The anti-politics of Stewart Brand's environmentalism
This week’s essay is about Stewart Brand. (Except it isn’t, not really. It’s about how we think about social and political change.)
If you haven’t heard of Brand before, here are the basics: He’s an iconic figure in the history of tech culture and the counterculture. He was there for basically all the major events. He dropped acid with the merry pranksters. He organized the Trips Festival. (which launched the San Francisco hippie scene and the Grateful Dead.) He filmed Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of all Demos. He won a National Book Award for the Whole Earth Catalog. (which was the bible of the ‘70s back-to-the-land movement). After he shut down the Whole Earth Catalog, he kind of provided the seed funding for the Homebrew Computer Club (where Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak hatched Apple computer). He helped organize the first Hackers Conference. He cofounded the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link.(probably the most influential online community of the 1980s.) He documented the early years of the MIT Media Lab. He cofounded the Global Business Network (which spent the 1990s injecting techno-optimist scenario planning into the business community). Then he cofounded the Long Now Foundation (which is kind of a west-coast-tech precursor to longtermism.)
The guy has certainly seen some things.
Brand is also, by his own recollection, a key figure in the history of the American environmental movement. His biographer, Jon Markoff, asserts that he played “a major role in the creation of the environmental movement.” And that claim keeps gnawing about me. I have a pretty solid baseline knowledge of the history of the environmental movement and the conservation movement that preceded it. Studying movement history was an obsessive hobby of mine years before I entered grad school. And I had never heard of the guy until I got started studying tech.
The more I’ve looked into, the more I’ve become convinced of two things:
1. No. Stewart Brand played no significant role in the American environmental movement.
2. Unless, that is, you view the environmental movement as a primarily cultural rather than a political phenomenon.
Brand’s claims to stature in the environmental movement are a window into a broader schism within activist circles. How do you make large-scale changes to society? Is it by expanding the scope of the mass public’s imagination, or through pressuring the power structure to enact concrete policy reforms? (The too-easy answer is “both.” But, in practice, these are two perspectives that are exceptionally hard to combine.)
I’m going to spend this essay digging into these claims because I think it helps reveal some interesting philosophical divides that often stay below the surface.
“Earthrise” photo. December 24, 1968. Image Credit: NASA
Here’s the basic story of Stewart Brand’s formative role in the environmental movement:
In 1966, he was sitting on his rooftop while tripping on LSD. He became fixated on the idea of seeing the Earth from outer space. As he came down from the roof and the acid, he couldn’t let go of a single, burning question: “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”
He spent the next year waging a one-man media campaign. He sent buttons to politicians and to NASA. He wore a sandwich board with the question printed on it while walking around a San Francisco college campus. As Brand described it historian Andrew Kirk, “Legend has it that this accelerated NASA’s making good color photos of the Earth from distant space during the Apollo program and that the ecology movement took shape in 1968-1969 partially as a result of those photos.” (Including the “Earthrise” photo, pictured above) In a recent documentary about Brand’s life, he opines:
Once we did have the photograph, suddenly there’s organizations called Friends of the Earth and Earth First!. A bunch of environmental organizations took off globally that were assuming care of this thing that was now understood to be in need of care.
Brand is articulating a theory-of-change here, one that is core to his entire worldview. He believes that the way you change the world is by giving people the tools to expand their own consciousness. He tried this first with LSD, then later with the Earthrise photo, and then with the Whole Earth Catalog, and then with his forays into technoculture. In the past few decades, he has pursued it through the Long Now Foundation and their 10,000 Year Clock. In the simplest formulation: You show people a picture of our small, fragile planet and it blows their mind. They think and act differently afterward. It ignites a social movement.
The trouble is, if you read the histories of groups like Friends of the Earth and Earth First!, neither Brand nor the earth-from-space photos merit a single mention. Dave Foreman (R.I.P.) makes an offhand reference to Brand as an “idea entrepreneur.” He isn’t mentioned in the biography of David Brower. The histories of radical environmentalism make no mention of him. Neither does the history of Earth Day. Brand sometimes notes that he studied biology at Stanford under Paul Ehrlich, but this was a decade before Ehrlich rose to national prominence. (Ehrlich may have influenced Brand’s thinking, but the reverse does not seem to be true.) Earthrise is an iconic photo from that era, but there is simply no evidence that it had a lasting effect on public opinion or played a critical role in galvanizing political activism.
The story that Brand is telling here – the story that grants him the status of one of the movement’s founders – is simply unrecognizable to me as someone who came up through the movement and delved into its history in the 1990s and early 2000s. That’s because it is a story that relegates contentious politics to an afterthought. The landmark environmental laws passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s were not the spontaneous product of enlightened legislators. They were passed through pressure campaigns, over the howling objection of entrenched business interests who would then go on to formulate countertactics.
The Earthrise photo makes no demands. Neither does the 10,000 Year Clock. It is an invitation to ponder our place in the universe, voluntarily accepted by those individuals with the leisure time and interest in enjoy such musings. There is a specific personality type that approaches the world in this manner, and it is the very same personality type that was drawn to LSD in 1960s and believed the drug would be an agent of mass enlightenment. It is, likewise, the type of person that today believes the best way to rein in big tech is to get them to attend Burning Man.
(I suppose I should admit here that I’ve never tried LSD, nor really even seen the appeal. I’m not opposed to other peoples’ recreational drug use, but I see no reason to celebrate it as a pathway to a better world. Likewise, my impression of the Earthrise photo has always been “hey, cool dorm room poster.”)
There’s a passage from Saul Alinsky’s 1971 classic, Rules for Radicals, that I lecture on every semester to my strategic political communication students. I was trained in the Alinsky tradition during my organizing days, and it has formed some of the deep grooves in how I view the world (for better or for worse). The passage, below, is where Alinsky takes a potshot at Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies:
The young react to their chaotic world in different ways. Some panic and run, rationalizing that the system is going to collapse anyway of its own rot and corruption and so they’re copping out, going hippie or yippie… Others went for pointless sure-loser confrontation so that they could fortify their rationalizations and say ‘Well, we tried and did our part”… To these I have nothing to say or give but pity – and in some cases contempt… [emphasis added]
I teach this passage to illuminate a fundamental disagreement between conflicting activist traditions. It’s a tension that I started writing about during the Occupy Wall Street protests, in a series of posts titled “Ontologies of Organizing.”
Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies were engaged in prefigurative political activism. They executed elaborate political stunts that ridiculed the centers of power, attracted media attention, and spread the idea that another world is possible. Central to Alinsky’s philosophy is the belief that you have to take the world as it exists today and focus on creating the leverage to force your targets to change their behavior. Alinskyites focus on winning real, concrete improvements in people’s lives, giving people a sense of their own power, and altering power relationships. Yippies plan big, cool spectacles. These orientations to power do not peacefully coexist. Alinsky viewed the Yippies with outright pity and contempt.
The point I make in the class is that the Alinskyite approach — my own approach — is incomplete. So is the Yippie approach. Alinskyites are eventually limited by the boundaries of the politically possible. Over time, the organizations we build become hard to sustain. The promise that we will deal with today’s problems today, and confront the deeper structural issues later tends never to materialize. Prefigurative political activism draws attention to the deeper structural issues, but tends to lack focus in its targeting. It ridicules the powerful without making them do anything. And it’s important to recognize this tension because the two approaches mix like oil and water. These are branching paths, leading to divergent strategic choices, under circumstances where the stakes are high, time short, resources slim.
Stewart Brand was, for the most part, expressly apolitical. But John Markoff notes in his biography of Stewart Brand that he did befriend Abbie Hoffman, while he could not stand the New Left. Brand’s view of expressly political leftwing activism was a mirror image of the outright pity and contempt Alinsky directed at the hippies and the Yippies.
Brand’s environmentalism was anti-political, during precisely the time period when the movement was most successfully winning expressly political battles. When the environmental movement was passing landmark protections, outraging corporate leaders, Whole Earth and Brand marketed cool tools to back-to-the-land communes. After the communes failed, Brand got into corporate consulting. Why pressure Shell Oil when instead you could get paid to craft scenarios that help executives imagine a positive future?
The thing that most strikes me about Stewart Brand’s environmental philosophy is that it is an environmentalism for people who simply do not like environmentalists very much. Markoff notes that Brand “was opposed not to environmentalism, only to environmentalists, whom he viewed as being anti-science ideologues.”
That’s an odd critique. The Union of Concerned Scientists could be called many things, but anti-science is not among them. The Sierra Club is far from a perfect organization, but one thing it has never lacked is an abundance of doctorates in the natural sciences.
I suspect what Brand likely means is that the environmental movement is suspicious of progress, as defined under 20th and 21st century capitalism. Brand’s motto for the Whole Earth Catalog was “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” The environmentalist response can be summed up as “No, we fucking aren’t!”
One of David Brower’s famous sayings was “We’re not blindly opposed to progress. We’re opposed to blind progress.” Environmentalism has roots in a humility that we are not gods, and that we ought to take precautions against the unintended consequences of our actions. (As Aldo Leopold once wrote, “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”)
Brand’s approach to technology has been favorably described as “evangelical optimism.” At an event in 2011, he insisted that “the technology is neutral and the people promoting it are neutral… There is fairly little malevolence behind new technologies. People are trying to find out how to make a cool new tool work in a cool new way.” That’s a perspective that I can more easily understand from someone producing a mail-order catalog for communes in 1971 than from someone well-connected to 21st century Silicon Valley. Set aside that Melvin Kranzberg’s famous first law of technology (“Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.”), how is Brand possible still pretending as though the engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors of Silicon Valley have no agenda beyond making “cool tools?”
In 2009, Brand published Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-pragmatist manifesto. It is a call for a new type of environmentalism – one that enthusiastically embraces nuclear power and geoengineering. He has gone on to become an advocate for the reintroduction of long-extinct species through genetic engineering. It is a full-throated articulation of his approach to environmental problems. He does not dismiss the climate crisis — he is deeply concerned about it. But he is sure that the solution will come not through contentious political confrontation, but good old-fashioned human ingenuity.
The trouble with Brand’s version of environmentalism, aside from his faith that the people inventing technologies are well-meaning and make no critical mistakes, is that it is an environmentalism that never calls on the powerful to do anything they might not want to do. It presumes that the powerful have our best interests at heart, and that what we ought to do is inspire them and collaborate.
The environmental movement of the 20th century is not equipped to solve the climate crisis of the 21st century. We tried. We were not enough. So much more is needed today.
And there are elements of Brand’s eco-pragmatism that I find both timely and appealing. The environmental movement of my youth was mostly concerned with stopping big corporations from executing projects that would enrich their shareholders and immiserate local communities. Today’s environmentalists are still fighting many of those big corporations with one hand while they try to promote big wind and solar infrastructure with the other. An environmentalism that enthusiastically builds is something new.
But what stands out to me in thinking about Stewart Brand’s claim to an environmental legacy is the way it robs the environmental movement of that era of its own political organizing successes. Stewart Brand is only foundational to the movement if you treat the political and organizational work of social movement activists as an afterthought.
If you think the Earthrise photo caused the movement by awakening mass consciousness, then your instinct will naturally be to search for this generation’s equivalent of Earthrise (which, for Brand, is the 10,000 Year Clock – a giant art installation in a mountain owned by Jeff Bezos).
If you think the movement was driven by mass organizations that galvanized the public and ran strategic campaigns to pressure the centers of power, then you will look around today for this generation’s mass organizations and pressure campaigns.
Like Alinsky and the Yippies, these perspectives are probably both incomplete. And they are also not easily compatible.
I don’t have a simple proposal for how to bridge these perspectives. (My one bedrock position, after all, is “well, it’s complicated.”) But the initial step is calling attention to the presence of this divide.