The Environmentalists: The Whole Earth Catalog Gets Down to Business

The Whole Earth Catalog, an early example of a content aggregator, is a unique compendium of the hip and the homespun, of far-out technology and down-home atavism

The Earth from space taken by the Apollo 11 astronauts on their journey to the moon in July of 1969. Credit: SSPL/Getty

You can find out how to build a geodesic dome, the cheapest way to travel overland from Luxembourg to Nepal, where to buy the best constructed tipis, books on foraging for food and Moog Synthesizers.

There are excerpts from the complete writings of R. Buckminster Fuller, the I Ching and the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalog, tips on organic gardening and macrobiotic cooking and folksy reports from the "outlaw" designers and architects of the new longhair communities in Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico.

All this, and a hell of a lot more, makes up the contents of the twice-a-year Whole Earth Catalog and its four annual Difficult But Possible Supplements. Now completing its first year of publication, the Whole Earth Catalog is a unique compendium of the hip and the homespun, of far-out technology and down-home atavism, dedicated to the proposition that "we are as Gods——and might as well get good at it," and to the assumption that anything practical, cheap, of high quality and easy availability can serve as a tool toward that end.

Visually, the Catalog is a richly textured, turn-of-the-Sixties funk collage of black-and-white photo-reproductions, line drawings, hand printed correspondence and Victorian type-faces, all jumbled together on cheap paper like an early century mail-order catalog.

Editorially, the easiest way to describe the Catalog is on its own terms. Thus, the spring, 1969, edition contained entries on Understanding Whole Systems——The Population Bomb, Tantra Art, Process and Pattern in Evolution——on adobe construction methods, the art of creative knotting, Dr. Hip Pocrates and Dr. Spock; there were photographs of the Earth taken from Apollo 8, and of the Plaster Casters' alleged replica of Jimi Hendrix' pecker taken from The Realist. The July supplement carried pieces on how to manage a rock group (from the Berkeley Barb), Experiments in Art and Technology, letters from Wes Wilson and Ken Kesey, and a frontpage feature on a road-race among buses on a commune meadow in New Mexico.

In general, the Catalog is a hefty 125-plus pages containing a more conventional listing of items and books, with reviews, excerpts and information on how to get them, while the scantier supplement is a kind of free-wheeling editor's mail-bag. Both, however, rely heavily on suggestions and evaluations from readers (who get paid $10 per review), and the whole thing bears the unmistakable imprint of the Catalog's founder and editor, Stewart Brand. Brand provides the individual bits and pieces with a loose editorial matrix of laconic style and wry humor, a mixture of biological, metaphysical and communications jargon written with an earthy, mid-Western twang.

Similarly, the apparent chaos of form and content eventually yields up a highly coherent method that is as American as New England town meetings, the Farmer's Almanac or peyote rituals. For beneath a hip veneer of dymaxion design, exotic religious philosophy and faddish health theories, the Catalog celebrates an old-fashioned, fundamentalist individualism, the mystique of the self-taught, self-reliant do-it-yourselfer living in an organic relationship with his environment and on a level of collaborative equality with his fellows.

In contrast to the average mail order catalog's emphasis on assembly-line consumables, Whole Earth is built around the idea that everything from kaibob boots to books on classic guitar construction and altered states of consciousness can qualify as "useful tools" contributing to "a realm of intimate personal power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment." From one point of view, the Catalog represents a use of Marxist assumptions toward the ideals of anarchism, an attempt to spread control over the means of production——and education—so widely that anyone who wants to can be the locus of his own economic and political power. From another, the Catalog reflects an updating of the 19th century crafts movement to electronic age technology, and of New England transcendentalism to an earthy, peyote-vision mysticism in which the most visionary ideas are eminently practical and the most prosaic implements are sacred.

From any vantage point, the Catalog has been a huge success. Geared primarily to the educational needs of the new rural communities, it also performs useful services for the less pure of heart: Scotching rumors of products we've all been waiting for, such as a combination Pill and aphrodisiac; providing information on home brewing and camping equipment for week-end drop-outs; guiding urban scufflers through the wilderness of New York in a compresensive Baedeker called "Fuck the System" (for free food, show up at Jewish weddings or bar mitzvahs and say, "I'm Marvin's brother").

"A lot of people have dropped out of the economic system out of despair that there's nothing worth buying," Brand said. "In the Catalog, we try to show that this is not true, there are a lot of tools that are worth sustaining. The Catalog is aimed especially toward high school drop-outs——once they start their own education, they can do it all in the basement. But everybody wants to be more powerful than they are. A lot of our new subscriptions have been gifts from kids to their parents—or from parents to their kids."

The Catalog is published from a spacious, functional back room behind a store front in downtown Menlo Park, a wealthy San Francisco Peninsula community a few miles from Stanford University, although when the mood strikes, Brand will take off with his wife, an $800 camera and a $150 a month IBM Selectric Composer typewriter, and put an entire supplement together somewhere in Oregon or the Southwest desert. The store-front serves both as a retail outlet —and a mail-order house for customers who find it more convenient to order here than through the sources listed in the catalog; it contains about 60 per cent of the books and items listed. A Whole Earth Truck Store, set up to travel to communes and other places, is temporarily inactive following the resignation of its driver who, according to an item in the supplement, was inspired by Baba Ram Dass "to seek a more direct route to enlightment than wheeling and dealing."

Locating in Menlo Park was "a considered decision," according to Brand, who observes that the area has been a center for such examples of "far-out entrepreneurship" as Ramparts magazine, the Stanford Research Institute, the International Foundation——one of the earliest organizations to conduct LSD research—and Whole Earth's parent organization, the Portola Institute, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to innovative projects in education.

Brand, in his early thirties, sand haired and spare, is uniquely qualified for his particular function, holding both a degree in biology from Stanford and an Acid Test diploma which is framed on the office wall. A native of Illinois, Brand was attending an academy in New England when he first read Steinbeck and found everyone "seemed to be having such a good time," he came west to join in. He "wasted four years at Stanford," during which he was a Sloan Scholar and received an Institute of International Relations Award for work with foreign students. He was also introduced by a professor to the post-Beat scene in North Beach, where he said he finally found some of the qualities that Steinbeck had been writing about.

After spending some time there, Brand served two years in the Army as a photo journalist in the Pentagon, "parachuting and skydiving" around Fort Dix and hanging around New York on weekends with Steve Durkee, an environmental designer. Back in San Francisco, Brand studied photography and design at the Art Institute, worked with designer Gordon Ashby on an exhibit covering the history of astronomy, now on permanent display in New York's Hayden Planetarium, and then created a slide-film-tape touring-show called "America Needs Indians." Research included living with Indians on the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon and with the Southwest Navajos. "When I came back, I'd learned so much, everything was different," Brand says. "In Oregon I saw the anarchistic Silcot Indians. The Navajos taught me organization. Anything I know about organization, I learned at a Navajo peyote meeting one night," Brand said.

While working with the Indians, Brand met Ken Kesey, who was also delving into Indian lore, and the two organized the famous weekend San Francisco Trips Festival in January, 1966, the prototype of rock dance/light show events. "All the people involved in the Trips Festival knew it was a new age——but we didn't know what," Brand said. "It was our trial by fire of a lot of things. A lot of people came out with a strong sense of power."

That spring, Brand and Durkee conceived the idea of a Human Be-In, and in the summer they took part in the big environmental show staged in New York's Riverside Museum. Then came traveling with Kesey's Pranksters and, that fall, the Acid Test graduation rites. "Kesey pointed out that we had all gone through that door for a reason——and it was time to get back to what that reason was," Brand said. "Sixty-six was a water-shed year. People were moving out of the city, just like people had left North Beach when the rents went high and the scene became appalling and moved to the Haight. When the same thing happened there, where else could you go?"

Some of the oldest of the new communities like Drop City and Libre were then being formed, and late that year, Brand and his wife spent time in a commune in New Mexico——"It was clear that they were the cutting edge of something important."

The Whole Earth concept began to germinate in a peculiar kind of way back in 1966, when it occurred to Brand that, among all the photographs of the earth taken from various space flights, there were none that pictured the planet in its entirety. He set himself up as a kind of one-man movement, passing out Whole Earth buttons around the University of California campus—from which he was booted off for not representing a campus organization——rapping with space program technologists and directing inquiries to people like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller as to why the Whole Earth was being covered up. "Of all these people, the only one who answered was Fuller," Brand said. "He wrote that I must be misguided, and described mathematically how much of the earth's surface could be seen from one point."

Later, however, Brand met Fuller, and asked him what the effect might be on people if they could see the earth all in one glance. "Fuller blinked a moment, and then said to forget everything he'd said."

The idea of the Catalog was born a year and a half ago when Brand was flying back from his father's funeral in Illinois, and reading Barbara Ward's Spaceship Earth.

"When anybody dies, you get open to things," Brand said. "I began to think what would I like to do for my friends. Most had moved out to the sticks and the communities. I got this romantic notion of a truck, laden with things, that would come around like the old frontier medicine shows——an access mobile. That was the fantasy."

Fundamental to the concept was the plan for a catalog providing information on materials for "small scale access." A few of Brand's original ideas failed to come off, such as picturing each item along with a naked chick. Brand and his wife devoted more than six months to research, and put out the Catalog's first edition last fall.

Brand says the Catalog is "strictly an outgrowth of the commune movement" and it has paralleled the communes' phenomenal growth. "If it's a gold mine, then we're the shyster lawyers who are making a mint out of it," Brand says, only half-jokingly.

For a time, the office maintained a map pin-pointing the communes' locations, "but we lost track. There are a number in Canada and Minnesota, lots in Washington, zillions in California. The bigger and more stable ones are in New Mexico. There are urban ones in New York. The Canadian government has a unique one in Rochedale, an 18-story skyscraper completely in the hands of long-hairs. The speed freaks live on the 13th floor, and the motorcycle gangs are on the first floor to guard the place."

"In terms of evolution, their origins are in pedomorphism," Brand says. "Most of the communes are almost a purely pedomorphic thing, an extension of the juvenile. You can't go any further along the same root, so you go back, pick up a new root, maybe."

Brand sees the majority of communes as having their basis in "economic convenience and spiritual aspirations. These are not making innovations, except in life styles."

Most, he adds, are beset by population problems. "Both the population explosion and the information explosion has caught them. If you let on you're having a good time, they come and see that you don't. You can't spread it that thin."

The Catalog contains its share of features geared toward these kinds of communities: Tipis, for example——"If you get into this thing very much at all, you gotta have a tipi." Brand chose the Catalog's Windsor type faces partly "as pure huckster theater—the thing that will move people is nostalgia"——partly because they reflect "where most of the communes are—in the late 19th and early 20th century."

But he is more interested in communities of dropped out scientists, solar engineers and dome architects who are exploring new systems and environments along the lines of Fuller's ideas.

"I'm an empiricist," Brand says, "and I suppose the key ingredient in my thinking is survival; that's what drives evolution. My assumption is, in the age of dinosaurs, the thing to be is a mammal. Those little shrews had all the marbles; they were able to diversify and adapt to their new surroundings. People who are dropping out are dropping out of specialization. This is the great effect of the whole drug and music culture; scientists and engineers see people having a good time, and here they have all these talents and skills and think they should be having a good time, too, but they're miserable. The Catalog is really directed toward this group, the people who want to get away from specialization for a more comprehensive, whole system thing. Gradually, they are coming up with whole new alternative ways."

Brand drew a graphic characterization of this group in a Supplement report of a recent gathering in the New Mexico desert designed to produce "a meld of information on Materials, Structure, Energy, Man, Magic, Evolution and Consciousness":

"Who were they? (Who are we?) Persons in their late twenties or early thirties, mostly. Havers of families, many of them. Outlaws, dope fiends, and fanatics, naturally. Doers, primarily, with a functional grimy grasp on the world. World thinkers, dropouts from specialization. Hope freaks."

The Catalog reflects Brand's somewhat anarchistic political and economic philosophy, which puts a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship. It often forms a curious parallel with the kind of ideas set forth in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which was based on a group of wealthy industrial and engineering geniuses who dropped out to a haven in the Colorado desert to wait for the rest of the system to collapse by their absence.

The ideas in Atlas Shrugged "inspired a lot of our operational stuff, just like Fuller did," said Brand, "because it works."

"Of all the big nasties——the church, education, business——the least nasty is big business. The school and drug cultures are both naive in their attitude toward business. The workings of business are really kept at a great distance from the consumer; he is sheltered from the amount of mark-ups, service charges and all the rest.

"But the soundest reports on the drug culture, for example, I found in the Wall Street Journal. These people are much more in tune with the individual American than politicians are. You have a stronger vote as a buyer than a voter; you can put them out of business."

Brand candidly concedes that he is more concerned with running a business than in a personal involvement with the community movement, though he and his wife continue to "community hop" occasionally. "I like all of them."

"When I was living with the Indians I got a lot of the simple life, gardening and so on, but after a while it gets boring," Brand said. "Also, most communities are too young. I'm happy with people my own age, about 30 years old. Finally, when you get to be around 30, you become interested in making a little money. I have my acid test diploma, and I try to avoid any chemicals," Brand added. "As far as we can tell, it's pedomorphic, it turns your head into a more primitive state. It is a fabulous way out of a bind. A caveman can see things that a businessman can't. But he can feel more gripped by them, too."

The operational philosophy of the Whole Earth Catalog is simple: Low overhead, complete candor and service to its readers.

The Catalog and Supplements are published by a staff of Brand and four other people, and their entire equipment fills five boxes. "When our first issue came out, Consumer Reports ran an article saying we obviously couldn't survive," Brand said. "It must have been inconceivable to them just how cheaply we operate."

One ingredient in the Catalog's low overhead is a liberal use of excerpts——often pirated—from books and other publications it lists. The Catalog includes listings for the two other principal publications in the common field——Modern Utopia Magazine, a kind of grandiose communities newsletter, and Green Revolution, aimed primarily at the older, Fabian style communities dating from the Twenties and Thirties. If you're interested in any kind of hand tool, Whole Earth simply recommends the Sears Roebuck catalog——"the best source in the world for hand tools: Better, cheaper, and fully guaranteed."

"We sell the publication to a large extent on the basis of other people's work," Brand admits. "But we pay the author back because his sales go up. If it ever gets down to damages, he can only claim more sales."

Brand describes the Catalog's notion of customer service as "a down home extension of the idea of service introduced by the telephone company around the turn of the century when it became clear that if big business didn't start to regulate itself, the government would.

"Most catalogs have an interest in the things they carry. We don't. Our interest is giving information to the reader, and the supplier can go fuck himself. We're waiting for someone to come along and do what we're doing even better. If they do, we'll include them in the Catalog."

The Catalog rarely lists an item simply for the sake of putting it down——"we don't need to," says Brand. "It's partly a Fullerian thing——he never tries to fight his enemies, he tries to obsolesce them. It's why fighting college is so irrelevant——you can go out on your own and start anything, and it's going to be better."

It also steers, sometimes reluctantly, away from items or projects beyond the scope of a few people to carry off. "There are lots of promising industrial things——the opening up of oceans, sea labs, and so on. They're fascinating, but we don't do very much on it because it's not possible for you and a half dozen buddies to go out and do much of any consequence with the ocean."

Likewise, Brand adds, "for the real dirt poor, we don't have too much."

Each Catalog and Supplement provides its readers with a unique breakdown on how the publication's income, costs and profits are sliced. Letters from readers contained in the Supplements constitute a free forum including criticism as well as suggestions and praise. One readers complained that in following Fuller's philosophy, the Catalog also held too closely to his withdrawn political views.

Brand says he is growing more interested in politics, "not as a thing we do, but something to speak on"——though he has puzzled in vain over a term, that could somehow combine the concepts of New Left and New Right to describe the catalog's political philosophy. Primarily, it is pragmatic and ecological, Brand said, pointing to the Taoistic saying under a picture of the globe on the back cover of the catalog's first issue: "We can't put it together, it is together." "We have to start off with that and move on from there."

Brand is also inerested in going further into the music field. "A lot of people must start out really ignorant of the real economics of running a rock band," he says. "The Beatles and Dylan have created a complete breakthrough for a whole generation. They made a success and continued, not by keeping on doing the same thing, but by change. Each record is different and better than the one before. They taught the audience the rule that you had better keep changing and getting better. If not, you're copping out."

Brand digs keeping a finger in the Whole Earth retail outlet. "When you deal over the counter with an item, you get better access to its real value. A guy coming in and saying you're full of shit is a better analysis than you can buy."

On top of the surge of success that has greeted the publications, Brand says he has been besieged with requests from people wanting to set up Whole Earth stores in their own towns.

"We say fine, let a thousand flowers bloom. I don't care if they use the name."

"I'm a great believer in being responsible to your fantasies," Brand added. "When a fantasy turns you on, you're obligated to God and nature to start doing it——right away. That's the thing we learned from the Hell's Angels. The Whole Earth Catalog was an accident that worked. We were going for breakeven——like I've always gone for. We've been given a keep-on-going sanction from this world, and over that, the Fullerian wealth sanction——the wealth of the world made this much richer."