One the eve of Earth Day, I had the opportunity to see the very excellent Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson speak in person. Dr. Tyson concluded his speech by talking about the “pale blue dot.” It’s a profound image; this picture of Earth from the edge of our solar system.
And it reminded me of another profound image, the first image of Earth taken from space back in 1966. Now, everyone has seen this type of image. It’s ubiquitous. But in 1966, it was spectacular. And difficult to get a hold of. And the combination of those two things turned the whole Earth into a rallying cry for the modern environmental movement.
When we talk about the history of the modern environmental movement we often tell the same story: The foundation of the movement is built on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson brought the story of DDT to the general public in a way that made it resonate. The book became a touchstone and bridged the gap between hippie culture and the concerned citizen. This growing awareness of harm being done to the Earth by humanity was then cemented into our collective consciousness when in 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland and an oil well exploded destroying Pacific beaches. The following year, 1970, we celebrated the first Earth Day.
It’s a great story. It’s a true story. But it’s not the only story. There is also the story of “the blue marble” and the Whole Earth Catalog.
Stewart Brand is one of those people who can bring together dispirit communities and find a common path. As part of the Merry Pranksters he was firmly ensconced in sixties counterculture, but he also had strong ties to the nascent computing community – to both the MIT Media Lab and Douglas Engelbart, one of the pioneers of personal computing best known for his work on the computer mouse.
In 1966 Brand recognized the power of being able to see Earth from space. He campaigned to have NASA release these first images of the whole Earth.1
Remember, this was during the Cold War, NASA wasn’t all free and easy with their images. And while the Space Race may have been more about morale than defense, it certainly had a militaristic component.
Eventually, NASA released the images and Brand got his image of the whole Earth.
He used the imagery to grace the cover of the first issues of the Whole Earth Catalog, a catalog that integrated the technology and skills of self sufficiency with a philosophical position that embraced science and technology as part of our relationship with the Earth not as separate. His argument: “We are as gods, we may as well get good at it.”2 Described as an ecopragmatist, Brand used the image of our lonely planet to illustrate “the sense that Earth’s an island, surrounded by a lot of inhospitable space. And it’s so graphic, this little blue, white, green and brown jewel-like icon amongst a quite featureless black vacuum.”3 Seeing the fragility of the whole Earth from space inspired us to think of it not as distinct places on a map but a single environment, where deforestation of the Amazon or massive oil spills affected more than just the region they occurred in.
The budding modern environmentalist movement rallied around the images of the whole Earth. It created both an emotional bond and reaction, but also contributed to the idea of an ecosystem.
And, while the influential Whole Earth Catalog had only a brief publication run, the community that it created remembered it. And, in 1985, they found a new place to commune. The internet. The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (or The WELL) became one of the first stable, vibrant online communities. A community to which the hacker ethos or the cyberpunk manifesto or whatever you want to call it owes its roots: the idea that information was power, and that information should be decentralized, anti-corporate, and personal.
The convergence of hippies, the nascent computing community, and astronauts seems an unlikely point of origin for an environmental movement, but it’s a hell of a story. And it’s just one of the many stories that contribute to the origins of the environmental movements. And so, this Earth Day, take a moment to remember that everyone can contribute something they are good at to help our common home. Find a project that suits you and go for it – the internet opens up a vast array of volunteer opportunities.
Here’s a place to get started: Earth Day Network
This quote is used liberally, without attribution around the internet. I am almost certain it is from this interview: Stewart Brand, “The Earth from Space,” Rolling Stone, 15 May 2003 ↩