Has anyone lived a more interesting, influential, and inspiring life than Stewart Brand?
Born in 1938 and educated at Stanford, Brand was a Merry Prankster who helped conduct Ken Kesey’s legendary acid tests in the 1960s. His guerilla campaign of selling buttons that asked “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” pushed NASA to release the first image of the planet from space and helped inspire the original Earth Day celebrations. From 1968 to 1971, he published the Whole Earth Catalog, which quickly became a bible to hippies on communes and techno-geeks such as Steve Jobs, who famously quoted its parting message: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
Brand helped shape early techno-culture and cyberspace by reporting on the personal computer revolution and interacting with many of the key figures responsible for what became known as cyberculture. His ideas were instrumental in the creation of one of the earliest online communities, The WELL. He also co-founded The Long Now Foundation, which seeks to deepen the way people think about the past and the future.
In a series of books on such topics as the MIT Media Lab and the rise of “eco-modernism,” Brand has delineated a unique strain of ecological thought that embraces technology as a means of salvation and liberation rather than a destructive force that must be stopped. His current passion is Revive & Restore, a leading organization in the “de-extinction movement” that is using biotechnology to bring back plants and animals including the American Chestnut tree, the passenger pigeon, and the woolly mammoth.
Brand is the subject of the new documentary, We Are As Gods—a line from the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog— which takes a long, critical look at his life and work. In March, Nick Gillespie interviewed Brand about his experience at the far frontier of social and cultural change.
Reason: I love the early description of you in the film as “the intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the counterculture.” Do you think that’s an apt summary of who you are?
Brand: I was an Appleseed guy for the counterculture and I’ve been other mythic characters for other people, in the sense that the Whole Earth Catalog was really a casting of seeds.
Johnny Appleseed was really trying to help out the farmers, the people living out on the landscape in America. There was a living-out-on-the-landscape aspect to the 1960s. The people the Whole Earth Catalog helped in terms of communes did not last more than two or three years at the most. The communes all failed and we all went back to town, having learned very important things, such as “free love is not free” and “when you rely on one guy for all the money, it’s going to get distorted” and “gardening is hard” and “domes leak.”
We got our noses rubbed in all our fondest fantasies at an early age. We were so lucky to have done that—it was way better than graduate school.
The movie begins and ends with your work with Revive & Restore. Why is it important to bring the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon or the American chestnut tree back from extinction?
As it happens, all three of those projects make a lot of ecological sense. There is a gap in the ecosystems those creatures were in that has not been filled by anything else. If you bring them back, you not only increase biodiversity; you increase resilience.
But maybe the deeper thing is that we get caught up in our kind of tragic sense of human damage, not only to each other but to the natural world. Most of the damage was done unintentionally. The idea of undoing that damage is potentially very freeing. I think it’s a frame changer, the way seeing photographs of the Earth from space changes your frame of how you think about things.
If we can basically help nature heal itself from our previous misbehaviors, that not only helps nature; it helps us. We can move on from feeling guilty about what we’ve done. Undoing damage is one of the interesting ways to do good in the world.
Why do you think there is so much reticence among conservationists, who may be of a progressive bent, but then also among conservatives, who may have a skepticism of technology? The Whole Earth Catalog subtitle was “Access to Tools.” What defines humans is that we use tools, but we seem terrified of actually using them in any kind of concerted way.
I think there are a couple of illusions out there about nature. Ecology is what I studied in college. Island ecologies can be incredibly fragile. But where most of life lives, which is on continents and in the ocean, it’s the opposite of fragile. This business of “life finds a way” is incredibly real in this case. You can fuck up an island pretty quickly, but it’s also the case that you can cure an island pretty quickly if you just get rid of the rats or the mice or the arctic foxes or whatever screwed it up.
Continents are where rather few extinctions actually occur. You’ll have severe loss of population. You’ll have extirpations where a particular species is no longer found where it used to be. Beavers have been gone from Scotland and England for 400 years. If you bring them back, they fit right in and improve the landscape immediately and quite thoroughly.
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