Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism
For those who eagerly awaited its periodic appearance, it was more than a publication: it was a way of life. The Whole Earth Catalog billed itself as "Access to Tools," and it grew from a Bay Area blip to a national phenomenon catering to hippies, do-it-yourselfers, and anyone interested in self-sufficiency independent of mainstream America.
In recovering the history of the Catalog's unique brand of environmentalism, Andrew Kirk recounts how San Francisco's Stewart Brand and his counterculture cohorts in the Point Foundation promoted a philosophy of pragmatic environmentalism that celebrated technological achievement, human ingenuity, and sustainable living. By piecing together the social, cultural, material, environmental, and technological history of that philosophy's incarnation in the Catalog, Kirk reveals the driving forces behind it, tells the story of the appropriate technology movement it espoused, and assesses its fate.
This book takes a fresh look at the many individuals and organizations who worked in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to construct this philosophy of pragmatic environmentalism. At a time when many of these ideas were seen as heretical to a predominantly wilderness-based movement, Whole Earth became a critical forum for environmental alternatives and a model for how complicated ecological ideas could be presented in a hopeful and even humorous way. It also enabled later environmental advocates like Al Gore to explain our current "inconvenient truth," and the actions of Brand's Point Foundation demonstrated that the epistemology of Whole Earth could be put into action in meaningful ways that might foster an environmental optimism distinctly different from the jeremiads that became the stock in trade of American environmentalism.
Kirk shows us that Whole Earth was more than a mere counterculture fad. In an era of political protest, it suggested that staying home and modifying your toilet or installing a solar collector could make a more significant contribution than taking to the streets to shout down establishment misdeeds. Given its visible legacy in the current views of Al Gore and others, the subtle environmental heresies of Whole Earth continue to resonate today, which makes Kirk's lucid and lively tale an extremely timely one as well.
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Warning: this is a history book. Compared to many academic history books (read: the kind produced by professors who have spent years researching material and putting it through peer review), this book is very lively. With personalities such as Stewart Brand, what book couldn't be? However, I've never been one for reading straight through an academic book. Most of these books were developed from articles or theses, expanding upon a central thesis that was put forth in a shorter work. In my opinion, the best authors in this milleu know when to expand an idea and when to cut their fledgling book short.
Kirk does a good, but not great job of doing this. If you don't skim this book, you will find yourself thinking that the author is hitting a particular point too hard. So do what all university students do: read the intro, read the conclusion, and skim the interior for pieces that attract you. You'll get a lot more out of the read.
Objectivity put aside, this is one of the more inspirational history books I've read. Kirk's thesis that the Whole Earth Catalog represented the formation of a new environmental ethic that concentrated on man's ability to change society for the better through the sustainable application of technology is a message of hope in a new century where "appropriate technology" (wind/solar energy, alternative construction methods, biological grey water processing, etc) is just catching on. As someone who has worked in and along the periphery of the green sector, I think budding green entrepreneurs would be interested to learn about their predecessors and the zeitgeist of the late '60s/early '70s. Although many historical accounts contend that the optimism of this cultural flowering were crushed by social chaos and buried by the Reagan Era, I think Kirk has highlighted some of the more enduring legacies of the "counterculture" movement in the green pragmatism that can be seen in many emerging industries today.
Review: Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (CultureAmerica)User Review - Kurt - Goodreads
Interesting perspective on how a single publication bridged so many ideas. Read full review
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