What We Can Still Learn from the Whole Earth Catalog

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Mr. Kirk is an associate professor and director of the Public History Program at the University of Las Vegas.

What can we learn from the Whole Earth Catalog phenomenon that will help us face the crisis of global warming?

Recently one of America’s most insightful environmentalists, Bill McKibben, pointed out that it is “swell” that you bought a hybrid but now it’s time get some boots on the ground in the political arena because small-scale technology alone is not going to be enough to combat the looming catastrophe of global warming. McKibben is right, individual technological choices will not, by themselves, solve our current environmental dilemma. None of us should be too smug as we watch our twisty florescent lights slowly warm up in the winter chill to light our homes, or marvel at the silence of our hybrid as it shuts down at the red light. We will all need to do more in the near future and so will our political leaders. It is telling, however, that McKibben like most environmentalists today starts the discussion about what shape that expansion of activism will take with acknowledgments to pragmatic enviro-friendly technologies. Americans are, in the words of pioneering ecological designer J. Baldwin, “tool freaks,” and innovative design is, as it always has been, a critical engine of cultural and political change. While I agree with McKibben that now is not the time to be too “jolly” about the green-tech enthusiasm sweeping America, I am optimistic about the power of green design to provide carrots that draw people into more complicated discussions of how we will reconcile our material culture with our increasingly fragile globe.

Our current enthusiasm for sustainable design and green technology has its roots in the American counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s’ and one of its most important ventures, Stewart Brand’s, Whole Earth Catalog. This coming fall marks the fortieth anniversary of Whole Earth and those lucky enough to stumble on a decaying copy of this newsprint giant will learn much about the early pioneers of the sustainability movement so prominent in the news today. Celebrated as a communard bible for drop-outs, Whole Earth was, in fact, a cynosure for the emerging appropriate technology movement that found its voice in the underground press in the late 1960s and early 1970s before moving slowly toward the ecological design movement so in vogue right now. The key insight of the appropriate technology movement was the idea that individuals working within specific local environments could make everyday choices to use enviro-friendly small-scale technology, enabling, if multiplied across a nation and linked with more traditional protection of resources, a sustainable economy.

While Whole Earth did not provide an easy road map to a technologically enthusiastic environmental pragmatism or a specific program for a postindustrial environmentalism, it did demonstrate some of the best efforts in this direction in our recent past. The appropriate technologists and their designs presented to eager readers on the pages of Whole Earth celebrated human ingenuity at a time when environmental advocates tended to draw a sharp line between people and nature, with preference given to latter. Many of the ecological arguments made through the choice of material presented in the catalogs, or explicitly by editors and contributors, were so far outside the mainstream of the environmental thought of the day that they were considered heresies by some environmentalists. The environmental views of Brand and his publication alienated some who might have been allies and who would not remember Whole Earth as a voice of environmentalism, while creating a very strong bond with techno-ecological readers and contributors who found a welcome forum for their views in Brand’s catalogs.

Critics, then and now, point to Brand’s opening quote in the first edition of the Catalog, “We are as gods and might as well get used to it,” as evidence of an attitude of technocratic hubris antithetical to the core ideals of American environmentalism. Those who read further than that controversial first line, however, found a thoughtful analysis of the implications of technological innovation and not a simplistic rehash of long-standing ideas about technology and progress. Brand offered readers concrete examples of individuals and organizations working to foster a constructive human-centered environmental philosophy inspired by countercultural thinkers like Buddhist economist E. F. Schumacher that gave a hip spin to deep conservative American impulses like thrift, ingenuity, technical know-how, tinkering, and individual responsibility and agency. By linking ecology with green design Brand help lay the foundation for the multifaceted sustainability movement of the twenty first century. Whole Earth readers learned early how common sense ecological designs can provide viable starting points for regular people to modestly combat daunting environmental issues in their homes and daily lives.

While Brand’s imagining of us as imperfect gods may have seemed outrageous to many deep-green advocates in 1968 when Whole Earth first appeared, this idea struck a harmonious chord with the larger American public by tapping into a deep-rooted affinity in American culture for the ideal of making a place for the machine in the garden. As our understanding of global warming evolves we will need tree-sitters, eco-warriors and people willing to radically change their way of life for the good of the Earth. We will also need savvy leaders, political bridge builders, enlightened consumers and corporations dedicated to the greening of the American economy because they care or because they realize the value of “natural capitalism” for the bottom line. Possibly more important than any of these groups we need ecological designers and “tool freaks” who can turn our global technological obsession into an asset and give hope to the everyday folks who won’t go live in a cabin in the woods, or spike a tree, but just might screw in a twisty bulb and by its cold light take some time to read about what they can realistically do to help as we learn to live in a warming world.

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vaughn davis bornet - 4/1/2008

Since I have a new, uncut, copy of said catalog, I thought to see its value on ABE BOOKS. There were none for sale! I tried again. Nothing.

I looked at my copy and found that it is "THE LAST WHOLE EARTH CATALOG." Thirty copies showed up, nearly every one admitting wear or tears or other defects. It was Read in its day, for sure! I think I just glanced at it....

A nice inheritance for one or more of my seven great grandchildren.

Vaughn Davis Bornet