What if we solved climate change with reintroducing the Woolly Mammoth? WE ARE AS GODS is a lofi forest hike into Stewart Brand, the creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, an influential member of Ken Kesey’s (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) “The Merry Pranksters,” a founder of the modern environmental movement, and an advocate for bringing back extinct species of animals and plants. And it’s a compelling documentary to watch in current time.
The production is sound. Prolific pioneering musician Brian Eno provided the ambient score, a perfect fit with the sensibilities inherent of the life of Stewart Brand. At no point did the music overtake a scene, whether an interview or quietly following Brand through nature, serving as a perfect anchor to the deluge of information. With seamlessly integrated vintage footage, Eno’s gentle but urgent score takes the viewer from Brand’s childhood in an Illinois cabin in the 1940s through his transformative time with Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters” in the 60’s to now when the theories of Brand are treated to a higher level of pragmatism than the days of the “Acid Test”. There’s a lovely rhythm to the editing and direction of WE ARE AS GODS. History, science, theories and personal history are presented simultaneously and clearly through well-designed animated graphics, first-person interviews and environmental footage of Brand interacting with his peers.
There’s a lot to unpack with the life and work of Stewart Brand but the main focus of this documentary is his focus on using biotech to resurrect extinct species as a means of mitigating accelerating climate change. Primarily, the Woolly Mammoth. Early on a connection is made to Brand’s LSD-inspired 1965 campaign for a photo of the full earth featuring buttons reading “Why haven’t we seen the whole Earth?” (the first image of the planet earth from space would be released by NASA in 1967). Brand intimates wondering about and then seeing the full scope of the planet with driving home the point that human life is not passengers, but the crew of Earth, thus, responsible for our actions on it. Environmentalism was evolving during this period with a growing focus on preserving wilderness and a wider proliferation of nature photos inspiring the public to greater action.
The Whole Earth Catalog, published by Brand from 1968 to 1972, was essentially a Google search engine of a counter-culture magazine. Subject matter followed the expansion of environmentalism such as ecology, holism, and self-sufficiency. A partial idea being to eschew politics in favor of direct-power in tools and skills. As technology advanced, Brand was attracted to computerization and the possibilities it offered as a new and stronger tool for human progression and, eventually, as an aid to reversing the damage of uninformed human progress on the natural world.
So… the mammoth.
Much of Stewart Brand’s life and work, according to the documentary, has centered around the interaction of people with themselves and the interaction of people with and within their environment. The Woolly Mammoth, according to theory, was an integral part of the ecological balance during the Pleistocene until their entire species was wiped out due to, in theory, overhunting by early man. What Brand is proposing is to “De-Extinct” the Woolly Mammoth by sequencing DNA from specimens (hair and such) in collection with DNA of the African Elephant. Then reintroduce (or introduce?) the Woolly Mammoth into the steppes of Siberia, along with other introduced species similar to what existed during the Ice Age, to recreate an ecological balance that prevented permafrost from melting into methane pools contributing to the collection of Greenhouse Gases (all true, the permafrost is melting, we’re in trouble).
Brand is a visionary. And while some of his past social experiments and writing found detractors in their failure or lack of result, this project has garnered him ire on the practice alone. The direction here is perfect with both sides and all opinions presented fairly, honestly while remaining engaging. It might be that because almost all of the subjects of interest in WE ARE AS GODS are children of the 60’s counter-culture movement and so can speak animatedly and in detail, but really the shot composition and lighting keep a strong focus on so many differing opinions.
It’s fascinating to witness Brand so sure reviving extinct species is a key to saving the earth as a whole even as his own peers admonish him for a “dumb idea”. He lowers his eyes as his theory is related to “Jurassic Park”. He smiles a little tight when referred to as “naive”. He’s flabbergasted that anyone WOULDN’T want to bring an extinct species back to life.
Despite being the person who questioned why we hadn’t seen the scope of our entire planet and went on to “catalog” the changing world itself, Stewart Brand has always been working towards what can be done rather than what should be done. Which is an argument he’s heard many times. However, WE ARE AS GODS happens to be coming out during a global pandemic resulting in a worldwide lockdown of humans. Aside from the economic recession and other concerns, a surprising and heartening result of most humans staying indoors is the immediate lowering of carbon in the atmosphere and reports of wildlife already returning to once human-choked areas. Brand is adamant throughout the documentary that climate change is happening and we need to step it up and think outside the box. It’s one of his supporting arguments for why Woolly Mammoth. And yet here we are seeing the possibility of the reversal of climate change itself, much quicker than projected, through the simplest solution of all. Getting humans out, not involving them further. The more common environmentalist position against reviving extinct species.
However. WE ARE AS GODS is successful in engaging the viewer into the argument to draw their own conclusions while appreciating that, while impractical, Stewart Brand’s Woolly Mammoth is the sort of visionary thinking that revolutionized environmentalism to begin with. And it would be very cool to see a Woolly Mammoth walking about.