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Stewart Brand: Earth man

His Whole Earth Catalog made him famous. But it was far from his last hurrah.

April 03, 2010|Patt Morrison

I almost started this conversation by asking Stewart Brand, "So . . . what's on your mind?" But who's got that kind of time?

Brand has been an ahead-of-the-curve thinker for half a century, putting rigor into the counterculture and possessing a curiosity that's taken him beyond it. His Whole Earth Catalog won the Establishment's attention and dollars -- he gave away most of the latter -- and he was on to other things. That renowned, iconographic blue-dot image of Earth from space -- Brand agitated to have NASA release the photo because he believed it would change humans' thinking about the place.

Brand's own questing is one of the reasons he's been recycled into the news churn. His latest book, "Whole Earth Discipline, an Ecopragmatist Manifesto," swings his green cred behind nuclear energy and other "heresies," All of it fueled by brew from his portable coffee maker. Coffee, the 71-year-old says, "Makes me feel like 60."

Jerry Brown is running for governor; you were in his circle when he first held office.

If he prevails, he'd be a very good governor. His resume has more really effective green in it than almost any politician seeking office. When people say we can't do energy efficiency because it takes such a terrible economic toll, Jerry is proof that that's not the case.

He's not the same man he was nearly 40 years ago, and I don't think you'd consider yourself the same either.

I think it's only the occasional pop star who tries to keep replaying the same music. I'm older and have enjoyed the lessons of a lot of mistakes.

What mistakes? What makes you smack your forehead now and say, "How could I ever have done that"?

The biggest, most obvious, was doing a quarterly about software. Talk about a contradiction -- software does not change at a quarterly rate. We got a bunch of money for the Whole Earth Software Catalog -- I think it was a million-dollar advance -- and neither the catalog nor the quarterly magazine was of much use at all.

And the lesson there was?

Assuming that something that worked in one domain is going to work in another. And when you're overcapitalized, you can go a lot further down the mistaken path than when you don't have any money. I was at a [meeting] of historians looking at Iraq. They point out that large, wealthy superpowers can afford to make the same mistakes over and over, whereas insurgents are so weak they have to learn from their mistakes in a very rapid fashion. That's part of the mismatch we ran into in Iraq.

Is California on the verge of being a failed experiment?

I think California keeps moving from platform to platform, because it's an easy place to start things. Silicon Valley has gone from aerospace to computers to biotech and all the various stages of computers. It has to do with [how] failure is not punished here; it's almost rewarded.

Do people still insist on buttonholing you about the Whole Earth Catalog days?

They turn up after a talk or almost anywhere, and most of the time the first thing they say is, "I still have my Whole Earth Catalog." Or, "My parents still have the catalog." And from time to time I ask, "Why?" It is an impolite question because they feel challenged when they wanted a warm glow of connection. Which they also get. I guess it's some kind of talisman of a period in their lives, in U.S. history. But anyway, I'm the Whole Earth Catalog guy. That ain't bad.

In those days, how did you balance between the philosophically romantic and the pragmatic, maybe the technical?

I probably got rid of what was left of my romanticism by the time I was 40, 45, because I'd seen a lot of people become -- what? Victims of a notion? A notion that civilization is going downhill, that bad people and bad institutions and bad ideas are shaking all that is right and good out of the world and this must be resisted even though it's a losing battle. It's a wonderfully coherent way to think and live. It just happens to be wrong. But that's part of the fun of being a romantic: You get to defy reality.

I'm neither interested in the impossible nor in the probable. I am interested in the difficult but possible. You get to do striving, but you get to also be successful. I suppose that's kind of a mix of ambition and pragmatism.

How did you come to be open to things the liberal canon has rejected, like nuclear power and genetically modified foods?

Some of it may be genetic. The story in Rockford, Ill., was, if you throw a Brand in the river, they'll float upstream. There was a certain inborn contrariness.

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