In 1966, Stewart Brand was an impresario of Bay Area counterculture. As the host of an extravaganza of music and psychedelic simulation called the Trips Festival, he was, according to John Markoff’s “Whole Earth,” “shirtless, with a large Indian pendant around his neck … and wearing a black top hat capped with a prominent feather.” Four decades later, Brand had become a business consultant. At a meeting with the Nuclear Energy Institute, he promoted the virtues and inevitability of nuclear power. He also wrote a book endorsing genetically modified organisms, geoengineering and urban density.
Tracing the relationship between these two Stewart Brands, and what the distance they cover might say about the American environmental movement, is Markoff’s challenging task. A former New York Times technology writer who has explored the intersection of the counterculture and computing in previous work, Markoff now focuses on Brand’s unpredictable path as a “quixotic intellectual troubadour,” a “provocateur” and, in Brand’s own words, an “eco-pragmatist.”
Now 83, Brand has a remarkable flair for promoting ideas, convening people and throwing memorable spectacles. The Trips Festival was a three-day, drug-infused dance party that helped launch the Grateful Dead and announced the hippie movement to a broader world. In 1984 Brand presided over the first computer hackers’ conference. A year later, he created an early Bay Area online internet community.
In 1968, Brand and his first wife, Lois Jennings, used money from his family for his signature project, the Whole Earth Catalog. The eclectic publication was a festival in print. On oversize, illustrated pages, it combined instruction manuals for commune-dwellers and “suburban guerrillas” with contact information for ordering early REI equipment and bulk natural foods. Alongside multimedia equipment promotions were summaries of environmental books, and guides to natural childbirth, massage and various New Age wonders. Did the Catalog make sense? No, but that was its genius — it didn’t have to reconcile enthusiasm for technological innovation with reverence for back-to-the-land living. The 1971 edition won a National Book Award in contemporary affairs and sold over a million copies…
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