like techno-blinded-delusionists is a pretty good one. I mean, what we're talking about is, instead of worshipping technology and relying on some Savior thing to come in, we really need to think about how we wield technology. What's the appropriate scale? We did a whole episode of this in our inaugural season on, we called it, "They'll think of somethingisms" Jason Bradford Oh, that's right. That was episode nine, actually. I liked that episode a lot. Rob Dietz Yeah, and they just sort of say, trust us and are very dismissive. And you, like you're saying, rude to this guy, Josh Fox? Just rude. And so that's what pisses me off. And the whole notion is that with any technology, think of any technology, when you roll it out, there's always some consequences that are unforeseen and unintended. And to believe that we're just going to suddenly evolve to wield any technology with wisdom. What are we talking about? What it also smacks of: you just get to keep doing what you're doing, you know. Because you like the technology that you've gotten to play with and you've gotten really wealthy off of it. So it's like a rationalization scheme or something. Jason Bradford Yeah. And the other thing that this whole, "We are Gods, and should act accordingly." There actually was a book by Harari, you know, "Homo Deus." It's funny because that's a new taxonomic name for humans instead of Homo sapiens. Now we're the Gods species, for God's sakes. Sorry. Asher Miller Not that we're Homo sapiens, as in wise, in the first place. Jason Bradford Right. I mean, to name ourselves Homos Deus basically means that you're not Homo sapiens. Rob Dietz I feel like I'm Homo doofus myself. Jason Bradford So I think, you know, this is that whole, instead of believing that we're Gods, maybe recognize that we're animals. And instead of starting to completely separate ourselves from nature, realizing that we're part of nature. And so that I think is just a complete philosophical schism that I cannot resolve in any way in my mind. Asher Miller Now didn't Brand himself, he went through kind of a little bit of a shift, right? You talked about 1968, right. The first Whole Earth Catalog. He said something like . . . Jason Bradford "We're as Gods and we better get good at it." And then he rewrote this - an update in 2009. He said, "We are as Gods and we have to get good at it." So it's almost like he feels this pressure, right? That we better solve all this. To me, it almost seems like there's doubt in there in a sense, you know. Asher Miller Well, and that to me is one of the big ahas about these guys is this idea that we have to double down. So for him, you know, to have gone through this period of seeing the impacts of technology and human impacts on the natural world, and the consequences of those - Jason Bradford I'm sure hates it. Asher Miller From 68 to 2008 and 2009, just an awareness of climate for example, do you know what I mean? Instead of saying, "Oh shit, let's reorient ourselves." He's like, doubling down on the idea of acting like Gods, right? And I think that there's a lot of that energy there which is like, we have to lift people out of energy poverty. We have to - These things are in a sense nonnegotiable, right? So, interestingly, nonnegotiable is us changing our advanced way of life right, our material throughput, the consumption patterns of those of us in rich industrial countries, right? That's not on the table for negotiation. So what we should actually do is just lift everybody else to the same level of consumption that we have. The way to do that is, as you talked about, is like dematerialized, like, "There won't be any consequences for that." Jason Bradford Yeah, it's kind of a magic wand approach, but saying, "Must be done. There's no other way." Asher Miller But that's the thing, and that's I think where some of the asshole-ness kind of comes out. And I'm not saying Stewart Brand is an asshole, I just think there's a little bit of that energy in that space. Which is like, if you are telling us to power down instead of doubling down, then you basically are saying, these poor people should stay poor or stay energy poor. Rob Dietz It drives me nuts because it's the people here who are overconsuming that need to power down, right? We're not asking your, your friends, Jason, the Romanian peasants to use less energy. We're asking the Silicon Valley types to use less energy. Asher Miller And a lot of like, I can't remember who, but talked about some of using the term ecopragmatist, right? Like, I think they'd like to think of themselves as ecopragmatists. So that's part of why there's a lot of this, we have to embrace natural gas for now, right? Because coal is worse. We gotta do natural gas because renewables are not there. Jason Bradford We've gotta let the technology catch up. Asher Miller And it's like, if you're opposed to that, then you hate poor people and you're standing in the way of progress. Rob Dietz And eventually, you're a Nazi, right? That's what Godwin would say. Well, look, it's funny because you said the dematerialization decoupling. To me, those are words more than actual things that we're seeing happening out there. Like I said before, you could look in the peer review and really dive into this topic. I mean, yes, we've gotten more efficient at doing some things, but there's so many problems. You think about almost being on a treadmill, right? If you're growing the economy while you're making efficiency improvements it's like the treadmill keeps pushing you back. You're at best running in place, and sometimes getting thrown off the back of that treadmill. Because while you've maybe learned how to do an industrial process, burning less energy, you've grown the economy and grown that industry. And so your output, in terms of energy, the resources, you need, you're not making up any ground. Jason Bradford And there's a lot of rebound effect going on. So sure, LEDs are more efficient, but now we have lights more than we ever did. Rob Dietz Yeah. Jevons paradox. Jason Bradford Yeah. That's the word for it. Asher Miller I mean, I look at a lot of electric vehicles honestly as Jevons paradox on wheels, because they, you see all the whiz bang technology and stuff that these electric vehicles have. It astonishes me. Maybe I talked about this before - I saw a Tesla basically running its AC for hours on its own just to keep the car cool because it was a hot day. You know what I mean? Just because they can. because they have this battery. Jason Bradford Yeah, they think, this is practically free and it's eco. And so that's what ends up being sort of maddening. They look at the statistics, they can say yes, of course, the CO2 emissions are continuing to go up. We notice that. But this technology is advancing. And eventually we'll get to this point where, even as we're growing the economy, eventually we'll get over the hump. And I just don't buy it. Rob Dietz And why can't we try a both end approach? Why can't we try to develop more efficiency, while also limiting the size of the overall enterprise? Jason Bradford That would be kind of a nice middle ground, wouldn't it? Asher Miller That would require acknowledging that there are limits. People don't want to acknowledge that there are limits. Jason Bradford I think the other thing is that gets to me is they have this amazing sense of the human ability to manage the Earth. This godlike sense. And of course, the big institutions that can handle this, they actually get to this point where they imagine a future where our technology is so advanced, and we're so good at managing humans in cities with vertical farms and fusion power, that we don't even need nature for utilitarian reasons. Here's an amazing quote, "People may choose to have some services like water purification and flood protection provided for by natural systems, such as forested watersheds, reefs, marsh and wetlands, even if those natural systems are more expensive than building water treatment plants, sea walls and levees. This is from the Ecomodernist manifesto. So they're basically saying that they imagine we're going to build some complex infrastructure. Asher Miller They think that nature is more expensive. Jason Bradford Than building the most massive levees and water treatment plants. And of course, we can't even keep our bridges from collapsing right now. And we're worried about the electric grid browning out with unprotected solar storms. Asher Miller Or one code glitch. You remember with the airlines? Like with the airlines, every flight had to be put on pause because one contractor deleted one line of code in the system. Jason Bradford Any trains having problems running across the country not falling off their tracks lately? Rob Dietz It's the same faith actually, in technology itself. They have placed the same faith in the institutional ability. Jason Bradford Exactly. That's what I find amazing is that they don't understand complexity itself. It's such a burden. You know, they've gotten a lot of things wrong. Those O'Neill space colonies aren't there. Rob Dietz I looked up at the sky. I saw these bright points of light at night. Weren't those space colonies? Jason Bradford Right. So yeah - Asher Miller It's called space debris. Jason Bradford They never heard of Joseph Tainter. You know, I guess Asher Miller No. You know, I was thinking, and this might come across as political or controversial for folks. But I was thinking about the Wuhan lab leak theory that is a potential source of the pandemic that we've had as a really kind of interesting, and a very sad and horrific example of so many of these threads that we're talking about here. Because you think about it, and of course, I don't know. I don't know what the reality is in terms of the origin, the source of COVID-19. Jason Bradford But it's plausible. Asher Miller But it's certainly plausible. But what happened with that, right? I mean, let's say, there was a lab in Wuhan. They were doing their - Jason Bradford Data functing testing. Asher Miller Data function testing. Jason Bradford Yeah, with CRISPR. Asher Miller And so this idea of, we could, with our great God-like ability, utilize technology to change something in nature. And we could be so confident in our ability to contain these efforts, to be on top of it, that we don't have to worry about something like this leaking. Jason Bradford Like millions of people dying and the global economy shutting down for a couple of years. Asher Miller Right. And in fact, what happens immediately after the pandemic starts is an organized effort to shut down any discussion of this. So on top of all that, like, you know, is, the fact that we're unwilling to learn. No humility. Jason Bradford Right. So if you're going to do this stuff, you've got to learn from the mistakes rather than covering your political ass. Asher Miller Exactly. Rob Dietz Look at how long the precautionary principle has been around. Jason Bradford Well it hasn't been used. Rob Dietz Exactly. There's no use. So these guys, these ecomodernists, or whatever I called them, techno- Asher Miller Industrial Breatharians. Rob Dietz Yeah, okay, there we go. The real name. These guys, they keep talking about it, "Well, all we have to do is wield this technology wisely." Give me some good examples. Jason Bradford Well, right now, I know that Homeland Security is like terrified, because you've got these AIs that can help you make almost whatever you want in terms of proteins, and figuring out how genes can be spliced together. And CRISPR is getting cheap and easy. So this is not stuff that may even just stick to a Wuhan lab, so to speak. Now this stuff is getting out. And it's almost impossible to regulate this stuff. We can't even regulate it when it's official government labs, let alone getting out in the world. Asher Miller I want to give back to the ecomodernists and their influence in their position. Because what really makes me distraught to think about is, with all the critiques that they have of environmentalism, their attacks on environmentalists, you know, the death of environmentalism, all that stuff. The truth is right now, they're winning. They've kind of won the hearts and minds of environmentalism. I mean, you talk, Jason, about sort of this idea of urbanization. And how many, if you stopped 100 environmentalists on the street and you talk to them about cities, and then you ask them: Are they more environmentally friendly or less environmentally friendly? Are they more sustainable or less sustainable? You know, almost all of them would say more sustainable? Jason Bradford Well think about Corvallis right now. You're part of the Corvallis Climate Asher Miller - Advisory Board. Jason Bradford Advisory Board. I mean, the big thing Corvallis is being asked to do is how to build smarter cities to cope with climate change. It's about densification. So there's no concept of ruralization, or living in place, or anything like that. Rob Dietz Daily you can find an article that's titled, "Why New York City is the Greenest City in America," or "the Greenest Place in America." Asher Miller I guess my point is, fuck, they've kind of - Jason Bradford No, they've won. Asher Miller Let's not say the battle is over. But they're winning. They're hitting much better than the Mendoza line I gotta say. Rob Dietz Crazy Town is on the case though. We're gonna try to, we're gonna shift this battle. Jason Bradford Okay, now it's time for the insufferability index. How bad is this guy, Stewart Brand? We're far enough into the season that I'm not gonna go into any details. Okay, we're talking like Tucker Carlson's way up there, you know, like a 9. Nelson Mandela might be 0 or 1. So what are we going to score this guy, right? Let's think about him from his intentions, his personality, his ideas? Anyone want to run through it first? Rob Dietz Well, you know, as I confessed, I thought of this guy as sort of an environmental hero before doing a deeper dive in. So I'm worried he's gonna score pretty low for me. I mean, I think it would be interesting to talk to him. You had lunch with him and didn't have any, like, skin rashes or any problems. Jason Bradford He didn't say a word so I don't really know. Rob Dietz I mean, I just - I think his intentions are pretty good. And he does not strike me as a jackass. Like, he seems like a thinker and a doer and a person of action. And it's more the idea, right? Like the conclusion he draws is just opposite of the conclusions we would draw. And so that's where he's gonna score for me. Like, I'd say about a 3. Asher Miller Interesting. Yeah, so it was pretty easy for me to score this, right. If we're doing a score of 0-3 right with the 3 in each of these categories being the worst. I'm gonna give him a 1 for intentions because I think his intentions are pretty good. Personality, from what I could see, I'll probably give him a 1 as well. Give him the benefit of the doubt there. But his ideas, I'm gonna give him a 2. So I'm giving him a four altogether. Jason Bradford Okay. You know, I did a little more of the background research than you guys did. He's had a number of times when he did the sort of thing that you were upset with Ted Nordhaus doing where he basically shut someone down and called them out. Asher Miller Okay, so maybe . . . Jason Bradford So I'm gonna jack him up a little bit in terms of his personality, you know, maybe give him a 1.5. And, you know, it kind of upsets me that he has had access to all the breadth of these ideas. Like he's rubbed shoulders with Wendell Berry. Asher Miller People we would love to have met and spent time with. Jason Bradford Yeah, and the whole thing he keeps talking about, this God thing that makes me think that there's more there in terms of like, just being a little smarmy. But yeah, he does come off as this sort of sage-like wise creature with depth and stuff. So I'm gonna go more of the 5. I think he hides a lot of it well. Rob Dietz You're starting to influence me though. Asher Miller No man, you already voted. Rob Dietz Well, can we at least agree that Forrest Gump is in the 0-1 range? Jason Bradford He's pretty low. Asher Miller I think he's a little insufferable. All this fucking chocolate talk. George Costanza Every decision I've ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right. Rob Dietz I know in the do the opposite we want to give you actionable things. And this is a little, maybe it's contradictory - But I think before you're talking about changing what you do, you've got to also change how you think. And we've drawn this idea out that Stewart Brand has a lot in common with us when you're talking about the preliminary information. But then the concluding information, we just go in opposite directions. And I think what we would ask is that you really need to think about what conclusions you draw from the observations you make. And you need to recognize that there's nuance and complexity out there. And have some humility when you're considering how to handle these predicaments that we see. So, you know, if we're using too much energy, or we're whipping through resources faster than the Earth can regenerate, and you're seeing a biodiversity crisis, you've got to think very carefully about what's a reasonable conclusion from that. Not just double down on what you've got because it helps you rationalize where you are. Jason Bradford Yeah, the thing that drives me nuts, the philosophy that I really have, is that nature and humans are inseparable. We are from nature. Our physiology, our mental health, only functions properly when interacting with the 1000's of other species that we coexist with, and the bioactive compounds they produce. And just all the joy, the wonder of interacting with other creatures out there. And so this separation, I mean, in a sense, they say, "We want to separate only in our cities, but making nature even better." But I don't think that's possible at all. And so where do you come down on this? What is your philosophy of human's relationship to the nonhuman world? Asher Miller Well I mean, to me it's a really simple do the opposite. If he's saying, "We are as Gods," I would say, stop acting like Gods. Right? I mean, it's - Rob Dietz Or stop pretending to be a God. I liked how you set it up so we're not Gods, we're animals. And also just the idea of other people in the space, scientists, they are putting out opposing viewpoints. I mean, we've had the warning to humanity that basically, we need to respect limits. We need to understand that we can cause this damage, maybe that's the God-like piece or the Devil-like piece. And have a little humility about it. Jason Bradford I think that's a good - We didn't actually hit this in the program a lot, but Stewart Brand has a lot of quotes where he's basically calling folks like us unscientific. And they make all these claims about how rational and pragmatic and scientific he is. And I find it really thin and a lot of BS. And like you're saying, a lot of the scientists I know are really worried about this stuff and don't buy full on ecomoderism. Asher Miller Especially the natural scientists who understand natural systems. The other thing I would say, this is maybe not even do the opposite. It's more like a, let's revisit something, which is, let's bring back the appropriate technology, mindset, and movement. I don't know how many of our listeners will be familiar with this. But you know, in the 70s and 80s, there was a significant movement, a global one really, that was focused on appropriate technology, that was quite popular. And it's since faded into obscurity. And the idea really, I think people look at it as actually maybe having originated with Gandhi. He never used that that terminology, but he had a vision of village-based technology. And then later E.F. Schumacher wrote about this as well. Rob Dietz And you know, when I was doing economics in the 90s, you never heard of E.F. Schumacher in an econ class. I had to find that later. Like you say, rediscover these philosophies. Asher Miller Yeah, and you know, it's no surprise. As a response to oil shocks in the 70s, a lot of people were looking at these things. And I think it's important to recognize what the vision is of appropriate technology. I'll use a description of the Pachamama Alliance uses to describe it, quote, "It involves small scale, labor intensive, energy efficient, environmentally sound, people centered, and locally controlled products." Rob Dietz Like a nuclear power plant, right. Asher Miller Right, exactly. Like a small scale one. Jason Bradford Yeah. A John Deere combine with an AI on it. Asher Miller Exactly. Jason Bradford Yeah. Yeah, there's still a lot of great work being done in this space, actually. Kris De Decker, who we've talked about with "Low Tech Magazine," and I touched upon this in "The Future is Rural" in 2019, published by Post Carbon Institute that become connected to nature and these utilitarian ways. Learning how to design around provisioning, wherever you are. A lot of permaculture is about this. In fact, my friend Andrew Millison, the permaculturist at Oregon State University just got back from India, actually. So it's interesting you brought that up. And what they're doing there is they're actually rediscovering a lot of the old water infrastructure that villages had. And villages in India actually are managed by watersheds. They own that they kind of own their watershed in common. And so they can do these projects where, they restore a lot of the watershed function, and they're able to then raise their water table again and produce more or are double cropping. And so he said, there's tremendous work done. And again, It's low-tech, it's like what you're saying - That Gandhi vision and the Pachamama Alliance. So it's tremendous what we can actually do and it's appropriate technology. Rob Dietz Yeah. And maybe in a do-as-I-do and as-I-say moment, we would recommend learning a primary sector trade. Or maybe even just a hobby, like podcasting. Primary sector, yeah. Asher Miller Absolutely, low-tech, village life. Rob Dietz Well, you know, in all seriousness though, like a practical skill might serve you well in this local economy, powered down, people centered, all those descriptors really make sense. Jason Bradford Well, yeah, Rob. I mean, if Stewart Brand is a Phalse Prophet, then the motto may turn out to be, we thought we were Gods, but we don't anymore, so get good at something useful. Asher Miller That's good. Well, thanks for listening. If you made it this far then maybe you actually liked the show. Rob Dietz Yeah, and maybe you even consider yourself a real inhabitant of Crazy Town. Someone like us who we affectionately call a Crazy Townie. Jason Bradford If that's the case, then there's one very simple thing you can do to help us out. Share the podcast or even just this episode. Asher Miller Yeah, text three people you know who you think would get a kick out of hearing from us bozos. Rob Dietz Or if you want to go way old school then tell them about the podcast face to face Jason Bradford Please for the love of God. If enough people listen to this podcast, maybe one day we can all escape from Crazy Town. We're just asking for three people, a little bit of sharing. We can do this. 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