A Short History Of The Whole Earth Catalog

Who remembers the Whole Earth Catalog? Anyone?

For some, the Whole Earth Catalog was the bible for all things green and eco-friendly, off-grid, back to nature, and enviromentally conscious and sustainable.

If you think environmentalism is a new phenomenon you’d be wrong.

walden by david thoreau and whole earth

The seeds of the movement were planted with the writings of John Muir in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But perhaps, even more so by the publication in 1854 of Henry David Thoreau’s influential masterpiece Walden.

The modern environmental movement can arguably be traced back to the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring in 1962.

One of the major rallying points for the eco-movement was concern for the pollution of the Great Lakes.

“The idea of a waterway so polluted that it caught fire inspired the Randy Newman song “Burn On”. Lake Erie was so symbolic of environmental destruction that Dr. Seuss mentioned it by name in his environmental awareness book The Lorax.”

Erin L. Gordon, History of the Modern Environmental Movement in America

In the following decade, the burgeoning DIY, sustainable movement was formalized with, among other things, the publication of Stuart Brand’s classic catalog. Holism became trendy and the Hippie Geek was born.

Birth Of The Whole Earth Catalog

The Whole Earth Catalog was published originally between 1968 and 1972 (and there were occasional issues published up until 1998 too).

whole earth catalog

The WEC was a collection of articles examining the possibility of sustainable lifestyles and product reviews that would examine the possibilities of living a better life in the here and now.

Steward Brand, an American writer, best known for his public campaign to make NASA release an image of the Earth taken from outer space, took his inspiration from the image of a “whole earth”.

He believed that the world was waiting for American industrial society to re-establish industry with an ecological and social mission. He didn’t know what exactly that would look like, but he instinctively understood its importance.

His first issue of The Whole Earth Catalog was published in 1968. It was a very basic affair but over time, each issue was a substantial improvement on the one before.

For more on the origin of the Whole Earth Catalogue then read The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” in the New Yorker.

Impact Of The Whole Earth Catalog

The catalog was divided into seven sections: the understanding of whole systems, shelter & land use, industry & craft, community, nomadics, learning and communications.

Each section was designed to address specific problems as they were perceived by Brand and the editorial team. The whole systems section is based on the concepts of holism, or what is now commonly referred to as “wholism.”

Here’s an excerpt below from the introduction of the original Whole Earth 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:
1) Useful as a tool,
2) Relevant to independent education,
3) High quality or low cost,
4) Easily available by mail.

CATALOG listings are continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.

This approach was so powerful that it influenced a whole generation of minds.

whole earth catalog access to tools

One of the people heavily influenced by the WEC was Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO and founder, who said:

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 created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors and Polaroid cameras. 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.
Stewart and his team put out several issues of the Whole Earth Catalog, and then, when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words “Stay hungry. Stay foolish”. It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Steve Jobs

The school of thought which became Buddhist Economics was also borne out of enthusiasm for the Whole Earth Catalog.

As John Markoff, a technology writer for the New York Times, told the Guardian, the Whole Earth Catalog was “the internet before the internet. It was the book of the future. It was a web in newsprint.”

What Happened To The Whole Earth Catalog?

It’s not clear why The Whole Earth Catalog began to wind down after 1972.

Some updated versions of the catalog were published but on a very occasional basis. The final issue had on it’s back cover the message: Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

whole earth catalog back cover

A software version and a trade paperback were launched in the 1980s and Doubleday spent over $1.4 million on the rights for the paperback!

What is probably true is that it was so far ahead of its time that the Whole Earth Catalog probably struggled to find its place in the overall publishing eco-system of that era.

As an indication of how ahead of its time it was here’s their original mission statement:

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 point where gross defects obscure actual gams. 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.

Kevin Kelley – Continuing The Dream Of The Whole Earth Catalog?

The Whole Earth Catalog project may be over, but it has spawned a few imitators along the way, in fact, it might be that all environmental blogs, magazines, etc. have some roots in the catalog.

recomendo book review

Possibly the most authentic of these is Kevin Kelly’s cool-tools.org which reviews in the same style of the Whole Earth Catalog with a very similar mission.

The authenticity stems from the fact that Kevin was an editor for the catalog in its final years and he has a great feel for what made it special.

You might also want to check out his books Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities which was published in 2013 as a compendium of reviews from the website as well as Recomendo: 500 Brief Reviews Of Cool Stuff.

Here at Whole People we like to think we are operating in the spirit of the Whole Earth Catalog. We are as gods and might as well get good at it.

We pledge to stay hungry and foolish.