A sense of techno-optimism pervades We Are As Gods, a new biopic on the environmental icon, futurist, and iconoclast Stewart Brand. Though not a household name, Brand is one of the key instigators of multiple utopian movements, from America’s environmental awakening in the 1970s to the DIY movement to early hacker culture. The film is a piece of propaganda, but a self-aware one, and at times marvelously enjoyable.
Brand doesn't fit comfortably into existing buckets, political or cultural. As a young photographer, he is swept into the world of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and even orchestrates the Trips Festival, an LSD-fueled bash that by some accounts kicked off the hippie movement in San Francisco. Shortly afterward, Brand trips and is struck by the realization that we haven't seen a photograph of the whole earth, despite winning the space race. How different would things be? he asks. It's a strangely successful rallying cry for the burgeoning environmental movement. Then he puts together the Whole Earth Catalog, a massive magazine/encyclopedia focused on ecology and DIY techniques (the slogan is "access to tools"). Steve Jobs calls it "Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along."
Later, Brand leads early efforts to popularize the internet, refurbishes a tug boat, and oversees the building of a "thousand year clock." The movie leaves out several more projects: his attempt to catalog all species of life on earth with his All Species Foundation, his time as an adviser to California governor Jerry Brown, and his campaigns for nuclear power. He's everywhere. You may not buy the claims that he kickstarted the environmental movement, or that startup culture was born directly out of the Whole Earth Catalog, but plenty of his contemporaries sure do.
Brand is an iconoclast, but also inescapably a product of his time: The sequence where he explains how a years-long, drug-fueled depression destroyed his first marriage would be apt material for Helen Andrews's Boomers.
At its best, We Are As Gods portrays Brand's infectious enthusiasm for a particular brand of futurist techno-optimism. Though he studied under Paul Ehrlich, a "notorious doomsayer" (that's from Ehrlich in the film), Brand thinks humans can be a net positive in the ecological web. He's not a stereotypical movement leader: He's lanky, quiet, understated, even silly. But his vision attracts followers wherever he goes and creates a series of ideological clashes with more doctrinaire environmentalists.
Brand’s entrepreneurial attitude repeatedly puts him at odds with compatriots who are generally more skeptical of human-driven projects. Like Brand's former mentor Ehrlich, they can't quite trust anthropocentric solutions to climate change and degradation. More than once, we see Brand sitting, quietly, as an activist levies war against Brandian hubris. We Are As Gods does a good job of presenting Brand’s vision without undercutting the more traditional environmental arguments. It’s clear Brand is an iconoclast even within the movements he helped start.
What gets Brand going today—and for the past two decades—is one of those anthropocentric solutions: what he describes as biological geoengineering. Brand wants to use all the tools of genetic engineering at human disposal to restore creatures, like the American chestnut tree and the woolly mammoth, that filled important niches in their old ecosystems. The chestnut project is eminently feasible through existing grafting techniques; the mammoth more quixotic.
We Are As Gods premiered at the South By Southwest film festival this past week. It is the first movie out from Stripe Press, the content arm of a rapidly growing Silicon Valley finance company. The film is a clear continuation of Stripe’s attempts to build a coherent West Coast techno-optimistic aesthetic. The company has previously produced a set of beautifully bound books that address how technology and popular culture fit together, including Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and Richard Hamming’s The Art of Doing Science and Engineering.
Stripe is also taking a Brandian approach toward environmental challenges, offering a new platform for technologies that capture carbon and remove it from the atmosphere. It’s a goal seemingly as utopian as Brand’s deextinction projects.
That said, the film remains an inspiring look at a character who has spent his life trying to convince us that, given the right tools and a hefty dose of optimism, we might just make it out all right.