'We Are as Gods and Might as Well Get Good at It': COMMEMORATING THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG 50 YEARS LATER.

Author:Gillespie, Nick
 
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A AS THE FIRST issue of Reason was thwack-thwack-thwacking off a mimeograph machine in 1968, a very different but spiritually related publication was also coming hot off the press. On the face of it, the two publications had little in common. One celebrated its cerebral nature in its very title while the other was a clearinghouse for information on how to not just hand-weave your freak flag but fly it proudly over some barren patch of a hippie Eden. But Reason and the Whole Earth Catalog in their own ways pointed toward a future in which individuals are, like it or not, more empowered in and more responsible for every aspect of our lives than ever before.

"We are as gods and might as well get good at it," reads the Whole Earth Catalog's statement of purpose. "So far remotely done power and glory--as via government, big business, formal education, church--has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing--power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested." As Catalog founder Stewart Brand told Reason's Brian Doherty in 2010: "This was in an era when JFK was saying, 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' We were saying, 'Ask not what your country can do for you; do it yourself!'"

Like a comet streaking across the sky, the Catalog burned brightly but briefly, lasting in its original form only until 1971. (Related magazines, sequels, events, and anthologies continued to arrive for decades after.) During its initial run, it sold 600,000 copies; the issue dubbed The Last Whole Earth Catalog won a National Book Award in the "contemporary affairs" category. The ethos of the publication was represented by the cover art, a picture of the planet--the "whole Earth"--from space. At a peak moment for domestic and Cold War tensions, with wars, famines, and other catastrophes happening all over the world, Brand explained, the title and imagery underscored that we were ultimately all in this together.

The Whole Earth Catalog was, first and foremost, an actual catalog. The editors would list items they considered "1) Useful as a tool, 2) Relevant to independent education, 3) High quality or low cost, 4) Easily available by mail." In a valedictory essay in the final issue, Brand freely cops to...

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