40 years later: The original toolbox for green living

Andy Kirk's new book looks at The Whole Earth Catalogue's lasting influence.

By Tobin Hack

Stewart Brand was way ahead of the curve at the inception of the environmental movement. In 1968, when Americans had just started buying into the idea that nature had  value outside of its role as “home” to humanity, Brand created the first edition of The Whole Earth Catalogue—a compendium of resources, tools, and do-it-yourself suggestions for living sustainably. Brand, a biologist and artist, was among the first to ask what Americans could do in their everyday lives to act on their newly invigorated respect for nature. Brand’s Whole Earth environmentalism, wise beyond its years, was actually a lot like the environmentalism endorsed today by green leaders such as Al Gore. It was about pragmatic ways that ordinary people could use ordinary tools and innovative ideas to reduce the strain of humanity on the planet. The book won the National Book Award in 1972, and though it was published only sporadically, from 1968 to 2003, it remains a focal chapter in the history of American environmentalism. Andy Kirk, associate professor of history and director of the Public History Program at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, investigates Whole Earth’s history in Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalogue and American Environmentalism, published by the University Press of Kansas in October of 2007.

How did The Whole Earth Catalogue approach the idea of sustainability?
The subtitle of Whole Earth was “access to tools.” Some of the tools it discussed were aimed at spirituality, fitness, food, all kinds of things, but there is a dominant theme of living more simply, living within our means, and living in a way that we now would call sustainable. Stewart Brand was down on calamity-callers, and up on people who had innovative ideas and solutions to real problems. The tone of the publication throughout its entire life was very positive: there are alternatives, there are ways to make a difference, we’re smart, we’re capable, we’re innovative, here are some suggestions. It brought together thinkers, tools and concepts that had not been brought together in that way before, and enabled people to make connections between concerns like environmental preservation and historic preservation that a lot of people just were not making at the time, in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Today, the catalogues themselves seem so old school, but they really were a precursor to the information age that we live in.

Whole Earth has been called a predecessor to Google. Do you agree?
The comparison is excellent in that both Google and Whole Earth are mind blowing information delivery services. But Whole Earth was much more effective than just Google in paperback. It might seem at first glance to be an almost random assemblage of anything alternative that anyone could think of, but it was very carefully culled and vetted. Today it’s so easy to quickly obtain information that sometimes we don’t have the opportunity to make the intellectual leaps that Whole Earth facilitated. The idea of the internet is that there isn’t a theme – it’s access to everything, not just tools.

Did Stewart Brand succeed in closing the gap between technology and sustainability?
That’s a really hard question, and the crux question of my book. Brand thought about technology as possibly not the antithesis to natural living, but a way of augmenting a sustainable life. At the exact moment that the mainstream environmental movement convinced people that nature had value without us, Whole Earth was already asking “Yeah, but what about us?” And that’s the key characteristic of the huge resurgence in green thinking that we’re in the midst of right now. People are part of nature. We can’t just set aside reserves or protect certain species. We have to figure out what to do with ourselves.

How deeply did Whole Earth penetrate American culture?
One of the fundamental misperceptions about Whole Earth was that it was the “commune bible,” for those on the extreme fringes of the counterculture, who had abandoned life as we know it. Certainly Stewart Brand assumed early on that communes would be the primary audience, but any publication catering exclusively to serious dropouts would have had a much shorter life and a much smaller impact than Whole Earth did. Whole Earth in its final reincarnation was reprinted and reprinted over a period of several years; it had a very wide distribution and won the National Book Award. It had an impact on people who were living very much within the mainstream and searching for pragmatic alternatives.

What public figures today embody the Whole Earth principles?
Amory Lovins, William McDonaugh. Most obviously, Al Gore. He literally uses the image of the whole earth as the icon for his discussion of global warming. He tries hard to convince people that while this is a horrifyingly daunting and global issue, that individuals can still make a difference.

When NASA released that image of the earth from space, in the 60’s, it was so new and awe-inspiring that Brand named his catalogue after it. Are we immune to that visual reminder of our smallness today?
I think that image is more powerful today, because of things like Google Earth and space technology. Because the atmosphere is blanketed with satellites that can give you a picture of your home or anything else you’d want to see. The fundamental understanding that came from that early image was “this is our place, this is all we have.” It was that recognition of the finite nature of the globe, which can seem so huge when you’re on it but looks so small from space. Today, with the ability to just zoom right in on your house and zoom right into Iraq and zoom over to Darfur, it resonates even more with people. Citizen scientists can track environmental change in a way that they couldn’t in the past. Anyone who’s used Google Earth has a sense of how small the world really is.

Are the early Whole Earth Catalogues still around today?
They were ephemeral in the sense that they were printed on really low-quality stuff, so a lot of them just disintegrated. You can usually get them in libraries – they’re for sale all over the place. There are people who hung onto them, but it’s rare to find one that’s in really excellent shape. They were very, very used. When you find them today, they very frequently look like someone read it to death. But Whole Earth survived as a publication until just four years ago, so those later editions are very contemporary, and remain a completely usable source of information. Whole Earth in its last reincarnation, its last decade of life, still has currency today.

Brand closed the last Whole Earth Catalogue with the advice “stay hungry, stay foolish.” What did he mean?
Don’t settle for second best, stay on the cutting edge. Don’t close your ears to ideas, no matter how crazy they sound. Whole Earth presented ideas that came from everything from the lunatic fringe to the near-center. Openness to new ideas and possible avenues for new innovation. And the capacity for human creativity – don’t lose it.