Americans coped by turning inward. The self is one of the few aspects of life than can be managed and controlled, and a strong, morally upright self, Americans believe, provides the only sure buffer against the chaos beyond the gate. That was true during the unsettled years of the early nineteenth century, a reform era that produced a fascination with exercise and health as well as religious revival, abolition and the first temperance movement. In the late nineteenth century, citizens responded to immigration and industrial development by denying themselves the pleasures of drink.
So in the 1970s, when Americans plunged into an unprecedented exploration of self. Twelve percent of Americans tuned into their inner self through yoga, Transcendental Meditation, and other forms of “mysticism.” Hippies became Jesus freaks and middle class folks sought shelter in fundamentalism and evangelical religions. Est, transactional analysis, and self-help books flourished as weeds in summer.
A “culture of narcissism,” scoffed one critic. Tom Wolfe dubbed the times the “Me Decade.” (*1) There was merit to both charges, but both critiques miss a larger point. People asked not “what can I do for me,” so much as they asked “what can I do to construct a more substantive me so that I can forge stronger, more meaningful connections with the world around me?”
The decade’s passion for personal ecology traced its ancestry less to Narcissus than to old-fashioned pioneer ingenuity. Nineteenth century pioneers raised barns and hosted quilting bees; their late twentieth-century counterparts organized community daycare centers and food cooperatives; Emma Goldman clinics for women and free clinics for the indigent. Farmers’ markets flourished in suburban mall parking lots, and adults shared wisdom and skills at “free schools.”
In a world gone berserk, personal ecology provided a way to forge new modes of community. It allowed Americans to gain control over scattered lives and to retaliate against corrupt corporations and even more corrupt governments.
Enthusiasm for do-it-yourself, back-to-the-earth alternatives began in the hipsters’ ghetto but spilled out into the mainstream. Middle-class people concerned about pesticides and additives shopped at “healthfood” stores and food cooperatives.
Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book–zen and bread–first appeared in 1970 and sold 400,000 copies; it has never gone out of print. So, too, Frances Moore Lappes’ Diet for A Small Planet, in print since 1971. Robert Rodale, publisher of Organic Farming & Gardening, watched as his readership rose by 40 percent in 1971 alone. Bennett Cerf at Random House, about as mainstream a man and company as was possible to find, paid alicia bay laurel, member of a Sonoma County commune, a hefty sum for distribution rights to her ostentatiously hippie/alt-lifestyle guidebook, Living on the Earth.
In April, 1970, some twenty million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day by planting trees, picking up trash, participating in teach-ins, and joining rallies.
Nothing better reflects the passion and possibilities of personal ecology than the Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog was created by Stewart Brand, who spent the sixties participating in Acid Tests, organizing the Trips Festival, exploring Native American cultures, and thinking large thoughts. Brand believed that power exercised “remotely” through impersonal or oversized vehicles like “government, big business, formal education, church” had failed. The planet’s best hope, he argued, lay in the acts and lives of ordinary people.
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” A “realm of intimate, personal power is developing,” he explained, including the “power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, share his adventure with whoever is interested.” (*2)
But how to do that? “Fighting a system,” he pointed out, “merely strengthens” it. (*3) Far better to co-opt the system’s power by finding alternatives to its offerings; or as he put it later and more succinctly: “You have a stronger vote as a buyer than a voter . . . .” (*4)
Thus the Catalog, subtitled “Access to Tools.” Brand and his staff stuffed each issue with advice about how to buy, build, and use geodesic domes, tents, kayaks, maps, plows, axes, and bees. As interpreted by the Menlo Park group, “tools” included silk screening, macrame, kerosene stoves, Kama Sutra oil, The Israel Army Physical Fitness Book, synthesizers, Gary Snyder’s poetry, the Snugli baby carrier, aeronautical charts, the Yaqui way of knowledge, BMW motorcycles, adoption, childbirth, sex, and canning equipment.
The sum of this nearly hallucinogenic hodge-podge was greater than its parts. Such “tools” enabled Americans to challenge the system, transform their lives, and improve the earth. To vote more powerfully as buyers (and makers and doers) than as voters.
Mother Earth News picked up where the Catalog left off. John Shuttleworth, an escapee from Madison Avenue advertising, and his wife Jane launched the magazine in January 1970 with the goal of fueling the “revolution of consciousness” begun in Haight and the pages of Brand’s Catalog. (*5) Within two years, nearly three-quarters of a million people were reading Mother Earth News for advice on how to build houses, grow organic produce, and raise chickens.
Next: Homebrewing As Politics
*2: “Purpose,” Whole Earth Catalog Access to Tools ([Menlo Park, CA]: Portola Institute, Fall 1969), unpaginated title page.
*3: Stewart Brand, “Game Design,” Last Whole Earth Catalog ([Menlo Park, CA]: Portola Institute, 35.
*4: Thomas Albright, “The Environmentalists,” Rolling Stone no. 48 (December 13, 1969): 33.
*5: All quotes from David Armstrong, A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1981), 196. The “revolution” quotation was from an essay by Gary Snyder that first appeared in the Whole Earth Catalog, and which the Shuttleworths reprinted in their first issue.)