Reviewing “Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand”

From a Wall Street Journal column by Michael Shermer about the book by John Markoff titled “Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand”:

When I first met Stewart Brand at an upscale ideas festival, I expected to engage with an aging beatnik or hippie, the tree-hugging, whale-saving environmentalist I associated with the “Whole Earth Catalog”—that ’60s-era collectanea of books, resources, tools, technologies and assorted products that became the bible of a techno-utopia DIY movement focused on self-sufficiency, education and ecology. But I found Mr. Brand more like Elon Musk than Timothy Leary, and was astonished to witness him make the best argument I’d ever heard for including nuclear power in plans to replace fossil fuels.

In fact, writes John Markoff in “Whole Earth,” an illuminating biography that captures Mr. Brand’s rich and varied life, “Brand was not a beatnik, nor would he 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.”

Mr. Brand’s iconic question “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” was inspired by an acid trip. “In his mind’s eye he rose above San Francisco, and the planet suddenly became as a glorious globe,” Mr. Markoff reveals. Long before Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” soliloquy, Mr. Brand campaigned for the release of a NASA photo of the planet from space—“so graphic, this little blue, white, green and brown jewel-like icon amongst a quite featureless black vacuum.” He used it on the cover of the first “Catalog” (1968), declaring that the image made him realize that “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Lives turn out through some admixture of genes, environment, luck and pluck. Born in 1938 in Rockford, Ill., Mr. Brand was the youngest child in a book-filled home. His early education at Phillips Exeter engaged him with the “Harkness method” of Socratic questioning. A 1960 biology degree from Stanford, where he heard Aldous Huxley lecture and was advised by the population biologist Paul Ehrlich, cemented his intellectual bona fides.

Instead of following a path into academia, Mr. Brand, a ROTC graduate, served two years in the U.S. Army, later studying art and design in San Francisco, which placed him 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 moment full of innovation, from the computer revolution at Stanford to the human potential movement at 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, Buckminster Fuller, Danny Hillis.

Although many contemporaries dropped acid for the pure experience, Mr. Brand said he took LSD (and other psychedelics) because he hoped they would accentuate his appreciation of beauty, especially that found in the photographic skills he was developing. For him psychedelics were a tool of creativity: “When you design a tool,” he wrote in 1971, “the best you can do is fashion a prototype and hand it over to the local evolutionary system: ‘Here, try this.’ ”

His model was Arthur Koestler’s “bisociation,” the blending of unrelated concepts into something new. Mr. Brand’s ability to discern unlikely complements, along with the organizational skills he’d honed in the military, helped bring numerous projects to fruition: His imagination had him bounce from one to the next; his pragmatic propensities put them into effect. Decades after the “Whole Earth Catalog” project, Mr. Brand published “Whole Earth Discipline,” which proposed integrating nuclear power, geoengineering, genetic engineering, wildlife restoration, species protection and other environmental technologies aimed at creating a sustainable future for life on Earth. He’s a solutions guy, not a New Age guru—his ability to convene like-minded innovators has resulted in the WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), the Global Business Network for futurists and business leaders, the Long Now Foundation, and Revive & Restore, a project to bring back extinct species like passenger pigeons and woolly mammoths.

As for Mr. Brand’s politics, he’s off the spectrum, mostly identifying as a small-l libertarian, committed to bottom-up democracy, with 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 the most famous Brandisms, “information wants to be free,” reveals this tension. Here’s the full passage, from the first Hackers Conference he convened 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 a challenge to capture the essence of a protean life while the subject is still writing the script, but Mr. Markoff, a longtime tech journalist for the New York Times, has done it beautifully. “Telling the story of Stewart Brand”—now a vital 83—“poses a puzzle, for he isn’t someone who can be neatly categorized,” Mr. 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 for decade after decade? A one-liner from Mr. Brand’s personal journal in March of 1966 is as good an answer as any: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

Mr. Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a presidential fellow at Chapman University. His book “Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational” will be out this fall.

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