Photography changes our relationship to our planet

Stewart Brand

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Stewart Brand [ BIO ]

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Stewart Brand

Stewart Brand, co-founder and managing director of Global Business Network, is the president of The Long Now Foundation. Brand is well known for founding, editing and publishing the Whole Earth Catalog (1968-85), an unprecedented compendium of counterculture information and sources, which received the National Book Award in 1972. In 1985, he founded The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), a prototypic computer teleconference system for the San Francisco Bay Area. Brand’s books include The Clock of the Long Now (1999) and The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987).

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Stewart Brand, founder, editor, and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, recounts how the first photograph of the earth, taken from space, sparked environmental awareness and ultimately activism.

It was February 1966 and I was twenty–eight and was sitting on a gravelly roof in San Francisco's North Beach. I had taken a mild dose of LSD on an otherwise boring afternoon and sat, wrapped in a blanket, gazing at the San Francisco skyline. As I stared at the city’s high–rises, I realized they were not really parallel, but diverged slightly at the top because of the curve of the earth. I started thinking that the curve of the earth must be more dramatic the higher one went. I could see that it was curved, think it, and finally feel it. I imagined going farther and farther into orbit and soon realized that the sight of the entire planet, seen at once, would be quite dramatic and would make a point that Buckminster Fuller was always ranting about: that people act as if the earth is flat, when in reality it is spherical and extremely finite, and until we learn to treat it as a finite thing, we will never get civilization right. I herded my trembling thoughts together as the winds blew and time passed. And I figured a photograph—a color photograph—would help make that happen. There it would be for all to see, the earth complete, tiny, adrift, and no one would ever perceive things the same way. But how to accomplish this? How could I induce NASA or the Russians to finally turn the cameras backwards? We could make a button! A button with the demand "Take a photograph of the entire earth." No, it had to be made a question. Use the great American resource of paranoia. "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" Ah. That was it. By the next morning, I got busy printing buttons and posters asking that question. And when they were ready, I prepared a Day–Glo sandwich board with a little sales shelf on the front, decked myself out in a white jump suit, boots, and a top hat with a crystal heart and made my debut at the University of California in Berkeley, selling buttons for twenty–five cents. It went perfectly. The dean's office threw me off the campus, the San Francisco Chronicle reported it, and other newspapers picked up the story. I soon branched out to Stanford, then to Columbia, Harvard, and MIT. I sent buttons to scientists, secretaries of state, senators, people in the Soviet Union, UN officials, and famous thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and, of course, Buckminster Fuller. Fuller wrote back, "Well, you can only see about half the earth at any given time." It is no accident of history that the first Earth Day, in April 1970, came so soon after color photographs of the whole earth from space were made by homesick astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission to the moon in December 1968. Those riveting Earth photos reframed everything. For the first time humanity saw itself from outside. The visible features from space were living blue ocean, living green–brown continents, dazzling polar ice and a busy atmosphere, all set like a delicate jewel in vast immensities of hard–vacuum space. Humanity's habitat looked tiny, fragile and rare. Suddenly humans had a planet to tend to. The photograph of the whole earth from space helped to generate a lot of behavior—the ecology movement, the sense of global politics, the rise of the global economy, and so on. I think all of those phenomena were, in some sense, given permission to occur by the photograph of the earth from space.

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Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand
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Button by Stewart Brand

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