Whole Earth Catalog

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Fall 1969 cover

The Whole Earth Catalog was a giant catalog published twice a year from 1968 to 1972 (and occasionally thereafter, until 1998) for the purposes of providing education and access to tools for one to "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. It was published by the Portola Institute, headed by Richard Raymond. In 1972, the catalog won the National Book 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 were an extremely important means of disseminating many of the ideas now associated with the 1960s. 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,
  2. Relevant to independent education,
  3. High quality or low cost,
  4. Easily available by mail.

CATALOG listings are continully 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 dilemme 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's: 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 cohorts created issue number one of The Whole Earth Catalog. Production values gradually improved with successive editions.


The catalog divided itself into seven broad sections:

  • Understanding Whole Systems,
  • Shelter and Land Use,
  • Industry and Craft,
  • Communications,
  • Community,
  • Nomadics, and
  • 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.

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. In fact, the Catalog’s earliest editions reflected considerable influence from Fuller - particularly his teachings about "whole systems," "synergetics," and efficiency or reduction of waste. Notwithstanding the eminent intelligence in these principles, by 1971 Brand and cohorts were already questioning whether Fuller’s sense of direction might be too anthropocentric. The information gathering in fields like ecology and biospherics was persuasive.

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, it is interesting that the publication of the Catalog's first edition preceded the first Earth Day by nearly two years. (Significantly, 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.)

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 it was published more sporadically. Updated editions of The Last Whole Earth Catalog appeared periodically in the '70s, but only a few more fully new catalogs appeared: a 1974 edition called the Whole Earth Epilog, editions in 1980 and 1981 called The Next Whole Earth Catalog, several editions in the '80s of the Whole Earth Software Catalog, a compressed 1986 edition entitled The Essential Whole Earth Catalog, and a major 1994 edition titled The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. (There was also a Whole Earth Ecolog in 1990, devoted exclusively to environmental material, and special catalogs devoted to communications technology and to "the fringes of reason.") A slimmer, thirty-year commemorative edition (half old material, half brand-new) was published in 1998.

Through much of this time, and until 2003, the Whole Earth crowd published a quarterly magazine, known originally as CoEvolution Quarterly (founded in 1974, edited by Stewart Brand). When the short-lived Whole Earth Software Review failed, it was merged 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.

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