Whole Earth Catalog was an American counterculture magazine and product catalog published by Stewart Brand several times a year between 1968 and 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998.
The magazine featured essays and articles, but was primarily focused on product reviews. The editorial focus was on self-sufficiency, ecology, alternative education, DIY, and holism, and featured the slogan "access to tools".
Brand's intent with the catalog was to provide education and "access to tools" so a reader could "find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested."
While WEC listed and reviewed a wide range of products (clothing, books, tools, machines, seeds, etc.), it did not sell any of the products directly. Instead, the vendor's contact information was listed alongside the item and its review.
This is why, while not a regularly published periodical, numerous editions and updates were required to keep price and availability information up to date.
The title came from a previous project by Stewart Brand. In 1966, he initiated a public campaign to have NASA release the then-rumored satellite photo of the sphere of Earth as seen from space, the first image of the "Whole Earth." He thought the image might be a powerful symbol, evoking a sense of shared destiny and adaptive strategies from people. The Stanford-educated Brand, a biologist with strong artistic and social interests, believed that there was a groundswell of commitment to thoroughly renovating American industrial society along ecologically and socially just lines, whatever they might prove to be.
Function: The WHOLE EARTH CATALOG functions as an evaluation and access device. With it, the user should know what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting. An item is listed in the catalog if it is deemed:
1. Useful as a tool
2. Relevant to independent education
3. High quality or low cost
4. Easily available by mail
CATALOG listings are continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.
The CATALOG, in the early days, was divided into several broadly construed sections. This list became a prime organizing principle of this site:
Understanding Whole Systems
Shelter and Land Use
Industry and Craft
Within each of the sections, readers and members of the publication's staff chose what they considered to be the best tools they could locate and listed them, along with reviews, simple line images, photographs, prices, and where readers could find the items.
The Catalog used a broad definition of "tools." There were informative tools, such as books, maps, professional journals, courses, and classes. There were well-designed special-purpose utensils, including garden tools, carpenters' and masons' tools, welding equipment, chainsaws, fiberglass materials, tents, hiking shoes, and potters' wheels. There were even early synthesizers and personal computers.
The Catalog's publication coincided with a great wave of convention-challenging experimentalism and a do-it-yourself attitude associated with "the counterculture," and tended to appeal not only to the intelligentsia of the movement, but to creative, hands-on, and outdoorsy people of many stripes. Some of the ideas in the Catalog were developed during Brand's visits to Drop City.
The first issue of the CATALOG and those that followed were created with basic typesetting and layout tools. The paper stock gave the CATALOG a pulpy, earthy identity, fully consistent with its environmental and ecological stance.
The staff invited reviews of the products by experts and readers who had found them to fit the criteria listed in the CATALOG's Function statement. The reviews were generally short and chatty, yet packed with information readers could use to create a more sustainable environment. With a seemingly haphazard arrangement of information within its categories, the CATALOG was the desktop-published equivalent an early search engine that invited readers to learn something new on every page - and to connect unrelated ideas and concepts. It was read by nearly every segment of American society; even disparate groups could find common ground within the pages of the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.
Steve Jobs compared The Whole Earth Catalog to Internet search engine Google in his June 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. "When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation ... It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions."
Looking back and discussing attitudes evident in the early editions of the catalog, Brand wrote, "At a time when the New Left was calling for grassroots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grass-roots direct power—tools and skills.
Brand felt that the overarching project of humankind had more to do with living within natural systems, and this is something we do in common, interactively.