Whole Earth Culture

© by Robert Horvitz

Note: This was written for "Wilderness as a Phenomenon of Integral Culture" (Divočina jako fenomén integrální kultury), a conference in Klenová, Czech Republic, 4-5 May 2002, which was part of a multi-museum exhibition entitled "Divočina - Přiroda, Duše, Jazyk" (Wilderness - Nature, Soul, Language) curated by Jiří Zemánek. My text - written for an audience unfamiliar with Whole Earth publications - was translated into Czech and published in 2004 with the other conference presentations in ISBN 8086217825.

This text is about a specific manifestation of integral culture. We might call it "Whole Earth culture" because it developed around the Whole Earth Catalogs and an affiliated magazine named the Whole Earth Review. Both were started by Stewart Brand, a remarkable man who lives in Sausalito, California. I joined the magazine as its art editor in 1977 and continued contributing until about 1990. When I joined the magazine it was called CoEvolution Quarterly - it became the Whole Earth Review later, when it adopted the name of its better-known parent, the Catalog.

So this is a story about Stewart Brand and what he tried to do with Whole Earth, and a little bit about what I tried to do, too.

The first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog was published in 1968. It was modelled on the catalog of the L. L. Bean company, which makes warm, long-lasting clothes and camping supplies, selling them by mail-order, mainly to people in the most-northeastern part of the United States. L. L. Bean's clothes are generally higher quality and more traditional in design than what is available in local stores. Plus, the company took back anything which didn't fit or wasn't what the customer actually wanted, so ordering something from L. L. Bean involved no risk. Founded in 1912, their mail-order business grew gradually, over generations. They were the prototype of the "back-to-nature" companies which would later become a commercial cliché. In the most northeastern part of the US (particularly in the state of Maine, where Bean is based), people are famous for being terse - for choosing words carefully and using as few of them as possible. Bean captured that style in its catalog. People admired the catalog's efficient presentation and quality goods even if they never bought anything from it. You felt you could trust them. You could browse without the clutter of second-rate merchandise and hype, and project yourself into a rural way of life where outdoor clothes and basic survival tools were important.

1967 was an apocalyptic time. America seemed to be heading toward a clash of generations that would tear society apart. The war in Vietnam, race relations and psychedelic drugs were central issues, but the intergenerational divide was so complete that it seemed to reflect two incompatible social visions. The post-World-War-2 "baby-boom" generation was graduating from high school in large numbers. Millions of young people were moving out of their parents' houses and even abandoning cities to set up rural "communes," experiments in small-group living which sought a more sustainable and authentic lifestyle than the one offered by the suburban/corporate system then engulfing America.

What if - Stewart thought - there was a catalog like L. L. Bean's, not just for camping supplies and clothes, but for great tools and supplies of all kinds, including books that would help people live outside the system of multinational conglomerates and automobile-choked cities, that answered deep questions about the meaning of life and practical questions about how things work? What if it was a catalog not just for one company, but for any company making the best tool for a particular task, or publishing the best reference on a specific subject? Bringing together the best tools and books from diverse suppliers and specialities would create a "critical mass" of value that should appeal to a very large audience. It would certainly help small companies that made "niche" products - for example, for bee-keepers, glassblowers, film-makers or weather forecasters. Such companies always had trouble finding the people who needed to know about their products. Providing easier access to niche products could even inspire more people to try bee-keeping or glass-blowing or film-making or weather-forecasting - or at least expand their fantasies about what it was possible to do.

IBM's "Selectric" typewriters had become standard office equipment in the 1960s. Unlike ordinary typewriters, these produced lettering with sharp edges and variable spacing, which made the documents created on them look like they came from a professional typesetter. Meanwhile, plastic plates for photo-offset printing were a recent innovation that dramatically reduced the cost of publishing. Low-cost color printing led to an explosion of "alternative" publications in the 1960s, from posters and pamphets to weekly newspapers. With low-cost publishing technology widely available and the L. L. Bean catalog as a style guide, Stewart's "catalog-of-the-best-tools-for-independent-living" concept seemed easy enough to implement, and not too financially risky.

But what to call it? It could easily have been called something obvious, like Best Books and Tools, but instead Stewart chose something quirky and tendentious - because his motives were rather more political and educational than commercial. A few months earlier, he had started a quixotic campaign to build public pressure on NASA, America's space agency, to release a photograph showing the Earth as single object isolated in space. He made a placard that said something like "NASA: why haven't we seen a photo of the whole Earth yet?" and he carried it around the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Manned spaceflights in the early 1960s had not gone far enough away from the Earth to bring back photographs showing our planet hanging isolated in space. Some people suspected that there were spy satellites which could do that, but their images were Top Secret. In 1968, NASA was already preparing to launch the first manned rockets to the moon. Test flights had begun. These could carry automatic cameras, if NASA wanted them to, and sooner or later, the Apollo astronauts would be able to look back at the Earth and snap pictures on their way to the moon. So Stewart's was a reasonable request, even if it puzzled passers-by in Berkeley.

Stewart wanted NASA to release a photo of the whole Earth because he believed it would have significant psychological impact: it would be visual proof of our unity and specialness, as our luminous blue ball-of-a-home contrasted dramatically with the dead black emptiness of space. Differences in skin color, religion, nationality and wealth, which can seem so important down here on Earth, shrink to nothing when viewed from afar. We are all in this together and humanity is but a small part of a miraculous and delicate ecosystem. Stewart had studied biology in college, just at the time when ecology was becoming a subject of scientific awareness, and that was one of the ideas which shaped his worldview.

Because of his sense of the importance of the whole Earth's image, the title and cover of the catalog became platforms for promoting this interest. It also demonstrated that the catalog was more than a group of products for sale, selected only by quality. Even casual readers could see that the catalog had an agenda: it focused on products that reinforced both a diversification of practice and a holistic understanding of man and nature - a hierarchy of values that defied categorization as either "left" or "right." The phrase "think globally, act locally" originated as a concise summary of the philosophy underlying the Whole Earth Catalog.

The Catalog quickly became a cultural phenomenon - the "unofficial handbook of the counterculture" as Whole Earth magazine's website now says. More accurately, it was an efficient way to spread powerful ideas that altered the interests and lifestyles of millions of people. The following statement appeared on the inside front cover of the first and later editions:


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.


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.

That said nothing about hippies or the environmental movement even though the Catalogs would soon be strongly associated with both in the public's mind. In the mid-1960s Stewart had been one of Ken Kesey's "Merry Pranksters" (he is mentioned a few times in Tom Wolfe's book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and helped to organize the first Trips Festival in San Francisco (1966). A few years later, the Catalog would become almost required reading in hippie communes, as it fulfilled a new-found need for information about "self-sufficiency" products like looms, solar water-heaters and cloth for making cheese - as well as a hunger for big new ideas to believe in. Yet it is also important to note (since the Catalog eventually became conflated in the public's mind with "new age" philosophy) that the Catalog was distinctly un-hippy in avoiding anything that smacked of sloppy thinking, superstition or pseudoscience. It was utopian but practical, adventurous yet critical.

Stewart was always attracted to the big picture and the long view, and those perspectives made the Catalog much more than a way to promote niche products. Browsing its big A3 pages, packed with small black-and-white pictures and irregular blocks of type, one always found mind-twisting surprises. People spent hours pouring through the Catalog without intending to buy anything, just for inspiration. For many, it was their first introduction to general systems theory, cybernetics, ecology, geodesic domes and authors like Buckminster Fuller, Garrett Hardin and Christopher Alexander. Stewart's judgment about what was important was astute. His passions became the passions of millions, as the Catalog unexpectedly became a best-seller. In 1972 it won the National Book Award.

Each edition of the Catalog was organized into broad subjects:

Understanding Whole Systems
Shelter and Land Use
Industry and Craft

Within each section, individual items followed one another in logical sequence, like words in a thesaurus. The importance of an item was suggested by the amount of page-space it got, although the same could not be said of the length of the review. Often it was the opposite, as when a hero is introduced with a simple, "Here is someone who needs no introduction." Hundreds of people wrote reviews for Whole Earth - most of them were readers, never met by the editor, who argued persuasively for the value of what they reviewed. But Stewart's reviews were the most memorable, and usually disarmingly brief. They set a standard that we all tried to follow:

Architecture without Architects (Bernard Rudolfsky, 1964)
"Trogdolyte caverns, 40 feet high treehouses, sculptured Iranian sail vaults; rare photos of man working in conjunction with nature. A book for architects and builders to meditate upon."

Purposive Systems (Heinz von Foerster, etc., 1968)
"You're a purposive system. So am I. We're very good at it, and not as good as we'd like to be. Humanity, as a whole, is lousy at it, and worried. This collection of recent cybernetic thoughts can cheer you up and give you better concepts to worry with."

Reviewers were told: "Write as you would in a letter to some specific person you respect and like, tell them why the product is great and then GET OUT OF THE WAY." Short reviews left more room for long excerpts, which enabled readers to judge for themselves if the item was worthwhile.

Hundreds of products were reviewed in each edition of the Catalog, and that created a need to distribute information about changes in prices and addresses, new editions of books, goods no longer available, etc. For a while the Catalog was published 4 times per year, to keep up with such changes. A more efficient arrangement was a comprehensive annual rewrite with quarterly supplements containing update information. To make the supplements more interesting, Stewart started to include articles, and even some poetry and fiction. Sometimes guest editors were invited in for fresh perspectives. The Catalog's supplements eventually became magazines.

The Last Whole Earth Catalog was published in 1972. At least, that was the name on the cover. But it was not to be the Catalog's last edition. It was followed by the Updated Last Whole Earth Catalog, the Whole Earth Epilog, the Next Whole Earth Catalog, the Essential Whole Earth Catalog, etc., because there was continuing demand for the information it supplied, and appreciation for its efficient format. The reason that a so-called Last catalog was even published then was that Stewart had announced at the beginning of the venture that he would only produce the Catalog for 5 years and if no imitator appeared during that time, doing the job better, it must not be important enough to continue. (The Whole Earth name and photograph-symbol were not trademarked, so anyone could offer imitations and variants.) Soon after the Last catalog appeared, Stewart threw a "farewell" party at which $20,000 of publishing profits was given away, and then he tried to retire.

But the need for product updates did not stop, and the limitations of the catalog format - exciting ideas were confined to short excerpts from already-published works - suggested a different sort of publication that might push Whole Earth's educational ambitions still further. It could, for example, feature original articles and letters from readers (Whole Earth got lots of mail - many readers felt themselves to be part of the evaluation process, and thus members of the Whole Earth community). At the same time, a magazine could continue providing the pithy reviews that made the Catalog famous.

CoEvolution Quarterly was born in the spring of 1974. "CoEvolution" (“evolving together”) was a word coined by biologists Paul Erlich and Peter Raven to describe the mutually-interdependent development of caterpillars and plants, predators and prey; it quickly became a core ecological concept. Publishing 4 issues per year allowed more time for finding good content than weekly or monthly magazines enjoy, and it also forced that search to focus on ideas that stayed important over a longer timeframe. (A common saying among the staff was "interesting is not enough.") A more radical aspect of CoEvolution - at least from an American perspective - was that it carried no advertising, like the Whole Earth Catalogs. This was to ensure that readers perceived the editorial policy as undistorted by commercial concerns, and to make it so in fact. We also reported our income and expenses in every issue. A further protection against both the perception and reality of commercialism was that a nonprofit foundation - POINT - was created to own both the Catalogs and the magazine.

CoEvolution was one of the first "green" magazines, and it published many groundbreaking articles: the first popular exposition of the Gaia Hypothesis (by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, in 1975), practical proposals for space colonies as large as cities, Eric Dexler's writing on nanotechnology, etc. It was the first nontechnical magazine to have a "personal computing" editor (beginning in 1976). Gregory Bateson, Carl Sagan, Ivan Illich, Ken Kesey, Wendell Barry and Gary Snyder were regular contributors. Kevin Kelly, who succeeded Stewart as editor in the 1980s, would later make Wired the most talked-about magazine of the 1990s. And our cartoonist was R. Crumb - "cartoonist" hardly describes this idiosyncratic graphic genius.

In the early years, the first section of CoEvolution focussed on the coming apocalypse. Like most "green intellectuals," Stewart thought we were on the brink of a worldwide social collapse that would be caused by resource depletion, pollution, overpopulation and the proliferation of military technologies whose power exceeded our sense of responsibility. But he was also among the first to be persuaded by futurist Herman Kahn that this was contrary to the dominant historical trends, which were overwhelmingly positive. Kahn was virtually alone in predicting that the next 20 years would be a period of sustained prosperity and dramatically improving quality of life for a growing percentage of humanity and many Whole Earth readers were upset by his arguments. But they demonstrated CoEvolution's commitment to challenging consensus beliefs, even its own. Note, too, that this was followed by a gradual shift away from the promotion of a "back to nature" lifestyle in CoEv. However esthetically appealing that way of life might be, it actually accelerates the loss of wilderness and is less energy- and transport-efficient than living in large cities. These fundamental re-orientations probably prevented CoEv from becoming as popular as the Whole Earth Catalogs, but it also gave the magazine a reputation for bold, fresh thinking, and a loyal readership among independent-minded intellectuals.

CoEvolution's name changed to the Whole Earth Review in 1984 when it merged with another magazine that Stewart had started, the Whole Earth Software Review. I joined the staff in 1977 as art editor. From the beginning I tried to establish a very different relationship to artworks than was found in other magazines. Instead of reporting on work that existed in other media (so that the magazine presentation was clearly secondary), I focused on art whose primary form was as a page layout (e.g. conceptual art), as well as work that could not be adequately presented in galleries (particularly environmental sculpture: "earthworks"). Most issues of the magazine from 1977 to about 1986 had 2-4 pages of artwork that I had selected. I also found and contributed articles on other subjects, especially radio, and edited two collections of articles which were published in 1986 "Wirelessness") and 1990 ("Radio Earth"). In the 1990s my contributions dwindled to nothing. I had moved to Prague and gotten involved in other activities. The "American-ness" of Whole Earth was also more obvious from the vantage-point of Eastern Europe, and that gave me some second thoughts.

Whole Earth (the magazine) was published until 2003, though at the end it was only a shadow of what it once was. Stewart stopped acting as editor-in-chief in the early 1980s, to let others assert their influence over the magazine's direction. But it finally exhausted its momentum. The readership dwindled to too few to support the cost of producing it on a quarterly schedule. The cover price was too high, and it was forced to start selling advertising (although only to compatible advertisers). It might make more sense to publish it on the Internet. That would be a much better medium for the Whole Earth Catalog, too, if anyone wants to revive it.

Whole Earth as WE symbol

So far as I can tell, Harold Lasswell was the first social scientist to offer a comprehensive explanation for the political dynamics of symbols like the whole earth. His theories also relate directly to the idea of Integral Culture. Building on a century of research by others into the role of symbols in nationalist and revolutionary movements, Lasswell summarized his analysis in a book entitled World Politics and Personal Insecurity (McGraw-Hill, 1935). Out-of-print since the 1970s, it is now available again, online, at


Posing as a "political psychiatrist," he notes that all egos are insecure. However, a feeling of security can be increased by associating oneself with appropriate "we symbols" - collectivities of clan, race, profession, class, region or nation. Egos can also focus and discharge their feelings of insecurity against "they symbols" - people who are not associated with the same "we symbols." Symbols which unite everyone on Earth tend to be rare and weak, mainly because "people do not unite, but unite against specific collective groups... A united world would be something new under the sun."

"In Quest of a Myth: the Problem of World Unity" is the final chapter of Lasswell's book. There he explores ways of portraying external threats in order to unify humanity - aliens from outer space, machines, diseases, genetic defects - but all of these seem problematic. He considers new international organizations that might attract positive allegiance, but concludes that they lack emotional appeal. Education offers some hope, but it is labor-intensive and slow, with uneven results. Still Lasswell argues for the value of world histories tracing the spread of common cultural elements like fire, postage stamps or the use of tobacco, as a "counter-therapy" to today's emphasis on national histories. What is needed, he says, is the displacement of nationalism and the "development of a common cultural experience as a seed bed for the emergence of common symbols and practices..." But he is pessimistic about the possibility of finding visual symbols that are able to unify humanity:

"Which map symbol should we propagate in the cause of unity? Our cartographical technique must be applied in search of the symbol best calculated to convey the sense of wholeness and of interrelatedness. The 'mercator' projection which is still so widely used produces fantastic distortions the farther one moves away from the equator, and the various 'orange peel' projections are alien to the eye, and convey disorganized impressions..."

Writing in 1935, he could not seriously consider the impact of photographs of the Earth from space, so he is unable to cite any visual symbol capable of emotionally uniting everyone. Instead he argues that experience always differentiates us and historical change keeps us insecure, producing a never-ending search for "they symbols" to turn into scapegoats. Our best hope, he says, is a quasi-Buddhist detachment from our immediate surroundings, based not on religious philosophy, but on (unspecified) technologies that "internalize our fantasies."

This diagnosis differs from what Whole Earth tried to do, mainly because of when it was written. Despite that, Lasswell is able to explain the unconscious logic of Stewart Brand's strategies with exquisite insight. Stewart did not read Lasswell, but others working towards an Integral Culture would benefit greatly from doing so.

I mentioned earlier that moving to Prague made me reconsider whether Whole Earth (the Catalogs and magazines) actually represented an important step toward planetary culture. In retrospect, it is obvious that our article sources, the books and tools we reviewed, and their suppliers, were all predominantly American. In fact, it would be extremely difficult to be language- and country-neutral while building a close relationship with an audience. The Catalogs in particular were based on mail-orders, and that requires a trustworthy postal delivery system - something that exists in very few places. This came into focus when we briefly considered the possibility of helping to launch Whole Earth-type catalogs in some of the post-communist countries. In the early 1990s this might have had a major impact. But the problem of people not trusting their postal system killed the project even before it started.

Another assumption that was basic to Whole Earth was that someone could be interested in both abstract ideas and practical things. That may be rarer than we realized. Soon after I moved to Prague, I showed the Last Whole Earth Catalog to a friend in Bulgaria. She was fascinated but perplexed. "Who is this for?" she asked. It took me a few moments to reply, as my first impulse was to say, "everyone." But instead I answered, "It's for practical intellectuals." She continued browsing through the Catalog with her eyes starting to moisten. Eventually she said, "How I wish we had such people."

It is hard to believe that Whole Earth's time has passed, or that its field of relevance is limited to the English-speaking world - or that only one person was capable of turning a broadly integrative vision into publications that were highly popular and at the same time highly sophisticated. Yet as time passes, I'm beginning to wonder where the other great editorial syntheses are. Perhaps they have already appeared - in China or Iran or Central Siberia, but are not yet known outside of their language zone. Could that zone ever be truly global? Or must a Whole Earth-type publication always be confined by language and distribution systems, undermining its planetary positioning? Doesn't that make Integral Culture an illusion?