The Whole Earth Generation(s) —by Jinny Batterson
April 22, 2016 was observed in many countries as “Earth Day.” This annual event, first celebrated in the United States in 1970, has gone global, drawing attention to environmental challenges and the need to cherish this planet, the only one we know can support human life.
By the late 1960’s, the excesses of unchecked industrialization and conspicuous consumption were starkly evident. Our generation, then coming of age in the U.S., had experienced less global armed conflict or material deprivation than our parents’ cohort. Instead, we’d been shaped by the political assassinations of the era, by proxy wars, by the rise of the civil rights movement, and by a growing awareness of the drawbacks of gender inequality. We had a youthful desire for meaningful change—sooner rather than later. Teach-ins were a popular tool on a variety of issues. A Wisconsin senator, Gaylord Nelson, hatched the idea for a national “teach-in” about the environment after viewing the massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Twenty million Americans participated.
A little before the first Earth Day was celebrated, a low-cost, no-advertising catalog appeared: The Whole Earth Catalog. Editions were published about once a quarter during the years 1968-1972, and somewhat less regularly thereafter. Many editions carried on their front cover an image of planet Earth as seen from space. The tone of the early catalogs’ introduction was somewhat defiant: “So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. …(A) realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his(/her) own education, find his(/her) own inspiration, shape his(/her) own environment, and share his(/her) adventure with whoever is interested.”
The catalog listed its function as “access to tools,” specifically tools that were: 1) useful; 2) relevant to independent education; 3) high quality or low cost; and 4) easily available by mail.
It may have been through the catalog’s pages that my husband and I were introduced to the work and lives of Helen and Scott Nearing, a professional couple who left city life in Philadelphia during the 1930’s and homesteaded successfully, first in Vermont and later in Maine. The Nearings lived off the land, growing their own food, building their own shelter, writing books and articles about their successes—getting about as far from the “rat race” of corporate culture as one can. Unfortunately, when we tried a similar move in the early 1970’s, we soon learned that we lacked both the homesteading skills exhibited by the Nearings and the stamina to endure the periods of off-land unemployment that are often part of rural life. We retreated to a mid-sized urban area where jobs were more plentiful and the worst excesses of the rat race were less in evidence. We never gave up on the dream of a more sustainable lifestyle.
Culture and technology have changed a good bit since 1970—the biggest threats to global health and stability can now be more diffuse and harder to tackle than the nation-state wars of preceding generations; civil rights and gender equality have made patchy, uneven, progress; telecommuting has made it more possible to locate in rural settings while still earning a living using mostly urban skills; the Internet has outstripped postal mail as a communications medium. However, some of the basics of human interactions have not changed all that much.
In the Next Whole Earth Catalog, put out in 1981, I found an entry that spoke to me, part of a sidebar called the “Rising Sun Neighborhood Newsletter”:
“If you notice that all the leaders who might make things better get shot you can:
1) Assume their deaths were no coincidence and give up;
2) Spend years proving their deaths were no coincidence and convincing others;
3) Need leaders less.”
When our 2016 crop of putative leaders leaves me unenchanted, I remind myself to need leaders less–some global changes require large-scale interventions, but many more can be carried out at an individual or small group level.
The “boomer” generation I’m part of is the first to have spent our entire adult lives with images of Earth in all its splendor and fragility as seen from space. The generations coming after ours were born with these images available. I hope they have recognized both their beauty and their vulnerability. Though we all need leadership at times, I hope that future “whole earth” generations will mature and find their paths realizing that we are all both followers and leaders, and that we need external leaders less.