Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Stewart Brand | Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?

Stewart Brand, who turns 79 next month, is an American writer, best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. His books include the brilliant How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built (1994) and The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility. The latter documents his efforts with the Long Now Foundation (which he co-founded with Danny Hillis) to create a timepiece that will operate with minimum human intervention for ten millennia. The plan is for the clock to tick once a year and have a cuckoo that comes out every millennium.

Brand's focus has always been the bigger picture, the wider perspective.

The Whole Earth Catalog was a counterculture magazine published by Brand several times a year between 1968 and 1972. The influential periodical featured essays and articles, but was primarily focused on reviews for ecologically minded products.

The magazine took its name from a 1966 campaign waged by Brand to have NASA release the then-only-rumored satellite photo of the sphere of Earth as seen from space. He had recalled a lecture by Buckminster Fuller where the architect and theorist suggested that "people perceived the earth as flat and infinite, and that that was the root of all their misbehaviour."

Brand had studied biology at Stanford and believed that the image of the planet might be a powerful symbol, "evoking a sense of shared destiny and adaptive strategies from people." Brand was also a member of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, and decided to lobby countries with space programs for the release of the photograph, using counter-culture tactics:

"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 they made a photograph of the entire earth?”  There was something wrong with “entire.”  Something wrong with “they.”

“Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”  Ah.  That was it.

The next day I ordered the printing of several hundred buttons and posters.  While they were being made I spent a couple hours in the San Francisco library looking up the names and addresses of all the relevant NASA officials, the members of Congress and their secretaries, Soviet scientists and diplomats, UN officials, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.

When the buttons were ready I sent them off.  Then I prepared a Da-Glo sandwich boardwith a little sales shelf on the front, decked myself out in a white jump suit, boots and costume top hat with crystal heart and flower, and went to make my debut at the Sather Gate of the University of California in Berkeley, selling my buttons for twenty-five cents."

The buttons reportedly made their way to the lapels of many NASA employees and the organization released an image the following year. Fifty years later, it's impossible to fathom the profound cultural and social impact of first seeing ourselves from a distance. The planet as seemingly small and fragile. The release of the photograph has been cited as "the birth of the environmental movement".

Brand featured the image of the first issue of his magazine a year later:

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