A review of Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff, Penguin, 2022, 404 pages.
This is the slightly longer original version of my review published in the Wall Street Journal on March 29, 2022, under the title “A Man in Whole”
When I first met Stewart Brand at an upscale ideas festival I expected to engage with an aging beatnik, hippie, or tree-hugging, whale-saving environmentalist whom I associated with the Whole Earth Catalog—that collectanea of books, resources, tools, technologies, and assorted products that became the bible of the techno-utopia DIY (do it yourself) movement focused on self-sufficiency, education, and ecology. But I found Brand to be more like Elon Musk than Timothy Leary, and I was astonished to witness him make the best argument I’d ever heard in favor of including nuclear power as a necessary component in the energy equation to replace fossil fuels.
In fact, writes John Markoff in this illuminating biography that captures the rich life and the turbulent times of the counterculture provocateur, “Brand was not a beatnik, nor would be become a hippie. He was far too ambitious to fit in comfortably with his peers. As often as not he has found a way to go against the grain. He has floated upstream.” Indeed. Brand’s oft-quoted iconic question, “why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”, was inspired by an acid trip from half a tab of LSD. “In his mind’s eye he rose above San Francisco, and the planet suddenly became as a glorious globe,” Markoff reveals.
Long before Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” soliloquy reflecting on a photo of Earth from Saturn, Brand said of the NASA photo that “it’s so graphic, this little blue, white, green and brown jewel-like icon amongst a quite featureless black vacuum.” A member of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters, Brand declared that the image made him realize that “we are as gods and better get good at it.” Forty years later he admonished “we are as gods and have to get good at it.”
How lives turn out is some admixture of genes, environment, luck, and pluck. Born December 14, 1938 to a middle-class family in Rockford, Illinois, Brand was the last born child (with an older sister and two older brothers) to an MIT-educated father and a Vassar-educated mother, with books strewn throughout the home for the youngster to devour. His early education at the exclusive private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (that engaged students in the “Harkness method” of Socratic questioning and student dialogue), followed by a degree in biology at Stanford University (where he heard Aldous Huxley lecture on why biology would become the world’s dominant science and was advised by the renowned population biologist Paul Ehrlich on environmental issues), cemented his intellectual bona fides.
Stewart Brand in his studio. Photo courtesy of Stewart Brand
Instead of following the typical academic path into grad school and the academy, Brand joined the U.S. Army (as a parachutist) and developed military-grade organizational skills he later parlayed (with the aid of a modest family inheritance) into a number successful organizations, most memorably the Whole Earth Catalog and its spinoffs, such as the virtual community of like-minded innovators called The WELL (Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link), the Global Business Network (integrating futurists with business leaders), the Long Now Foundation (whose famous 10,000-year clock is the icon of long-term planning), and Revive & Restore (a project to bring back extinct species like passenger pigeons and wooly mammoths).
After enrolling in classes at the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State College, where he studied photography among other courses (design, medieval art, poetry), Brand “placed himself at the center of one of the most creative places in the country just at the moment when a great rupture from mainstream culture was about to occur,” a California culture ripe for innovation, from Silicon Valley’s computer revolution centered at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to Big Sur’s human potential movement centered around the Esalen Institute. And his circle of associates, friends and influencers was a veritable who’s who of the era: Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, Ralph Metzner, Ram Dass, Tom Wolfe, John Brockman, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Ansel Adams, Norbert Wiener, Kevin Kelly, James Baldwin, Buckminster Fuller, Danny Hillis, and many more.
Although many at the time were dropping acid for the pure experience, Brand said he took LSD (and other psychedelics) as a learning experience that he hoped would accentuate his aesthetic appreciation of beauty, especially that found in the photographic skills he was developing. Psychedelics were more of a tool of creativity than an experiential trip. “When you design a tool,” he wrote in his journal in 1971, “the best you can do is fashion a prototype and hand it over to the local evolutionary system: ‘Here, try this’.”
Brand’s model at this time was Arthur Koestler’s “bisociation”, developed in the noted author’s 1964 book The Act of Creation, which involves blending unrelated concepts into a new one, and as he bounced around from one project to the next new configurations congealed into his mind, which his pragmatic propensities brought to fruition. Decades after the Whole Earth Catalog project, for example, Brand published Whole Earth Discipline, aptly subtitled “An Ecopragmatist Manifesto,” integrating nuclear power, geoengineering, genetic engineering, wildlife restoration, species protection, and other environmental technologies aimed at creating a sustainable future for life on Earth. Like his epochal catalog, Brand is a solutions guy, not a New Age guru.
As for Brand’s politics, he’s off the spectrum, mostly identifying as a (small l) libertarian (at Stanford he read and was influenced by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), committed to bottom-up democracy and an aversion to orthodoxy of any sort, which means he must adapt when the marginal becomes the mainstream, as in his shift from environmentalism to conservationism, from organic foods to GMOs, and from anti- to pro-nuclear power. One of his most famous Brandisms, “information wants to be free,” for example, when centered in context reveals this tension. Here’s the full passage, from the first hacker’s conference in November, 1984:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
It is especially challenging to capture the essence of such a rich life as Brand’s in a single volume while the subject is still writing the script, but Markoff has done it beautifully in Whole Earth. “Telling the story of Stewart Brand’s life poses a puzzle, for he isn’t someone who can be neatly categorized,” Markoff reflects. “Perhaps it is so difficult to put him in a box because he has such an uncanny knack for seeing the world from outside the box.”
How do you do that? Brand’s one-liner penned in his personal journal in March of 1966 is as good an answer as any: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Brandisms (from Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff):
“The Hippie/long-hair thing has brash panache, but it lacks world-based substance. Dope ain’t enough, it raises hopes and dashes them in a kind of fond isolation.” —Journal, July 16, 1971
“Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” —Opening sentences from “SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” Rolling Stone, December 7, 1972
“Ecology maintains. Coevolution learns.” —Whole Earth Epilog, wraparound, Harper’s, April 1974
“Charisma is theft. Commitment is a trap. If the group says, and means your life, ‘you’re either on the bus or off the bus,’ get off the bus.” —Journal, June 1985
“Keep it simple stupid, is a good way to keep it stupid.” —Journal, March 1986
“A major source of learning, maybe the major source, is other people’s mistakes.” —Journal, August 1986
“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” —The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, 1987
“If I get to heaven, and it’s not a library, I’ll be very disappointed. On the other hand, if I get to hell and it’s a library, I won’t be surprised.” —A speech to the Illinois Library Association, April, 4, 1989
“Summing up the ’60s in a sentence: We rolled our own cigarettes.” —Journal, May 21, 2004