Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand

In the spirit of the Whole Earth Catalog, this book reads more like an extended blog post than a non-fiction book, mainly because it covers so much material at a pretty high level. I feel like each chapter is a well crafted summary of at least five other books cited in the end-notes. This is not a complaint; synthesis is where Stewart Brand shines.

The basic thesis of the book is this:

  • Cities, nuclear power, and genetic engineering are good for the environment.
  • Geoengineering is probably necessary to mitigate global warming.

About cities

  • Slums are vibrant, starting flimsy but then becoming a lot more substantial. In India, slums are 1/6 of GDP! Informal economy is huge.
  • 80-90% of GNP growth happens in cities. Cities only take up 2.8% of the world’s landmass, but house half of its people. Birth rate goes down.
  • Geoff West on Kleiber’s law: Individual productivity rises superlinearly (eg. When a city doubles in size, productivity increases more than 2x). Note that this is different for companies, and for individuals.
  • Brand claims the Russian birth rate is 1.14, and the average Russian woman has seven abortions. This seems too high, and more recent data says a birth rate of 1.4, but apparently Russia does have the highest number of abortions per woman of child bearing age.
  • Density => Green. NYC is the greenest city in the US by many metrics.

About nuclear power

  • Baseload refers to a solid guaranteed source of power that can operate at all times and doesn’t require storage. Wind and solar have that down side.
  • If all of the energy you were to use in a life time (1 GW year), were stored, it would amount to 20 tons if nuclear (stored in dry storage casks), and 8 million tons (directly into the air) if coal. Nuclear is on par (environmentally) with solar and wind.
  • Apparently no birth defects are attributed to Chernobyl or to Hiroshima. Also Chernobyl death count is much lower than I expected, at 56. Brand glosses over any cancer related deaths, which according to wikipedia are ~4,000.
  • Main cost of Chernobyl and nuclear in general (except Japan bombs) fear of radiation takes a much bigger toll than the radiation itself.
  • Even more crazy is this idea of Hormesis which is that low dose radiation is good for you. But this sounds like crockery, highly unverified.
  • EPA has very severe thresholds for radiation exposure for people, requiring nuclear sites lower exposure to under 15 mrem of radiation per year. But this is far lower than background radiation in many places. 284 mrem in Connecticut or 364 mrem in Colorado or 13k mrem in Ramsar, Iran.
  • Most of France’s energy is provided by Nuclear (54 reactors), and they have very clean air.
  • Lots of new developments in nuclear reactors, lots more uranium in the soil, prospects to use thorium (which can’t be used for weapons?). Also, smaller scale underground reactors are coming up.
  • In Sweden, 1/3 of the population has toured a nuclear plant. This is a good way of increasing public acceptance.

About genetic engineering

  • Mendelian selection has been happening for ages. Chemical mutagenesis and then nuclear metagenesis, where plants get exposed to large amounts of radiation in order to encourage mutation, has also been common. These approaches are random, sometimes cause downsides.
  • With GE you can do much more tailored, fine-grained tweaks. “Like getting a spouse without in-laws, while breeding is like getting a spouse with a whole village”.
  • Half of corn in US is GE. Half the sugar comes from GE beets. A quarter of new drugs are made with GE. 90% of Hawaiian papayas are GE.
  • GE crops are engineered for pest and disease resistance, meaning less fertilizer is necessary, which is healthier and better for the environment.
  • GE foods are exhaustively vetted for safety, making them safer than conventional food. Billions have eaten GE food and not gotten sick.
  • Rift between Europeans and Americans. EU simply don’t want to eat GE foods. GE is beneficial for farmers, but consumers are opposed out of fear? Again Marin county leads the way: “Our children should not be used as guinea pigs for genetic engineering”.
  • How Monsanto works: glyphosate kills all plants but safe for animals. But Monsanto’s seeds are engineered by be glyphosate resistant. So spray glyphosate on fields and kill all of the weeds quickly.
  • Similar technique involves adding Bacillus thuringenesis (Bt) to crops, which is poisonous only to larvae. Bt corn and cotton are examples, and need way less pesticides.
  • Also with GE you can till less, which keeps carbon naturally stored in the earth from escaping.
  • Bad PR for Monsanto about enslaving farmers comes from the practice of engineering sterility into seeds so that farmers are required to go back to Monsanto for fresh seeds every year. But apparently farmers generally buy new seeds on a yearly basis anyway (but this begs the question of why Monsanto would want to engineer sterility in the first place).
  • Good to remember that Monsanto has competitors and that if they end up being malicious, farmers can easily find alternatives.
  • Also possible to use GE to enhance nutrition in otherwise nutritionally empty food. Examples: golden rice augmented with beta carotene, same with BioCassava which provides vitamin A, E, iron, zinc, free of cyanide and can store longer than regular cassava.
  • Overly euro-centric NGOs in Africa (little rain, hot) tend to bring crops that thrive in Europe (lots of rain, cold). Also Europe is anti-GE which doesn’t help Africa.

How to mitigate global warming

Renewistan is a hypothetical future dystopia that would result from us fully replacing conventional energy with renewable energy. This is not sufficiently efficient to be practical.

  1. Steven salter autonomous water particle sprayer with flettner sails. Would brighten clouds to offset a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  2. SO2 in the atmosphere. This happened naturally due to a volcanic explosion at Pinotubo in which 20M tons of so2 reduced earths temperature by 0.5C.

  3. Feed iron to carbon fixing algae to make them bloom. Unclear if this will work. Good case: algae sinks to bottom acting like carbon sink. Bad case: circulates in food webs near surface and returns to atmosphere.

  4. Floating vertical pipes to drive cool nutrient rich water from depths upward, while pumping CO2 and dimethyl sulphide (which makes sun reflective clouds) down. Using wave energy to do the work.

  5. Mixing non biodegradable biochar with soil you can ensure that the CO2 within it doesn't escape. Essentially you're growing plants which takes CO2 and then burning them into biochar, keeping the c sequestered.

  6. Artificial trees that capture a ton of CO2 a day chemically and use it for commercial stuff.

  7. Large sunglasses at L1 orbit to reduce the amount of heat from the sun directly.

  8. CROPS: sequester agricultural residues with bales at the bottom of the ocean. (Another idea I've heard is doing something similar but sending the waste to space using s railgun)

Cross cutting ideas

  1. Critique of precautionary principle, which is a doctrine against meddling regardless of risks and rewards. Fable of the steak knives (formulated by Jimmy Wales):

“You want to design a restaurant, and you think to yourself, “Well, in this restaurant we’re going to be serving steak. And since we’re going to be serving steak, we’re going to have steak knives, and since we’re going to have steak knives, people might stab each other. How do we solve this problem? We’re going to have to build cages around each table to make sure no one stabs each other.“ - Jimmy Wales

“Expected benefits from any act are finite and known: “Golden rice will prevent blindness in children.” Imagined problems are infinite and unknown: “Golden rice might cause poor people to stop eating green vegetables; it might lead to excess vitamin A consumption; it might be a Trojan horse for corporate takeover; it might cause who knows what prob-­ lems!” In this formulation, no good surprises are possible, all bad surprises are probable, and intended consequences are never what actually happen”

  1. Ideologically motivated environmentalists cause a lot of harm. For example Greenpeace’s anti GE activity has harmed developing world, leading to large scale famines. At the same time "romantics" are given their due for inspiring the masses to care about the environment, yet it's clear why they are at odds with science and engineering.

"It's fortunate that there are so many romantics in the movement, because they are the ones who inspire the majority in most developed societies to see themselves as environmentalists. But that also means that scientists and their perceptions are always in the minority; they are easily ignored, suppressed, or demonized when their views don't fit the consensus story line."

Environmentalists were against space exploration but it turned out to be a big deal because satellites were instrumental for ocean monitoring and the photo of earth from space motivated huge interest in ecology.

  1. Concentrate harm geographically. Cities > sprawl, nuclear waste > coal waste, high yield > low yield crop. Wall off the artificial from the natural.

Random interestingnesses

  • Darwin's solution to confirmation bias: "write down every piece of evidence that appears to contradict your beliefs, because otherwise they disappear from your mind".

  • Brand makes an example out of being wrong in public. He calls for more foxes to hold their opinions more strongly and for audiences to be more open to opinion change.

  • Fascinating angle on European-native American collision: that the indigenous population of the continent fell from 50-100M in 1491 to 7M by 1650? "Far from destroying pristine wilderness, Europeans bloodily created it". Apparently indigenous agriculture was in 2/3 of the US, coastal forests were cut down for farms, salmon nets covered most northwest streams, Indian fires abounded. TODO: Read Charles Mann, New Revelations Before Columbus

  • Biochar sounds interesting but don't fully understand. Idea: mix charcoal with soil and it becomes more fertile and better at sequestering carbon. Also apparently creating the biochar is good since it can be made from waste materials like rice husks and peanut shells. (TODO: Read more about it)

  • Costa Rica considers its whole territory a national park.

  • Very humanist: protected areas not "from people" but "for people".

  • The most ecologically diverse place in Asia? Somehow it is the DMZ between the Koreas.

  • Surprising: causes of bird deaths. Windows are by far the leading cause, followed closely by feral cats. Wind turbines are barely on the map.

  • There's a movement to reintroduce extinct animals to their original habitats. Active efforts for buffalo but even for megafauna like jaguars and elephants. Mainly to restore the ecosystem.

  • Interesting idea from Dave Foreman of huge interconnected nature preserves. In North America they form a square, across the pacific mountains, continental divide, Atlantic mountains and then arctic far north.

  • Brand seems really confident in our ability to predict potentially negative consequences of geoengineering by introducing foreign species yet there are so many examples of invasive species causing harm to an ecosystem. Do we know enough to fully predict the impact of intervention?

  • Crazy thing he mentions early on is the amount of biomass that is human vs that is bacterial. See human microbiome project. Apparently our bacteria outweigh us. Same with parasites, e.g. There's a parrot with 30 species of parasites that live on its wings.

  • Check out the big here quiz. I hardly knew any of the answers.

Brand dazzles with an array of convincing arguments. I’d like to read a similarly researched argument from the other side to see where I land.