Aspen Environmental Forum 2012: EO Wilson, Stewart Brand Discuss the Future of Environmentalism


“They have no predictive power,” E.O. Wilson declared, scorning the entire economics discipline in one fell swoop. “We should have never given them a Nobel Prize. Those economists and their homo economicus. They don’t know anything.”

Wilson was an hour into the opening session of the 5th annual Aspen Environment Forum, Forum, and he had already brought the audience to laughs, groans and a few fresh insights. The Forum is three-day event held annually on the Aspen Institute campus in the bounteous valleys of Aspen, CO. It aims to bring together environmental thought leaders and practitioners, as well as interested citizens, for a weekend of reflection on current trends and future directions. This year’s theme, Living in the New Normal, reflects the recognition that certain global environmental changes are now all but inevitable, and the conversation within the environmental movement must begin expanding to include adaptation to shifting conditions.

Wilson, of course, has been tracking such changes closely for decades, and spent time musing on the environmental consequences, challenges and opportunities of the current moment. In his attacks on the dismal science, for example, the noted biologist was responding to a comment from the audience which traced part of our current environmental dilemmas to the influence of neo-classical economists. The audience member was pointing to a challenge facing environmentalists in the policymaking world. The constant demand of economists that we evaluate all goods along one narrow dimension – price – had forced those advocating environmental protection to try and put a price on nature. Once natural services were priced, however, evaluating their future benefits demanded the use of a discount rate. This, Wilson suggested in his response, could lead to problematic outcomes.

But economics occupied only a few minutes of a much longer and broader discourse. At age 82, Wilson is still quick with a joke and quicker with a comeback. Prone to long monologues of which he was both self-conscious and proud, he emanated wisdom, deep knowledge and a touch of the arrogance that often accompanies great success. (When asked what made him such a great writer, he needed but a single word: “talent.”)

The occasional glib remark aside, however, Wilson stayed true throughout the interview to his basic philosophy, the same philosophy that has driven forward his remarkable scholarship for decades. Nature, Wilson explained, is astounding in its complexity, a complexity which defies human understanding, let alone control. “A warehouse of super computers,” he declared, could not engineer a single microorganism as elegantly as the basic operation of natural selection. In the face of nature, then, man should be humble, recognizing all that he does not know and attempting to preserve the extraordinary biodiversity of our increasingly small world. Nothing could be more important, Wilson stressed, than protecting our environmental heritage.

Stewart Brand, the second speaker, took the stage as Wilson resumed his seat in the auditorium. Brand was equally sharp, if a bit more self-effacing. Like Wilson, he is a longtime environmental scholar, thinker and activist. But his similarities with Wilson end there. Indeed the two men could hardly have a more different view of nature. Building on his most recent book, Whole Earth Discipline, Brand described the way that man already does and should exercise domination over nature. Our remarkable technologies, especially in biotechnology, give us the power to control nature – to improve on natural designs, for example, or to bring extinct species back to life. He echoed the epigraph to his most recent book: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.”  Deriding the romanticism of the environmental movement, which expresses fear and mistrust of technology, Brand suggested that environmentalists should warmly embrace technological progress and the rationalization of nature. This is connected to a view of nature as serving a fundamentally instrumental role for man. He argues in his book, for example, that we should see ecosystems as “natural infrastructure,” in place to serve our needs. For Brand, the environment is but man’s home, and technology can and should be used to shape it to our preferences and desires.

Although Brand and Wilson are both friends and colleagues, and likely share some basic long-term goals, they also represent two strands of environmental thought fundamentally opposed to one another. For Brand, enlightenment thought – the use of rationality to understand and control nature – represents the best hope for humanity. His book’s full title read, “Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary.” Earth is man’s garden, to be shaped through the power of our minds.

Wilson, on the other hand, sees such rationality as ultimately self-defeating. Economics, after all, represents an apotheosis of the desire to rationalize human behavior and human relations. Ecology is about trying to understand and respect the interrelationships in nature that generate complex systems, systems which defy logical ordering. Applied rationality, as Wilson suggested in his discussion of economics, can lead to very irrational – and problematic – outcomes when overextended. Where Wilson suggests awe in the face of nature, Brand prefers the axe, and then the shovel. 

These two strands of thought – romanticism and technological rationality – run deep in environmentalism and the tensions between them help illuminate many of the countervailing beliefs, theories of change and organizational strategies that compose the environmental movement today. Bringing out these two schools of thought, the interviews served as a fitting start to the Forum. Brand and Wilson are not only luminaries in their fields and thought leaders of the highest caliber, but spokespeople for two environmental philosophies which vie for influence in both the public mind and in policymaking. The Forum, dedicated to encouraging deeper reflection on environmental challenges and solutions, neatly laid out the lines of this most critical debate, a debate which will play out over the course of the weekend and beyond.