Stewart Brand and Ecopragmatism
To open the Sustainable Cities, Healthy Watersheds 2007 Great Lakes Biennial Meeting and Conference, author, futurist, and cyberculturalist Stewart Brand touched on many serious environmental challenges in his talk on “ecopragmatism,” but among them were a few solutions.
Whole Earth Discipline: An ecopragmatist manifesto
Anyone familiar with this visionary thinker would not have been surprised at the incredible breadth of subjects with which this man is well-versed. Brand, after all, assembled The Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of Sears Catalog on steroids and an early precursor to the good ‘ol World Wide Web.
So, rather than attempt to summarize Brand’s lecture… just two notable highlights.
Then, go read his 1994 masterwork How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, and get ready for some excellent book recommendations for the next year or so in the process (I’m still catching up).
Night view of world cities from Brand’s “City Planet” presentation, showing the distribution of the world’s population eastward. Link to presentation.
I. Pragmatism or idealism?
What was most interesting and heartening about his talk were the possibilities that are beginning to emerge from populations that are increasingly aware of the precarious balance of the environment.
Brand’s focus on the shifting of population centers from rural and suburban to urban, and from West to East illustrated the growing demographic and economic power of some places we’ve been hearing about (Mumbai, India) and some we’ll need to do a little catchup on (Kibera, Nairobi). In many places, oft overlooked portions of cities are taking the lead.
“Squatter” cities, those places tourists rarely see, are increasingly becoming economic engines, with homegrown industries ranging from mobile phone repair stands to construction to cellular banking.
This is pragmatism, after all, which is modestly related to idealism. While Brand doesn’t deny the health, infrastructural, and aesthetic shortcomings of squatter cities, or imagine that the people living them daydream all day of a greener planet, he chooses to focus on the potential for innovation in these informal economies and on the resilience and creativity of its residents.
II. Do[ing] the right thing… right now
Paul Hawken, Brand’s neighbor who writes his books 30 feet away, and author of such seminal works as The Ecology of Commerce, has published Blessed Unrest, which touches on the many organizations (see his WiserEarth site) that are struggling to do the right thing.
And apparently, there are plenty of them.
During a short film (loaned by Hawken) played by Brand during the presentation, names scrolled up a dark background for a few minutes, somewhat like during the opening credits of Star Wars, sped up, then the camera pulled back to reveal an illegible blur of names. Hawken estimates that over one million philanthropic, grassroots, social justice, and all manner of non-profit and non-governmental organizations are working in some positive way on environmental issues.
This was close to my heart - one of the reasons why I began my own practice was to be able to devote more to Urban Habitat Chicago (UHC), which (I hope) is trying very hard to do the right thing in its own small way.
Conclusion: “Planet-scale problems force planet-scale solutions.”
Starry-eyed optimism is sometimes too rare, and the everyday world conspires to knock the happy, shiny edges off of things.
I had good discussion with my colleagues from UHC following the lecture, wondering how we could simply glaze over the horrors of sanitary conditions in favelas or assume that technology might lead us to a golden-green age.
The point I took away, however, is the increasing shift in different streams of the “environmental movement” from analysis and stating of problems, to the active pursuit (and promotion) of solutions, at scales great and small.
It’s hard not to be just a little hopeful…
Again, far from being a comprehensive overview of a comprehensive lecture, I’ve just scratched the surface.
Brand prefaced his lecture by noting it was essentially a work in progress, and tonight’s talk seemed to be an amalgam of the first four talks of which a few slides are available here:
Stewart Brand - Talks
See more about his involvement in the Global Business Network (GBN) and scenario-writing.
When Stewart Brand speaks, you write… write like hell. Some of the best stuff you could be reading in the next fews months might be books he recommends.
- Mike Davis, Planet of Slums
- Jared Diamond, Collapse
- Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest
- James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia - Earth fights back!
- Richard Preston, The Wild Trees - the adventures of that most important of footsoldiers in the environmental movement… the field biologist
- Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
Note: Anybody that would like a copy of my notes from this or the previous lecture by Stewart Brand on November 18, 2006 at the Massive Change and the City: Global Visionaries Symposium, let me know.