The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
By John Markoff
In 1966, Stewart Brand was an impresario of Bay Area counterculture. As the host of an extravaganza of music and psychedelic simulation called the Trips Festival, he was, according to John Markoff’s “Whole Earth,” “shirtless, with a large Indian pendant around his neck … and wearing a black top hat capped with a prominent feather.” Four decades later, Brand had become a business consultant. At a meeting with the Nuclear Energy Institute, he promoted the virtues and inevitability of nuclear power. He also wrote a book endorsing genetically modified organisms, geoengineering and urban density.
Tracing the relationship between these two Stewart Brands, and what the distance they cover might say about the American environmental movement, is Markoff’s challenging task. A former New York Times technology writer who has explored the intersection of the counterculture and computing in previous work, Markoff now focuses on Brand’s unpredictable path as a “quixotic intellectual troubadour,” a “provocateur” and, in Brand’s own words, an “eco -pragmatist.”
Now 83, Brand has a remarkable flair for promoting ideas, convening people and throwing memorable spectacles. The Trips Festival was a three-day, drug-infused dance party that helped launch the Grateful Dead and announced the hippie movement to a broader world. In 1984 Brand presided over the first computer hackers’ conference. A year later, he created an early Bay Area online internet community.
In 1968, Brand and his first wife, Lois Jennings, used money from his family for his signature project, the Whole Earth Catalog. The eclectic publication was a festival in print. On oversize, illustrated pages, it combined instruction manuals for commune-dwellers and “suburban guerrillas” with contact information for ordering early REI equipment and bulk natural foods. Alongside multimedia equipment promotions were summaries of environmental books, and guides to natural childbirth, massage and various New Age wonders. Did the Catalog make sense? No, but that was its genius — it didn’t have to reconcile enthusiasm for technological innovation with reverence for back-to-the-land living. The 1971 edition won a National Book Award in contemporary affairs and sold over a million copies.
Often historians or biographers lament their lack of access to the inner thoughts of their subjects, or detailed records of their activities. “Whole Earth” draws on more than 70 personal interviews that Markoff conducted with Brand, as well as his extensive personal journals and correspondence. Markoff recounts Brand’s visit to a sex worker in Paris, his Tolkien-infused dreams, his reminiscence of parachute jumps and road trip adventures. At times, reading “Whole Earth” feels like being the sober person at a psychedelic party. “For a while he became the mountain,” Markoff writes of one LSD trip Brand experienced in the mid-1960s while visiting the land of the Navajo Nation. “Later he returned to the hogan and made coffee and walked naked around the stove, waving the cheese he was holding as if conducting an imaginary orchestra.”
The book offers less, however, of a critical perspective on Brand’s life and work. Markoff aims to illuminate tensions in how environmentalism related to science and technology, but he struggles to place Brand’s contributions effectively in the context of the complex broader movement. Maybe that’s because, in the end, Brand rode a series of waves, but did not create them.
Take a campaign Brand embarked on in 1966, based on a revelation he had (inevitably) after an LSD trip. Brand decided that a photograph of the Earth from space might, well, blow people’s minds. He printed buttons asking, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Wearing a blue sandwich board that asked the same question in Day-Glo red, Brand distributed the buttons at universities in the Bay Area and the Northeast. Some made their way into the hands of scientists at NASA. Eventually, of course, NASA did release extraordinary photographs, including the famous Earthrise image and color pictures of the Earth floating in space. One of the photographs gave the Whole Earth Catalog its name and cover image.
It’s a great story, and captures Brand’s knack for performance art, but Markoff reaches for more, crediting Brand with a “seismic shift in our thinking.” He argues that the “single symbol of the whole Earth” prompted a new idea of a “unified planetary culture.” Yet global environmentalism started long before, as a result of the horrors of World War II, the terrifying power of nuclear weapons and a growing awareness of the interconnected nature of the planet’s resources. When Brand was passing out buttons, writers like Kenneth Boulding and Barbara Ward were publishing influential works articulating a holistic perspective on human beings as travelers on “Spaceship Earth.” And when Markoff writes about the American environmental movement, he doesn’t really connect the Bay Area counterculture Brand stands for to the breakthroughs in Washington, DC, that led to the passage of the foundational 1970s laws protecting clean air, clean water and endangered species .
In his late 60s and 70s, Brand turned on his earlier self. He decided that many countercultural objections to technology and science were blind to the need for economic growth. He came to see the rejection of nuclear power as downright dangerous because of the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. In his journal, Brand listed where he thought he’d failed, including “drugs, communes, spiritual practice, New Left politics, solar water heaters, domes, small farms, free schools, free sex, on and on.” He concluded, “My bad.” Markoff might have pushed for more insight into Brand’s shift in values. In our hyper-online materialist world, do the ’70s really have nothing to teach us?
Brand’s penchant for spectacle has recently centered on a clock designed to keep time for 10,000 years. When it’s ready, the clock is to be installed in a mountain on land owned by Jeff Bezos in West Texas. Brand and his collaborators hope that the clock will encourage humanity to think long-term, on the time scale of civilization. A visit will require a pilgrimage hike into the mountains, where visitors can help power the mechanism.
By itself, the clock will not solve anything. But if it blows our minds for an instant, or opens them for the next millenniums, it will be a fitting Brand legacy.