Stewart Brand is an author, environmentalist, and above all, best known for his work as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. In 1966 Brand was one of the first environmentalists to push NASA — already with satellites orbiting the Earth — to release a picture of the “whole Earth” from space. He believed that a photo could be a powerful image for the then very young environmental movement, and when it was finally delivered to the world by the US government in 1968, it helped push the creation of Earth Day in 1970. An eco-trailblazer from the start, Brand recently penned the Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto, his sixth publication which explores how the Earth and its people are propelled by three transformations: climate change, urbanization and biotechnology. Recently, our very own Editor-in-Chief Jill Fehrenbacher had the chance to pick Brand’s brain, finding a thought-provoking discussion where Brand confers his belief that nuclear power might just be our green energy savior. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the whole interview after the jump!
Brand has been a fighter for the world and in his honest pursuit for a better planet for the human race, he’s getting real about what we need to do to fight climate change. Never one to seek consensus, in his recent publication, Brand speaks candidly about his thoughts on nuclear power, genetic engineering and geo-engineering, hoping that his peers and readers will challenge his views. One of his honest decisions was to begin fighting for more nuclear power plants – watch our interview with him (at the top of the post) to see his convincing argument behind that decision.
INHABITAT: What do you think about renewable energy like solar power? Do you think that it has potential?
BRAND: It’s sad that we have to keep saying “potential” with regards to solar. It’s been around for 40 years and should have proved itself by now. In terms of providing grid electricity at the scale of coal, it’s not anywhere close to that yet. Wind is starting to gain significant speed, but environmentalists are learning that just to get a gigawatt of electricity from wind, it takes about 250 square miles of landscape.
Major solar application we’ll see will be across the Mediterranean with North Africa where there’s a mineral heavy desert and you don’t care if there are major solar farms on the sand. Direct current electricity can be sent without a lot of loss as it travels north into Europe. But generally, wherever you have a green desert like we do in California – where I’m from – you’ve got a lot of green-on-green fighting going on about solar now because there you need 50 square miles of bulldozed desert to get a gigawatt of solar electricity. In this light, the initiative starts to have a not so pleasant tradeoff.
INHABITAT: What are the biggest shifts in environmental ideology you’ve seen over the course of your career?
BRAND: I’ve been an environmentalist for 60 years. A bunch of things that we used to think I think are having to be rethought. Things that we thought were against green, like nuclear and bio-technology and even geo-engineering are, in light of climate, actually now green. Nuclear replaces coal and it works, and it’s clean as hell in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The other thing about nuclear is that it’s moving very quickly now. It is having a renaissance, not just in terms of more reactors being built, but there’s a lot of new reactor designs coming along that are smaller and cheaper. The fourth generation reactors – the so-called ‘Integral Fast Reactors‘ and the waste that came out of the nuclear waste sensors in Monju – that’s all in storage at the various sites and dry cask. This material doesn’t pose a problem. In fact, it’s probably going to be fuel for the next generation of reactors – the whole waste problem gets a lot smaller than we used to think.
INHABITAT: It seems that a lot of the international powers are against the widespread construction of nuclear power plants in developing nations. Is this true?
BRAND: Yes, there are weaponization issues, but there is a work around there. It has been a process called ‘fuel banking’ that President Obama has been supporting, and furthermore, there is a lot of international interest in doing this now. So for a new nation like United Arab Emirates that wants to get nuclear power, but doesn’t want to get involved in concentrating fuel, burying fuel, spent fuel, or any of that, they can just rent the fuel from an international consortium called a fuel bank. From there the country that wants nuclear power gets the electricity and somebody else can deal with the fuel, reprocessing it, or burying it.
A lot of these issues with nuclear power that used to be kind of showstoppers, as I looked into the research, I had to flip my mind around from. I went from being mildly anti-nuclear power, to at this point, that if climate was not an issue, I would be so pro-nuclear, just because it’s so much better than coal.
NOTE: The weaponization issues that Brand discusses references the idea that if developing nations have ‘spent fuel’ from nuclear power plants, they could make bombs out of it. These fuel banks ensure that they don’t actually have control of that fuel.
INHABITAT: What do you think the future of green transportation holds? Do you think that electric vehicles are gonna take off with the mainstream public?
BRAND: Yes, I think electric vehicles will take off. No matter where your electricity comes from, even if it comes from coal, it is providing less emissions than if you were driving with gasoline and a diesel. The situation is so far, so good, but what you really want is clean electricity, and if the electricity is coming from coal, then it’s still pretty dirty. If it’s coming from gas, that’s better and it’s half the emissions of coal. If it’s coming from wind, or solar, or nuclear, now you’re getting definitely clean transportation energy.