WE ARE AS GODS, the telling of the remarkable life during interesting times of Stewart Brand, does not fall into the trap of hagiography. Mostly. It is hard not to fall under the spell of someone who, as one talking head puts it, has been at the right place at the right time so often over the last half-century, and not merely as observer. He planned events for Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, and was there at the Home Brew Club when Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were first getting acquainted. His very public question about why we hadn’t seen a photograph of the whole earth, though NASA had one, was immortalized on buttons that seem to sprout of their own accord among counterculture types. He also sent them (free of charge?) to movers and shakers, a stunt that may or may not have ushered in the modern environmental movement. No matter where you land on that one, it was certainly a part of raising the world’s consciousness the way LSD did for those partygoers back in Haight Ashbury.
Blessed with a curious mind, a more than respectable intellect, an engaging way with audiences, and, though not mentioned here, an income that did not depend on making a living at his various ventures, he was able to be the great recognizer of trends. More than that, he was able to give these trends a name, and once something has a name, people can latch onto it. Brand became ubiquitous amid the growing counterculture movement, first in a top hat that made his already tall and lanky frame even more towering, then wearing buckskins before settling into the more conservative, but still Establishment-challenging, jeans he sports to this day. He has been the not-so invisible hand of the counterculture he embraced after leaving Stanford University, never inventing anything, but taking things up and saying, “Hey, isn’t this neat?” then getting other people excited about them, too. This documentary does the same thing.
The documentary covers his early life in the Midwest, and the influence of his engineer father and proto-environmentalist mother, which, in turn, led to his dual passions for technology (hi- and low-) and the environment. His iconic Whole Earth Catalog (1968) married those with pages full of neat gadgets and green technology that would, among other things, allow you readers to get back to the land and living independently. The main focus, though, are his two latest passion projects: de-extincinting the woolly mammoth, and the Long Now Foundation, which is designed to prompt people to think in timespans of 10,000 years. (Full disclosure, I am a member, and, further full disclosure, I worked as an editor of the Whole Earth Catalog’s spin-off publication, the late, great Whole Earth Review, where Mr. Brand would saunter in once a day from his place out back with a puckish smile on his face and pick up his mail, making his entrance and exit with no fanfare and without interacting beyond a chirping “hello” if you happened to be around. Such an enigmatic person could only spur curiosity about what was going on in the mind behind the smile.)
As expected, the case for bioengineering a woolly mammoth is presented as a good thing, along with the de-extinction of the American chestnut, decimated over a century ago due to a blight, and taking ¼ of the eastern forests with them. These are not stunts undertaken just for the wow factor of seeing those pachyderms lumber again majestically in a place called Pleistocene Park in Russia (are they daring us to make the Jurassic Park connection?), but also to save the climate as the permafrost melts. That argument is as fascinating as it is novel when it comes to systems thinking. Not to mention compelling, even when salient objections are raised later, there is Brand’s spin that sparks the imagination while also offering the satisfyingly altruistic pleasure of knowing that it’s for the higher good, not just our own entertainment.
The objections take on a particularly potent form, one from Brand’s old mentor at Stanford, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, a self-proclaimed voice of doom about overpopulation, and another, more poignant, from actor/activist/Buddhist monk Peter Coyote, longtime associate (he spent a Brand-planned Kesey event under a table with a stripper), sadly chiding Brand for not considering the unintended consequences of bringing a species back to a world in which it would be an ecological stranger. Brand also does not come off well in a debate in which the audience is asked to vote on that proposition, though he retains the moral high ground when an opposing panelist makes an ad hominem attack.
The overwhelming point of view, though, is that here is the man who predicted that computers would become personal, not to mention the notion of cyberspace as a cultural force. He has vision, and a firm belief that since technology is neutral, it can and should be used. It’s for the pragmatists, given a voice here, to point out the fatal flaw of not having any doubts. Environmentalist Winona LaDuke has that honor in a tense exchange during another debate, and Brand’s longtime friend, environmentalist Hunter Lovins has the honor of asking the salient question about whether it’s a good idea to do something like altering genes (to de-extinct species) just because we can.
Brand himself, despite mildly awkward scenes of his private life with wife Ryan Phelan that fail to come across as the spontaneous moments that they were intended, is unpretentiously candid when speaking of himself. Still, one gets the sense that this is not a man, however much he enjoys an intellectual conversation (or argument), much given to emotional introspection as he holds forth on the people he’s met along the way, his struggle with depression, and the end of his first marriage. He is seen mostly in his element, and it’s a rich and vital one. Suiting up to examine frozen mammoth specimens in a clean room prior of DNA extraction, visiting the remote desert site of the Long Now’s 10,000-year-clock with chimes that can produce a different permutation for every day of that time, or doing the lecture circuit in support of Big Ideas. The people with whom he has surrounded himself, including that first wife, speak with delight, and just the right note of awe, even when some disagree with where he has landed intellectually.
The title comes from the first line of his introduction to the Whole Earth Catalog. “We are as gods, we better get good at it”. WE ARE AS GODS presents the tension of visionary vs. pragmatist in attempting to do just that in the curious life of Mr. Brand, and the effect he’s had on us all, whether we’ve heard of him before or not.