'The Intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the Counterculture'
A conversation with Whole Earth Catalog founder, Merry Prankster, and woolly mammoth de-extinctionist Stewart Brand.
Has anyone lived a more interesting, influential, and inspiring life than Stewart Brand?
Born in 1938 and educated at Stanford, Brand was a Merry Prankster who helped conduct Ken Kesey's legendary acid tests in the 1960s. His guerilla campaign of selling buttons that asked "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" pushed NASA to release the first image of the planet from space and helped inspire the original Earth Day celebrations. From 1968 to 1971, he published the Whole Earth Catalog, which quickly became a bible to hippies on communes and techno-geeks such as Steve Jobs, who famously quoted its parting message: "Stay hungry, stay foolish."
Brand helped shape early techno-culture and cyberspace by reporting on the personal computer revolution and interacting with many of the key figures responsible for what became known as cyberculture. His ideas were instrumental in the creation of one of the earliest online communities, The WELL. He also co-founded The Long Now Foundation, which seeks to deepen the way people think about the past and the future.
In a series of books on such topics as the MIT Media Lab and the rise of "eco-modernism," Brand has delineated a unique strain of ecological thought that embraces technology as a means of salvation and liberation rather than a destructive force that must be stopped. His current passion is Revive & Restore, a leading organization in the "de-extinction movement" that is using biotechnology to bring back plants and animals including the American Chestnut tree, the passenger pigeon, and the woolly mammoth.
Brand is the subject of the new documentary, We Are As Gods—a line from the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog—which takes a long, critical look at his life and work. In March, Nick Gillespie interviewed Brand about his experience at the far frontier of social and cultural change.
Reason: I love the early description of you in the film as "the intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the counterculture." Do you think that's an apt summary of who you are?
Brand: I was an Appleseed guy for the counterculture and I've been other mythic characters for other people, in the sense that the Whole Earth Catalog was really a casting of seeds.
Johnny Appleseed was really trying to help out the farmers, the people living out on the landscape in America. There was a living-out-on-the-landscape aspect to the 1960s. The people the Whole Earth Catalog helped in terms of communes did not last more than two or three years at the most. The communes all failed and we all went back to town, having learned very important things, such as "free love is not free" and "when you rely on one guy for all the money, it's going to get distorted" and "gardening is hard" and "domes leak."
We got our noses rubbed in all our fondest fantasies at an early age. We were so lucky to have done that—it was way better than graduate school.
The movie begins and ends with your work with Revive & Restore. Why is it important to bring the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon or the American chestnut tree back from extinction?
As it happens, all three of those projects make a lot of ecological sense. There is a gap in the ecosystems those creatures were in that has not been filled by anything else. If you bring them back, you not only increase biodiversity; you increase resilience.
But maybe the deeper thing is that we get caught up in our kind of tragic sense of human damage, not only to each other but to the natural world. Most of the damage was done unintentionally. The idea of undoing that damage is potentially very freeing. I think it's a frame changer, the way seeing photographs of the Earth from space changes your frame of how you think about things.
If we can basically help nature heal itself from our previous misbehaviors, that not only helps nature; it helps us. We can move on from feeling guilty about what we've done. Undoing damage is one of the interesting ways to do good in the world.
Why do you think there is so much reticence among conservationists, who may be of a progressive bent, but then also among conservatives, who may have a skepticism of technology? The Whole Earth Catalog subtitle was "Access to Tools." What defines humans is that we use tools, but we seem terrified of actually using them in any kind of concerted way.
I think there are a couple of illusions out there about nature. Ecology is what I studied in college. Island ecologies can be incredibly fragile. But where most of life lives, which is on continents and in the ocean, it's the opposite of fragile. This business of "life finds a way" is incredibly real in this case. You can fuck up an island pretty quickly, but it's also the case that you can cure an island pretty quickly if you just get rid of the rats or the mice or the arctic foxes or whatever screwed it up.
Continents are where rather few extinctions actually occur. You'll have severe loss of population. You'll have extirpations where a particular species is no longer found where it used to be. Beavers have been gone from Scotland and England for 400 years. If you bring them back, they fit right in and improve the landscape immediately and quite thoroughly.
Environmental organizations are well-rewarded financially for telling a primarily tragic story, with a couple of bright stories that the organization has been responsible for. What's weird is you can raise more money with past human failures than you can raise money with present human successes. But conservationists have become very good at intervening in nature and basically helping nature find a way in cases where we have made it hard for nature to get past one particular problem or another.
So you get remnant populations that are having severe inbreeding. It means their fecundity goes down, and they're headed down the so-called extinction vortex. We can turn that around with genetic rescue by bringing in basically a form of out-breeding, either through the lab or through bringing in animals with wildlife corridors and cool things like that. And then nature will heal itself.
All you've got to do is either get out of the way or give it a helping hand. Getting out of the way is something that conservation has become very good at. Giving it a helping hand—people don't know how good conservation is becoming. So when we bring in a new toolkit of using genetics, that is met with more superstition than it deserves.
One of your constant themes is about reframing things in a way that shakes things up. How does de-extinction fit into that?
The way I feel I can have useful leverage in the world is by inventing genres—not just a new thing within a known subject area but a new subject area. Bringing biotechnology to wildlife conservation is not just a new toolset. It brings a whole new perspective on what wildlife conservation can be and what humanity's relationship with the natural world can be. In that sense, it's sort of like when we got the photographs of Earth from space: It completely helped us rethink our relationship to the whole planet and how the whole planet works and how we blend in with that or fail to blend in with that.
You've always talked a lot about systems. Another thread through your work is a do-it-yourself sensibility. Can you apply these two ideas to your experience with the Merry Pranksters and the role that psychedelics played in the cultural change that you were involved in?
Part of what you do when young is try shit. We were reading Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, and I met Huxley. LSD was just becoming available, and marijuana and peyote had been around for a while. My avenue in was mainly through peyote, because I was hanging out with Indians in the early 1960s and joined the Native American Church. I actually am a card-carrying member. The Native American Church meeting, the peyote meeting, is a tremendously disciplined and difficult all-night thing. I got to see a very productive and medicinal-group-therapy version of psychedelics early on.
Shortly after that, I saw Ken Kesey's recreational approach to all that. I'd seen the psychiatric approach, which was in Menlo Park, where the group was giving LSD to people in very structured psychiatric sessions. I did that and kind of struck out, actually, but it was an instructive failure. And there was the sacramental version that was kind of recreational-spiritual.
We had all of these versions of psychedelics, which was an indication of what a general-purpose discovery path it was, and consequently very highly revelatory and sometimes quite destructive. But risk is part of what you're going for, so we were doing risky things on purpose to take advantage of being young and stupid.
The transfer to personal computers was, I saw people having more psychedelic experience with playing Spacewar! on not even personal computers but so-called mini-computers, which were as big as iceboxes. You started to play video games and then the power of programming turned out to be the tool with the most juice. The programmers that I knew had long hair, lived in communes, and weren't doing drugs very much because they had found a better drug: computers.
The opening line of my piece in Rolling Stone was, "Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That's the best news since psychedelics." Lo and behold, it turned out that psychedelics leveled off. The drugs did not get better. The ideas of how to use them did not get better. It was the opposite case with computers, which were getting better, perhaps because of Moore's Law. You had to run as fast as you could to keep up with the capability that was emerging from computers.
A theme in your '60s work had to do with individualism and empowering individuals. Talk about how that is a powerful impulse in creating society and community.
The opening line of the Whole Earth Catalog in 1969 was "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." When I did this book called Whole Earth Discipline in 2009, which was kind of apologizing for the number of things the environmentalists got wrong in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, the opening line was "We are as gods and have to get good at it." I was basically reflecting on climate.
But I didn't notice until later that while the two statements sound the same with a different imperative, they're actually completely different. In the "we are as gods" that I was promoting in the Whole Earth Catalog, I meant we individuals—we young humans—have these incredible powers, and we should be using them to expand our capabilities and do things in the world and improve the world and discover the world and all that stuff.
In light of climate, individuals can do almost nothing useful. It's we as a civilization. One of the byproducts of the photographs of the Earth from space is we got to think about humanity as a whole. Not only the planet as a whole but humanity as a whole. Well, what is humanity to do? Humanity is civilization and civilization bears a relationship to the natural world in a different way than individuals bear a relationship to the natural world.
We've never dealt with that before. We're dealing with it now in terms of COVID-19, which basically everybody is taking efforts to fix. Likewise, climate change is caused by everybody. It's going to take efforts by everybody to fix. The we this time is the opposite of the individual. It is the largest-scale collective of humanity that we can imagine.
In the credo of the Whole Earth Catalog, you talked about how power as it was being wielded by large entities—whether it was giant corporations, giant states, or cultural forces that were remote—was not working well. What has to happen for a large-scale organization to not be repressive? How do we work as a civilization without becoming authoritarian?
I think we're going to keep discovering, increasingly over time, the importance of managing the commons that [the late economist] Elinor Ostrom took on and got the Nobel Prize for. One of the things she came to is a discovery that commons are well managed when they're managed by the whole community of people involved. They declare boundaries, and they have multiple levels of responsibility. There are rules that people have to agree on and then abide by, or else, and there's an "or else" that has some teeth.
Humans actually have been getting better at a lot of things for a long time in terms of heading off various diseases, poverty, and a lot of things. We don't kill each other as much. We're not as unjust to each other as we have been. And there are different reasons at different times that it keeps getting better, and you can't count on the past ways of making it better to fix whatever the current problems are. You have to keep discovering new ones. That is an amazing and wonderful quest for humanity. It's not settled how to fix pathological large organizations. You've got to figure it out.
Things getting better at scale is an interesting problem. You've got to basically have everybody on deck to make that happen. And having a whole planet come to a shared awareness of these problems—and a shared sense of agency to deal with the problems—is pretty interesting.
Things change. I've had to change my mind about nations. In my 1988 book The Media Lab, I thought that with the coming of the internet, nations are going to fade because their boundaries don't stop digital information and value going back and forth. Indeed, we do have a global economy. We don't have a global body politic, and we probably never will.
So then what? Then you started getting into these multicentric, multi-level ways of managing that a whole lot of shared information and a whole lot of investigative and productive science and engineering lets you take on. The emerging capabilities and the emerging awareness keep me optimistic.
Your work was reintroduced to a lot of people when Steve Jobs, shortly before he died, gave a commencement speech where he quoted a line from the final Whole Earth Catalog, "Stay hungry, stay foolish." Do you want to revise that?
It's definitely for the earlier "we." What I had in mind was sort of the freedom of the hitchhiker.
I should have talked to Steve Jobs about why he loved it so much. After we did a gig together for the Library of Congress, he asked me to sign a copy of that epilogue for him, and I did.
I think for Steve, he was aware that wealth and power were going to drive him down paths that were going to take away what he cared about most, which was inventiveness and design. He was going to be spending more time defending what wealth and power he had or he was creating. The innovator's dilemma I think was on his mind, and staying hungry and foolish is a way to stay innovative.
You try shit that is not rational until it is. Ken Kesey's line, "If we don't boil rocks and drink the water, how do you know it won't make you drunk?" So that's foolish, and young people specialize in it. They're perfectly equipped to be as foolish as they want. It's harder later.
Can you boost "stay hungry, stay foolish" up to the civilizational level? What's the analog?
It's a really good question. I think that humanity is not going down an authoritarian path that would lead to a hierarchical lock-in. The empires that we keep worrying about in science fiction won't happen in those terms. It will be more multi-leveled and fragmentary, with some parts going very well, some parts going badly, and different degrees of paying attention to each other—but a fair amount of paying attention to each other.
Jared Diamond's book Collapse has a look at all these various civilizations that have collapsed. But they didn't know about each other. We sort of have a global civilization now, and we know about all those collapses that have occurred. In the West, we pay a lot of attention to what happened with the Roman Empire. This becomes time awareness and global awareness, giving humanity the ability, if not the necessity, of getting out of the selfishness and stupidity of adolescence and becoming a mature civilization that knows how to take responsibility. It knows how to be disciplined and knows how to be comfortable with diversity and a cosmopolitan, urban perspective on civilization.
That is in progress, and it's being forced to be in progress because of climate change, which is, in a sense, the version of "hungry" that civilization is dealing with. Maybe the "foolish" part is just: Try everything. Explore geoengineering. Explore ways to capture carbon, right from the air if we can. Explore biological ways to do that. Put some iron in the ocean, see if you can increase the biological fixation that goes on there.
As David MacKay, who was a top science adviser for Britain, said, "Take nothing off the table." That's what I think science, at its best, can do. You don't need a good hypothesis. Maybe you do for funding, but sometimes you can do these things without funding. Just go dead at it, and boil rocks and drink the water.
This interview has been edited for clarity and style. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.