CHRIS ANDERSON: OK, Stewart, in the ’60s, you — I think it was ’68 — you founded this magazine
STEWART BRAND: Bravo! It’s the original one. That’s hard to find.
CHRIS ANDERSON: Right. Issue One, right?
STEWART BRAND: Mm hmm.
CHRIS ANDERSON: Why did that make so much impact?
STEWART BRAND: Counterculture was the main event that I was part of at the time, and it was made up of hippies and New Left. That was sort of my contemporaries, the people I was just slightly older than. And my mode is to look at where the interesting flow is and then look in the other direction.
Partly, I was trained to do that as an army officer, but partly, it’s just a cheap heuristic to find originalities: don’t look where everybody else is looking, look the opposite way. So the deal with counterculture is, the hippies were very romantic and kind of against technology, except very good LSD from Sandoz, and the New Left was against technology because they thought it was a power device. Computers were: do not spindle, fold, or mutilate. Fight that.
And so, the Whole Earth Catalog was kind of a counter-counterculture thing in the sense that I bought Buckminster Fuller’s idea that tools of — are of the essence. Science and engineers basically define the world in interesting ways. If all the politicians disappeared one week, it would be a nuisance. But if all the scientists and engineers disappeared one week, it would be way more than a nuisance.
CHRIS ANDERSON: We still believe that, I think.
STEWART BRAND: So focus on that. And then the New Left was talking about power to the people. And people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak cut that and just said, power to people, tools that actually work. And so, where Fuller was saying don’t try to change human nature, people have been trying for a long time and it does not even bend, but you can change tools very easily. So the efficient thing to do if you want to make the world better is not try to make people behave differently like the New Left was, but just give them tools that go in the right direction. That was the Whole Earth Catalog.
CHRIS ANDERSON: And Stewart, the central image — this is one of the first images, the first time people had seen Earth from outer space. That had an impact, too.
STEWART BRAND: It was kind of a chance that in the spring of ’66, thanks to an LSD experience on a rooftop in San Francisco, I got thinking about, again, something that Fuller talked about, that a lot of people assume that the Earth is flat and kind of infinite in terms of its resources. But once you really grasp that it’s a sphere and that there’s only so much of it, then you start husbanding your resources and thinking about it as a finite system. “Spaceship Earth” was his metaphor. And I wanted that to be the case, but on LSD I was getting higher and higher on my hundred micrograms on the roof of San Francisco, and noticed that the downtown buildings which were right in front of me were not all parallel, they were sort of fanned out like this. And that’s because they are on a curved surface.
And if I were even higher, I would see that even more clearly, higher than that, more clearly still, higher enough, and it would close, and you would get the circle of Earth from space. And I thought, you know, we’ve been in space for 10 years — at that time, this is ’66 — and the cameras had never looked back. They’d always been looking out or looking at just parts of the Earth. And so I said, why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet? And it went around and NASA got it and senators, secretaries got it, and various people in the Politburo got it, and it went around and around. And within two and a half years, about the time the Whole Earth Catalog came out, these images started to appear, and indeed, they did transform everything.
And my idea of hacking civilization is that you try to do something lazy and ingenious and just sort of trick the situation. So all of these photographs that you see — and then the march for science last week, they were carrying these Whole Earth banners and so on — I did that with no work. I sold those buttons for 25 cents apiece. So, you know, tweaking the system is, I think, not only the most efficient way to make the system go in interesting ways, but in some ways, the safest way, because when you try to horse the whole system around in a big way, you can get into big horsing-around problems, but if you tweak it, it will adjust to the tweak.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So since then, among many other things, you’ve been regarded as a leading voice in the environmental movement, but you are also a counterculturalist, and recently, you’ve been taking on a lot of, well, you’ve been declaring what a lot of environmentalists almost believe are heresies. I kind of want to explore a couple of those. I mean, tell me about this image here.
STEWART BRAND: Ha-ha! That’s a National Geographic image of what is called the mammoth steppe, what the far north, the sub-Arctic and Arctic region, used to look like. In fact, the whole world used to look like that. What we find in South Africa and the Serengeti now, lots of big animals, was the case in this part of Canada, throughout the US, throughout Eurasia, throughout the world.
This was the norm and can be again. So in a sense, my long-term goal at this point is to not only bring back those animals and the grassland they made, which could be a climate stabilization system over the long run, but even the mammoths there in the background that are part of the story. And I think that’s probably a 200-year goal. Maybe in 100, by the end of this century, we should be able to dial down the extinction rate to sort of what it’s been in the background. Bringing back this amount of bio-abundance will take longer, but it’s worth doing.
CHRIS ANDERSON: We’ll come back to the mammoths, but explain how we should think of extinctions. Obviously, one of the huge concerns right now is that extinction is happening at a faster rate than ever in history. That’s the meme that’s out there. How should we think of it?
STEWART BRAND: The story that’s out there is that we’re in the middle of the Sixth Extinction or maybe in the beginning of the Sixth Extinction. Because we’re in the de-extinction business, the preventing-extinction business with Revive & Restore, we started looking at what’s actually going on with extinction.
And it turns out, there’s a very confused set of data out there which gets oversimplified into the narrative of we’re becoming. Here are five mass extinctions that are indicated by the yellow triangles, and we’re now next. The last one there on the far right was the meteor that struck 66 million years ago and did in the dinosaurs. And the story is, we’re the next meteor. Well, here’s the deal. I wound up researching this for a paper I wrote, that a mass extinction is when 75 percent of all the species in the world go extinct. Well, there’s on the order of five-and-a-half-million species, of which we’ve identified one and a half million. Another 14,000 are being identified every year.