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Getting Over the Wall : Champlain edition : Wednesday, 23 April 2014 06:38 EDT : a service of The Public Press
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Getting Over the Wall : Assigned homework for the Spring edition

     by Michael Potts

...the most important non-fiction book since Beyond the Limits in 1992...

Stewart Brand, the biologist / futurist / ethicist whose Whole Earth Catalog coached many of us over the urban wall and back to the land in 1968, is back with a new book, Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto. It's a challenging, exciting book, just possibly the most important non-fiction book since Donella Meadows et al's Beyond the Limits in 1992.


Four decades ago, Stewart Brand explained the Catalog this way: "We are as gods, and might as well get good at it." Now, in order to help many of us over the looming Climate Change wall, he urges, "We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it." Spoiler alert: minds will be changed. "If you're reading this book just to reinforce your opinions, you've hired the wrong consultant," advises Brand. Come to this book prepared for shaken foundations and slaughtered sacred cows.

Population, for example: In 1972 The Limits to Growth predicted exponentially increasing overpopulation leading to a crash in our lifetime ­ a prejudice still dearly held by many greens ­ the fact is that few if any populations are breeding fast enough to hold their number steady. 2.1 children per woman is the "magic number" for steady state population, but the current long-developed nations rate of 1.56 breeds quick reduction. In Italy (1.2) and Russia (1.14) extinction is inevitable. Worried about Amazon rainforest? Brasil's 1.3 rate is the selva's best hope. Chinese families face the 4:2:1 phenomenon: "every young adult becomes solely responsible for the care of two aging parents and four aging grandparents."quiet zone
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Where should we live? Unless you're growing your own food and harvesting your energy, living blithely in the 'burbs is an unsustainable planetary luxury. Brand shows that by every metric of sustainability, cities are the greenest habitations on earth, and increasing urbanization isn't a threat to the planet, but an important element of its salvation. Greenest of all are the slums around urban edges. The book bristles with expertise; here's George Martine for the UN Population Fund: "the half of the world's population living in cities occupies 2.8 percent of the world's land area. In cities, concentration and density make it easier to provide social services. Education, health, sanitation, water, electrical power ­ everything is so much easier and cheaper on a per capita basis." Brand suggests that if we take off our prejudice-colored glasses and look anew, we'll find that the world of Slumdog Millionaire is a green and productive demographic stew. Brand again: "The lesson I draw is that any practice that leads to treating houses mainly as property tends to destroy community, and any practice that treats them mainly as homes preserves community."

There went a couple of my most closely held precepts! By the time I finished the book, he'd nailed me for three more: energy, "Frankenfoods" and biotech, and terraforming (large scale ecosystem engineering.) Brand ends the book by urging us to practice "planet craft, to be as life-enhancing as any earthworm, in the big yard."

This book, while authoritative and tightly reasoned, is neither complete nor necessarily correct. I think Brand has blind spots ... and some of his big ideas make my head hurt. I need your help. So here's my plan: Read the book, discuss it with your families, take several deep breaths … and join me in a Local Discussion at Green Living Journal's website to mull it over. If we generate some good ideas, we'll publish them in the Spring edition.


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