A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

A Truly Holistic Legacy: The Whole Earth Catalog

Published 1968-1972, by Stewart Brand and Others

When the movement that resulted in the institutionalization of an annual Earth Day started over a half century ago, environmentalism was still a vague concept buried in the ideas of ecology and conservationism. The idea of a climate crisis was barely mentioned beyond science fiction; the terms global warming and climate change were used only occasionally until 1975, when a scientific paper on the topic, “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” was published by Wally Broecker in Science magazine, and talk of the depletion of earth’s ozone layer started spreading about on an international level.

Moreover, no one linked global recessions to climate and its effects. In fact, the big movement of the times was against global economics.

Teddy Roosevelt’s management-styled conservationism was battling both the John Muir ideals of preservationism and the more lyrical growth of ecological awareness, which reached a natural peak with the rise of Marvin Gaye’s song “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” to the top of the charts right around the time a second Earth Day was expanding around the nation’s college campuses (and despite a push associating its April 22 date with Vladimir Lenin’s birthday). The “counterculture” was at its peak, fighting the Vietnam War and pushing for a “return to nature” embodied in such surprise handmade publishing successes as the Whole Earth Catalog phenomenon started and run by visionary Stewart Brand from 1968 through 1972 (with occasionals published through 1998).

The WHOLE EARTH CATALOG functions as an evaluation and access device. With it, the user should know better what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting,” read the massive (and totally grassroots) publication’s second edition. “An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed: 1. Useful as a tool, 2. Relevant to independent education, 3. High quality or low cost, 4. Not already common knowledge, and 5. Easily available by mail. CATALOG listings are continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.”

Continuing, before describing its breakdown into seven sections (Understanding Whole Systems, Shelter and Land Use, Industry and Craft, Communications, Community, Nomadics, and Learning), Brand and his then-wife Lois wrote how, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.”

The periodicals, which came out several times a year in editions that ended up selling over a million copies each in a self-published 11 by 14 inch paperback format deeper than an inch thick, featured essays and articles and loads of product reviews and demonstrations of counterculture knowledge. The covers featured NASA’s first composite satellite image of the earth, which Brand had petitioned the government to release for several years, feeling it could serve as a unifying tool for global change. It ended up winning the first National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs.

Given one can’t find copies of the Whole Earth Catalog in libraries or bookstores anymore, why even mention it? Well, at a Stanford commencement speech given shortly before his death, Apple visionary Steve Jobs mentioned the publication as the Google of its day. Many have noted how so much of new economic theory has come out of what Brand created (along with his “other” work creating the first demonstrations of “personal computing” futures in 1968), the creation of the prototype online community, The WELL, and the equally influential environmental magazine, CoEvolution Quarterly. As well as, less directly, the inspiration for James Lovelock’s launching of his book Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, and the subsequent decades of study of the growing Gaia Principle, in 1979.

Take a look at the CEO-driven lists of non-fiction climate sensitive books put out by BookAuthority, from works on Greta Thunberg and the Green New Deal to other economic considerations and various 2020-released calls to action, and one can do little but sit back in amazement at what true grassroots organizing, and publishing, can end up producing in the long run.

Moreover, think how we now react to the crazy ups and downs of grand economics: we save old Foxfire books on how to “get back to the land;” we figure out ways to self-sustain; we peruse our annual Farmers’ Almanacs; and the new Country Wisdom & Know-How: Everything You Need to Know to Live Off the Land has become the talk of new economists looking to break old patterns.

As well as re-found old copies of the Whole Earth Catalog, including its 30th anniversary version published in 1998, which while now running into the hundreds of dollars when publicized, sometimes show up for less. Search them out!

And prepare to go back to a saner future.