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The Whole Earth: The Story of an Image that Changed the World

By Catherine G. Wagley

I’ve had a vintage Keith Haring shower curtain hanging in my bathroom in Los Angeles for seven years. It features one of the images the artist made for Earth Day in the 1980s: a man in a suit with the whole Earth for his head fills the large, clear sheet of vinyl. It’s an exuberant reminder during a California drought to be careful with resources. And looking at Haring’s Earth Day illustration, or any image featuring a realistic or semi-realistic globe, often calls to mind the whole Earth images NASA debuted more than half a century ago.

An oft-repeated story is that the environmental movement as we know it began when NASA released the first photographic images of the globe—first in the late 1960s and then, most famously, with the Blue Marble image of 1972 (taken by the crew of Apollo 17 crew as they left Earth’s orbit, on their way to the moon).

The images quite literally changed the way people pictured Earth. They “became the root of a global environmental consciousness,” wrote historian Erik M. Conway in 2008. In his 2011 book, Scales of the Earth, designer and architect El Hadi Jazairy wrote, “Time and time again, the environmental movement has circulated the NASA Earth photographs to cash in on their [. . .] delicate and bounded beauty.” Such quotes are easy to find, and the pictures undoubtedly did influence environmentalists and their movement’s visual sensibility. But the story of influence isn’t quite so simple. We should rewind to the mid-1960s to better understand its nuances. 

In 1966, Life magazine featured the psychedelic work of a group of artists known as The Company of Us, one of whom would go on to become a well-known counterculture activist associated with NASA and its images of Earth from space.

WE ARE ALL ONE (OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT)

Artist Gerd Stern had been doing impulsive, poetic performances, living in houseboats, and traversing the country in a Volkswagen bug for a few years before he set up in a quaint white church in upstate New York in 1965. A friend, artist Steve Durkee, had purchased the church with help from his art dealer, Alan Stone. There, Stern, Durkee, and others—including the artists’ wives, Judi Stern and Barbara Durkee—hashed out ideas and worked on multimedia performances (long before the term “multimedia” was widely in use). They endeavored to create oversaturating, hallucinogenic experiences that promoted a heightened sense of oneness—or something like that. Always, it was an experiment. They employed slides, film projectors, and strobe lights.

In the mid-1960s, the artists became The Company of US, or USCO for short. The immersive traveling performance they honed over the years, We Are All One, got them a write up in a 1966 issue of Life magazine. The full-page photos are seductive: filmic images overlapping each other, teenagers dancing in front of op-art wall paper. (Coincidentally, as it turned out, they used the same projector NASA scientists would use at Mission Control during the Apollo missions.)

“The way things have been going, Psychedelic art was bound to come along,” the article announced. People owned cameras, television appeared to be here to stay, we’d discovered LSD, and countries launched rockets. Why wouldn’t artists want to incorporate all that: science, electronics, drugs, and film?

Stewart Brand, a sometime member of USCO (during one acid trip at the USCO church, Brand apparently scaled a high-voltage tower), would become the most prominent counterculture activist associated with NASA and its images of Earth from space.

Stewart Brand (pictured) launched the “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” campaign in 1965. And after NASA released an image, he used it on the cover of his Whole Earth Catalog.

SEEING THE CURVE OF THE EARTH

Brand, a former army parachutist and a Stanford grad, began his “Why haven’t we seen the whole Earth?” campaign in 1965. As he tells it, he launched this campaign after he had a revelation on a gravelly roof in San Francisco. “[W]ith the help of one hundred micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976, he began to believe he could see the earth curving in on itself as he watched the skyline. A mentor of Brand’s, architect Buckminster Fuller, had said “that people perceived the earth as flat and infinite, and that that was the root of all their misbehavior.” Brand thought that maybe prompting NASA, which he believed already had the satellite technology necessary, to take and release a photo of Earth from space would give people the information they needed to behave more conscientiously in relation to the planet.

He made little buttons with black text against white backgrounds. They stated, simply, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” and he sold them for a quarter each. He would wear a white jumpsuit and a dark top hat with a heart and flower on it, and he’d distribute the buttons at UC Berkeley, MIT, and elsewhere. “I put the button in kind of paranoid terms,” Brand said recently, speaking by phone from his home in Sausalito, California, “because I knew it would get attention. They became kind of a popular thing.”

The conversations his campaign generated were in large part the point. “I’d sometimes have a [spontaneous] street symposium on thinking about what the image would do,” he recalled. When NASA did release an image of the whole Earth from space, taken by an ATS satellite in 1967, Brand put it on the debut cover of his publication, the Whole Earth Catalog. A tome where readers could find “tools” that would help them build their own future-forward environments, as well as writing by hippies like Ken Kesey, the catalog also had a holistic, data-driven design. That design’s pervasive influence on the visual sensibility of the environmentally conscious left continues today, not only in the environmental movement but also in the visual identity of the tech industry, according to a recent New York Times article on designs for Apple and Google’s retro new headquarters.

THE EARTH’S A BIG BLUE MARBLE

Like so many others, Brand embraces the idea that these NASA images jumpstarted Earth Day and environmentalism as we know it. He believes they had the effect he expected, though he prefers the Earthrise image (a photograph taken by astronaut William Anders during the the Apollo 8 mission, in 1968), in which our planet floats behind the moon, to the head-on Blue Marble shot. “A dead planet in front of a living one, the living one in all its fragile smallness,” he said. “[Earth] is neither small nor fragile, of course, but that’s a helpful way to think about it.”

Factually, the work of Brand and other artists and environmentalists—Buckminster Fuller wrote in defense of Brand’s campaign—predated NASA’s decision to release the images. However, it’s difficult to tell what, if any, influence they had on the space-age giant. The buttons circulated at NASA; officials reportedly wore them on their lapels. But often, the button campaign and the subsequent images are discussed almost as coincidences. They “coincided,” according to an article on Brand and USCO on the Museum of Modern Art’s website.

“I'm not aware of the petitions that you mention,” said NASA historian Bill Barry, when I asked him via email about Brand’s buttons. He knew of conspiracy theories about NASA withholding information from the general public, but he assured me that had never been the case.

NASA archivist Colin Fries described the iconic Blue Marble image, like the Earthrise image that preceded it, as unplanned. “There were no special instructions to the crew to take it and nothing in the mission transcript concerning it,” Fries told me via email. He then quoted a five-year-old Atlantic article that describes how an Apollo 17 crewmember—probably astronaut Harrison Schmitt—looked out the window, saw the astonishingly beautiful planet, and photographed it with a Hasselblad camera. He didn’t know until after his return that he’d taken “the image of our world as we had never seen it before.”

MEANWHILE, HERE ON EARTH

This narrative never quite made sense to Neil Maher, a historian who has spent the past few years working on a soon-to-be-completed book about the Space Race’s relationship to grassroots movements (the women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement feature, in addition to the environmental movement).

“They definitely rerouted Apollo 17 to capture that image,” said Maher. NASA also distributed Blue Marble strategically, targeting print media first. “They were very aware that this data had to be presented [smartly].” There had been strife between environmentalists and NASA, in part because the ambitions of the Space Race seemed more mired in Cold War politics than motivated by earth-friendly concerns. Maher knew that, under George Low’s term as NASA president in the 1970s, there had been talk of rebranding NASA to emphasize its endeavors as environmentally friendly.

“I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” said Maher. He started digging through archives of imagery, trying to figure out when, exactly, the whole Earth image became “green.”

It appeared on the flag that John McConnell created for the first Earth Day, but that first flag showed only a flattened, indistinct version of the planet. Only later did McConnell revise his flag so that it featured a photographic, scientifically accurate image of the whole Earth.

original Earth Day flag
modern earth day flag

“It’s not until 1990 that it becomes the green image it is now,” said Maher. Starting in the 1980s, NASA scientists began using images of the full Earth to present data to the general public—such as an image of Earth with a red ozone hole in the middle. Maher posits that this imagery became a way to visualize data related to concerns at the forefront of environmentalists’ minds. “Global warming,” said Maher. “It’s really what made the whole Earth green.” It’s also contributing to a trend toward more mapping and data-visualization in design related to environmental causes.

Rania Ghosen and El Hadi Jazairy (the author of the aforementioned Scales of the Earth), of the firm Design + Earth, combine a vintage illustrative look with dense data in projects like After Oil, an attempt to raise awareness about oil’s affect on Gulf geography. The San Francisco firm Stamen does environmentally motivated work that has married the visual appeal of old-fashioned, hand-drawn maps with current scientific research. 

Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen’s founder, recalls looking at Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogs when growing up. He still looks at them occasionally. “It captivated me,” he said over the phone. “The articles and the objects advertised in the catalog suggested such adventurous possibilities. You could just learn about how to navigate in the middle of the ocean.”

NASA images of Earth from space have affected the way data is presented on maps, such as in these images by Design + Earth (top images) and by San Francisco firm Stamen (bottom image).

Rodenbeck has thought quite a bit about his firm’s frequent reliance on the look and functionality of topographical maps. “With a map, you never start from scratch. There’s something about that that’s intriguing to us,” he said. “There’s always more there.” His firm is trying to pull in viewers, invite them to engage more deeply with complicated content. A recent project for the client Climate Control involved mapping sea level rises. The further they went in the visualization—from 10-foot sea level rise to 90 feet—the more compelling their design became, visually and data-wise. “There’s the promise of some sort of connection,” he said, about designs that work best.

That’s what Stewart Brand wanted too, with his Whole Earth Catalog, and what USCO wanted when they chose anonymity and started touring their immersive media installations: to inspire a deeper sense of reciprocity between individuals and their physical world. To some extent, NASA perhaps also wanted to foster connection between its work, the general public, and suspicious environmentalists when it first released the whole Earth images. But it wasn’t just the fact of the photos that made the whole Earth iconic. It’s that the imagery came to embody a growing, shared hunger for information and the hope that information could alter behavior.

This Love Your Mother poster, from 1973, features the whole Earth in all its glory.