The catalogue that changed the whole earth

 In the beginning, Stewart Brand  created the Whole Earth Catalog. And the earth was without the web, google or blogging (which the Whole Earth Catalog is credited with inspiring). Steve Jobs described it as “an amazing publication… one of the bibles of my generation…  It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions“. And now that modestly titled journal, which drew together the passions, insights and enthusiasms of experts and amateurs from 1968 ­to 1972 and beyond is finally available online for free:

Whole Earth Catalog was premised on a notion of social progress that Brand and others believed would happen through engaged individuals working in decentralized networks to build their own environments. (There is more to it than that, but this is a blog). And the catalog provided ‘access to the tools’ to make this possible, and enough evidence of people transforming their own lives that it generated a great self-belief in its readers.  For many of their increasingly huge 1970s readership, it was their first introduction to sustainable technology and alternative energy. This was counterculture that has become mainstream.


For those at Whole Earth Catalog, technological innovation was the route to a better future via shared knowledge and a profound commitment to ecology. In the 2009 online version, you can flick through the magazines and scroll through the cover art of that and related publications, which range from the dynamic cartoons of Robert Crumb  to photographs of the earth from space . In fact, Nasa’s now-famous images were only a rumor until Brand successfully petitioned for it to become public in 1966, led by his belief that it would be a social good for humans to see the earth as one whole. 

That so many fascinating resources of the past are available online today is a true gift. The delight of historical material (by which I mean anything that is more than 30 years old ­- harsh I know, but where do you draw the line?) is that you can re-examine the context of the then-new ideas and sense the energy of the vision. I’m not advocating nostalgia.  What is exciting about the past is what it tells us about now and the future. Without being able to imagine past events in context and recognise why people chose to do what they did, it is not possible to understand the role of individual human agency in social change, which is what is needed to generate visions of the future. 

I am aware that this is obvious to many, but I feel it needs to be explicitly restated within the arts and other areas at the moment. A self-inhibiting short-term thinking has become the fashion,  which is characterised by a faux-cool cynicism, trimmed with reactionary views that are passed off as thoughtful criticism but that belie a fatalistic lack of faith in human potenial. (I’ll spare you more idiosyncratic metaphors). What is great about people like Stewart Brand is that they generate substantial change in the world – and the excellent thing about human potential is that all people can be great ­- whenever they realise it and actively choose to be so. 

Since Whole Earth Catalog, Brand et al have moved and changed with the times and continue to stay several steps ahead in their thinking. Now that people have a good conception of the whole earth, his current collaborative project, The Long Now , sets out to transform peoples understanding of time ­so that we can think more ecologically. Titled by Brian Eno, The Long Now ranges from 8000bc to 12000ad (the logic being that ‘now’ refers to days: yesterday, today and tomorrow and ‘nowadays’ refers to decades: the last decade, this decade and next decade). Ecology is a fascinating for many reasons and it demands complex, holistic, joined-up ways of thinking about the relationships of living things to each other and their environment. And the arts are very well suited to engaging with this complex, exploratory form of enquiry into what it is to be human. Whole Earth Catalog and The Long Now are trail blazers in what is possible.


The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Fall 1968. Whole Earth Catalog 30th Anniversary Edition, 1998


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