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The Whole Earth Catalog was an American counterculture catalog published by Stewart Brand between 1968 and 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998. Although the WECs listed all sorts of products for sale (clothing, books, tools, machines, seeds—things useful for a creative or self-sustainable lifestyle) the Whole Earth Catalogs themselves did not sell any of the products. Instead the vendors and their prices were listed right alongside with the items. This led to a need for the Catalogs to be frequently updated.
The title Whole Earth Catalog came from a previous project of Stewart Brand. In 1966, he initiated a public campaign to have NASA release the then-rumored satellite photo of the sphere of Earth as seen from space, the first image of the "Whole Earth." He thought the image might be a powerful symbol, evoking a sense of shared destiny and adaptive strategies from people. The Stanford-educated Brand, a biologist with strong artistic and social interests, believed that there was a groundswell of commitment to thoroughly renovating American industrial society along ecologically and socially just lines, whatever they might prove to be.
Andrew Kirk in Counterculture Green notes that the Whole Earth Catalog was preceded by the "Whole Earth Truck Store". The WETS was a 1963 Dodge truck—in 1968, Brand and his wife Lois embarked "on a commune road trip" with the truck hoping to tour the country doing educational fairs. The truck was not only a store, but also an alternative lending library and a mobile microeducation service. The "Truck Store" finally settled into its permanent location in Menlo Park, California. Instead of bringing the store to the people, Brand decided to create a catalog so the people could contact the vendors directly.
Using the most basic of typesetting and page-layout tools, Brand and his colleagues created the first issue of The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. In subsequent issues, its production values gradually improved. Its outsize pages measured 11×14 inches (28×36 cm). Later editions were more than an inch thick. The early editions were published by the Portola Institute, headed by Richard Raymond. The so-called Last Whole Earth Catalogue (June 1971) won the first U.S. National Book Award in category Contemporary Affairs. It was the first time a catalog had ever won such an award. Brand's intent with the catalog was to provide education and "access to tools" so a reader could "find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested."
J. Baldwin was a young designer and instructor of design at colleges around the San Francisco Bay (San Francisco State University [then San Francisco State College], the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California College of the Arts [then California College of Arts and Crafts]). As he recalled in the film Ecological Design (1994), "Stewart Brand came to me because he heard that I read catalogs. He said, 'I want to make this thing called a "whole Earth" catalog so that anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything. ...That’s my goal.'" Baldwin served as the chief editor of subjects in the areas of technology and design, both in the catalog itself and in other publications which arose from it.
True to his 1966 vision, Brand's publishing efforts were suffused with an awareness of the importance of ecology, both as a field of study and as an influence upon the future of humankind and emerging human awareness.
From the opening page of the 1969 Catalog:
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.
An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:
- Useful as a tool,
- Relevant to independent education,
- High quality or low cost,
- Not already common knowledge,
- Easily available by mail.
CATALOG listings are continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.
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 1968 catalog divided itself into seven broad sections:
Within each section, the best tools and books the editors could find were collected and listed, along with images, reviews and uses, prices, and suppliers. The reader was also able to order some items directly through the catalog.
Later editions changed a few of the headings, but generally kept the same overall framework.
The Catalog used a broad definition of "tools." There were informative tools, such as books, maps, professional journals, courses, and classes. There were well-designed special-purpose utensils, including garden tools, carpenters' and masons' tools, welding equipment, chainsaws, fiberglass materials, tents, hiking shoes, and potters' wheels. There were even early synthesizers and personal computers.
The Catalog's publication coincided with a great wave of convention-challenging experimentalism and a do-it-yourself attitude associated with "the counterculture," and tended to appeal not only to the intelligentsia of the movement, but to creative, hands-on, and outdoorsy people of many stripes. Some of the ideas in the Catalog were developed during Brand's visits to Drop City.
With the Catalog opened flat, the reader might find the large page on the left full of text and intriguing illustrations from a volume of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, showing and explaining an astronomical clock tower or a chain-pump windmill, while on the right-hand page are an excellent review of a beginners' guide to modern technology (The Way Things Work) and a review of The Engineers’ Illustrated Thesaurus. On another spread, the verso reviews books on accounting and moonlighting jobs, while the recto bears an article in which people tell the story of a community credit union they founded. Another pair of pages depict and discuss different kayaks, inflatable dinghies, and houseboats.
Steve Jobs compared The Whole Earth Catalog to Internet search engine Google in his June 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. "When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was 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." During the commencement speech, Jobs also quoted the farewell message placed on the back cover of the 1974 edition of the catalog: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
Kevin Kelly made a similar comparison in 2008:
For this new countercultural movement, information was a precious commodity. In the ’60s, there was no Internet; no 500 cable channels. [... The WEC] was a great example of user-generated content, without advertising, before the Internet. Basically, Brand invented the blogosphere long before there was any such thing as a blog. [...] No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included. [...] 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.
Looking back and discussing attitudes evident in the early editions of the catalog, Brand wrote, “At a time when the New Left was calling for grassroots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grass-roots direct power—tools and skills.”
The broad interpretation of "tool" coincided with that given by the designer, philosopher, and engineer Buckminster Fuller, though another thinker admired by Brand and some of his cohorts was Lewis Mumford, who had written about words as tools. Early editions reflected the considerable influence of Fuller, particularly his teachings about "whole systems," "synergetics," and efficiency or reducing waste. By 1971, Brand and his co-workers were already questioning whether Fuller’s sense of direction might be too anthropocentric. New information arising in fields like ecology and biospherics was persuasive.
By the mid-1970s, much of the Buddhist economics viewpoint of E. F. Schumacher, as well as the activist interests of the biological species preservationists, had tempered the overall enthusiasm for Fuller's ideas in the catalog. Still later, the amiable-architecture ideas of people like Christopher Alexander and similar community-planning ideas of people like Peter Calthorpe further tempered the engineering-efficiency tone of Fuller's ideas.
An important shift in philosophy in the Catalogs occurred in the early 1970s, when Brand decided that the early stance of emphasizing individualism should be replaced with one favoring community. He had originally written that "a realm of intimate, personal power is developing"; regarding this as important in some respects (to wit, the soon-emerging potentials of personal computing), Brand felt that the overarching project of humankind had more to do with living within natural systems, and this is something we do in common, interactively.
As an early indicator of the general Zeitgeist, the catalog's first edition preceded the original Earth Day by nearly two years. The idea of Earth Day occurred to Senator Gaylord Nelson, its instigator, "in the summer of 1969 while on a conservation speaking tour out west," where the Sierra Club was active, and where young minds had been broadened and stimulated by such influences as the catalog.
Despite this popular and critical success, particularly among a generation of young hippies and survivalists, the catalog was not intended to continue in publication for long, just long enough for the editors to complete a good overview of the available tools and resources, and for the word, and copies, to get out to everyone who needed them.
After 1972 the catalog was published sporadically. Updated editions of The Last Whole Earth Catalog appeared periodically from 1971 to 1975, but only a few fully new catalogs appeared. In 1974 the Whole Earth Epilog was published, which was intended as a "volume 2" to the Last Whole Earth Catalog. In 1980, The Next Whole Earth Catalog (ISBN 0-394-70776-1) was published; it was so well received that an updated second edition was published in 1981.
In 1986, The Essential Whole Earth Catalog (ISBN 0-385-23641-7) was published, and in 1988 the WEC was published on CD-ROM using an early version of hypertext. In 1988, there was a WEC dedicated to Communications Tools. A Whole Earth Ecolog was published in 1990, devoted exclusively to environmental topics. Around this time there were special WECs on other topics (e.g., The Fringes of Reason in 1989).
The last "full" WEC, entitled The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (ISBN 0-06-251059-2), was published in 1994.
A slender, but still "A3"-sized, 30th Anniversary Celebration WEC was published in 1998 as part of Issue 95 of the Whole Earth magazine (ISSN 0749-5056); it reprinted the original WEC along with new material. An important aspect of this copy of the first WEC was a limitation placed on it by book publishers: because "Publishers begged [Whole Earth] not to reprint... their names anywhere near books they no longer carry", all such information was placed at the back of the catalog. This placement hampered a valuable function of the WEC: nudging publishers to keep featured seminal works in print.
|#1010||Fall 1968||Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||64||$5||First WEC; cover photo: Earth from space|
|#1020||January 1969||The Difficult But Possible Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||32||$1.65||Additions and price corrections|
|#1030||March 1969||The Difficult But Possible Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||30||$1.65||Calls for subscribers to write to President Nixon urging establishment of the entire Earth as a National Park; establishes early support for computers with a photo of a Computer Club showing "two Commodore calculators"|
|#1040||Spring 1969||Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand (with Lloyd Kahn)||132||$4||Cover photo: Earth from the far side of the moon; lists a $4,900 Hewlett Packard programmable calculator|
|#1050||July 1969||Difficult But Possible Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||32||$1||Cover recounts a bus race between Ken Kesey's Further and three buses from Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm|
|#1060||September 1969||Difficult But Possible Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||34||$1||Unanimous Declaration of Interdependence|
|#1070||Fall 1969||Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand (with Lloyd Kahn)||132||$4||Cover photo: Earth from deep space||ASIN B000KVJ3ZC|
|#1080||January 1970||Whole Earth Catalog: The Outlaw Area||Stewart Brand||56||$1||Cover photo: Arthur Godfrey; reprints long articles on The Outlaw Area, Liferaft Earth, Earth Peoples Park; dropped word "Supplement" to qualify for 2nd class postage|
|March 1970||Whole Earth Catalog: The World Game||Gurney Norman (with Diana Shugart)||56||$1||"Buckminster Fuller's World Game" by Gene Youngblood|
|#1090||Spring 1970||Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand (with Lloyd Kahn)||148||$3||Cover photo: M-31 Andromeda Galaxy, taken by the Lick Observatory||ASIN B001B6L98O|
|#1110||July 1970||Whole Earth Catalog||Gordon Ashby (with Doyle Phillips)||56||$1||"Find Your Place In Space" (a series of mandalas)||ASIN B00139YNAA|
|#1120||September 1970||Whole Earth Catalog||Gurney Norman (with Diana Schugart)||56||$1||"Think Little" by Wendell Berry; "Introducing Divine Right's Bus, Urge" by Gurney Norman|
|#1130||Fall 1970||Whole Earth Catalog||J.D. Smith (with Hal Hershey)||$3||ASIN B001B6GKWO|
|#1140||January 1971||Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||48||$1||Cover: Truth, Consequences|
|#1150||March 1971||The Last Supplement to The Whole Earth Catalog||Paul Krassner and Ken Kesey||132||$1||R. Crumb cover; "The Dream is Over" by J. Marks, "The Bible" by Ken Kesey (and no catalog items!)||ASIN B000GTN5BG|
|#1160||June 1971||The Last Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||452||$5||Divine Right's Trip by Gurney Norman serialized; review of available synthesizers by Wendy Carlos; cover photo: Earth from space, taken by Apollo 4; Winner, 1972 National Book Award||ISBN 0-394-70459-2|
|#1170||May 1971||Whole Earth Catalog|
|May 1974||The (Updated) Last Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||452||$5||16th Edition||ISBN 0-14-003544-3|
|#1180||October 1974||Whole Earth Epilog||320||$4||Cover photo: earthrise over the moon by Apollo 12; "Tongue Fu" by Paul Krassner serialized||ISBN 0-14-003950-3|
|December 1977||Space Colonies: Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||160||$5||ISBN 0-14-004805-7|
|#1220||September 1980||The Next Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||614||$12.50||Cover photo: Madagascar & Southern Africa from orbit by Apollo 17; more emphasis on space travel||ISBN 0-394-73951-5|
|March 1981||The Next Whole Earth Catalog, revised||Stewart Brand||608||$16||Excerpts from The Rising Sun Neighborhood Newsletter by Anne Herbert serialized. Ron Jones' account of the Third Wave experiment.||ISBN 0-394-70776-1|
|Spring 1984||Whole Earth Software Review, No.1||Stewart Brand|
|Summer 1984||Whole Earth Software Review, No.2||Stewart Brand|
|June 1984||Whole Earth Software Catalog 1.0||Stewart Brand||208||$17.50||Groundbreaking software reviews||ISBN 0-385-19166-9|
|Fall 1984||Whole Earth Software Review No.3||Stewart Brand|
|Fall 1985||Whole Earth Software Catalog 2.0 1986||Stewart Brand||224||$17.50||ISBN 0-385-23301-9|
|#1280||September 1986||The Essential Whole Earth Catalog||J. Baldwin||416||$24.99||Published by Doubleday||ISBN 0-385-23641-7|
|1988||Whole Earth Catalog: Signal Communication Tools for the Information Age||Kevin Kelly||ISBN 0-517-57083-1|
|1989||The Fringes of Reason: Whole Earth Catalog||Ted Schultz with Stewart Brand||223||$14.95||ISBN 0-517-57165-X|
|1989||The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog||Stewart Brand||n.a.||Early version of hypertext, on CD-ROM|
|1990||Whole Earth Ecolog||James Baldwin||128||$15.95||Deals with ecology exclusively||ISBN 0-517-57658-9|
|#1330||December 1994||The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog||Howard Rheingold||410||$30||White cover with Earth as "o" in "Whole"; Frank's Real Pa by Jim Woodring serialized||ISBN 0-06-251059-2|
|#1340||December 1998||Whole Earth Catalog: 30th Anniversary Celebration||Peter Warshall with Stewart Brand||108||$14.95||The complete first WEC + new comments||ISBN 1-892907-05-4|
From 1974 to 2003, the Whole Earth principals published a magazine, known originally as CoEvolution Quarterly. When the short-lived Whole Earth Software Review (a supplement to The Whole Earth Software Catalog) failed, it was merged in 1985 with CoEvolution Quarterly to form the Whole Earth Review (edited at different points by Jay Kinney, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold), later called Whole Earth Magazine and finally just Whole Earth. The last issue, number 111 (edited by Alex Steffen), was meant to be published in Spring 2003, but funds ran out. The Point Foundation, which owned Whole Earth, closed its doors later that year.
The Whole Earth website continues the WEC legacy of concepts in popular discourse, medical self-care, community building, bioregionalism, environmental restoration, nanotechnology, and cyberspace.
Recognizing the 'developed country' focus of the original WEC, groups in several developing countries have created 'catalogs' of their own to be more relevant to their countries. One such effort was an adaptation of the WEC (called the "Liklik Buk") written and published in the late 1970s in Papua New Guinea; by 1982 this had been enlarged, updated, and translated (as "Save Na Mekem") into the Pidgin language used throughout Melanesia, and updates of the English "Liklik Buk" were published in 1986 and 2003.
In the United States, the book Domebook One was a direct spin-off of the WEC. Lloyd Kahn, Shelter editor of the WEC, borrowed WEC production equipment for a week in 1970 and produced the first book on building geodesic domes. A year later, in 1971, Kahn again borrowed WEC equipment (an IBM Selectric Composer typesetting machine and a Polaroid MP-5 camera on an easel), and spent a month in the Santa Barbara Mountains producing Domebook 2, which went on to sell 165,000 copies. With production of DB 2, Kahn and his company Shelter Publications followed Stewart Brand's move to nation-wide distribution by Random House.
In late 2006, Worldchanging released their 600-page compendium of solutions, Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century, which Bill McKibben, in an article in the New York Review of Books called "The Whole Earth Catalog retooled for the iPod generation." The editor of Worldchanging has since acknowledged the Catalog as a prime inspiration.
In 1969, a store which was inspired by (but not financially connected with) The Whole Earth Catalog, called the Whole Earth Access opened in Berkeley, California. It closed in 1998. In 1970 a store called the "Whole Earth Provision Co.", inspired by the catalogue, opened in Austin, Texas. It now has nine stores in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Southlake, and San Antonio.
Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog are both subjects of interest to scholars. Notable examples include works by Theodore Roszak, Howard Rheingold, Fred Turner, John Markoff, Andrew Kirk, and Sam Binkley. The Stanford University Library System has a Whole Earth archive in their Department of Special Collections.