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Whole Earth Catalog revisited: Steve Job’s Google of the 60s

Steve Jobs called The Whole Earth Catalog “one of the bibles of my generation”. He went on to explain in his Stanford commencement speech in 2005, “It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions”.

The Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of “unofficial handbook of the counterculture“. It was, pre-Internet, a way for anyone anywhere to tap into a global economy.

A handbook for a global society

Subtitling it “access to tools”, founder and editor Stewart Brand set out to create a catalog- like the then-very-practical-and-universal catalog L.L. Bean- that would showcase all of the great tools of the world to help anyone do things for themselves or learn about big ideas.

It was a very all-inclusive undertaking, but Brand believed that our world was unified and to prove it he lobbyied NASA to release the first images of earth from space, selling buttons that asked “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” (The catalog’s first issue displayed that photo).

Lloyd Kahn: former shelter editor & lifelong builder

The catalog covered all worldly and practical topics, categorized as Land Use and Shelter, Industry, Craft, Community, Nomadics, Communications and Learning. Lloyd Kahn was the Shelter editor of the catalog.

“This book changed the course of publishing in America because before this book came out you couldn’t publish a book on the West Coast and get New York distribution and by the time this had sold 100,000 copies they figured out that there was something going on out here.”

Kahn, an insurance broker-turned-builder, leveraged his experience with Whole Earth and began to publish his own books.

Spokesperson for dome building

First, he wrote very popular books on dome building. Kahn had become “the spokesman for the counterculture on domes” (his dome home even appeared in Life Magazine), but he took the books out of print when he decided the building style just wasn’t practical and “I didn’t want any more domes on my kharma”.

In 1974 Kahn took down his dome and replaced it with a more traditional handmade home. “Built stud-frame house using recycled lumber, doors, windows,” he writes in his 2004 book Home Work, “Relief somehow to discover old ways can work best.”

An owner built home and homestead

Today, Lloyd and his wife Lesley Creed run their own homestead in Bolinas, California where they tend an extensive organic garden and bantam chickens, grind their own wheat, make their own sourdough, spin their own wool, and continue to build their own structures (most recently, a chicken coop with a living roof).

While the couple have reached a certain level of self-sufficiency (and Lloyd has built every home he’s ever lived in), gone are the goats (and early morning milkings) and other experiments like growing wheat.

Balancing craft/self sufficiency with convenience/modern machines

In Kahn’s 1973 book Shelter he talks about the balance he seeks between self-sufficiency and living a modern life.

“This book is not about going off to live in a cave and growing all one’s own food. It is not based on the idea that everyone can find an acre in the country, or upon a sentimental attachment to the past. It is rather about finding a new and necessary balance in our lives between what can be done by hand and what still must be done by machine.”

And when in doubt, it can’t hurt to try to do it yourself. “It is obvious that the more we can do for ourselves, the greater will our individual freedom and independence be.”

And now… Tiny Homes: Simple Shelters

In this video Kahn shows us a rare first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, takes us for a tour of his homestead (along with his wife Lesley) and gives us a sneak peek of his upcoming book “Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter“.