Oral history of the Whole Earth Catalog

Anuj sez, "How did a publication with just a four-year run help shape a community so prolific that it went on to inspire Google, Craigslist, Apple, Patagonia, and the blogosphere; save six American rivers; and shape sustainable business practices as we know them today? Forty years after the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, PLENTY magazine's anniversary-year oral history of the publication, as told by those who made it and those who read it, tracks the long-lasting impact of a short-lived journal that altered the course of the world."

I've got a complete set of Whole Earth Catalogs -- they're some of my favorite all-time reading, and are a major inspiration for Boing Boing's format, subject, and approach. I remember the first Whole Earth Review I ever read (Is the Body Obsolete?). It was literally a life-changing experience.

Kevin Kelly: The catalog’s voice was a breakthrough. There wasn’t a style sheet; they left in most of the spelling and grammar errors. The WEC also had a gossip section. It was about the people who wrote the catalog. Brand was the first person to make gossip a legitimate topic.

Richard Wurman: A West Coast catalog for hippies that won the National Book Award [in 1972, in the Contemporary Affairs category]? It was a paradigm shift in information distribution. In the early ’70s, the public didn’t know what a yurt was, or where to buy one. But if you were interested in moving back to the land and needed sturdy, cheap housing, this was invaluable information. I think you can draw a pretty straight line from the WEC to a lot of today’s culture. It created an aroma that’s so pervasive, most people don’t even know the source of the smell.

Kevin Kelly: For this new countercultural movement, information was a precious commodity. In the ’60s, there was no Internet; no 500 cable channels. Bookstores were usually small and bad; libraries, worse. The WEC not only gave you permission to invent your life, it gave you the reasoning and the tools to do just that. And you believed you could do it, because on every page of the catalog were other people doing it. This was a great example of user-generated content, without advertising, before the Internet. Basically, Brand invented the blogosphere long before there was any such thing as a blog.

The Whole Earth Effect (Thanks, Anuj!)

(Photo: Whole Earth Catalog - Front, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from Akaalias's Flickr stream)


  1. I will begrudgingly admit that the book, with it’s horrible design issues and questionable topics (yurts are definitely much lamer than 50s modernism), that thing was so eye-opening to an elementary school student in the 1970s that it was probably as important as the day I attended a Star Trek convention in 1977 or picked up an actual xeroxed fanzine around 1980.

  2. wasn’t there an edition with a Jim Woodring cartoon in the corner of the pages back in the early 80s?

    and i’m remembering another cartoon/story (by Jay Holstrom, maybe? name’s wrong, possibly) which included a character called Captain Mediafreak who, going to an afternoon showing of the new Warhol movie, “Audience” (a 2 hour movie of the previous audience), chainsaws his legs and one arm off for some action.

    these books were in my parent’s bookshelves, as well as the shelves of all of their hippy friends. ah, the heady days of the internet in print.

  3. I practically lived out of the Catalog for a couple of years. It was a bible of sorts. And it WAS sort of the pre-blogosphere blogosphere, now that I consider it.

    I had an item in the 1971 issue, I think, before it won the National Book Award; so naturally I claimed, modestly of course, that I sorta won it, you know? I was a minor celebrity at a couple of California communes.

    Brand didn’t pay contributors.

  4. It is hard to describe what a mind-boggling large-format meme-load that The Last Whole Earth Catalog is even today.

    I’m kicking myself for not picking up a copy of the Last Whole Earth Catalog I spotted at Goodwill the other week. I already had a copy, but was tempted to buy it so I’d have a spare to give folks.

    I keep my copy in my cubicle at work.

    #2: Yes, it was a white-cover edition that came out in the mid 90s. “Frank’s Real Pa” was the comic.

  5. #2: Yes, it was a white-cover edition that came out in the mid 90s. “Frank’s Real Pa” was the comic.

    I have my copy right here. How odd that I never knew the story behind the volume.

    I think there would be a good market for it to be revised today – the sections on sustainable living and off-the grid utilities alone would quadruple (at least). They could add sections about biodiesel and hybrids cars, as well as alternate transportation.

  6. The first time I went to San Francisco, in the mid-90’s, the Whole Earth Store was a mandatory stop. There were stacks of Levi’s jeans and lots of electronics. I expected wood stoves and dome components; instead of hippy, yippie and dippy, it felt yuppie. I was quite disappointed.

  7. Although I appreciate the WEC and enjoy Kevin Kelly, his remarks don’t jibe with my own experience. For example: “In the ’60s… Bookstores were usually small and bad; libraries, worse.”

    In the sixties I remember laying on the wooden floor in a 200 year old gothic church-converted-to-library reading Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and Roger Zelazny. The ceilings were tall and you climbed ladders to find things near the tops of the fifteen foot shelving units. Children had to be accompanied by adults and were limited to seven books a week, but once you knew the librarians they would cheerfully allow you to break both these rules (they’d take a ruler to your backside if you misbehaved, too). The lighting was admittedly poor at night, but the old stained glass was glorious in the daytime.

    “Small and bad, or worse”? Hardly. Today’s polyester carpeted and fluorescent-lit book warehouses are utterly soulless by comparison. I can’t conceive of developing a love of literature in such surroundings!

    The last bastion of old-school library atmosphere that I know of is Baldwin’s Book Barn near West Chester. http://www.bookbarn.com/home.htm But the Book Barn is a bookstore, not a library – and of course it was going strong in the sixties.

  8. On the first inside page:


    We are as gods and may 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 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.

    And I love this bit, from Brand’s review of “Teg’s 1994”:

    We’re generally down on Utopian thinking around here, holding to a more evolutionary fiasco-by-fiasco approach to perfection.

  9. I worked for Whole Earth in the mid-eighties, and worked for another magazine that sprang form the same root as WEC: Dr. Dobb’s Journal.

    Here are a couple of points of clarification for y’all, all off the cuff, quickly typed up, and subject to the usual vagaries of the dark backward and abysm of time…:
    There were Whole Earth Catalogs, yes, but there was also a quarterly magazine associated with the WEC, Co-Evolution Quarterly. Also, in the 80’s we put out a catalog about micro-computers called Whole Earth Software Catalog, and there was a (short lived) mag along with it called The Whole Earth Software Review, which was later (mid-80’s) folded into Co-Ev and the resulting hybrid was re-named Whole Earth Review.

    Putting out mags and a catalog featuring computers pissed off some of our previous readers. We had a few people who were so upset they sent us their entire collections of WEC and Co-Ev along with their letters of disgruntlement. (We were sorry they felt that way, but our archivist was happy to have extra copies of some of those back issues for his hoard.)

    The Whole Earth stores in the Bay area were really affiliated with SB or the publications, it was merely a store whose owner was inspired by the catalog and tried to stock stuff for the people who read WEC.

    Also in the mid-80’s, Whole Earth & SB invested big in the online revolution when they got their online community up and running…further pissing off some of the purists both within the WE offices and amongst our original readership.

    Also, the idea for the Hackers’ Conference (now an annual event) was originally thought up one afternoon when _Hackers’_ writer Steven Levy (A contributing writer), WESR editor Art Kleiner, WEReview editor Kevin Kelley were hanging around the WE office and one (KK, as I recall) said something like: Hey, wouldn’t it be great to get all these guys Steven wrote about together in one place. I mean, most of them have never even met each other!” The rest, as they say, is etc., etc….

  10. “We had a few people who were so upset they sent us their entire collections of WEC and Co-Ev”

    Man, I would have loved to have gotten my hands on those!

    I bought my first copy of Whole Earth Review when I was on a business trip in a utterly boring and sterile edge city. One of the local strip malls had a good book store, and the issue about disaster preparedness was on the magazine rack. Man, I was hooked. I not only subscribed but bought some back issues.

  11. I’d like to see a copy. I bet the font is typefont. This was pre-computer days let’s not forget.

    I do enjoy my contemporary catalogs with hand clothes wringers, and solar cells. There has never been a better time to be a back to the earther anarchist! I have a feeling the whole off the grid survivalist lifestyle is going to see a major resurgence with financial news like we had today.

  12. I never thought about it, but yeah — the WEC and the Internet/open-source crowd have the same sort of feel. I loved the WEC; I got my fix at the home of some family friends who definitely lived that dream — he was big into organic farming (just retired last year).

  13. Hear, hear. The WEC was a leap ahead of it’s time, full of stuff most of us hadn’t heard about, introducing us to potentially world-changing information, demonstrating that there were already many alternatives to the manufactured-consensus culture we grew up in.

    The WEC stands as a document that resonated deeply with people … consciousness-changing in profound accord with the spontaneous accord going down on the streets worldwide, without precedent … the closest thing to a tangible philosophy and embodyment the counterculture ever had.

    The decades since have seen the (forever changed) mainstream culture repeatedly attack, denigrate, defame, distort and outright lie about what was going down. WEC, like the rebirth of ecology and environmental awareness, New Age and eastern spirituality, and the massive sales of dozens of classics like Castaneda’s and Pirsig’s testify to the blindness of that defamation.

    The future will understand, in what’s unfolding now, that those years anticipated unavoidably necessary changes in our relationships with our planet and with each other.

  14. the WEC and the Internet/open-source crowd have the same sort of feel

    I think that’s because many of the same people were involved in their creation. While I know Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link =/= The Internet, I think the influence is definitely there.

  15. If you’d like to dig in a bit more to the connection between the WEC, the WELL, open source, Bucky Fuller, Patagonia, Apple, the sagebrush revolution, and who knows how much other stuff, there’s a new academic history out about Stewart Brand and the WEC: It’s by Andrew Kirk, and the title is “Counterculture Green”.


    disclaimer: I reviewed the book recently for a dead-tree publication.

  16. Thanks, Stupidnickname. I hadn’t known about the Kirk book.

    In November 2006 the Stanford University Library held a panel discussion on the history of the Whole Earth Catalog and its tangle of descendants.

    It featured Stewart Brand, the founder, Kevin Kelly and Howard Rhinegold, former editors, and Fred Turner, a historian who had just published From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

    You can watch video of the panel here. I recommend it.

    If you were a reader of the WEC, CoEvolution Quarterly, Whole Earth Review, Whole Earth Software Review, or Wired, as I was, the discussion is fascinating. (As is Turner’s book.)

  17. #8 Anon, agreed. Although the library that you describe sounds rather ideal (where is/was it, by the way?), I developed my love of lit in a small-town Carnegie library. Kelly may have been referring to the lack of counterculture materials in his local library, or maybe just his personal experience, all libraries not being equal.

  18. WholeEarth.com relaunched on Oct. 31st to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first Catalog. We have scanned all Whole Earth family publications (Catalog, CoEvolution Quarterly, Whole Earth, Whole Earth Review, Books) and they are available online as flip books. Each edition is also available for purchase and download as an e-book in PDF format.

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