The Visionary

Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand on the future, the environment, libertarianism, and the Merry Pranksters

For half a century, Stewart Brand has demonstrated a gift for prescience. He rode with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters when most Americans had never heard of hippies, ran the cameras at the first public display of modern computer text editing and graphics in 1968, and helped inspire Earth Day as an early environmental activist. 

Brand is chiefly famous for creating the most important guidebook and self-help aid for the hippie generation, the Whole Earth Catalog. First published in 1968, it spun off one of the most interesting small magazines of the 1970s, CoEvolution Quarterly. The book and the magazine promoted cutting-edge ideas in ecology, urban planning, space exploration, and more.

Today Brand occupies a curious professional niche: half corporate consultant and half freewheeling visionary, co-founder of both the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation. The Global Business Network, through its use and popularization of scenario planning, has helped organizations from Shell to Xerox to the Joint Chiefs of Staff think about the future. The Long Now Foundation aims to “creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years” by building a monstrously large mechanical clock that can run by itself for millennia.

Brand’s post–Whole Earth books range from The Media Lab (1987), an early survey of what has become our modern media world, to How Buildings Learn (1994), which examines the ways modern buildings evolve after they are erected. His most recent effort, Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto (Viking), offers full-blooded environmentalist defenses of practices fervently opposed by most of the environmentalist movement, most prominently nuclear power and genetic engineering, while painting a terrifying vision of what man-made climate change could lead to if we don’t soon change our cultural and technological practices.

Brand lives on a tugboat in Sausalito, California, an ad hoc solution to the problems of adaptability, affordability, and community that he discusses in Whole Earth Discipline. I haven’t seen the boat. He told me he prefers the press to focus on his ideas, not on such “journalistic color,” and therefore insisted our April interview be conducted by phone. That detail, of course, supplies its own journalistic color, the image of a man who wants reporters to focus not on what he looks like, how he moves, or how he lives but merely on how he thinks.

reason: What do you think has placed you at so many interesting early stages of American cultural movements?

Stewart Brand: A mixture of curiosity, boredom, and absence of being dedicated to one big organization or one big ideology. I guess I agree with [science fiction writer] Bill Gibson’s line that the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. I look for places where the future is turning up and look for a sense of “if this plays out, it’ll change the world.” And I go hang out when it’s still taking shape. That led me to hang out with psychedelic drug people, then personal computer people, then MIT’s Media Lab.

These days I keep a close eye on microbial research, synthetic biology. I’ll seek out the Drew Endys of the world, check out what they are up to. Endy is a bioengineer at Stanford. He started the BioBricks Foundation at MIT and the iGEM [International Genetically Engineered Machine] Jamboree, where student groups come from all over the world and show off their bioengineered creations. So microbial biology, synthetic biology, to some extent geoengineering—these are the domains that I am paying attention to. 

Outside of that, applied history. At a conference I helped get funding for a couple of months ago at Berkeley, we were looking at involving historians in an almost policy adviser role, equivalent to what economists do. Both decision makers and historians avoid each other, to their mutual harm. I’m trying to put them in the same room where decisions are being prepared.

reason: You were in the Army when you started hanging out with counterculture artist types in the early ’60s, right?

Brand: I was simultaneously an infantry lieutenant during the week and a participant in avant-garde art groups in New York on the weekend. The artists were interested that I had short hair and was a soldier during the week. The soldiers were not the slightest bit interested that I was hanging out with longhairs. 

I did ROTC at Stanford and was an officer for two years, active duty. As I got a good look at the Army, I knew it was not a career for me. But it was the best grad school I could have gone to. I learned a lot, got the hell out of the Midwestern world and the academic world. My company commander was a black guy in 1961. That was the most integrated part of America, the U.S. military. My sergeants were guys who had fought in Korea, and I learned the real story. They’d say, “Hey, heard of the famous victory of so-and-so? I was the only survivor of that victory.”

And when I started the Whole Earth Catalog I had no problem being the guy in charge, because I’d been trained to do that.

reason: What attracted you to the Ken Kesey scene in Menlo Park in the ’60s?

Brand: Kesey would say, “If you don’t boil rocks and drink the water, how do you know it won’t make you drunk?” That was a creative group, up to interesting and nefarious things. Kesey had the best thing going in the Bay Area. I sought it out and swam along with it like a pilot fish.

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  • Paul||

    Don't trust anyone over 30.

  • sarcasmic||

  • Mr Whipple||

    It's the patchouli oil. I hate that fucking shit.

  • Mosquevite Sandwich||

    Word. I'd rather continuously have smoke (cigarette that is) blown in my face than catch the faintist whiff of that foul shit.

  • sarcasmic||

    How do you hide a $100 bill from a hippie?

    Put it under the soap.

  • ||

    Die, bohab!

  • SIV||

    But “faceless bureaucrats,” so called, are a fabulous cadre of public-spirited, hard-working, effective, apolitical players.

    What Barfman says...

  • cynical||

    Relative to the political appointees, definitely. As someone married to a faceless bureaucrat (the no-face thing is creepy, but we do it with the lights out), a lot of bureaucrats take the job they're doing seriously -- like all government professions (e.g. cops, teachers) the problem is not so much an absence of good people, but difficulty getting rid of bad people.

    Of course, one might argue that the job itself shouldn't be done, but that's a different question altogether. We probably shouldn't send soldiers into Iraq or Afghanistan, but that has no bearing on whether those soldiers are brave and patriotic.

  • SIV||

    I know individual "dedicated hard-working" government employees. They all complain about the assholes they work with and how their particular bureaucracy is focused on increasing size, power, and funding rather than doing what they are primarily tasked to do.

  • Wegie||

    If you know two, you probably know them all. Why would they work for the government?

  • ||

    They complain to you but they are apparently OK with being members of a union that enforces the rules that keep the lazy a-holes employed.

  • Jeff P||

    You want to know how I know the revolution is over? Slayer is on NPR this weekend.
    http://www.roadrunnerrecords.c.....mID=145841

  • Fire Tiger||

    "The Man" is only bad when you aren't him.

  • The Man||

    Yes of course that's true.

  • ||

    10,000-year thinking is a scoff-worthy notion. I think Taleb would agree. I've wondered, skeptically, about "scenario planning" since I first read that article in Wired - is there anything to it?

  • Wegie||

    "I've wondered, skeptically, about "scenario planning" since I first read that article in Wired - is there anything to it?"
    Yes, here is a simple example....not 10,000 years out, but gets the point across. Those living in the northern areas of North America, Europe and Asia should get out their warmer clothes as it will be getting colder in the next few months.

  • ||

    "10,000-year thinking is a scoff-worthy notion. I think Taleb would agree. I've wondered, skeptically, about "scenario planning" since I first read that article in Wired - is there anything to it?"

    No there is nothing to scenario planning. It never works because there is no good way to assign probabilities, often the whole framework is posed wrong (e.g. you are considering climate change scenarios when it turns out you should really be considering depopulation scenarios), the future is never the same as the past etc. I do risk management in finance and it doesn't even work there.

  • Wegie||

    Come on! My scenario is almost 100% certain.

  • ||

    "My approach was: A good magazine’s role is to challenge its core readership from time to time. I wish reason did that more often!"

    Ouch! Burn!

    Anyways, why has reason changed their font and layout? The new version sucks

  • Robert||

    It's as if they wanted to get rid of those readers who are at bifocals age.

  • Ron L||

    Re: Ehrlich
    "And he’s a good guy."
    That's nice, but he's been peddling dangerous pap for years.
    I guess being nice to dogs counts for more than promoting a particularly pernicious religion.

  • Wegie||

    Or being intelligent.

  • LoveItORLeaveIt||

    Don't throw Houston under the bus just because a Walmart opens every now and then.

  • ||

    That comment reaches the the Heights of hilarity.

  • LoveItORLeaveIt||

    Well done.

  • Mike Laursen||

    First published in 1968, it spun off one of the most interesting small magazines of the 1970s, CoEvolution Quarterly.

    Shit, the most interesting magazine ever.

    (Except Playboy, of course. No homo.)

  • Wegie||

    Why would a magizine called Reason interview someone that believes in AGW??? What kind of insight would you hope to get?

  • Mike Laursen||

    Drink!

  • Wegie||

    A Visionary is just a fucking idiot that thinks he can tell the future.

  • Wegie||

    "My company commander was a black guy in 1961." WOW...really???What color was he in 1962????

  • ||

    Sounds like Spaulding in Caddy Shack - it's good sh*t, I got it from a negro.

  • Wegie||

    “If you don’t boil rocks and drink the water, how do you know it won’t make you drunk?” Aahhh, my favorite science....Alchemy.

  • Ronnie||

    and helped inspire Earth Day as an early environmental activist.

    Is this the prick that picked Vlad Lenin's birthday?

  • Mike Laursen||

    I'd be surprised. Not Brand's style to wax romantic about Communists.

  • Wegie||

    None the less he is a prick!

  • Wegie||

    None the less he is a prick!

  • Wegie||

    Just to make sure you got the point!

  • BOB||

    I really liked this interview, really like Brand, and think that, ironically, his very statements showed that Reason is not shy about challenging their readers. Congrats.

  • Wegie||

    Is that you Brian?

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  • Ron L||

    ^ Uh, this is Stuart Brand; you need to pitch Birkenstocks or Roots...

  • d||

    Yeah. Dense cities. Big fat targets for unions/terrorists/demagogues/tax collectors. How are you supposed to shoot trespassers if there ain't a property line.

  • ||

    There's always the basement of your parents' house in Hooterville if you don't have the balls to be an urbanite. Hey, wait; you *do* live in the basement of your parents' house in Hooterville.

  • question ?||

    "...explicitly nonpolitical stance... We’d feature something like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals...how-to book on how to be politically effective. I understand people are still using it now."

    yeah, the same pricks that have used it (Rules) for forty years, you know, the explicitly political jerkoffs that are in power now, the ones that are in control of the big-government institutions, the schools and the military. How can this guy wax romantically about these assholes now?

  • ||

    Hey, I hear the Anti-War Protesters are back in D.C? I wonder if they are going to be called racists!! hahaha.

  • ||

    Why isn't Mr. Brand apologizing for all of the fads that he supported over the years that made life for all of us more difficult and aggravating? I guess he just figures that that stuff is passe, and it is now time to move on to something else a bit more edgy.

    Why do we even continue to listen to people like him and Paul Erlich? And why does a magazine called "Reason" waste its time on these people?

  • ||

    Why isn't Mr. Brand apologizing for all of the fads that he supported over the years that made life for all of us more difficult and aggravating? I guess he just figures that that stuff is passe, and it is now time to move on to something else a bit more edgy.

    Why do we even continue to listen to people like him and Paul Erlich? And why does a magazine called "Reason" waste its time on these people?

  • MysteryFish||

    It's after noon, I can start drinking now, right?

  • ||

    I expect better from Reason interviews. Jerry Brown was a great governor? Bullcrap. California emits less 1/2 the GH gas per person as the US average? Does that include the electricity they inport from other states because, you know, you can't get a permit to build a plant in good ole CA?

    If you toss softballs and never challenge an answer, then why bother with an interview? Just ask him to send you a press release next time.

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