THE "WHOLE EARTH Catalog" was frightening. That was the best thing about it. Now, in its fourth incarnation as "The Next Whole Earth Catalog" (heir to the original "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" and the "Whole Earth Epilog"), it isn't frightening at all.
That's what's frightening.
"We are as gods and might as well get good at it" was the motto, challenge and rallying cry of the first one, in 1968. And the others in 1971, 1974 and 1980, respectively.
"We are as gods . . . what a wild idea! It's the sort of notion that usually powers holy writ or manifestoes, which is what the original catalogs were, preaching a hellfire of corporate pollution and media mind-grab in contrast with a heaven of self-suffiency, life back on the land, homemade bread and no more neurosis. It proposed a world in which our freedom wouldn't deprive anyone or anything -- neighbors, snail darters, watersheds -- of theirs.
It threatened the established order with the carrot of utopia and the stick of doomsday. Heaven and hell: It's always hard to tell which is the most threatening, but the catalog had them both.
It wasn't meant to be that way. Editor Stewart Brand called it an "Access to Tools," and that's how it read, if you read it item by item, from pig-tooth nippers to "Literary Essays of Ezra Pound" to Amish work clothes to silk screens to advice on falconry, breastfeeding, arc welding and love life at the University of Illinois ("the hip chicks will do it.")
But mostly, the catalog was like so many magazines, books or catalogs -- it was a tool for self-definition. The medium was the message. The Sears, Roebuck catalog had long been a "wish book" for poor people, teaching them how to be consumers. The "Whole Earth Catalog" was a wish book for the rich, teaching them how to achieve that joy of middle-class desiring: authenticity.
It spent a season at the center of a lot of coffee tables, a sign and scripture of a New Age a-dawning, of Armageddon, revolution, doom or deliverance. Reading it meant that you were the sort of person who read it. Like Spiro Agnew, Vietnam and psychedelic drugs, it divided America into Us and Them, with the implication that only one was going to come out of the fight alive.
The problem is not that the Catalog forces lost. It's that they won. Or at least they won the right to keep fighting, if anybody feels like going up against them anymore.
"The culture was much easier to steer than we expected," Stewart Brand has said. "We were shocked."
We're not all composting our fecal matter or heating with wood stoves or living in solar-heated yurts. The point is that a few of us are, and nobody notices anymore except to ask questions and maybe learn somsething. The sort of foundering egos who can only define themselves by making somebody loathe them can't do it anymore by Whole Earth behavior such as breastfeeding in public or starting communes in suburbs. Or reading the catalog. Things have settled down. In 1980, doomsday has been postponed until further notice, and utopia doesn't seem necessary. Or useful.
In his introduction to the new catalog, Brand says that it duplicates only 28 percent of the items in the previous catalogs. He thinks it has changed a lot. He points out that six years ago, in the "Whole Earth Epilog," "China was the model for radical America: now America is the model for technical and economic China." The early catalogs went nuts over geodesix domes. The new one large ignores them. The "Last" catalog had two pages on computers. The "Next" catalog has 12. The index of the "Last" catalog had 32 items dealing with blacks. The new index has none. Brand explains: "For decades the tireleses leader of the nation in civil rights and the arts, black culture seems to be getting a deserved rest these days."
The new catalog preserves a major element of Brand's genius -- his catholicity. He can worry about how many trees it took to print 140,000 copies of the new catalog (6,160) then include eight pages on burning wood for heat. Political tools -- books, magazines, philosophies and organizations -- sweep happily from the Communist Party to the Libertarian Vanguard. Cooking suggestions run from "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" to a book advocating that everything be eaten from one bowl. The back-to-the-land stuff gets nicely contradicted, it would seem, by three pages enthusing about space colonies. Brand is also a devoted asker of questions we're too shy to come out with -- we get two whole pages on urination and defecation in space. The answer: "There ain't no graceful way."
The catalog also continues with Brand's illusion that it's just a screed of handy tools. After 12 years of putting out catalogs, he can still complain in the preface about reviewers who will merely made "a few observations about the passing and coming of decades, and [let] it go at that." He requests that reviewers test the catalog on a subject they know something about, then a subject they know nothing about. Fine.
This reviewer checked out babies and psychological depression. The baby section looks good, but the depression section is merely a zealot's touting of one outdated, self-serving and simplistic book. Didn't anybody check on the reviewer? Brand's enthusiastic review of a book on defense spending already seems outdated in light of developments in the Persian Gulf. A big cheer is given a book on driving in the desert. An excerpt reads: "All by yourself and stuck? 1. Jack up vehicle, have someone watch the vehicle . . . "
Then again, and as always, the catalog makes the unknown look delicious, whether it's right or wrong. The layout is nice and the writing has the traditional and wonderfully colloquial Brand touch. Another chunk of his genius is that with these catalogs, he has taken the American folk tradition of lore-swapping and tool-talking, in the style of Saturday mornings at the hardware store, and turned it into an art form. The catalog is also a trove of strange information. You probably didn't know, for instance, that cows have clitorises.
Cuteness, sanctimony and even fatuousness do creep in. One article begins:
"When my cat and I decided . . ." Every other page features a tidbit from something called "The Rising Sun Neighborhood Newsletter," which is written in breathless neo-naive style and aims too often for moral one-upmanship. One unfortunate tidbit equates "American Nazis, builders of nuclear reactors and tuna fishermen." We're informed elsewhere that money is not really necessary in old age, the living proof being a retired anthropologist who bought an island in the South China Sea and lives for $100 a month.
Well, so what: Sanctimony on the part of Reagan followers is a little menacing, just now, but in a "Whole Earth Catalog," it's hard to worry about it.
That's just the point.
"The Next Whole Earth Catalog" nolonger threatens to seduce either our children or ourselves. The hubris and temptation of "We are as gods . . ." is no longer alarming. As a tool for self-definition and transformation, it has lost its edge, and through no fault of its own. It hasn't changed, but we have.
Does it mean something that the picture of the earth on the cover is upside down? (Though as Brand points out, there is no right-side-up in space.)
Should you feel the need to build your own world, starting with a space station and going all the way to trout streams and artificial insemination for lesbians, there's no better guide than this catalog.
Does anybody feel the need to do that anymore?
Let's hope so.
Brand may have gotten his wish this time. Maybe people will buy it (for $12.50, compared with $5 for the first ones) to gain access to tools, not to new images of themselves. But for the rest of us, it just isn't exciting anymore. Maybe we've grown up. Maybe we're getting old.
If so, and whichever, the catalog after this one will no doubt show us how to do it better. Or not at all. Or persuade everybody how to do it. Or to let us alone while we do it.
Will there be another catalog?
As the question got answered in "The[updated] Last Whole Earth Catalog": "Oh, probably."