Whole Earth Catalog

Stewart Brand (a cura di)

1968 - 1972 (twice a year, regualar edition) - 1998 (occasional)

Fall 1968: pagine 64

Portola Institute


The Whole Earth Catalog was a sizeable catalog published twice a year from 1968 to 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998. Its purposes were to provide education and "access to tools" in order that the reader could "find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested."

The Catalog's development and marketing were driven by an energetic group of founders, primarily Stewart Brand (whose family was also involved with the project). Its outsize pages measured 11x14 inches (28x36 cm). Later editions were more than an inch thick. Its earliest editions were published by the Portola Institute, headed by Richard Raymond. In 1972, the catalog won the National Book Award, the first time a catalog had ever won such an award.

Brand's publishing efforts were suffused with an awareness of the importance of ecology (as a field of study and an influence) to the emerging human awareness and to the future of humankind.

The Catalogs disseminated many of the ideas now associated with the 1960s and 1970s, particularly those of the counterculture and environmental movements. Later editions, plus descendant publications edited by Brand, circulated many innovative ideas during the 1970s-1990s.



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:

1. Useful as a tool,
3. Relevant to independent education,
4. High quality or low cost,
5. 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 title derived from a previous project of Stewart Brand: In 1966, Brand had initiated a public campaign to have NASA release the then-rumored satellite image of the sphere of the Earth as seen from space. He thought the image of our planet might be a powerful symbol, evoking adaptive strategies from people.

Toward the end of the 1960s, 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 these might prove to be). So, using the most basic of typesetting and page-layout tools, he and colleagues created issue number one of The Whole Earth Catalog. Production values gradually improved with successive editions.

J. Baldwin was a young designer and instructor of design at a couple of colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area. Baldwin recalled, in the film Ecological Design (1994): "Stewart Brand came to me because he had heard that I read catalogues. 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.'" In this sense, the Catalog’s initial concept can be viewed as a forerunner of the Internet, as an information sourcing tool. J. Baldwin served as the chief editor of subjects in the areas of technology and design, in the Catalog and in outgrowth publications.


The catalog divided itself into seven broad sections:

* Understanding Whole Systems
* Shelter and Land Use
* Industry and Craft
* Communications
* Community
* Nomadics
* Learning

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 in some cases also able to order directly through the Catalog.

The first Catalog and its successors used a broad definition of the term "tools." There were informational tools, such as books, maps, professional journals, courses, classes, and the like. And there were specialized, designed items, such as garden tools, carpenter's and mason's tools, welding equipment, chainsaws, fiberglass materials, tents, hiking shoes, potter's wheels, etc. - even early synthesizers and personal computers.

The Catalog's publication coincided with the great wave of experimentalism, convention-breaking, and "do it yourself" attitude associated with the "counterculture," and tended to appeal not only to the intelligentsia of that social movement, but to "hands-on," creative, 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 to be 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 beginner’s guide to modern technology (The Way Things Work) and a review of The Engineers’ Illustrated Thesaurus. On another pair of pages, the left-hand reviews books on accounting and on moonlighting jobs, while the one on the right bears an article in which some people tell the story of the community credit union they founded. Another pair depict and discuss different forms of kayaks, inflatable dinghies, and houseboats.

The broad interpretation of the term "tool" coincided with the interpretation given that term 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. The Catalog’s earliest editions reflected considerable influence from Fuller — particularly his teachings about "whole systems," "synergetics," and efficiency or reduction of waste. By 1971 Brand and colleagues were already questioning whether Fuller’s sense of direction might be too anthropocentric. The information gathering in fields like ecology and biospherics was persuasive.

Looking back and describing the attitude inherent in the early editions of the Catalog, Brand wrote “At a time when the New Left was calling for grass-roots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grass-roots direct power—tools and skills.” (Winter 1998 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, p. 3)

By the mid 1970s, a lot 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. Later still, the amiable-architecture ideas of people like Christopher Alexander and the similar community-planning ideas of people like Peter Calthorpe further tempered the engineering-efficiency tone of Fuller's ideas.

As an indicator of the general direction of the times, the publication of the Catalog's first edition preceded the first Earth Day by nearly two years. (The idea for 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 opened and stimulated by influences like the Catalog.)

Gurney Norman's Appalachian epic "Divine Right's Trip" first appeared in The Last Whole Earth Catalog in 1971. The complete novel was printed in the margins of the Catalog.

Despite this popular and critical success, particularly among a young generation of hippies and survivalists, the Catalog was not intended to continue publication for long; just long enough for the editors to complete a good overview of the available tools and resources, and for word (and copies of catalogs) to get out to everyone who might need the same.

Publication after 1972

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.

There were two editions in the 1980s of the Whole Earth Software Catalog, a compendium for which Doubleday had bid $1.4 million for the trade paperback rights.[2]

In 1986, The Essential Whole Earth Catalog (ISBN 0-385-23641-7) was published, and in 1989 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 was comprised half of old material and half of brand-new material. An important aspect of this final WEC was the limitations placed on it by book publishers: Because "Publishers begged [Whole Earth] not to reprint ... their names anywhere near books they no longer carry", all access information was placed at the back of the WEC. This placement hampered a valuable function of the WEC: calling for readers to urge publishers to get seminal works back into print.

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 over-arching project of humankind had more to do with living within natural systems, and this is something we do in common, interactively.

From 1974 to 2003, the Whole Earth principals published a magazine, known originally as CoEvolution Quarterly. When the short-lived Whole Earth Software Review 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. As of 2007, the Whole Earth magazine website still exists, but it does not appear to have been updated since 2003.

The Whole Earth website is currently under development, and will relaunch in January of 2008.

WEC Spin-offs

Recognising the value of the WEC, and also recognising the limits of its 'developed country' focus, groups in several countries developed 'catalogs' of development tools that were based on their perceptions of topics relevant in their countries. Many of these fine efforts were weakened because political correctness made it difficult to use the 'free thinking' approach that created the WEC.[citation needed] However, one such effort was an excellent developing country adaptation of the WEC. In the late 1970s a version of the WEC (called the "Liklik Buk") was developed and published in Papua New Guinea; by 1982 this had been enlarged, updated, and translated (as "Save Na Mekem") into the Pijin 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.[3]

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."[4] The editor of Worldchanging has since acknowledged the Catalog as a prime inspiration.[5][6]

Retail Spinoffs

In the early 1970's, a small shop, called the Whole Earth Truck Store, was opened in Menlo Park, California. This store sold a variety of books described in the Whole Earth Catalog, as well as hard-to-find household goods, tools, and other items.

In 1978, a store called Whole Earth Access opened in Berkeley, California, which sold a variety of things: tools, furniture, cameras, electronic devices, clothing. Branch stores in San Mateo, San Jose, and San Rafael soon followed. This business thrived into the 1990's but eventually succumbed to competition from more specialized retailers, established department stores, and national chains of discount stores. There is still a Website for Whole Earth Access, which offers a few items for sale directly over the Internet and refers to stores that no longer exist; it is apparently unmaintained. (The Website has a disclaimer stating that none of the featured items are actually for sale, but if you want a Website designed, you can contact the designer.)

In the 1970, a store named Whole Earth Provision Co. opened in Austin, Texas to offer books reviewed in the Whole Earth Catalog. It added some camping gear which grew to a full line of equipment needed for back-country adventure and worldwide trekking, now similar to what you'd find at REI. Outerwear and other clothing became departments of their own and evolved to "lifestyle" clothing that appeals to value conscious young people and upscale buyers. Boots grew into a shoe department that may be the store's largest at this point, and departments were added along the way for clothing accessories, books with particular appeal to the store's customers, and a unique group of toys, games, and fun things mostly for children but also of interest to adults. The chain of six stores is thriving with 3 locations in Austin and one each in Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas. The web site at http://www.wholeearthprovision.com is out of date and does not offer merchandise, but it has a little bit of information, a way to find the stores, and a way to sign up for a mailing list to get postcards by snail mail. Most products are national brands and prices are retail, but when you go to the stores you still feel the influence of genuine "green" and holistic concerns and a bit of counter-culture flavor. The roots in the Catalog are still apparent.


(da wikipedia)