At the end of Steve Jobs’s famous commencement address at Stanford, he quoted Stewart Brand’s famous advice at the end of his Last Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
(p. A15) When I first met Stewart Brand at an upscale ideas festival, I expected to engage with an aging beatnik or hippie, the tree-hugging, whale-saving environmentalist I associated with the “Whole Earth Catalog”—that ’60s-era collectanea of books, resources, tools, technologies and assorted products that became the bible of a techno-utopia DIY movement focused on self-sufficiency, education and ecology. But I found Mr. Brand more like Elon Musk than Timothy Leary, and was astonished to witness him make the best argument I’d ever heard for including nuclear power in plans to replace fossil fuels.
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Although many contemporaries dropped acid for the pure experience, Mr. Brand said he took LSD (and other psychedelics) because he hoped they would accentuate his appreciation of beauty, especially that found in the photographic skills he was developing. For him psychedelics were a tool of creativity: “When you design a tool,” he wrote in 1971, “the best you can do is fashion a prototype and hand it over to the local evolutionary system: ‘Here, try this.’ ”
His model was Arthur Koestler’s “bisociation,” the blending of unrelated concepts into something new. Mr. Brand’s ability to discern unlikely complements, along with the organizational skills he’d honed in the military, helped bring numerous projects to fruition: His imagination had him bounce from one to the next; his pragmatic propensities put them into effect. Decades after the “Whole Earth Catalog” project, for example, Mr. Brand published “Whole Earth Discipline,” which proposed integrating nuclear power, geoengineering, genetic engineering, wildlife restoration, species protection and other environmental technologies aimed at creating a sustainable future for life on Earth. He’s a solutions guy, not a New Age guru—his ability to convene like-minded innovators has resulted in the WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), the Global Business Network for futurists and business leaders, the Long Now Foundation, and Revive & Restore, a project to bring back extinct species like passenger pigeons and woolly mammoths.
As for Mr. Brand’s politics, he’s off the spectrum, mostly identifying as a small-l libertarian (he read Ayn Rand at Stanford), committed to bottom-up democracy, with an aversion to orthodoxy of any sort, which means he must adapt when the marginal becomes the mainstream, as in his shift from environmentalism to conservationism, from organic foods to GMOs, and from anti- to pro-nuclear power.
For the full review, see:
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 28, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Whole Earth’ Review: A Man in Whole.”)
The book under review is:
Markoff, John. Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.