Remembering the Whole Earth Catalog

In 1968 Stewart Brand founded the singular publication the Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of useful resources for designing and building with the ‘whole earth’ in mind. Heavily influenced by the work of Buckminster Fuller, the catalog “developed into an extensive reference tool for designing the environment, living spaces and new media practices.” Far from being just a collection of products and prices, the Whole Earth Catalog is the only catalog to win a National Book Award for its eschewing of politics and a move towards grassroots change. “At a time when New Age hippies were deploring the intellectual world of arid abstractions, Whole Earth pushed science, intellectual endeavor and new technology as well as old.”

Its environment-first message seems particularly relevant today, but just what exactly is the Whole Earth Catalog? Best to let the founder tell you himself. Here is the introduction from the first issue, published in 1968.

“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. Not already common knowledge
  5. Easily available by mail


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 dilemma 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.”

Still need more clarification? Fortunately, MoMA has put together an exhibition on the history of the magazine. “Access to Tools: Publications from the Whole Earth Catalog, 1968-1974,” which opens April 18 and runs through July 26, 2011.