Whole Earth

Whole Earth coverWhole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
John Markoff
Penguin Press (March 22, 2022), 416 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $25.97

If you spent any time in bookstores in the 1970s or if you were around the counterculture of the time, you no doubt encountered one of the many editions of the Whole Earth Catalog. Perhaps you subscribed to CoEvolution Quarterly, or as I did, to its successor, Whole Earth Review. If so, you are aware that the man behind these publications was Stewart Brand.

In his comprehensive biography of Brand, author John Markoff shows Brand to be a far more complex character than you might have expected. Certainly more complex than I expected.

Brand grew up in the Midwest, but he went west to Stanford for college. Markoff mentions that Brand joined the ROTC as a freshman but says nothing about his ROTC activities as an undergraduate. The military resurfaces when Brand graduates and Markoff notes that Brand wore his dress uniform to his graduation. The author then goes on to Brand’s time in the military and describes how Brand failed in his training to become part of the elite Ranger corps. Ultimately Brand got himself assigned as a photographer and was eventually able to secure early release from active duty. This came with the obligation for Reserve activities, reminders for which Brand tended to ignore.

After leaving the army he returned to the Bay Area where he experimented with LSD. He involved himself in some of the legal, controlled experiments at the time and also later indulged recreationally. Brand hung around the fringes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters but was never fully a part of that group. Native American culture fascinated him and did a photo essay of the Warm Springs tribe.

Brand became intrigued by Buckminster Fuller’s philosophy and the idea of innovative uses for tools. He opened a business in Menlo Park he called the Truck Store where he sold books and tools. That, along with his fascination with Fuller’s work, eventually led to the Whole Earth Catalog.

Markoff describes in detail the creation and the ups and downs of the Whole Earth Catalog and its various editions. He also discusses Brand’s fascination with technology, and his creation of the WELL, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, in the mid-1980s, which was an early online public online forum, though far from the first. If you think that managing online behavior is a recent phenomenon this book will tell you that Brand and his WELL manager, Tex, faced those same issues from the beginning.

Brand was not the maven of the counterculture that the Whole Earth Catalog might suggest. He had some conservative views and helped found the Global Business Network, where he gave lectures and presentations to corporations. He believed in city life (as opposed to rural) and in nuclear power as ways of combating global climate change. When he published these views in his book Whole Earth Discipline in October 2009 he made enemies and many who knew Brand’s work felt betrayed.

Stewart Brand was married twice. Both wives were key to the successes of his various businesses. His first wife, Lois Jennings, was the glue that held the Whole Earth Catalog together. That marriage ended in divorce, though Markoff’s subtext implies that the marriage could have worked had Brand put in a little more effort. Of his second wife, Markoff writes, “Patty Phelan had made him a nicer person.” That marriage lasted, and Phelan was an entrepreneur in her own right.

If the Whole Earth culture is part of your past or if it otherwise interests you Markoff’s biography will tell you as much about Stewart Brand as you could possibly absorb.

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