• Film

Docs: “We Are As Gods” Explores Provocative Idea of De-Extinction

Once described as the “intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the counterculture,” writer Stewart Brand, member of the Merry Pranksters and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cut an influential swath through the 60s, the 70s, and beyond, helping to birth and shape what we now recognize as the modern-day environmental movement.


The documentary We Are As Gods, receiving limited theatrical exposure in advance of its release across digital platforms on September 6, chronicles Brand’s standing within this community of environmental defenders, and a great schism which has now made enemies of many past friends and supporters.

For the eco-conscious – or for those just curious about the hotly debated, already-upon-us phenomenon of reviving extinct species of flora and fauna – this movie proves a fascinating watch.

Its title is a nod to the first part of one of Brand’s quotes. It sums up his interventionist philosophy – the completing refrain is, “So we might as well get good at it”. We Are As Gods toggles back and forth a bit between biography and big-picture advances in science and technology.

Brand was born in December 1938, in Rockford, Illinois. Alongside his older brother, Michael, he grew up learning the value of practical problem-solving from their civil engineer father. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in biology in 1960, he joined the United States Army for a couple of years before gravitating toward design and photography.

Brand then connected with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, becoming one of the Merry Pranksters. Informed by his background as a photographer, and finding himself taken with the idea of images not yet made, and that could help positively impact human behavior, Brand came out of a 1966 LSD trip gripped by one question: “Why haven’t we seen a photo of the whole Earth yet?” So, he wrote letters to NASA and made buttons, helping to pave the way for the famous 1972 “Blue Marble” picture, taken by the crew of Apollo 17.


In 1968, at a time when much of the world was looking for information, Brand launched the Whole Earth Catalog, an intermittently published magazine and product directory which Steve Jobs called “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google existed.”

Later, Brand would assist Douglas Engelbart in a landmark computer demonstration, sealing his love affair with technology. Auguring the personal computer revolution, Brand would tout machines as tools for human independence and representative of a massive social movement that could (and would) reshape our world.

The portrait of Brand that emerges is not so much one of a traditional activist but, rather, a self-styled futurist philosopher — an evangelical optimist almost preternaturally attracted to ideas on the edge of believability. One of the biggest of these ideas is the notion of undoing the tragedies of (largely human-caused) animal extinction. On this speculative belief, Brand is all in.

American chestnut trees used to cover 25 percent of the Eastern seaboard of the United States but were felled by an imported fungus in the early 20th century. Similarly, millions of passenger pigeons used to dot the American sky. Further back in time, in the Pleistocene era, woolly mammoths roamed northern Eurasia. We Are As Gods focuses on efforts to revive these species – including Harvard University professor George Church’s research on mammoths, creatures that are 99.6% genetically similar to modern-day Asian elephants.


Brand’s zealous advocacy isn’t an effort to turn back the clock to earlier times. What it proposes is an “assisted evolution” approach that uses restored ecosystems to help stabilize Earth and combat climate change.

Co-directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, We Are As Gods portrays Brand as he self-presents — amiable and eminently reasonable, driven by practicality over almost all things. But it doesn’t tip over into hagiography. It gives plenty of screen time to those who oppose what they deem Brand’s fanciful opinions, including environmentalist Hunter Lovins, actor/activist Peter Coyote, and Stanford biology professor and Brand’s former mentor Paul Ehrlich.

Celebrated music producer Brian Eno contributes a score to the movie. He appears in interview footage and is additionally involved in a 10,000-year clock, having coined its nickname, “Clock of the Long Now.” Eno is now writing the music for its chimes. This is all part of a Brand-approved project addressed late in the film and which aim is to get people to consider more expansive measurements and horizons of time.


Overall, We Are As Gods makes an appropriate short presentation of its subject’s personal life (the philosopher-activist is twice-married and childless). But Brand does get to talk candidly about depression and cycles of personal drug use (mostly LSD and cannabis) during various times in his life. That would seem to invite a closer reading of their intersection with the various preoccupations and theories he has come to promulgate. The film could benefit from a slightly tighter focus. The Merry Pranksters segment wanders a bit, all things considered.

Still, the main big-picture idea is a heavy and incredibly worthwhile one. In examining the concept of biological geo-engineering, it forces viewers who are environmentally minded to decide what they value more: ideology or the ecosystems one wishes to protect? Even more pointedly, Brand’s work begs the two-part query: to what extent do we have an obligation to try to right the past wrongs of humankind? And: where should science and technology help in that effort?

Our collective answer to this big question, whether in the form of intentional decision-making or passive non-engagement, will likely determine much more about our future fate than almost every other societal argument.