The Last Twelve Hours of the Whole Earth

A counterculture catalog's demise

Whole Earth Catalog, Fall 1970. Credit: Glenn Smith / Getty

San Francisco — The Demise of the Whole Earth was a wake, and like any good wake it lasted until early morning, what with 1,500 people haggling over the deceased's estate. The estate — a wad of 200 $100 bills — was a surprise "educational event" sprung by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand on the former Whole Earth employees, contributors and reviewers who had come to celebrate the publication of The Last Whole Earth Catalog. By the time of the party, June 12th, they had probably all digested an earlier educational event, Brand's decision a year and a half ago to stop publishing his successful Catalog this summer.

The $20,000, however, proved too much to deal in a single night, and by eight a.m. the 1,500 guests dwindled to 20. In the end the 20 delegated one of their number to hold the money, which itself had dwindled to $14,905, until they could reconvene to decide what to do with it. He stuffed the money into his jeans and drove off into the sunrise.

In contrast to the San Francisco Trips Festival, which Brand co-authored with Ken Kesey five years ago to usher in a new era of weird drugs, hard rock and blinding, stroboscopic light, the Demise party belonged to another age — a future age which often harks back to a past one.

The 1,500 invited "catalog makers" who filled the cavernous interior of the San Francisco Place of Arts and Sciences were mostly a quiet, sober, even saturnine crowd, like a group of midwestern dirt-farmers who had come to town on Saturday night to visit a country fair. They were a far-flung group of dirt-farmers, of course—from Seattle and Portland, the up-country wilds of British Columbia and the Southwest Desert. Here and there, one saw people shouldering sleeping bags or bedrolls, carrying hitchhike signs: "San Francisco" on one side, "Berkeley" or "Los Angeles" on the reverse.

A volleyball game began early at one end of the blimp-hangar-like hall and continued almost without stop until late the next morning. There were intermittent bouts of buffing — jousting with styrofoam swords, hectic but harmless. In one corner, servers passed out fresh oranges, watermelon slices, apple cider and home-baked bread, and the refreshments were supplemented by bring-your-own gallon jugs of red wine.

A pair of display tables bore the tome-size Last Whole Earth Catalog, and the set was surrounded with model rockets, spaceships and other apparatus that forms part of the permanent real estate of the Palace of Arts and Sciences; party-goers explored the adjacent Exploratorium, as the science museum is called, filled with an array of strobe environments, laser lights, optical illusion boxes, abstract television screens and other things dedicated to the alliance of art and science and the expansion of perception.

Occasionally, you would catch a strong whiff of weed, but it was notably rare considering the size and nature of the crowd. De rigueur clothing ranged through several shades of casual — jeans and T-shirts, cords and sport-jackets, hot pants, maxis and minis—but there were scarcely any real costumes in the old Haight-Ashbury, Flower-Power sense of the word, even though the invitation had suggested "you could come as a tool."

Perhaps people figured they were tools — tools of restoring balance with the land, of fashioning new means of mass communication, of revolution. The principal exception was Brand himself, barefooted and clad in a black monk's robe — a tool, perhaps, of the Lord's will, or perhaps, he was expressing renunciation of his entrepreneurial role in helping hold the Whole Earth together, or perhaps — well, what exactly did it mean?

A circle of seat-cushions filled the floor in front of an improvised stage with a resonant sound system, and at about 9:30 p.m. the show began; professional clowns and trampoline artists, belly dancers, the Golden Toad playing Irish gigs and Tibetan temple music, even a Keystone Kops skit in which Brand was besieged by uniformed fuzz reading a warrant charging him with defrauding the Internal Revenue Service and giving power to the Gods. An undercurrent of expectation buzzed among people in the crowd who had noticed the fine print in the lower right hand corner of the invitation: "Attention Internal Revenue Service: this event is an educational occasion whose exact nature may not be revealed until 10 p.m." Others obviously hadn't read that far, or they weren't concerned about it, and the volleyball and boffing beat out an insistent rhythm beneath the changing spectacles that held the center stage.

"Are you going to close the doors on everybody, at 10 o'clock, do another Liferaft Earth thing?" we asked Brand during a break at the "Demise."

"No, though it's a good idea. We'll do something. There's a hundred rumors. Take your choice."

Why the decision to fold the catalog at this particular point? "We've done our job — provided access to tools," Brand said. "Among the choices of what we could have done, this seemed to me to make more sense than any others. It's the job you always try to do, to put yourself out of business."

Have the communities which the catalog was established to serve become stronger, more soundly based, during the catalog's three year period?

"They're learning fast. As near as I can tell, that's what they're for," Brand said. "In the communities, mistakes show immediately and they're consequential. They're the kinds of consequences that schools shield people from."

"The communities have become less serious, rather than more serious, in some ways, and that's why they're better," Brand added. "Traditionally, the most failures have been among the serious ones, the ones with great Utopian ideas who think they are going to do something spectacular and change the whole world. The stronger communities are kind of frivolous."

How much did the Demise celebration cost?

"I guess we have to continue to keep the cost out front. It runs to about $6,000. Some for the performers, a lot of it to keep the museum open as a functioning museum, with its entire staff working. Yes, it's a wake. I thought we might as well stop with a flourish."

* * *

At around 10:30 p.m., the "exact nature" of the educational event was "revealed" in a fell stroke of Brandian genius that at once made everything fall into place — well, almost into place. Brand, who had spent the last three years providing the movement with access to tools, was now presenting it with the heaviest tool of all — money, precisely $20,000 in $100 bills — about the amount, Brand later explained, that he used to launch the Whole Earth catalog.

The announcement, made by MC Scott Beach, abruptly stopped the more or less aimless party activity, meandering and chatter. "About 15 minutes ago, Stewart Brand give me one of the tools that the Whole Earth catalog has used. This is $20,000, and he gave it to the people here to be used as a tool ..."

Certainly the initial reaction of many was that the money would be distributed among the crowd, divided equally or in some other way passed out. Then came the rest of the announcement ... "Use this as a seed. The Whole Earth Catalog ceases. The seeds have been planted already. Your consensus will decide what will be done with this money. There are microphones, there are causes, there are lots of possibilities."

The announcement produced two simultaneous jolts. For one thing, it instantly galvanized the crowd, or much of it, into a close-knit community of individuals joined together in a common purpose; it transformed the county fair into a New England town meeting.

The other reaction was a kind of apprehension that nothing was going to come of the whole thing. You just don't get 1,500 people to agree on a single cause, especially where lots of bread is concerned, even 1,500 people who might see themselves as crew members aboard some kind of Noah's Ark designed to preserve the treasures of civilization and human values from the flood-waters of ignorance and self-seeking destructiveness.

A parade of no less than 55 speakers filed past the microphones during the next hour, each holding for a moment the work of money as they presented every conceivable proposal. It should go to the Exploratorium, to the performers, to free political prisoners, to help the Indians, to buy land, to set up a free loan company, to put the Whole Earth Catalog on the shelves of high schools, to start a toy factory, to help stop high rises and strip mining; some of it should go to us, because our commune needs a new pump, or because we want to establish a radio station which we'll eventually turn over to minority groups. About half the speakers felt the money should go to projects they were personally involved in; the other half suggested schemes that ranged from plans to spray grass seed throughout California to a proposal to put on a worldwide Whole Earth party.

Clad in his cassock, Brand stood on stage and noted each suggestion on a blackboard. At one point, a girl in the audience interrupted a speaker with the cry, "Free Political Prisoners," and Brand duly wrote it down; when she interrupted the following speaker the same way, he added an exclamation point.

It was difficult to tell what he thought of the proceedings. He was possibly pleased at the number of ideas that came forth from the speakers. He was clearly enjoying the study in group dynamics that the proceedings had launched. Was he expecting someone to come up with an abrupt flash of genius, a project that would seem so absolutely right that the entire crowd would suddenly stand united behind it? Was he simply watching everybody squirm, unable to cope with the curve ball he had thrown them?

The sentiment arose in at least one faction of the crowd that it had become a tool, that Brand had presented it with the Apple of Temptation. One speaker suggested that the money be flushed down the six johns provided for the Demise; others proposed that the bills be burned in the fireplace, or buried underground throughout the country and used as symbolic bait in a computerized Easter Egg Hunt. "Throw it to the crowd! Throw it to the crowd!" a few chanted sporadically.

Occasionally Brand stepped to the microphone to respond to this rising mood of ugliness. "How can we expect anyone else in the world to reach an agreement if we can't?" he asked. "Whatever we agree upon isn't meant to exclude anything else."

But firecrackers zipped above the stage, the number of volleyball players increased and the people seated in front of the stage began to drift away. Whatever else it did or did not do, it became apparent that the introduction of money on the scene had produced a bummer. As one spectator commented, "It took him $6,000 to put the party on, and $20,000 to spoil it."

At 11:30 p.m., as no strongly exciting proposal had set the crowd afire, one man came to the microphone to suggest that everybody take a half-hour music break. A country-western protest singer from Vancouver held the stage for a while, and the Golden Toad returned for a hot set of Irish jigs.

When the crowd reconvened at 12:15, a few new suggestions were made, and then a man named Michael Kaye announced that the real problem was not what to do with the money—all the suggestions were sound—but how to give it away, and he and some friends of his were taking the responsibility to give it away then and there. "If you don't need this money, give it back," he said, and MC Scott Beach suggested that those who were taking the money should come to the microphone and announce the purpose they were taking it for. Much of the money came back, after Stewart pointed out to the crowd that a large single amount of money was more powerful than small bundles.

The crowd was starting to thin and suggestions were slowing down. There seemed a tension between those who wanted to get the money for some project of their own, those who wanted to give it to some political cause, such as the Indians, and those who wanted to show their contempt for money by destroying it. No consensus was being reached. "The problem has got to hang for us," said Brand, "until we work through it."

Beach announced that the total amount of money in hand was now $14,200, counting what had been returned.

The man who had given money away took the mike and suggested that people who had taken money for personal reasons alone should give it back. Later the total rose to $15,100.

A familiar note in parliamentary proceedings was struck around 2:15 when a man took the mike and announced that the problem was to make a decision on how to go about deciding. A forceful young man with a moustache took over and got a consensus by voice vote that the criteria for an acceptable project should include that the project be ongoing, self-supporting and self-perpetuating.

Then things fell apart again and it was suggested that the crowd, down to perhaps 350 by this time, might get more together if everyone held hands and breathed deeply together in what the Hog Farm calls a "Gong Bong." A mass Gong Bong was held. After breathing together for a while, and reassembly, there was a move to consult the I Ching. Paul Krassner had taken over from Scott Beach by this time, and he read the first symbol he opened to in the book, Hexagram 53, "Development (Gradual Progress)": "The Wild Goose gradually draws near the tree. Perhaps it will find a flat branch. No blame." The Judgment suggested that in inappropriate situations, it behooves a man to be sensible and yielding. "A believer should be doing this," said Krassner as he stumbled through the reading.

About three a.m., a young man with wavy hair and a beard and an intense, earnest expression came to the stage and read a statement to the effect that the learning process that was going on here was more important than what would happen to the money. It was decided that eliminations would be taken among the suggested projects. "Groan your consensus," said Krassner.

The list was groaned down to: A trust fund, to be administered by San Francisco's Glide Foundation; giving the money to the Indians; some kind of communications project, radio or print; ecological business; and schools projects. Finally it went down to communications and Indians, and seemed to deadlock there.

Another man spoke to the mood of frustration, suggesting that the money should not be spent at all. "It seems to me we're using old structures here, while we're trying to build a new world. We're using logical structures for an irrational situation. None of these suggestions really peaks us, and we can't decide among them.

"What we've learned tonight from this process is really heavy. Stewart has shown us just what a bunch of shit money really is. Let's enshrine this money as Stewart's lesson to us." The crowd was down to about 150 people now and it was nearly four in the morning.

"Think of what it would do to people's minds if there was this money that could not be spent. And then let's get it out here next year and get our heads bugged again. Maybe we'll spend some of it, but it will probably last ten years." There was a round of applause, the most enthusiastic response in hours.

Paul Krassner thought maybe they could just say it's been enshrined and really use it: It would be difficult to explain this enshrinement to the Indians. Also, he suggested, people's minds "may just not be as blown by this gesture as we imagined." A girl came to the mike and opined that America already enshrines money.

At 4:30, a compromise was suggested: part of the money should be given to the Indians, and part of it should lie untouched. This seemed to be acceptable to the Indian partisans, and to the communications people if they got a cut. But the people who were not for spending it were inflexible. Their position depended on making a statement with the whole sum.

The next round of applause came for the suggestion, "Let's wait a year and get better at being gods." A vote was taken and 44 hands were raised for spending the money, and 44 for not spending it. A new vote was asked for—the audience was to move to either one side or the other of the stage. Someone objected that this was the definition of separation. Those who were against dividedness were asked to stand in the middle.

"We should get rid of the money, we're all too crazy to decide what to do with it," said one man. Another got a decisive round of applause for the proposal that the money be given "to an Indian, any Indian." An Indian lady was found, and she squealed with delight and ran up to the stage. But she had to announce that the money would lead to domestic conflict, since she was Stewart Brand's wife Lois, a full-blooded Ottawa.

The wavy-haired man who had spoken of the unimportance of money now came to the mic and read a petition he had started to pass around. He said, "The rule here is that we have to decide what to do with the money. But humans are greater than rules. People are more important than money. Money should be our servant." His petition read, in part, "We feel the union of people here tonight is more important than money, a greater resource." He asked people who agreed with him to sign their names and put down their addresses so that their meeting could bear fruit.

There was a move to give the money back to Stewart, the objection being that he was, as a fiction, "gone" — although he was still on the stage. "Gone," said Brand vehemently, "that's a good idea," as he walked from the stage and removed his monk's robes.

It was now after six a.m. and the sky was quite light outside. The crowd was down to about 40 persons, and it was decided that the podium and microphones were no longer necessary. The crowd gathered into a tribal huddle. A new suggestion was proposed that would solve everything: we should use the $15,000 to start the Whole Earth Catalog again. Stewart Brand and some of the Whole Earth people were already sweeping the floors, gathering up pillows and readying the hall for a return to Exploration use.

At seven a.m., Joel Rosen of the Portola Institute told people the party was over. Many left, but a knot of about 20 people stayed outside the hall. The man with wavy hair who had been passing around the petition came back with a proposal that favored "developing people (our energy, ideas and friendships) resources for information, communications and educational networks." It was decided that he would put the money in a bank for a month and then reconvene the remaining 20 people to decide what to do with it. The total amount the man received—his name turned out to be Fredrick L. Moore — was $14,905 (apparently some more money was pocketed during the early morning hours, but where the $5 came from remains a mystery).

Moore seemed to get the money by default, by persistence. Signing the money over to him was an anti-climax after the nine-hour parliament, done by a tired Stewart Brand on top of a pile of cardboard boxes. Moore wandered around for a while, bewildered and awed, trying to get riders to accompany him back to Palo Alto and wondering aloud whether he should deposit the money in a night bank deposit ... then realizing he had no bank account.

* * *

At this uncertain point, the "community" of catalog makers may not have another chance to reach an agreement on what to do with the remaining portion of Brand's "seed" money. But Brand's parting flourish graphically laid down the next lesson it has to learn, the next initiation rite, perhaps even a new phase in the movement's continuing process of self-education. It is that money is neither God nor demon, but simply another tool, albeit the heaviest, and one which many people have ignored in hopes it would go away. At the Demise, it almost did.