At the very end of the 1960s, when pollution was so uncontrolled across widespread regions of the United States that only events as extreme as a burning river—famously, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio—were sufficient to catch the attention of public officials, two ideas were born to address the crisis: Whole Earth Catalog and Earth Day. Each in its way aimed to help people to break from the practices that were destroying the planet. Whole Earth Catalog intended to provide people the means to live – and think – in a way that avoided the trappings of unsustainable industrialization. Earth Day organizers sought to broadcast a call to arms for education and action against the pollution in the environment and the polluters that caused it.
Most immediately, the Catalog was a “do it yourself” primer; a catalog of ideas, resources, and instructions for people hoping to pursue livelihoods that sustained, or at least avoided harming, our planet’s global ecosystem. More generally, Whole Earth Catalog captured the spirit of the times, fifty years ago, when the United States celebrated its very first Earth Day, and the event’s organizers and participants came together to express a critical urgency to the problem of environmental decline. Mann Library holds a nearly complete run of Whole Earth Catalog as part of our rare and distinctive collections in environmental history.
With this exhibit, we spotlight the hopeful teaching and information-sharing ethos of Whole Earth Catalog fifty years ago—which rather remarkably evokes some of the guiding principles of the early 21st century maker movement currently vibrant in many corners of the world. We explore its links to the Earth Day celebrations of the early 1970s, both in the country at large and here at Cornell, which emphasized the importance of critical thinking and collective action. We also take a look at the question of Earth stewardship at Cornell today, illustrating some of the ways that environmental thinking has shaped what the Cornell community—our students, staff and faculty—is learning, studying, advocating and doing today as we face the critical, ongoing environmental challenges of our day. Over the past fifty years, we have all learned much about the importance of individuals taking action to do better – and the profound power of working together.