This conversation was facilitated by Noema deputy editor Nils Gilman.
Gilman: Governor Brown, how did you first formulate the idea of planetary realism?
Brown: It happened in a mundane way. I was running for president in 1976, and I was formulating some ideas on foreign policy. As I discussed these issues with knowledgeable people, I thought of the world as being deeply interconnected. I had the sense that it wasn’t just “us against them,” but rather that there was connectivity among all nations across a range of issues.
On the one hand, I wanted to be realistic: hard-boiled, not getting carried away with utopianism. That’s the realistic side: Morgenthau, Machiavelli, Kissinger. But on the other hand, I wanted to add a dose of humanism and romanticism as well. I wanted to combine realism with some more thoughtful ideals, reflecting something more caring. So, I took the word “realism” and put it together with “planetary,” because this was the early part of the environmental movement — the Stockholm Conference had just happened in 1972.
Back then, I wasn’t thinking about climate change, but rather of the sea and of nuclear war. I argued that we had to see the big picture — you might call it the “whole Earth perspective,” as opposed to nationalism and the politics of scapegoating. We can’t let nationalism run away with us — we have to think of the interests we share. Today, that includes the shared vulnerability to viruses, cyber-attacks and climate change.
Gilman: With that frame in mind, how has your thinking about planetary realism changed over the last four decades?
Brown: My concern about blindness and beliefs has intensified. I’m taken with how strong beliefs are, and I don’t say that in a positive way: Recent politics has become the collision of beliefs.
I’ve become impressed with the lack of this thing called “reason.” I used to think that, overall, we’re reasonable people. But now I think we’re all belief people. We’re not fact-based — we’re belief-based. I think of the end of the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
I look out today and see a lot of what I would call ignorant armies clashing by night. The result is that I have become more minimalist in my assertions. As a governor, I had to decide things all the time, and I didn’t always have time to probe too deeply. Therefore, I decided to go after things where I thought it was pretty clear what we needed to do, like climate change and prison reform.
On most things, we either aren’t clear or we don’t have the time or inclination to get to the bottom of them. I would say that today I know more, including that the universe is much bigger than I realized. So, I’d say a bit of humility has entered the picture.
Gilman: Stewart, does your trajectory around “whole Earth” thinking mirror the governor’s on planetary realism? Where did the idea of the “whole Earth” come from to begin with?
Brand: For me, it began in 1966, right after the Trips Festival, which I had helped to organize. On the roof of my apartment in San Francisco, I had an LSD-laced vision where I asked myself, “What am I going to do for humanity?” And looking up, I thought: If we saw a plausible photograph of Earth from outer space, ideally in color and ideally of the whole globe, not just one section of it, that could make a difference. I started promoting that, handing out buttons that asked, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” When that photo was finally published, it provided the cover for the Whole Earth Catalog. For me, the whole Earth has been a frame that directed attention toward things we might otherwise not take seriously.
So, when Jim Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia hypothesis in the early 70s, CoEvolution Quarterly, which I was then editing, was one of the first places to print it and then print a debate about it. At the time, a lot of biologists were pretty skeptical, even hostile, to the Gaia hypothesis. A scientist up in Canada named W. Ford Doolittle wrote to me and said something like, “Gaia is an intriguing idea and idealistic, but it makes no sense in terms of evolution, because if the Earth is supposedly adapting, what is it adapting in relation to? You can’t have a species of one individual. Fitness only makes sense in relation to other individuals. But with Gaia, there are no other individuals.” Doolittle and Lovelock went back and forth, and I printed that.
‘What am I going to do for humanity?’”
But here’s an update: Just last year, Doolittle published an essay saying, “You know what, I think Lovelock and Margulis were right.” He revised his thinking about how evolution works to account for what you might call group selection, outside of the individual, to include whole arrays of things. His piece looked at “nested arrays,” all the way up to the whole Earth as itself a nested array of various forces. One of the things he notices is an idea very much in line with the Long Now Foundation, which is the persistence of species and the persistence of individuals. In the same way, Bruno Latour and Timothy Lenton’s essay on Gaia 2.0 makes the point that some systems learn how to become good at persisting — and the Earth is one of those.
What I see now is that human civilization is in the process of trying to become like Earth, in the sense of learning how to become a persistent system. In this century, we’re going to get a lot of harsh lessons on how not to persist — and then we will either correct that, or we won’t.
My particular take on COVID-19 (besides dread) is that the best thing that COVID might do for us is give global civilization a chance to think in planetary-scale terms about a problem that, like climate change, is in a sense caused by all of us and can only be solved by a large quantity of us. There are examples of handling it well, like in Taiwan or New Zealand, and handling it badly, like here and in Italy. I see a chance in this century for civilization to get out of its adolescence, to become more mature, pragmatic, skeptical and solution-oriented (rather than story-oriented) so that we can reverse planetary degradation. This won’t be like ending the Cold War. This is a new kind of problem, where people have to really connect in order to fix it.
In the introduction to the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, I wrote, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” More recently, in “Whole Earth Discipline” (2009), I wrote, “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” What changed between those two statements is global warming, which changed the sense of who the “we” is.
The “we” in the Whole Earth Catalog are the individuals who were empowered to leave college and go get their own education in more interesting, exciting, inventive and creative ways than just studying for a degree. (The idea was to go out and start communes, things like that. All of them failed: Hey, we all learn our lessons!)
By contrast, the “we” of climate change has almost nothing to do with individuals. It’s the “we” of civilization: Civilization now has powers, godlike powers (in the sense of Greek gods, not the Christian God — we don’t have omniscience and never will).
Brown: As I listen to Stewart, I’m reminded that one of the things that inclined me to focus was my training in the Jesuit seminary, where we were isolated in a small group to study large issues. The Jesuits call them the “last four things”: death, judgment, heaven, hell.
Now, I left all that behind for a number of reasons, not the least of which was skepticism, but what stayed with me was the hankering to relate to something really important. In today’s politics, I find that a lot of transient and trivial issues of the moment dominate the political imagination through the media, and in doing so, they diminish and marginalize these bigger issues we should be thinking about.
People say, wait, what about education funding? What about the property tax? But in relation to the larger, planetary issues, these seems like an evasion. An issue like climate change requires a different approach.
Gilman: Governor Brown, given what you said earlier about the rootedness of people in belief rather than reason, how likely do you think it is that the public is going to be able to get there in terms of appreciating the complexity and seriousness of these planetary problems? Microbes and carbon molecules don’t care about borders. And in many ways, technological risk, like with nuclear weapons or artificial intelligence, doesn’t care about borders.
At the same time, however, the public and politicians still think in terms of narratives and have beliefs that in many cases are rooted in nationalism or national societies. You say we need to have a different approach, but what would that look like in practice?
Brown: I don’t know if we can do it. Nothing I see today indicates that people are taking these problems as seriously as we need to. We need leaders who, informed by science, adopt a common-sense practicality. Let’s understand our stories, but let’s look at the facts.
There’s the story that China tells about itself — that it has been humiliated by the West and it’s going to do something about that. And there’s the story that America, and I suppose the West, tells about itself — that it’s the dominant power and should be because it’s the custodian of democracy and human rights. So, we have colliding stories.
And then we have the facts: The tech risk, it doesn’t know any borders; the virus risk, it doesn’t know any borders. That’s why we need people around us with different stories to challenge us, especially with science: What’s our hypothesis? What’s the evidence? How can we change as we get new information?
Unfortunately, that’s not the way politics works. Tens of millions of people believed Trump won the election. Now, there’s no factual basis for that. None. All they have are stories. But those stories are powerful. On the other side — I don’t want to make it equal, because I don’t think it is equivalent, but — there are a lot of stories about things people want to do that have absolutely no chance of being implemented. And so, both within the country and between China and the U.S., we have a collision of stories.
What we need instead is a vision of reality rooted in the facts, as best we can discern them with our limited imaginations.
Brand: Those are two different types of stories you’ve just described. The “Trump didn’t lose the election” story is a misinterpretation of the present. By contrast, most of the stories emerging from the left are illusions about what might happen in the future. The difference is that claims that are wrong about the present are more easily disproven than claims about what might happen in the future. The illusion is equal, but the provability is different.
The challenge is that people can keep clinging to the wrong theory for a long time. Back when the internet was first coming up, I started predicting that nations were going to be weakened by it and that that would be basically good.
Then along comes climate change. We certainly have a global economy and a global communications network, but there is no global body politic. When you look at climate change, nobody except nations can change tax laws or carbon taxes. Corporations can’t do it. The U.N. can’t do it. Nonprofits can’t do it. Nations are the only ones that have enough control of their economic instruments to be able to say, OK, there’s going to be a tax that relates to the externalities of climate issues. And thus nations, to my mind, are again the lead players in making things go right with climate. What do you think of that?
Brown: For sure, and I would say, to be precise, the U.S. and China — and specifically two men, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping — have the most responsibility of any two people on the planet. They also have the most capacity, if they’re ready to take action.
For Biden, limiting oil and gas is going to be just as hard as it will be for Xi to limit coal. Doing this is going to require money to help those whose lives are disrupted. It’s going to take overcoming powerful, entrenched interests.
It’s by no means clear whether these two leaders have the political will or the political muscle to make it happen. They are not omnipotent. They are embedded in a series of power relations that make the job partly persuasion and partly coercion.
Gilman: Let me frame the challenge in a slightly different way. On the one hand, as we’ve been discussing, in order to address planetary challenges like climate change and pandemics, it seems as if we need planetary mechanisms, such as supranational binding agreements, if not institutions. This is where “planetary realism” comes in.
At the same time, partly to defuse our political gridlock and winner-take-all politics, you’ve also proposed the principle of “subsidiarity,” which aims to push decision-making down to smaller communities that are more able to achieve consensus around goals and priorities on as many issues as possible.
As someone who’s gone up and down the political scale, from governor to mayor and back again, how do you think about reconciling those two imperatives? How did those experiences inform your sense of where governance responsibilities should rest?
Brown: The way I describe it is that at the state level, we deal with much more abstract issues. We talk about education, we talk about crime, we talk about laws to deal with those things in a broad way. By contrast, when you’re a mayor, you’re talking about specific, concrete things: a murder at 14th and Broadway, a high school where certain things are occurring. You have a practical impact. Being mayor, I became more skeptical about state-level action. I developed a more discerning eye: I can see through things that sound good, but when you’re actually applying them, are not good.
Brand: That reflects something else: Throughout history, nations tend to come and go, but cities are potentially immortal. Many cities in Europe have been there since the Middle Ages, sometimes earlier, while nations flickered on and off around them, with borders coming and going. To me, this helps explain the urban realism situation that you just described. Cities are also typically where ideas are created. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that — and you’ll remember this, because you were part of it — the beginnings of real global cooperation about climate happened between cities rather than nations, in the C40 Group.
Brown: Cities are immediate: It’s your space, your block, your place. That immediacy gives you a loyalty. Place has persistence. Cities have memories rooted in physical facts: Market Street is there, it’s been there for a couple hundred years, it has a whole history to it. These buildings last, and people have memories, and they’re reused and repurposed. Life shows up on the street corner. It shows up in front of your house. It shows up downtown.
But what is this state? The state is an idea, really. State legislators come up to Sacramento and pass laws, but no one really knows what they are, what they’ll do. It’s a lot of talk, a lot of abstraction.
Now, it can also be powerful talk, when they impose taxes or make things a crime that can send you to prison. State capitals and Washington are powerful places for lawmaking, but they’re not usually looking at the neighborhood level. Most government is not intimate. It’s not where life shows up.
Our loyalties, our emotions — they are rooted in where we’ve had our most intimate experiences. Right now, I’m sitting less than a hundred yards from where my grandmother grew up. Every time I go out for a walk, I look up and I see the stars or the sun and the clouds, and I think about my grandmother looking at the same sky. What was she thinking about? What was her father thinking about?
Place has power. It’s fundamental. It’s the basis of solidarity, of loyalty. States are based on the coercive power they have, but not the love and the nostalgia and the memory.
It’s not where life shows up.”
Gilman: Stewart, as you think about the emotional power of the local that Governor Brown describes, about the stories that people tell about themselves and about their communities, how do we go from there to addressing planetary challenges and opportunities?
We started out talking about how the ideas of the whole Earth and planetary realism emerged half a century ago. If we turn around the telescope and look half a century into the future, what’s your most optimistic, yet realistic, scenario for how we can remain committed to the local while still finding a way to address the planetary?
Brand: I am, at the cellular level, an optimist. Fortunately, I’m married to a cellular-level pessimist. Right now, I’m writing a book about maintenance — maintenance of everything from the planet down to teeth. Now, my wife Ryan is better at maintenance than I am, because whereas an optimist like me says, “Oh good, it’s fixed now!” the pessimist is always saying, “Well, it’s fixed for now — but it’s inevitably going to break again, it always does. And I need to keep these spare parts for the next time it breaks.”
In the book, I’m looking at people who maintain boats over long voyages, going around the world solo without stopping. They have to maintain their vessel, or they die. Likewise, people who build aircraft treat maintenance with extraordinary seriousness, because if the plane falls out of the sky, people die. Harsh reality tends to cut through a lot of horseshit. Now, can that happen at a global scale, given that, as Jerry was just saying, higher levels of government have all these many levels of abstractions, and given that there are all these beliefs with these illusory stories about the present and the future?
Maybe COVID will be what converts people. There’s the technical fix of the vaccines. And that will sort the pandemic out in a year or two after a lot of suffering and death. The most positive version is if science keeps being the most important news. It was science that developed this set of vaccines. It’s the most impressive thing that came out of this COVID experience, along with how some nations were able to manage it with contact tracing.
The Long Now Foundation takes the view that, while we don’t know how good the solutions to the climate challenge are going to be, we do have a history of coming up with amazing solutions to problems. Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” shows how a lot of things have gotten better at a statistical level: Children are not dying as infants like they used to, women are not dying as much in childbirth, girls are getting educated all over the world more often than they used to. Among the slums of the world, there are “slums of despair,” but most of them are “slums of hope,” where people are getting themselves out of poverty. The steady decline of violence and cruelty and even injustice are pretty amazingly constant trends over a long period. And those trends are the result of the proliferation of science.
My hope is then that — because of science being the winner of COVID, because of the failures of Trump and the belief-stories that developed around him — we bounce out of that and will develop these lessons throughout the rest of the century. There are a lot of amazing capabilities coming already — in biotechnology and potentially also in areas like quantum computing and artificial intelligence — which may move beyond Bayesian analysis to cause-effect analysis, to understanding the “why” of things.
Now could be a time that people in the future will come to envy. Nobody knew how it was going to work out — not only how it was going to turn out, how it was going to work out. We don’t know yet what’s going to get us through this. What an exciting time to be alive! I’ve been telling young people: “Boy, you guys are so lucky to be alive now: You have a chance to solve the worst and most inescapable problems humanity has ever faced. What a chore, and what a treat!”
Brown: Yes. We are in a tale of two possible futures, the best and the worst. Pinker catalogs the best, but he leaves out the worst. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, we are 100 seconds to midnight, when the world wipes itself out because of nuclear blunder, climate change and other disruptive technologies. This is where planetary realism comes in. Instead of just “national interests,” Russia, China and the United States — and other countries too — have to start accepting our common vulnerability and therefore our common interest.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.