Monday, February 3, 2014

Idiot Savants

[Approximate Reading/Watching Time: 3 minutes]
[Mood: Amused] 

Mark Hertsgaard, the moderator of the debate starts off with the quote from Brand’s new book. It was an update of the classic line from Brand’s 1974 Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Whole Earth Discipline updates that to: “We are as gods and we HAVE to get good at it.”

Peter's question (transcript):

Let me challenge your hypothesis that we're Gods. And let me suggest a more accurate metaphor which would be idiot savants. We're highly developed, we have these great skills, these technological cleverness which is completely untethered to wisdom, and the reason that you and Winona are speaking against one another is that you're speaking on the level of intelligence and she's speaking on the level of wisdom [audience applause].

Obama may have a very brilliant Science adviser, I believe he does. He doesn't have a wisdom adviser. And the level of problems that we need to deal with right now have to be applied at the level of wisdom. So the invisible guest in this conversation is culture. And culture is the determinant of how we live, which determines how big a footprint we're gonna take on the Earth. If you want to sanctify American indulgence as the global standard, you're gonna need Hydrogen power, you know, you're gonna need nuclear bombs to power all the electricity. But if you remember, when the Norwegians came to Iceland as Europeans and tried to raise cattle in Iceland, they starved to death to the very last person and right over the hill, the Inuit were fat and sassy living on local food.

So here's my question. My question is that what I find disturbing and sort of a little sociopathic about your perspective is the absence of doubt. […] You are willing to risk the entire commons by introducing a biocide that’s fatal to everything with replicating cells. That stays deadly longer than all human history, the oldest cities may be 10,000 years old, the half-life of plutonium is over 100,000 years, and I can only see the reason is to support this culture. So my question to you is, in the light of such risk, which will be enduring forever, the UN just came out with a report that 980,000 people died as a result of Chernobyl, so in the light of this risk, why are you not willing to entertain all the prior precautionary steps of changing the culture, reducing consumption, retrofitting, changing our life, making that a contest, making that a dance and a challenge, rather than continuing the model of centralized power, centralized sale, and keeping the rest of us consumers, at the risk of the entire biosphere? [audience applause]

The minutes of the debate are worth reading too:


  1. this is the debate we need to be having. Intelligence vs wisdom indeed. And as far as the nuclear debate, I always like this quote by a good friend of mine:

    "Only a morally and ethically blind society would consider generating energy for use now by a subset of the human population at the cost of creating an environmental and economic liability for hundreds of future generations of humans and a health hazard for thousands of years for all forms of life coming in contact with spent nuclear material thereby created. You can only imagine how thrilled we would be having to deal with storing and containing radioactive material created by Egyptians 5000 years ago for their brief enjoyment of the energy which created it as byproduct."

  2. Great Quote! The one thing I don't get is why so many otherwise sane men like Stewart Brand and James Hansen are pro-nuclear? Isn't it time we de-power instead of simply continuing with the torrid pace of life that consumes so much energy? I don't think we humans are wise enough to safely handle nuclear technology. It's not that we're not knowledgeable enough (in terms of the Science) but even when knowledge might recommend inaction over action, politics and business recommend action which is to say humans haven't been able to organize ourselves effectively enough socially and politically to deal with potentially dangerous technologies such as nuclear energy. And we're too proud of ourselves to admit it. To err is human. But to acknowledge that is apparently not.

  3. the half-life of plutonium is over 100,000 years, and I can only see the reason is to support this culture.

    100% correct. Full admission even from the Pentagon we HAVE NOT organized ourselves effectively enough socially and politically to deal with potentially dangerous technologies such as nuclear energy.

    1. Mark, at the same time, the way we DID organize ourselves hasn't been accidental either. There was a method to the madness and the institutions and organizations we have today have been put there for specific purposes. It's been a failure to look at it one way but it has been a grand success in another. The paradigm of control!