It’s been a good year for Stewart Brand. In late 2009, this long-time eco-pioneer published Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, in which he outlined the reasons why he’s changed his mind about some of the environmental movement’s most sacred cows, hoping to convince his fellow greenies to do the same. Needless to say, Brand has created some serious ripples in the environmental world and the book has had a big impact on the way we think about climate change here at EnlightenNext.
In 2007, I read a biography of Brand called Counterculture Green and wrote the following review for the magazine. Written by eco-historian Andrew Kirk, the book gives a pretty full explanation of the how and why the man who once lobbied Congress to publicize images of the whole earth from space as a means of spreading ecological awareness, would today be promoting environmental heresies like nuclear energy, genetic engineering, mega-cities, and geoengineering as our best hopes for combating global warming.
Check it out!
The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism
by Andrew G. Kirk
(University Press of Kansas, 2007, hardcover $23.00)
I’ve never read The Whole Earth Catalog. As the child of baby boomers, I’ve always relegated its famous cover to the dusty shelves of irrelevance, along with all the other stale and outdated iconography of my parents’ generation. But after reading Andrew Kirk’s Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism, I realized that despite my lack of familiarity with its contents, Whole Earth and its eclectic visionary founder Stewart Brand have had a much deeper impact on my ideas about nature, environmentalism, and the role of technology and business in creating a better world than I could ever have imagined. Kirk, a professor of environmental history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, reveals that the catalog, which on the surface appeared to be nothing more than an information and tool resource for the counterculture communes of the late sixties and early seventies, also held within its enormous pages “a critical reevaluation [of] the relationship between nature and postindustrial culture.” And according to Kirk, what emerged from Whole Earth’s ideological mixing pot was a new environmental philosophy that embraced the human-centered optimism of technological innovation and market capitalism, often considered enemies of the environmental movement. He makes the compelling case that Whole Earth’s shade of “counterculture green” laid the foundation for the most cutting-edge forms of techno-friendly, business-savvy, “bright green” environmentalism that are starting to take hold at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Counterculture Green is essentially a history of the American environmental movement in the second half of the twentieth century, portrayed through the evolving environmental ethos of The Whole Earth Catalog and the lives of the diverse group of thinkers that contributed to it. The catalog, which was started by Brand in 1968 “to help [his] friends who were starting their own civilization hither and yon in the sticks,” quickly grew to be much more than what he had originally intended. By 1969, it was featured in national magazines like Time, Vogue, and Esquire, had sold over sixty thousand copies, and was fast becoming the voice of the diverse counterculture movement. As Kirk writes, “For a generation coming of age in the 1960s, Whole Earth became a forum for reevaluations of the tangled and shifting relationship among design, science, consumption, and ecology in post-war America.”
What surprised me most about Kirk’s account of The Whole Earth Catalog was that it revealed a side of the counterculture that is not often talked about. His main thesis throughout the book is that the movement wasn’t just hippies and dropouts trying to return to a teepee and subsistence lifestyle, but that it also mobilized a whole generation of technophile revolutionaries who believed that “innovation and invention with a conscience could overcome even the worst social and environmental problems.” In the 1960s, with the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear armament and a booming postwar industrial economy, many were painting dire scenarios of the future, and much of American environmentalism focused on slowing down the negative impacts of the industrial-capitalist machine. But the philosophy of Whole Earth and of its eclectic counterculture army of designers, commune dwellers, engineers, philosophers, writers, and businesspeople was different. According to Kirk, “Whether they went back to the land or into the laboratory, they infused environmentalism with an optimistic hope that one day the nagging question of how to reconcile the tension between the modernist desire to explore the progressive potential of technological innovation with the antimodernist desire to preserve the natural world might be resolved through enlightened technical innovation.”
Central to the narrative of Counterculture Green is the psychedelic life and times of Whole Earth’s founder, Stewart Brand. Kirk could not have chosen a better poster boy for both the counterculture movement and the new breed of environmentalism that it spawned. Using a vast array of fascinating stories about Brand and his relationship with many of the counterculture’s most influential figures, Kirk paints the picture of a revolutionary who was deeply affected by the complex combination of ideologies that characterized his era but whose ideas about the marriage of ecology, technology, and business were decades ahead of their time. Whether it was participating in Ken Kesey’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests,” campaigning for NASA to release images of the whole earth from space to the public, or working as an environmental advisor to Governor Jerry Brown of California, Brand’s influence was felt in almost all aspects of the movement. “He was an experienced LSD veteran before practically anyone had heard of the drug,” Kirk writes, “and advocated a new view of the earth that set a standard for how six billion people view their home world.” Brand and the editorial perspective of Whole Earth were always reaching just outside of and beyond where everyone else was comfortable. According to Kirk, “Brand’s intense interest in ecological living but deep ambivalence about environmentalism as an ideology enabled him to see the potential of alternative environmental paths more clearly than most of his generation.”
Reflecting the credentials of its author, Counterculture Green is an academically structured history of a very fascinating individual and the movement he was at the heart of. And while the book can be a bit overwhelming at times in its detailed caricatures of the many people who participated in Whole Earth’s environmental counterculture, there are enough wildly fascinating stories and biographies to keep the pages turning in anticipation. Kirk does a great job of conveying the ideological complexity of the counterculture and environmental movements reflected on the pages of The Whole Earth Catalog, and he brings clarity to the various contending ideas that have been and continue to be at play below the surface of post–World War II environmentalism. Fundamentally, Kirk is hoping that by highlighting the group of individuals who “recognized that the same remarkable brains and opposable thumbs that caused our twentieth-century environmental crisis could get us out of it in the twenty-first century,” Counterculture Green can provide hope and inspiration for the next wave of environmentalism moving forward. And I, for one, hope that he’s right.
by Joel Pitney