and Appear Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Two new publications that offered “access to tools” for energy-efficient and ecologically aware lifestyles were published for the first time, attracting an unexpectedly large readership.

Summary of Event

The late 1960’s was a time of incredible turmoil in American life. An unending and seemingly unwinnable war in Vietnam agonized the nation. There were riots on city streets and on college campuses. Political assassinations had shaken the belief in a safe and predictable world. Hippies danced through the cultural landscape, their clothing and behavior an affront to prevailing notions of respectability and clean living. Whole Earth Catalog, The (periodical) Mother Earth News (periodical) Magazines Environmentalism [kw]Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News Appear, The (Nov., 1968, and Jan., 1970) [kw]Mother Earth News Appear, The Whole Earth Catalog and (Nov., 1968, and Jan., 1970) Whole Earth Catalog, The (periodical) Mother Earth News (periodical) Magazines Environmentalism [g]North America;Nov., 1968, and Jan., 1970: The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News Appear[10000] [g]United States;Nov., 1968, and Jan., 1970: The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News Appear[10000] [c]Publishing and journalism;Nov., 1968, and Jan., 1970: The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News Appear[10000] [c]Environmental issues;Nov., 1968, and Jan., 1970: The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News Appear[10000] Brand, Stewart Shuttleworth, John Fuller, R. Buckminster

This popular picture of the era overlooks the other, more lasting changes that were unfolding. By 1969, Americans had landed on the Moon, an event that was instrumental in fostering a new image of the earth as a whole entity, a beautiful green-and-blue sphere floating in the vastness of space. No longer could people see themselves as separate from the natural world, or their individual actions as unrelated to the whole earth.

Not surprising, this was a time in which ideas also danced randomly across the cultural landscape. Some of these ideas were new; some were old, from nearly forgotten parts of the American or tribal past. Newly expanded science and education perspectives pointed out many different ways of making a living, or a life. The difficulty often came in finding the appropriate tools to carry out one’s intentions. Then along came someone with another idea—to provide access to these tools.

Stewart Brand, who had earned a degree in biology from Stanford University, had dropped out of academia and into the counterculture when his innovative ideas were constantly frustrated by the need to jockey for position. In his twenties, Brand produced a stunning multimedia show, War God, War God (Brand) lived with American Indians for two years, and organized a rock festival in San Francisco. Then, on a plane returning from his father’s funeral in March, 1968, he conceived the idea of a traveling “truck store” and catalog of resources for new lifestyles.

That summer, Brand and his wife Lois toured New Mexico in their truck, selling merchandise and dispensing advice as did itinerant medicine men of an earlier era. They then returned to California, where Brand set up a permanent truck store in Menlo Park and compiled a catalog Advertising of its wares. The first edition of The Whole Earth Catalog was issued in November, 1968, as a sixty-eight-page booklet with a print run of two thousand.

The Fall, 1969 issue of The Whole Earth Catalog.

Delighted customers passed the booklet around, and word traveled through informal networks. When the next edition came out, its circulation increased to thirty thousand. Other editions followed, revising and updating the original listings and adding new items. At The Whole Earth Catalog’s height, two editions per year were published, with supplements issued in between. Print runs for some editions were more than 100,000 copies. What evoked this phenomenal response?

The catalog was as much a forum for commentary and discussion as a display of merchandise. Communication with its readers was continuous. Readers suggested new items for the catalog, offered comments from personal experience, and sometimes argued convincingly or profanely against a previous article.

Most catalog entries were for books. Some of the books were readily available and commercially published, but many obscure booklets or instruction packets were featured. The skills they covered ranged from moccasin making to engine design, and nature-related topics such as dairy-goat raising and practical oceanography were heavily represented. All catalog items were illustrated. Book listings were short, frequently flippant, and sometimes wildly subjective, but they always managed to convey a vivid sense of the book.

Nonbook items were also listed. Any material object that honestly did what it purported to do and made possible a more self-sufficient or integrated life was fodder for the catalog. Thus, the music section of the catalog had user-oriented articles on instruments that ranged from a $1.35 melody flute to the $8,000 Moog synthesizer. The catalog also noted technology likely to be available in a few years: videocassette recorders and desktop computers, for example. There was no hostility toward advanced technology per se, simply a strong bias against wasteful use of resources, and an emphasis on appropriate technology.

Brand credits his adoption of this outlook to the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, the innovative engineer and philosopher. Fuller is best known for his geodesic domes, designed on the principle of synergy. He also used the concepts of synergy and whole-systems interaction to analyze world problems. This was an especially powerful way to think about ecological and environmental problems, and its stamp is found in every section of The Whole Earth Catalog. Brand noted his debt to Fuller by opening each catalog with entries from Fuller’s books.

The catalog itself inspired other projects. Among the first was a magazine, the Mother Earth News, the premier issue of which appeared in January, 1970. Its editor, John Shuttleworth, started his venture after a decade of exploring alternative careers. The magazine, like Brand’s catalog, was printed on inexpensive newsprint and was launched with more enthusiasm than planning. Shuttleworth was happily surprised when orders began to materialize. Mother Earth News became an overnight success, with two national companies asking to distribute it before the second issue came out. (They were turned down.)

The magazine was full of how-to articles, with a heavy emphasis on rural lifestyles. Living on the land could be difficult without previous experience. Mother Earth News helped bridge the gap between dreams and reality by providing step-by-step instructions and other practical ideas. Early issues, for example, contained articles on how to use an axe, how to raise chickens, and how to build a small barn. In addition, there were many articles about such undertakings as homesteading and buying country land. Other articles described unusual businesses with a rural base, from freelance cartooning to operating a rock shop. The magazine included a large correspondence section.

Both The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News were marketed as “alternative press.” Their success, however, revealed a wide audience for the topics they covered. Hippies and other visible rebels were not alone in seeking new ways of relating to both technology and the natural world. The two publications discovered this larger group, united it through the “whole earth” concept, and disseminated many of the skills and new directions that are still part of the ecological movement.

Significance

By the early 1980’s, the readership of Mother Earth News was more than one million. Later in the decade, Shuttleworth sold the magazine, which changed its focus to the use of small-scale technology and techniques in suburban and rural life. A typical 1990’s issue featured articles on adding solar power to a house, starting a home business for backup income, and finding a good used tractor. Other magazines, such as Countryside, have filled Mother Earth News’s former niche as a homespun forum.

Measuring the impact of The Whole Earth Catalog is more difficult. The last edition was a publishing phenomenon, going through sixteen print runs between 1970 and 1975. Although Brand said he intended to close down his venture once the last catalog was in print, this did not happen. The Whole Earth office continued to research and produce new editions. Brand also started several spin-off projects, including a periodic Whole Earth Epilog and The Co-Evolution Quarterly. The latest in this line is the Whole Earth Review, published in Sausalito, California.

The catalog’s effects go beyond its immediate print successors. More diffuse, but more significant, is the impact this unique work has had on ideas and values. The catalog brought other ways of understanding the world to people who were only bystanders to the counterculture. Self-sufficiency, an old American virtue, took on new possibilities. It was just in time, for the nation was entering an era in which average family income, and hence consumer purchases, no longer increased automatically every year.

Together, The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News had a subtle but substantial effect on the outlook and practices of American society. On the food marketing side, the success of Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and other organic food outlets suggests that a broad appeal for natural foods is an ongoing feature of American life, even in urban areas. Whole Earth Catalog, The (periodical) Mother Earth News (periodical) Magazines Environmentalism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Annie. Do You Believe in Magic? The Second Coming of the Sixties Generation. New York: Times Books, 1987. Writing in a decade that represents the nadir of the counterculture, Gottlieb looks very hard for, and finds, signs that some of its values have survived. An excellent job of tracing social and intellectual influences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Sausalito, Calif.: Portola Institute, 1971. A wonderful book for browsing or for research into the era. Its layout and irreverent tone complement its counterculture message.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McClanahan, Ed, and Gurney Norman. “The Whole ’Whole Earth Catalog.’” Esquire, July, 1970, 95-125. McClanahan, a friend of Stewart Brand, and Norman, an occasional guest editor of the catalog, give an offbeat literary portrait of its founder, including his precatalog media work. Probably the most complete contemporary source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Margolin, Malcolm. The Earth Manual: How to Work on Wild Land Without Taming It. Rev. ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 1985. An illustrated how-to book on caring for nature in the form of yards, vacant lots, parks, and small forests. Interesting as an example of the spiritual descendants of The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Explores the little-known transformation from the “Whole Earth” concept of utopianism in the late 1960’s to the online utopianism brought by “bulletin boards” of the early years of the Internet and the Web. Brand was one of the pioneers of these online communities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The Whole Earth Catalog.” Publishers Weekly, May 11, 1970, 20-21. Concise but informative article describing the catalog’s scope and physical format and the ways it departs from normal publishing practice.

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