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The counterculture icon Stewart Brand continues to embrace an outside-the-box approach to the future

We Are As Gods

David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, directors
Structure Films
2021
94 minutes

Born in 1938, Stewart Brand studied systems biology at Stanford University before serving a stint in the army as a parachutist and photographer. In the 1960s, he was drawn into the nascent counterculture where beatniks rubbed shoulders and shared hot tubs with a younger cohort of hippies. After a psychedelic drug experience in 1966, Brand successfully lobbied NASA to release photographs taken from space of the entire planet. Such pictures, Brand claims, helped “blow away” the dark pessimism of the nuclear mushroom cloud that permeated 1960s popular culture.

In 1968, Brand created the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture periodical that was populated with articles and products designed to promote self-sufficiency and sustainability. Its runaway success enabled him to assume a decades-long role as a provocateur and cultural influencer.

Since the 1970s, Brand has catalyzed public debate about space settlements, personal computers, nanotechnology, the internet, and nuclear power. Central to all of these is an abiding concern for environmental issues. Taken together, his activities reflect a talent for conceiving of a radically different future, helping build tools to make it happen, and then popularizing this vision (1).

The plenitude of Brand’s projects presents a challenge for any biographer or filmmaker, but the documentary We Are As Gods provides a compelling introduction to his life. At the beginning of the film, Brand is compared to American icons ranging from Johnny Appleseed to P. T. Barnum. Each comparison captures a facet of his life, but, in the end, no single one suffices. The long arm of Brand’s reach can be seen in the film’s other voices, which include Doug Engelbart, Hunter Lovins, Steve Jobs, and Paul Ehrlich as well as Ken Kesey, Brian Eno, and members of the Grateful Dead.

Part biography and part meditation on the nature of time, We Are As Gods weaves together the disparate causes that Brand has championed over the past 60 years with his current fascination, the potential “de-extinction” of creatures such as the woolly mammoth and the American chestnut tree. The film also challenges viewers to rethink the stereotype that the hippie counterculture was “antitechnology” (2). In reality, young people a half-century ago successfully found ways to reconcile science and technology with an environmental sensibility and consumer hipness.

At the heart of all of Brand’s activities is his profound desire to encourage people to see the world in new ways. The film’s core idea as well as its title is drawn from the introductory pages of the Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This message, an alloy of hope and hubris, revolves around the idea that the right tool, be it the psychedelic LSD or a clock built to last 10,000 years, can “concentrate consciousness,” alter our perception, and inspire new behavior.

The film’s blend of enthusiasm and wariness is presented with another essential element—honesty. Brand, shown just as thin, rangy, and birdlike today as he was in the 1960s, is candid about a period of deep depression he experienced in the 1970s, brought about by a too-liberal regimen of recreational drugs combined with sudden celebrity and overwork. The emergence of personal computers, which Brand calls “a better drug,” and of online communities helped him recover, both professionally and personally.

Although doubters of de-extinction might disagree, many believe that the past loss of flora and fauna is, as the film says, a “tragedy that can be rewritten.” Much of the film concerns Brand’s collaboration with geneticist George Church to bring back and then reintroduce the woolly mammoth to a region in the Siberian Arctic known as Pleistocene Park as a means of combating climate change. It is in this more recent effort that Brand’s activities as a biologist, conservationist, and technologist are most tightly spliced together. The filmmakers generously allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to whether Brand is once again ahead of his time or blinded by techno-optimism.

Toward the end of the film, we see Brand in a greenhouse, surrounded by new shoots of American chestnut trees genetically altered to be blight-proof. As he places some in soil and waters them, he reflects on a dream he has had, in which the plants transform and, in time, become a forest. In the dream, he is flying over the forest, almost as a god.

References and Notes
1. W. P. McCray, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012).
2. D. Kaiser, W. P. McCray, Eds., Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation, and American Counterculture (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA.