The Global Whole Earth Catalog: A Proposal from 2002

Alex Steffen
Oct 14, 2018 · 13 min read

The Whole Earth Catalog turned 50 years old, recently. This is a (very) rough draft of a proposal I drew up for reviving the Catalog, in 2002. Before it could go anywhere, The Point Foundation (which owned Whole Earth) went under.

Many of the good ideas here instead became the starting point for Worldchangingwhich ended up having orders of magnitude more impact than this project would have. Sometimes things work out for the best. I offer thishere purely as a historical curiosity.

The Global Whole Earth Catalog: A Proposal

1968:
“We are as Gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory — as via government, big business, formal education, church — has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains, personal power is developing — the power of individuals to conduct their own education, find their own inspiration, shape their own environment, and share the adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog.”

2002:
“Another world is possible: the Global Whole Earth Catalog connects people to the ideas, tools and techniques for building it.”

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Another World Is Here

It was the chant on the streets of Seattle in 1999, the talk of the halls of the World Economic Forum in 2002, the message on the signs of peace marchers from Berlin to Bombay, and it’s now stuck on bumpers around the planet: the deceptively simple slogan, “Another world is possible.”

Inspiring this slogan is both an understanding that our systems are now truly global, and a growing awareness that they’re not working as well as they could. Our planet’s climate is changing and its natural systems beginning to buckle; there have never been more people living in dire poverty and desperation; our systems of global trade and governance are straining and seemingly about to fail; terrorism, chaos, genocide and dictatorship seem to be rolling back what in 1990 promised to be a global wave of democracy. Things are falling apart, and millions of people know in their bones that we can do a better job at world-building than we are; that we can create another, better world.

They’re right: we can. Over the last decade, innovators around the world have birthed models and methods, prototypes and practices that can solve a huge array of the problems we face. The off-the-shelf answers now available to us could recraft the world, and a whole host of even better solutions is on its way. The problem is that, while the world needs changing, and these world-changing tools are here (with more coming soon), not enough people know they exist. “The future is here,” as William Gibson writes, “it’s just not well-distributed.”

Luckily, we have a great tool for distributing the future: the Whole Earth Catalog.

Since 1968, Whole Earth Catalogs have been transforming the world, one person at a time, by introducing world-changers to world-changing tools. It’s been wildly successful doing it — sold over three million copies, won a National Book Award and encouraged countless people to try new approaches and build their own answers.

Whole Earth Catalogs cover only the best, most useful tools, in a concise, clear and insightful way. They don’t offer exposes, critiques, political rhetoric or grand theories about how the world works — instead, they offer up tools readers can use to educate themselves and form their own ideas. With several thousand pithy reviews per edition, the Catalogs also offer a browser’s heaven. Their format encourages epiphany: browsing them, you find models for, solutions to, and ways of thinking about, a whole spectrum of problems that inspire you to innovate new solutions to your own.

Unfortunately, the last Whole Earth Catalog was published a decade ago. We need a new edition, one that take as its starting point both the amazing technological advances of the last decade and the truly global nature of our world: we need The Global Whole Earth Catalog.

Another world isn’t just possible, it’s here. In the GWEC, readers find the best tools, techniques and ideas for helping this new world emerge: resources from around the planet, gathered by the Catalog’s global network of editors, contributors and researchers. It’s one-stop shopping for those who want to understand the world in which we now live, how to change it, and how to have fun in the process — perhaps the first truly global compendium of ideas for replacing the drab, ruined future we’ve been handed with something dynamically sustainable, enticing and weirdly brilliant.

To that end, the Global Whole Earth Catalog integrates the latest information on the best tools from the past thirty-five years — old favorites, from solar power and environmental restoration to building communities (online or in the neighborhood) and educating without schools — with the best, most vital solutions emerging today.

Here are the field reports, recommendations, and reviews, from Amazonian villagers blazing new trails to sustainable development and Dutch green energy entrepreneurs, from Indian advocates of appropriate biotechnology and Finnish pioneers of the free software movement, from the “soulful warriors” of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation movement and the distributed, emergent collaborators of SETI@Home.

Here are the tools for doing the big jobs: for alleviating poverty and mitigating disasters while laying the groundwork for sustainable prosperity; for building cities that restore nature and build community while housing swelling populations; for making energy, water and transportation systems that have next to no impact on nature; for fighting corruption, crime and terrorism; for creating just global governance and spreading democracy and human rights to every corner of the planet.

But here, too, are the tools for the more personal job of living better: for learning and growing and being inspired; for being an effective global citizen; for expressing yourself in the media, over the Net or through the arts; for finding shelter, transportation and food that match your principles; for building workplaces that foster creativity and fairness; for falling in love and raising children and growing old with passion; for changing the world, by starting with yourself.

Finally, here are a range of tools for a variety of circumstances, from families of disaster refugees to Dot.Com survivors. For one thing we now know is that understanding the conditions faced by others is not just a nice idea — it is a precondition for making good choices. Innovation and inspiration are not the sole province of the globally well-off; neither are grit and determination limited to those facing the worst of circumstances. We suggest resources that’ll let you change your own life (whether you’re battling for survival or seeking sustainable prosperity), change your community, and help steer the evolution of a global system of cooperation and collaboration. We all have insights to offer, and we can all learn from the answers at which others have arrived.

Technology informs every page of the Global Whole Earth Catalog, but new tools are not necessarily high-technology. Sure, we all need to understand the uses (and dangers) of biotechnology, the Internet, ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligences, “open source” software and nano-materials. But we also need to know how best to collaborate, how to build coalitions and movements, how to grow communities, how to make our businesses live up to their highest potential and how to make the promise of democracy into a reality. We need to understand techniques as well as technologies, ideas as well as innovations. How we work together is as important as the tools we use.

Whole Earth is no longer alone in its concerns. It is in part a testament to the foresight of its coverage of previously cutting-edge ideas (from solar power to the Internet, from the Gaia hypothesis to the technological Singularity) that such ideas are now well-debated in the mainstream media. Now the job is to both bring a new generation of ideas, tools and techniques to the fore, and to cut through the glut of information out there to highlight the best information available on our more widely-shared concerns.

Looking at past sales figures, the Catalogs that sold big were the Main Events: The comprehensive Catalogs of 1968, 1980 and 1994. In the decade since the last one, the planet has changed.

The opportunity here is not merely to produce an updated version, or a spin-off. The opportunity is to recreate THE Whole Earth Catalog afresh, to acquaint long-time readers with emerging solutions, while introducing a whole new generation to what many people consider the most important tool for continuous learning available today in a single volume.

BOOK CONTENTS:

The Catalog has traditionally been divided into fields (Understanding Systems, Community, Communications, Nomadics, etc.). We’ll update these traditional fields and add new ones. Each will be introduced by an innovator in that field, and accompanied by a handful of short stories exploring good models for taking action. Here is a sample of some of the fields we cover:

YOU ARE HERE: Understanding the Universe and the Planet

Rule number one is know where you are. Here’s a guide to placing yourself within the larger physical systems — from the Universe to the Ecosystem — in which you live. We include old stand-bys, like the Bioregion Quiz, but also cover gleaming new ideas from String Theory to Space Elevators.

ECOLOGY AND SYSTEMS

Whole Earth midwifed the birth of the current concern for ecology and the environment, back when such terms rang new to the ears. Now there’s a glut of eco-news and information. Some of it is knowledgeable, responsible, and intelligent. Much is not. Years of research and attention have taught us how to tell the difference.

We’re headed into what biologists call the Sixth Extinction — a loss of biodiversity unseen since the dinosaurs had an unfortunate visit from a meteor. So understanding whole systems, practicing restoration and preserving forest, reef and wetland habitats are still vital.

But in this new world, you also need to know about dramatic rescue techniques (like frozen zoos and the cloning of extinct species) and planetary threats like climate change and endocrine disruptors. Luckily, while we’ve never put more stress on the Earth, we’ve also never understood it better: and we cover ecological breakthroughs from the microbial life of clouds to the deep, hot biosphere.

UNDERSTANDING GLOBALIZATION

We live in a global society. Understanding the systems through which that society functions (or doesn’t) — from the UN to the children of Bretton Woods (like the IMF, World Bank and WTO) to security arrangements like NATO — is now key to their success or failure. At the same time, we need the best available tools for understanding the forces moving these systems: economic globalization, population growth and urbanization, poverty and development, war and terrorism. Here are the tools for assembling our own understandings of the human big picture.

UNDERSTANDING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

Whole Earth has long understood that science and technology are the engines driving the world in which we live. If anything, they’re more important now. WEC was covering ideas like solar power, the personal computer and the Internet when describing them as fringe ideas would have been charitable. Now that we’re deep into interlocking revolutions in computation, biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics, the need for science serve to the public interest has never been more vital. We’ll help the reader understand how to ask the right questions, and tell the visionaries and credible critics from the hucksters and hysterics.

SYSTEM FAILURES

The best systems fail sometimes, and our current system is far from the best. Understanding how we can help we when disaster strikes (in distant parts of the world or close to home) is knowledge that every person should have. We provide tools for understanding why disaster strikes, as well as key information on how to handle disasters at home and respond to system failures abroad, be they greenhouse cataclysms (like “Wexelblat disasters”), famines, genocide or floods of refuges. We also cover disaster-avoidance, from the Precautionary Principle to models from the world of computer security, such as security-in-depth, fail-safes and brittle vs. robust security systems. A worst-case survival guide for the planet.

BUILDING SUSTAINABILITY

One of the more gratifying successes of previous catalogs is the fact that environmentally sustainable design has gone from freaky idea to one of the major fields of human endeavor. In the past WEC suggested ways for mitigating your lifestyle’s worst impacts on the planet. We all now know this is not enough, that nothing short of a complete replacement of the technologies of the twentieth century will save us from disaster. The coming world needs not just recycling bins, but windfarms, electric cars, green buildings, beautiful and efficient appliances and responsible biotechnology. Luckily, such redesigns are not only possible, they’re out in stores. We’ll guide readers through the best, most elegant technologies and practices for providing shelter, power, water, food, transport, and waste disposal, whether you live in New York City or Nairobi.

POLITICS

Whole Earth has never taken a partisan political position, but we should remain committed to getting political tools in the hands of citizens. Indeed, trying to practice democracy on a global scale demands that we get the best available political tools into as many hands as possible as quickly as possible. We’ll bring it all — from brilliant models (like The International Campaign to Ban Landmines — the first distributed project to win a Nobel) to essential techniques learned at the polls, in the streets and online. The care and feeding of democracies.

EXPRESSION: FREE SPEECH, MEDIA, ART, FASHION AND CULTURE

If you want to change the world, seize the means of expression. Here are the tools for producing knowledge, reporting and broadcasting the news as you see it, and expressing your visions and ideals. Here’s how to “rip, mix and burn” your own media, throw a festival, publish a blog, build a pirate radio station, set up a village satellite uplink or a community Wifi net, organize a street-theater troupe, and create your own fashions. Here also is access to the best creative expression our new world has to offer, from Bollywood to Burning Man, Rai and Norteca to Anime and Tokyo street fashion (Fruits); Art pranks and culture jamming to media-tweaking protest techniques from the Ruckus Society; the video game culture of mods to the worldwide movement to preserve and pass down traditional arts and culture.

COLLABORATION

Collaboration is one of the true revolutions of the last decade. Never before has it been easier for people distributed around the world to work together. Never before have we had better models of collaboration to imitate. Never before have we had better tools to use. We cover it all: free software to smart mobs, distributed projects (like SETI@home) to cutting-edge group facilitation techniques, P2P fileswapping to copyleft, massively multiplayer games to multicultural communication. To change the world, you have to work together. We’ll show you how.

INNOVATION

When things are changing fast, learning how to think anew is no longer a hippie ideal, it’s an essential skill. Here are tools for thinking about the world in an innovative fashion; for seeing problems in a new light; for anticipating the futuristic present through scenarios, simulations and science fiction; for understanding trends, social epidemiology and coolhunting; for building new mindsets. WER’s older readers were doing this stuff when the only people thinking about it either wore buckskins and drove microbuses or lived at the extremophile fringes of the Academy. We know the lightning from the lightning bugs.

WORK

The corporation is to our world what the church was to the world of our ancestors — nearly everyone belongs to one, or at least has to regularly do business with one — but that is changing at blurry speed. There’s a second reformation underway, one that bodes well for both individuals and corporations. Now, knowing the possibilities for transforming workplaces that welcome change (employee ownership, the new trade unionism, open-books management), and reforming those which don’t (shareholder activism, responsible investing, boycotts) is essential knowledge. On the other end of the spectrum, we showcase the best tools and techniques for those who work independently, from how to survive as a start-up to the best new tools for running small businesses and working at home. Along the way, we point out the best ideas about craft, calling and right livelihood. Finally, we discuss new models for global commercial interaction, from the Grameen Bank’s microlending program to fair-trade networks.

COMMUNITY

Communities are the mirrors of corporations, where everything we don’t pay for happens. No good life can be had without them. After decades of destroying communities, we’re learning anew how to seed and care for them. Here’s how to design places that bring people together; innovative programs to build social capital and reknit connections; great technologies like GPS, GIS and community monitoring that give communities the power of good information about conditions on the ground; and the best ideas about the meaning and practice of learning to live together.

NOMADICS

In the 1960s and 1970s, nomadics meant rock-bottom cheap world travel. We still point to the best resources for shoestring travelers, but now that independent travel has gone mainstream, there is a whole array of possibilities for understanding the world through direct experience. We cover the best of backpacking, building your own mobile home, ecotourism, adventure travel, socially-conscious tourism, work-barter travel, travel writing and documentaries. [gear]

STATES OF MIND

Your mind, of course, is the sharpest tool of all. Here’s how to hone the edge, from enhancing human perception through mindful practices to understanding the implications of the latest neuroscientific research. Bookstores are bursting with work on personal growth: we dump the flaky and the flabby-minded, and get down to the bedrock of what’s useful, new and real.

LIVING WELL

The biggest project we work on is crafting our own lives. Here are the tools for better sex and love, fertility and birth, education and child-rearing, health, aging, and death. Who doesn’t want more love and better sex? Many claim to know how to get them: we cut through the come-ons and self-help trends-of-the-day to deliver the best real ideas the world has to offer. How we breed, bring up and educate the next generation is as pressing a problem as any. Here are the solutions: how to pursue education without schools (and how to reform schools that don’t educate); midwifery and birthing practices, fertility strategies, family planning and raising babies; the best trans-cultural advice on keeping your family safe, healthy and happy. At the same time, extreme longevity, if not downright “functional immortality,” will soon be at least theoretically possible for everyone. We pour out the snakeoil and glean the best information on how to keep yourself optimally healthy for as long as possible, how to age passionately and well, and how, if the time comes, to face death.

THE PRACTICALITIES

BOOK LENGTH and PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION:

11" x 14", softcover, perfect bound
450 pages
b/w, w/select four-color
1,500–2,000 items reviewed, 20 original short essays, 100 profiled models
Completion: 18 months after advance received.

PHOTOGRAPHS and/or ILLUSTRATIONS:

A design which builds on the traditional Whole Earth look (of lines and rules, with illustrations lifted from the resources reviewed), but with a more active and contemporary feeling. This feeling to be achieved through design choices, the use of select four color, and the use of selected photojournalistic images.

[designed sample pages will best illustrate this…]

The essential coffee table book of the 2000's.

THE TEAM:

Biographical sketches, with work histories and published works. Include successes with promotion of past projects, and a clip file of articles about us and WECs.

SAMPLE PAGES:

do, say, 20 pages, with all the categories of pages, along with a smaller format explanation of the design and chapter list. Make it professional. Make it hip. Make it brilliant.

Alex Steffen

Written by

I think about the future for a living. Writer, public speaker, strategic advisor. Projects: Worldchanging; Carbon Zero; Heroic Future; The Nearly Now.

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