Stewart Brand's Idea of a 'Whole Earth' Changed Our World (And He's Not Done Yet)

Stewart Brand at his home in Sausalito, California, where his first online community started in 1985. (Photo: cellanr/flickr)

He came up with the idea of a photo of the entire Earth from space "thanks to an LSD experience on a rooftop in San Francisco." At least that's how Stewart Brand — author and founder of boundary-pushing organizations — describes it.

During his trip, "I got thinking about something that [Buckminster] Fuller talked about, that a lot of people assume that the Earth is flat and kind of infinite in terms of its resources, but once you really grasp that it's a sphere and that there's only so much of it, then you start husbanding your resources and thinking about it as a finite system," says Brand in the TED interview with Chris Anderson in the video below. So in 1966, Brand campaigned NASA to take such an image. He even printed and distributed buttons printed with the query: "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?"

In 1967, the ATS-3 satellite took the photo. That image became the cover of the first issue of Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. The catalog was the brainchild of Brand and his wife, Lois. In its pages, you could learn where to buy tools for the burgeoning back-to-the-land movement, which thousands of young Americans took part in. The catalog also included reviews of the products, which included everything to enable an independent lifestyle, from mason and forester implements to books, maps, gardening tools and even computers.

Earthrise taken from Apollo 8, December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon.
Earthrise taken from Apollo 8 on Dec. 24, 1968, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon. (Photo: William Anders/NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Later in 1968, astronaut William Anders took a picture of Earth from the moon, calling it simply Earthrise. That image (above), became the spring 1969 cover of Whole Earth catalog. The photo, said Brand in a 2003 interview, "gave the sense that Earth’s an island, surrounded by a lot of inhospitable space. And it’s so graphic, this little blue, white, green and brown jewel-like icon amongst a quite featureless black vacuum."

And that's how the idea of a "spaceship earth" — that we are all hurtling along through space on a beautiful planet that's both our home and our responsibility — was born.

Most historians say it's no coincidence that just the next year, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated. Not long after, the Whole Earth Catalog sold 1.5 million copies and received a National Book Award in 1972.

A new outlaw hacker culture

Brand didn't stop there. Fascinated by computers, which had mostly been viewed in pop culture as machines to further the ideals of the establishment, Brand saw another, more radical possibility.

"In 1972 [Brand] wrote a piece for Rolling Stone announcing the emergence of a new outlaw hacker culture. The hackers were another magic circle on the cutting edge of the future, a circle Brand would publicize and inspire others to join. In the 1970s, he was meshing Menlo Park computer geeks with cool hippie types. The tech people were entranced by 'Whole Earth,' including Steve Jobs and Frederick Moore, co-creator of the celebrated Homebrew Computer Club," details David Brooks in The New York Times.

In 1974, Brand went on to start a magazine aimed at an educated general audience called CoEvolution Quarterly. Along with Larry Brilliant, he built the Well in 1985, an early online community publication that many think served as a prototype for the internet publications that came after it. He has since been involved with wilderness conservation, global business concerns (he organized conferences for multinational corporations), and published essays, opinion and long-form articles that explore aspects of science and technology. Some of his ideas follow mainstream environmental thought, but not all of them. He's long been a proponent of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and nuclear power, both of which he thinks have more promise than costs, especially in relation to climate change.

Taking the long view

In 1996, Brand founded the Long Now Foundation, which aims to "become the seed of a very long-term cultural institution," according to the website for the San-Francisco-based nonprofit.

Brand explains his reasoning for creating such a group:

"Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed — some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where 'long-term' is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth."

In 2009, Brand published his fifth book, "Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto," which pushes environmentalists especially to embrace tools they have traditionally distrusted. From where he's sitting, that's the only way we can manage the problems Earth faces.

Throughout his long life, Brand has been an original thinker, bringing together disparate factions like hippies and hackers, to reach a different kind of common ground. He has profoundly influenced the thinking of those in environmentalist circles (whether you agree with him or not) and is credited with directing early Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to do positive things with their power and creativity.

In December 2018, Brand will be 80 years old. Who knows what he'll come up with in his next decade? I, for one, can't wait to find out.