Stewart Brand’s ‘Whole Earth’ and its Place in the Universe

Meet the hippie intellectual who changed the world with the first published photograph of our entire planet.

PUBLISHED APR 21, 2024 9:53 P.M.
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The photo above, which made its debut public appearance in 1968 on the cover of The Whole Earth Catalog, was the first color image of the entire Earth ever captured by NASA. It’s widely considered to have inspired environmental movements around the world. The photo itself was likely inspired by Stewart Brand, a Stanford-trained biologist and photographer who had been "on the bus" with the Merry Pranksters, and organized the 1966 Trips Festival—the first big hippie happening in San Francisco.

Also in 1966, Brand launched a public campaign to convince NASA to use its nascent satellite-photography technology to turn its cameras back towards the Earth. He printed buttons and posters with the question ‘‘Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?’’. He traveled to the campuses of UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, where he lobbied astronomy professors and set up tables in the commons. He sent letters and buttons to NASA and US government officials. 

In November 1967, NASA released this photo, and Brand immediately attached it to another big idea. The Whole Earth Catalog was an oversized paperback whose big black cover featured the earth photo and the words “Access to Tools.” It was partly targeted to Brand’s brothers and sisters who had recently launched the back-to-the-land movement, and to others who were just developing a California-born interest in topics ranging from ecology and Buddhism to Buckminster Fuller and what was than called “appropriate technology.” 

A two-page spread, obviously cut-and-pasted together by hand, might include information about where to buy a windmill and water pump, a handbook on underwater gold prospecting, and an academic paper about precipitation in various California regions. Elsewhere there was poetry, cartoons by underground comics artists, and philosophical treatises.

The book was an unlikely smash hit. There were seven more issues published over the next three years, and in 1971, it won the National Book Award—the only catalog to have ever done so. In his celebrated 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs described the Catalog as “Google in paperback form, thirty-five years before Google came along.

I never actually owned my own copy of the Catalog, but a lot of my friends did and I spent hours perusing its pages. My deepest connection with the brand came via a subscription to CoEvolution Quarterly. Marketed as a “Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog,” this remarkable publication continued with much the same countercultural mix, with the addition of a new topic of interest: “personal computers” (a term Brand himself coined in a 1972 Rolling Stone article).

Based in Menlo Park, right next-door to Palo Alto, Brand and his cohort were completely plugged into what would become Silicon Valley before it got the name. The CoEvolution Quarterly eventually spun off a sister publication called the Whole Earth Review, which published some of the most insightful journalism about the computer revolution available anywhere. One of its editors, Kevin Kelly, went on to cofound Wired magazine.

Documenting the cyber revolution was not the Whole Earth brand’s most significant contribution to the online world. In 1985, Brand and his friend Larry Brilliant launched an “online community" that they called the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. The WELL (obviously a reference to the place where tribes once came together) gave birth to many of the World Wide Web’s foundational enterprises, from AOL to Craigslist to Salon, the first substantial online magazine.  Another influential Californian who was a regular on the WELL: Chris Neklason, the cofounder of Cruzio, the nation's oldest independent Internet Service Provider, and cofounder of California Local.

Time magazine called the WELL “a precursor of every online business from to eBay.” 

We'll return to this subject at another time and look into Brand's current big ideas, which include The Long Now Project and something he calls "de-extinction." Meanwhile, you can find every issue of The Whole Earth Catalog, CoEvolution Quarterly, and related publications at The Whole Earth Index.

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