I still miss the Whole Earth Catalog and its offshoot, the Whole Earth Review/CoEvolution Quarterly (I have a complete set of back issues boxed up lovingly in my basement.) Former Merry Prankster and Catalog founder Stewart Brand, now 80, is one of my cultural heroes. No one has more clearly articulated a set of cultural values congruent with mine. His statement above, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” from the Whole Earth Catalog statement of purpose in 1968, embodies the personal empowerment, self-reliance, and — countering the hubris — responsibility to which we should aspire. Many other countercultural luminaries graced its pages, including Art Spiegel, Howard Rheingold, Kevin Kelly, Anne Herbert, R Crumb, Jay Kinney, Cliff Figalo, .
As Catalog founder Stewart Brand told Reason‘s Brian Doherty in 2010: “This was in an era when JFK was saying, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ We were saying, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; do it yourself!'”
The WEC was first and foremost an actual catalog, selecting for objects that were useful, promoted self-reliance, easily available (this was before online buying) and of high quality and/or low cost. But it was also a catalog of concepts and conceptual frameworks dedicated to “Understanding Whole Systems” and was my introduction to feedback loops, systems analysis, and cybernetics, which serve me well in my work on human interactions as a mental health professional, as well as psychogeography and an ecological perspective. The WEC was the lineal ancestor of or the inspiration for such countercultural icons as Wired, the WELL, Boing Boing, the Long Now Foundation.
In a way, Brand and his merry Whole Earthers acted as midwives for the birth of cyberculture out of the counterculture and one might argue were the spiritual forebears of Apple. In what was only a slight bit hyperbolic, Steve Jobs famously once called the Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google existed.” Certainly, the rise of the internet as a whole embodies, you might say, the vastly increased self-reliance through access to information that the pre-wired Whole Earthers dreamt of. Kevin Kelly wrote in 2008 of his realization that the Catalog was really a proto-blog, and,
This I am sure about: it is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.
— via Boing Boing
Would that we still upheld its anarchism and communitarian empowerment “that energized the best elements of 1960s counterculture.”
Brand, who turns 80 in December, now splits his time between The Long Now Foundation and Revive & Restore, an effort dedicated to “building the 21st-century genetic rescue toolkit for conservation” to save coral reefs, horseshoe crabs, Asian elephants, and other living things from degradation, depopulation, and worse. Its most visionary ambitions include “de-extincting” animals, such as the passenger pigeon and the wooly mammoth, that long ago went missing. Because he believes in genetic modification of crops and organisms, and in the increased use of nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gases, Brand, who helped to inspire the first Earth Day, has become a pariah among some of his old crowd.
We Are as Gods is a 94-minute documentary about Brand (scored by his friend Brian Eno), with a focus on his current mission to fight species extinction, resurrecting ecosystems and saving the future of the planet.
This piece was inspired by an essay in Reason magazine, which was also founded in 1968, celebrating their shared 50th anniversary.
The Last Whole Earth Catalog, from June 1971, has been scanned in and is available for electronic browsing pleasure. [In fact, the Internet Archive has an awful lot of Whole Earth digitized content. See here.] I was a devotee of the mindset of these folks and a charter subscriber to the quarterly spin-off from the catalogs, known at different times as Whole Earth Review and Coevolutionary Quarterly. I visited them in Sausalito at one point, and had the pleasure of being the next-door neighbor in New Haven of their graphics editor for awhile. (My across-the-street neighbor at the time was the New Haven Zen Center. Nice neighborhood.) In many ways, they were all about hacking the world and your life long before there was electronic hacking. Their closest online literary heir is Kevin Kelly.