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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Real Marin Taliban: Stewart Brand's Nuclear Revival

Stewart Brand, a fellow Marin-ite who is internationally famous for leading the nuclear industry revival in the United States over the past decade, and helping President Obama embrace Dr. Strangelove, embodies the odd combination of cool hippy and self-hating liberal that defines Marin's post-hippy, ΓΌber-yuppy chic. After the Fukushima disaster Brand was asked by interviewer Arnie Cooper if his pro-nuclear remarks still stand from his interview with The Sun, and Mr. Brand insisted he was unmoved by the meltdowns of Tokyo Power's plants. So was the Obama administration, coincidentally, which recently announced its continued support for nuclear power  at the United Nations after the Fukushima disaster. Even though many Americans oppose plants here, this apparent refusal to learn from Fukushima has caused a nuclear rush by China, India and Russia, portending 125 new nuclear plants there and causing a global uranium mining boom.

So the stakes of Brand's nuclear vanguard are high, and real. As the Marin Energy Authority is now the first big effort of a California county to go solar under California's Community Choice Law, AB117 (San Francisco and Sonoma not far behind), and Brand has likely been offered (as I am) 100% renewable energy from that new service, I am compelled to examine Brand's repeated statements in his Sun interview that renewable energy is unfeasible, and that only nuclear power can save the world from climate change:

"Solar doesn't add a whole lot of power to the grid, but it's valuable in individual situations. We have a solar electric fence." (p.11, the Sun, 9/13/11)

Indeed, Brand's attitude emerges from monotonal platitudes to a kind of noir chic. In one moment he complains that solar farms take up too much desert; in the next he proclaims that nuclear power is....perfectly safe. The outraged silence surrounding his expressions appear as poetry, as the gesture of a liberated mind. As with much New Age thought, Brand's has a mesmeric quality, and with great success. Stewart Brand has done more than perhaps any other American to raise nuclear power to respectability, much as he has brought similar legitimacy to the companies seeking to sell Genetically Modified foods (GMOs) in the U.S. (Europe bans them), while opposing even labeling. In many ways his posture is the classic self-hating liberal,  poo-pooing his former allies the environmentalists - you can't handle the truth, etc.. Crowded with eco-intelligentsia, it is shocking that Marin accepts America's nuclear revival preacher still today as a cool sort of New Ager rather than an apostate Taliban - and that there is so little controversy here about his decisive role in selling nuclear revival to the world. Did he refuse Marin Energy Authority service? Is he still a PG&E customer? Will he similarly ignore San Francisco's efforts to localize power supply and secede from PG&E's power plants, all while giving world tours on the impossibility of green power? Of energy localization, energy independence? Did he bother to vote against Prop 16 last year - the PG&E ballot initiative that would have blocked California's energy localization movement?

The political naiivety of Brand's nuclear revival is particularly shocking unless you consider its casualness - with a New Age lightness, even cavalier, about the causes of global economic and ecological meltdown. "So I don't buy the idea of profit being evil," he told interviewer Arnie Cooper of The Sun. "The same goes for large corporations. Size isn't everything. There are lots of mean, harmful, little companies that are not public and have no real accountability to anyone. They're dumping poisons in the ground, and nobody tries to stop them because they're just little companies."

Trained in his futurist art by the author of The Population Bomb (Paul Ehrlich), the "co-evolutionist" blames human over-population, not industrial and political collusion, as causing the ecological problems of our time. Never mind Occupy Wall Street - deforestation in the Amazon, he says, is caused by small subsistence farmers, not the longstanding imperial prerogative of global corporations to exploit the regions for cheap food, rubber, oil or jungle DNA. Like Alice in Wonderland, Brand ate from the mushroom and cannot ascertain scale or size - it is all the same, depending on the moment.

Brand's grand solution is ultimately very similar to Obama's - put sulfure dioxide into the atmosphere to offset warming, a global nuclearization, and GMOs. His implicit directive is, how must society adapt to allow continued hyper-growth. Rather than question the technologies and more importantly the hyper-growth, corporate-controlled and globalist energy policies of America during the decades of Brand's tenure in American intellectual life, the very policies that have caused the mass extinction, climate collapse, ocean death, human displacement, social and cultural collapse of the past half century, Brand says implicitly there is nothing to be done (the patient is addicted, administering opium) - but turn it to ten BABY! 

On the other hand Brand's idea of public opinion is naively oblivious to the role of corporations in preventing energy independence and green power, localization. "Unfortunately climate change has become a partisan issue," he says to explain American doubt about climate change. "If liberals and environmentalists think something is critically important, conservatives automatically dismiss it. They're blinded by the mistaken idea that climatologists have some sort of hidden liberal agenda." In other words Brand regards the economic policy choices of governments in the context of Climate Collapse to be defined by psychological misrepresentations rather than propaganda by corporations larger than most governments in revenue and political power - rather like my own experience - aka California's Community Choice movement - being attacked with $68 M by Pacific Gas & Electric through Proposition 16 last year. The largest industrial sector, energy corporations are the embodiment of corporatism following decades of globalization, deregulation, off-shoring, financialization, and oil diplomacy (war). So this is no small oversight.

In the program Brand advocates, the "comprehensive designer" - intellectuals who transcend specialized knowledge and taking a systemic approach to making technological breakthroughs into "tools for human happiness,"  Brand's platitudinousness resurfaces, a latter day, post-industrial Jeremy Bentham, embracing whatever technology develops, viewing it as a tool, like the global nuclear industry revival he champions and has successfully finessed here and in the developing world. The nuclear happiness machine even extends to Iran's nuclear program in the interview, so divorced from military realities associated with uranium enrichment.

Like Francis Fukuyama's End of History and the thought of so many market fundamentalists of the last twenty years, Stewart Brand's thought is product and producer of his era and assigns permanence to the hypergrowth of recent decades - it is part and parcel of his political naivety.  "People who live in the developing world are moving towards more grid power and electricity, thus putting more carbon into the atmosphere." This is the hyper-growth capitalism version of "shit happens." Brand glides effortlessly from bland platitude to yawning directive; "that's why nuclear power, which doesn't create much carbon pollution, looks good to me. Climate change is a planetary problem, and the responses need to be planetary."  Rather than question globalization as the official policy of the United States government for decades, Brand snores through his economic fundamentalism; ultimately he finishes his tune with the little ditty that a planetary problem needs a planetary - that is to say, "big" - solution. And nuclear plants are big. Solar panels and building retrofits are small, so cannot address big problems. 

In light conflations, Brand falls waking forward into a sleep of the Zeitgeist - of historical political and philosophical history, humanity's consciousness of itself, in this case a sleep of Death - ultimately the worship of Death. Brand appears to regard Mexico City-size giga-cities and depopulation of the countryside to be an ecological restoration policy. Displacement is thus reinterpreted as green - here Brand shows the kinds of syllogism that makes some people fear ecologists as anti-human - 'eco-nazi'. The ghetto-ization of America is interpreted as "adaptive" behavior, rather than a failure of civilization, and an evil to be feared and avoided. Brand is ultimately a dystopian thinker, highlighting a future darkness so as to elicit fear and thus lower expectations, making pliable and compliant those who once boasted to be an enlightened democracy - the United States of America. All boats drop with Brand's tide, embracing catastrophe on a great death-centric view which he has christened The Long Now - a longer term thinking beyond the horizon of written human history.  

Mr. Brand's Buddhist rhetoric appeals to Catholic pessimism, an obsession with human sinfulness, failure, and the need for cruelty and ultimately war and holocaust. This mind would accept any lowering of the cultural or aesthetic bar, would smile upon dictators and toast war generals. He has no feeling, is disembodied; beneath the LSD countenance is a cold, hard steel. The new hippy vision is thus ultimately a strain of eco-dandy-ism, as I have pointed out in longer pieces on Brand and the other leading nuclear revivalists - "Philosopher Pawns"(2011) as well as "Climate Panic" (2004).

The Jim Jones-ist wacko-plex of my childhood, from Sausalito to Berkeley, or Oakland, where I was born, and have worked in politics during the past 20 years, has included spending some time with Brand's contemporaries and green capitalist ilk, including Paul Hawken. I would once have counted these people as allies, but environmentalism must mature into more coherent ideas that redefine "green" friends as opponents who would embrace nuclear, or war, or GMOs, in the name of green. As with other ciphers of other crusades, Brand's syllogisms include valuable victims, including the re-introduction of wild nature into urban areas, and more effort to conserve water, but he conflates these simple accouterments of public utilities with provocatively mad extremisms, appealing to the intellectual anti-political types (why he is successful?) but ultimately daft.

The lightness of Brand's being is, indeed, unbearable. There is no they there, in this futurist vision - it has a stoned Turkish quality, to recycle a discarded expression. A "let them eat cake" hurled at the collapse of modernity, a shrug to nuclear catastrophes, and ipods for refugees. He obviously does not care very much for anything in particular at the great Archimedian distance from which he speaks, and as with many other Bay Aryan sorts, regards this emotional detachment as an intellectual virtue - the maniacal transcendence of the New Ager, EST variety - the karmic absence of desire or connectedness to the living world - and lording this attitude over those of us who are afraid and want actual solutions to the fundamental problems now facing us all.  


Elizabeth said...

I like that Bay Aryans. And I have more to say.

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