Tool for Living
The Next Whole Earth Catalog, edited by Stewart Brand, New York: Point/Random House, 1980, 608 pp., $12.50.
The earth is whole, and you can stuff its basic parts into a catalog. This bright idea shined on Stewart Brand in 1968 as he flew home to California from his father's funeral. With the bad moon of Nixon on the rise, ghettos on fire, and the big muddy of Vietnam sucking hard, the American Dream was cracking up. The institutions that supposedly form our societal bedrock—the State, public schools, big business, organized religion—were all on the slide.
Against this darkness was an accompanying light that also shined on Brand. The breakdown of the old institutions obliged individuals either to reclaim their destinies by personally embracing all the problems that define our humanity or to allow themselves to be swept into the abyss with the old institutions. "Ask not what your country can do for you—do it yourself," was the motto. Brand assembled a compendium of worthy earthly tools to aid in the pursuit of personal destiny, christened it The Whole Earth Catalog, and unleashed it upon a needy world.
Wild success followed—celebrity for Brand, subsequent bestselling editions of the Catalog, the birth of the ongoing version of the Catalog, and CoEvolution Quarterly. It was not long before the Whole Earth concept had made it into the international lexicon.
In the '80s, the bedrock institutions continue their slide and are for the most part discredited. Excitement and innovation in our culture comes from what used to be relegated to the fringes: small businesses, libertarianism, self-help, and all the alternatives in medicine, energy, the arts, education, and architecture that fit in the Whole Earth. As the fringes join the mainstream and the old institutions plummet, what better time for a new Catalog?
The Next Whole Earth Catalog is nearly 80 percent new, and it even includes instructions on how to review it. Avoid reviewing the preface, admonishes Brand. Instead, consult two subjects in the Catalog, one you know something about and one of which you know nothing. Judge the Catalog by how well it covers your area of expertise and how intrigued you are by the article covering your area of ignorance.
Accordingly, I read the section on political factions and periodicals. The sectarian mess that is the American left is neatly laid out, separating the Trotskyites from the disciples of Mao and the rhetorical excesses of the Workers' Advocate from the meaningful In These Times. I follow the splits and mergers of the left with the scrutiny some fans lavish on baseball statistics. It took me years to sort out the left, and I've never before seen as concise a view of it as is presented in the Catalog.
Also in the political factions section is almost an entire page on libertarian periodicals. The Students for a Libertarian Society's Liberty is rated "thumbs up"; Frontlines, "riveting"; although, after noting the excellent UFW funding article and eclectic editorial policy that finds room for interviews with such diverse thinkers as Murray Bookchin and Howard Ruff, REASON is maligned as "Rotarian" and rated "eh!" But, all-in-all, the presentation of the libertarian alternative is accurate and fair.
I know nothing about blasting with explosives, but in a single page author Keith Britton of Blast Master, Inc., convinced me that, with a little reading and extreme care, I too could blast any heavily rooted stump that got in my way. Britton passes judgment on the variety of blasting-cap brands and the major texts on blasting. Well done.
The cloying cosmic giddiness that blemished earlier editions of the Catalog is gone, replaced by a child-like sense of wonder and adventure. There are still big sections on mysticism and drugs, but the new thrust is toward computers (12 pages), solar energy (14 pages), and space colonies (3 pages), while previous '60s' obsessions like communes, domes, and China have faded.
The Catalog remains a participatory venture, with readers and users from all walks of life contributing articles and suggesting tools. One gets the idea it was put together with all the loving care of a barn raising.
Physically, it is the most attractive edition yet. Brand and Company have finally learned graphic design and the fine points of layout; page numbers, subject headings, and heavy rules run at the top of the page now. The paper is better, the cover and binding more durable. And the contents are edited to be as breezy as a newspaper and as authoritative as the Final Word.
Brand gives reviewers further instructions: how good a tool is the Catalog? I doubt if I will ever raise rabbits, practice amateur insemination, hang-glide, homestead, batik, or battle cockroaches. For me the Catalog is a tool of imagination and entertainment. In Brand's Whole Earth there are over four billion ways to be human, and the Catalog is the best single celebration of that ideal. Hard-money advice coexists in these pages with the small-is-beautiful philosophy, Buddhism with guns, hydroponics with foraging. This humanistic passion for diversity and tolerance directs us away from the singular American Dream to the plural American Dreams. The world is a catalog of people. There should be room between the covers for everybody's dream. Here, there is.
At one point Brand compares economics to ecology, noting that we admire the balance of nature produced by the competition, suffering, and death in ecological systems and the optimum genes it produces. "In a market economy, it is mostly prices that suffer, die, and converge to optimums," writes Brand. It is to our good fortune that the ecology of the book market has resulted in The Next Whole Earth Catalog reaching a new optimum.
Jack Shafer is a free-lance writer and a contributing editor of the Libertarian Review.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Tool for Living".