Stewart Brand’s Summary of Jesse Ausubel’s SALT Talk “Why Nature is Rebounding”

Nature rebounding? Agriculture doing well? Huh? I wish all this were true, but I find this analysis troubling. What’s wrong here? What parts of this are right and what parts are not? I’m posting this for comment.

I don’t like Stewart’s (and probably Jesse’s) take on GMOs. Gardeners, people who work with the soil and respect natural processes know intuitively there’s something wrong with the GMO juggernaut. And I’ve just found out that Kauai is a proving grounds for the GMO giants: Dow Chemical (makers of napalm, right?), Syngenta, DuPont and their like seem to be poisoning Kauai and its people in their brilliant blending of genetic manipulation, poisons, and profit.

We are as gods, right? Wrong.

In the next few days I’ll post my observations on all this. It’s especially vivid because I just saw huge fields of genetic experiments (nary a weed in sight) on the road from Waimea to Polihale Beach.


Stewart Brand on Jesse Ausubel, January 26, 2015:

“Over the last 40 years, in nearly every field, human productivity has decoupled from resource use, Ausubel began.  Even though our prosperity and population continue to increase, the trends show decreasing use of energy, water, land, material resources, and impact on natural systems (except the ocean).  As a result we are seeing the beginnings of a global restoration of nature.

America tends to be the leader in such trends, and the “American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production.“

Start with agriculture, which “has always been the greatest raper of nature.”  Since 1940 yield has decoupled from acreage, and yet the rising yields have not required increasing inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, or water.  The yield from corn has become spectacular, and it is overwhelmingly our leading crop, but most of it is fed to cars and livestock rather than people.  Corn acreage the size of Iowa is wasted on biofuels.  An even greater proportion goes to cows and pigs for conversion to meat.

The animals vary hugely in their efficiency at producing meat.  If they were vehicles, we would say that “a steer gets about 12 miles per gallon, a pig 40, and a chicken 60.“  (In that scale a farmed fish gets 80 miles per gallon.)  Since 1975 beef and pork consumption have leveled off while chicken consumption has soared. “The USA and the world are at peak farmland,“ Ausubel declared, “not because of exhaustion of arable land, but because farmers are wildly successful in producing protein and calories.”

 Much more can be done.  Ausubel pointed out that just reducing the one-third of the world’s food that is wasted, rolling out the highest-yield techniques worldwide, and abandoning biofuels would free up an area the size of India (1.2 million square miles) to return to nature.

As for forests, nation after nation is going through the “forest transition” from decreasing forest area to increasing.  France was the first in 1830.  Since then their forests have doubled while their population also doubled.  The US transitioned around 1950.  A great boon is tree plantations, which have a yield five to ten times greater than logging wild forest.  “In recent times,” Ausubel said, “about a third of wood production comes from plantations. If that were to increase to 75 percent, the logged area of natural forests could drop in half.”  Meanwhile the consumption of all wood has leveled off—for fuel, buildings, and, finally, paper.  We are at peak timber.

One byproduct of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the longer temperate-zone growing seasons accompanying global warming is greater plant growth.  “Global Greening,“ Ausubel said, “is the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by two billion tons or even more.”

Other trendlines show that world population is at peak children, and in the US we are peak car travel and may even be at peak car.  The most efficient form of travel, which Ausubel promotes, is maglev trains such as the “Hyperloop“ proposed by Elon Musk.  Statistically, horses, trains, cars, and jets all require about one ton of vehicle per passenger.  A maglev system would require only one-third of that.

In the ocean, though, trends remain troubling.  Unlike on land, we have not yet replaced hunting wild animals with farming.  Once refrigeration came along, “the democratization of sushi changed everything for sea life.  Fish biomass in intensively exploited fisheries appears to be about one‐tenth the level of the fish in those seas a few decades or hundred years ago.“  One fifth of the meat we eat comes from fish, and about 40 percent of that fifth is now grown in fish farms, but too many of the farmed fish are fed with small fish caught at sea.  Ausubel recommends vegetarian fish such as tilapia and “persuading salmon and other carnivores to eat tofu,” which has already been done with the Caribbean kingfish.  “With smart aquaculture,“ Ausubel said, “life in the oceans can rebound while feeding humanity.”

When nature rebounds, the wild animals return.  Traversing through abandoned farmlands in Europe, wolves, lynx, and brown bears are repopulating lands that haven’t seen them for centuries, and they are being welcomed.  Ten thousand foxes roam London.  Salmon are back in the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine.  Whales have recovered and returned even to the waters off New York.  Ausubel concluded with a photo showing a humpback whale breeching, right in line with the Empire State Building in the background.

—Stewart Brand”

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

11 Responses to Stewart Brand’s Summary of Jesse Ausubel’s SALT Talk “Why Nature is Rebounding”

  1. How much of this bull can we believe? hrumph. GMO on the Big Island is losing battles…I know, 3 of my daughters are there and sooooooooooo many against these companies. NOT WORKING WITH NATURE…will bring bad results eventually. feeding GMO tofu to fish….good grief.

  2. The science against GMO is coming along inspite of a massive effort to discredit and prevent such research by the GMO companies. The biggest fact to confront the supposed need for GMOs is they are just not needed, aside from all their toxic side effects. One recent study demonstrated that existing agriculture lands on the planet have the capacity to support 14 billion people, god forbid.. Even in Bangladesh today there is such a glut of rice production prices are so low farmers can't make a living. The real problems lie in food wastage during harvest, transportation, sales, and the use of fertile soils to grow non food crops. The following video from a UN sponsered conference will likely be one of the most profound videos you have ever watched.

  3. Thank you for voicing your disagreement. A lot of my friends look up to Whole Earth Catalog, and so, when Stuart Brand proclaims nuclear & GMO's are OK, my friends think the problems are "over" or "solved" – or worse, never existed in the first place.

    BTW, check out the San Juan Islands around Seattle – they are trying to remain non-GMO outposts.


  4. I've cooled down a bit since posted my prior comment, above, and have come to realize that what I wrote was pure knee-jerk, and I apologize for that to all y'all.

    That being said, I want to point out that I also realized that Mr. brand is a 'Tekkie'. Is now and always has been. He's about tools and systems and most likely doesn't give a rip about such things as whales and trees – he might, in fact, but I don't recall that he's ever said so.

    Anyway, I also realized that it is easy to come to venerate anyone who might come up with something like The Whole Earth Catalog as being a person who is really concerned about the fate of the Whole Earth even though it may not be necessarily so.

    And so, when they come out with what appears to be idiot-speak, as in the article above, it is all too easy to instantly ab-react, which I did.

    Mr. Brand did a lot toward raising the environmental consciousness of a whole lot of people, myself included, and I give him much credit for that, even though that may or may not have been his intention. But still, given that Mr. brand still has a voice that some people listen to, I think he has his head up his a–.

  5. The concept of nature rebounding should not be controversial, many aspects of the ecosystem in the USA have shown tremendous improvement in the last 50 years, we've all seen it in our air and waters and wildlife. We should not be wedded to visions of doom and gloom like crabby old people, the imminent end of the world has been a constant theme for all of history. It's really easy to go that route and a lot of people's identity seems to be wrapped up in opposing technology and economics they don't even understand while viewing themselves as selfless and virtuous visionaries.

    A free and prosperous people are motivated to preserve their environment and will take necessary actions to do so even though it may be against their direct economic interest, they also stabilize and even decrease their population levels. Poor and desperate people with no personal power will have little choice or power of action in their environment and that is evident everywhere in the 'developing' world. Perhaps the biggest problem is that poor peoples are multiplying at an astonishing rate at the same time that free and prosperous peoples are becoming less free and less prosperous. The good news is that developing peoples are generally making steady strides towards prosperity, to move beyond subsistence agriculture would certainly be a major step in that direction.

    GMOs could theoretically be a great boon but the problem is in the excellent questions regarding the seeds asked in the other posting, it puts all the power in the hands of the same big agribusiness that has brought us the monstrous corn economy that has poisoned all of us for the last 30 years with the ubiquitous processed foods that consist largely of corn fractional products. That economy will come to an end in due time, in spite of the national government that created it and supports it with massive subsidies, but at the hands of the people who are becoming educated and are rejecting it in the marketplace.

  6. The whole spiel sounded like an ad, which is what it is.
    GMOs possibly pose a fundamentally different threat to the web of life: manipulation of the gene pool will inevitably have unforeseen and unwanted effects. It's called pollution any other time. Why is it considered 'progress' and 'miraculous' with no long term study? It's bizarre and infuriating and if you dare speak negatively about it you are considered hippy-dippy or a Luddite; scientifically unschooled.
    Let's say the Whole Earth (*cough*) and it's biome are an easily understood machine. All it's parts and reactions can be understood under any stimulus……the fact is we do not. And we are screwing around with a very fundamental part of how the biome works.
    And if it's so wonderful why would one need all the extra inputs? Shall we say control and profit?
    As far as nature bouncing back, how is it that the Sixth Great Extinction event is occurring?
    The re-greening of western Europe has more to do with the abandonment of charcoal and trees as fuel as any miraculous agriculture. And that, as a 1st world tech URBAN country that relies on all sorts of inputs from other 3rd world countries, is conveniently ignored. Yes, 'regular, normal agriculture (at this point what is normal), feeds far more people than the bad old days, yet we need GMOs?
    Whatever we come up with, including GMOs, will run into exactly what antibiotics have run into because a robust Nature will evolve on her own and get around our defenses.
    That's evolution in a nutshell (Coevolution anyone?).
    But you mess with the driver, the genetic material itself, and not expect 'pollution', unintended consequences, is raw, unmitigated pride. And pride goeth before a fall.
    Only 1% of the bacteria in the soil were able to be grown in a lab. That's what researchers used to come up with medicines and antibiotics. Someone has recently come up with a new grow technique to expand the types of bacteria that can be grown. Almost immediately they have had some exciting prospects. How would messing around with the DNA in the manner we are affect even the bacterial populations in soil? Why is Roundup still being used when it has been shown it's harmful effects persist in the soil? In fact, it is almost always part of GMO use.
    Why does our government allow it? Because our Federal government has been captured regulatory-wise, across many spectrums, by business.
    GMO use is about business, period, not about helping folks or 'progress' but the bottom line.

  7. One more thing: pretty sure life arose in and emerged from the ocean; it's our seed, as it were….and they try to claim it's wild harvesting destroying it?
    Not that EVERYTHING, EVERYPLACE drains into it?
    Also, in the mid-70's there was a corn blight that destroyed 75%+ of all US corn.
    The seed folk had to find a wild variety for its genetic material to reinvigorate the seed corn.
    They found it in the highlands of Mexico and were able to save our mass farming.
    Now, thanks to GMO usage, that very same wild ancestor has genetic pollution.
    This is utterly insane.
    Those who liken GMOs to plant breeding by humans ignore the long adaptation of species to niches, which are then spotted by breeders for certain traits.
    Putting the genetic material from BT into corn isn't breeding, it's try to force and commercialize the essence of evolution.
    From a sheer utilitarian standpoint, everything adapted to its niche over thousands and/or millions of years have gifts. They have answers to questions we may not have learned to ask.
    It's like burning the library at Alexandria or destroying the Aztec and Mayan codexes.

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