Stewart Brand reflects on a lifetime of staying "hungry and foolish" From hippie culture to the first personal computers, Stewart Brand has been key to some of the most groundbreaking movements of the last century. This hour, he reflects on his life and career.

Stewart Brand reflects on a lifetime of staying "hungry and foolish"

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you may have heard of Zelig or Forrest Gump, a character who always seems to turn up at just the right time, in just the right place, smack dab at the center of all the action. Well, that is the best way to describe Stewart Brand.


ZOMORODI: Hi, Stuart. Thank you so much for doing this.

You may never have heard of him, but he has been right next to - even propelling - some of the biggest names and movements of the last century.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And by the time all the rest of us get there, he's gone on to something else more interesting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He could see into the future that this technology was going to be a huge part of American culture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It isn't so much that he's ahead of it; he's actually creating the future.

ZOMORODI: Brand is nearly 84 years old now, and we wanted to spend the hour with him looking back at how he shaped our culture through the years, like with his Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine that Steve Jobs once called Google in paperback form.


STEVE JOBS: ...Google in paperback form 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic, overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

ZOMORODI: Others credit Brand with helping kickstart the environmental movement in the U.S. and later turning the Bay Area into Silicon Valley, home to the world's most successful tech companies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: In the beginning, the people who worked with computers were considered magicians.


ZOMORODI: His never-ending curiosity continues to this day.

BRAND: And there's kind of a hunger and foolishness to it. It's appetite. It's willingness to be ridiculous on the way to something you think might be interesting.

ZOMORODI: And over the last few years, Stewart Brand has taken on new, mind-bending projects, like working to bring back extinct animals like the woolly mammoth and building a clock to ring once a century and keep time for 10,000 years.

BRAND: Humanity has revved itself into a pathologically short attention span and to not think about long ranges of time is, at best, a waste and, at worst, an extreme hazard.

ZOMORODI: So today on the show, Stewart Brand, a conversation with a controversial cult figure who's always looking at where society is going next and has some big - some say crazy - ideas about where it should be going.

Stewart, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

BRAND: Thank you.

ZOMORODI: I want to start by asking you - you have lived an incredible life, but let's go back to the beginning. Tell us a bit about where you grew up, Rockford, Ill. Did you have visions of what you would be when you grew up?

BRAND: Oh, yeah. I knew I was going to be a veterinarian. I was the guy that everybody brought injured or young, abandoned wild animals to, and I would try to raise them.

ZOMORODI: Aw. And did your parents support that endeavor, or were they horrified?

BRAND: Always supportive, actually, even of the nasty possum I had named Frank, who was - bad attitude...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BRAND: ...About everything.

ZOMORODI: So in the late '50s, you went into the Army Reserve and to Stanford University, where I guess the veterinary dream continued because you majored in biology, and your thesis was about the lives of tarantulas.

BRAND: Well, yeah, studying biology was - I majored in science partly to get away from the problem I saw in the humanities, which was that what was deemed good was based on a judgment call by the teacher or the, you know, section leader or something like that - you know, what they thought were the right ways to think about Shakespeare or whatever. And that kind of being driven by opinion was not the case with science, and there you had to actually deal with reality that often flew in the face of people's opinion. And I liked that.

ZOMORODI: I mean, that's so interesting that you say that 'cause it sounds like you gravitated towards knowing what was right or fact or a binary. And I think of what happened next, which was that at the end of college, after you graduated, you started spending time in a very humanities, writerly, bohemian scene living in San Francisco. That seems like a change. What do you think happened there?

BRAND: Well, I was moving toward where the creatives were. And, you know, there's creativity in science, and there's creativity in art. And they are drastically different in a lot of ways, but they're also drastically the same in a lot of ways. There's a kind of a criticism in my family among some folks in Rockford that brands are so contrary. If you throw one in the river, they'll float upstream. And..

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BRAND: ...Floating upstream, that is looking upstream and thinking upstream is what scientists do. You're always looking for discovery. It's what artists do. You don't want to repeat what any other artist is doing or even what you yourself used to be doing. And that was one of the things I picked up from the artists in the world around San Francisco's north beaches - never repeat yourself.


ZOMORODI: Yeah. So you got to San Francisco in the mid-'60s. And by this point, you were freelancing as a photographer, but you also started hanging out with Ken Kesey, who, of course, wrote "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," one of my favorite books. And he had this legendary group of friends and comrades, and they called themselves the Merry Pranksters. And you ended up joining. This group traveled all over the U.S. in a psychedelic bus, renouncing normal society. They also did a fair amount of LSD. Just describe it. What was life like for you then?

BRAND: Well, the attraction of the pranksters was they really did inhabit the raggedy edge. And Kesey and the whole group developed a fearlessness, a boldness that I found very attractive. It was the kind of thing that - a young person wants to go, you know, where it's dangerous. And that group definitely was where it was dangerous. It was dangerous in terms of the messing around with drugs we were doing. It was dangerous in terms of having Neal Cassady be the driver of the bus.

ZOMORODI: And there was a lot going on in the country at that time. JFK had been assassinated. The civil rights movement was in full swing. And you found yourself kind of at the nexus of a huge culture shift that was happening all around the country.

BRAND: That's right. It was mostly still new left at that point. It was - the Vietnam War was coming on, and people were getting worked up about that and organizing. There were hippies around, and we didn't know that there were 10,000 hippies in the Bay Area until I and Kesey and the Pranksters put on a thing called the Trips Festival in January of 1966, when LSD was still legal, by the way.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The acid test is everywhere in this spaceship. Everywhere you are - you're all acid testing.

BRAND: And it was a huge event, and it became kind of a watershed event. That's when hippies became aware there were so many of them, they were a movement.

ZOMORODI: OK, so this was an event that you organized that wound up being one of the biggest festivals of the era. In fact, like, the Grateful Dead went big because of it. And some people say that the Trips Festival helped mark the beginning of the hippie counterculture movement. I mean, this must have been some party, Stewart. What do you remember of it, if anything?

BRAND: Well, the - what we are attempting to do, and why we called it Trips Festival, was to find all the really interesting, creative people that we knew in the Bay Area and basically just have a show three nights at the Longshoremen's Hall in San Francisco, where everybody showed what they had.



BRAND: There was - along with artists doing their thing, there was a sculptor named Ron Boise who made these enormous, noisy sculptures that you would bang on and pluck at strings and make sort of group music. It was sort of just the beginning of a kind of dancing that - I mean, I grew up doing the damn foxtrot.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BRAND: And what I loved about the Bohemian world is dancing was just - go out in the middle of the floor, and carry on, with somebody or not, and disappear into the music and see what happens. When the bands were playing especially, it just became this huge bash, everybody on their feet dancing. And the kind of thing we see at Burning Man ever since, for example, is a direct result of people discovering how much fun you can have if you just threw yourself completely into being part of the performance.

ZOMORODI: So it was a couple of months after the Trips Festival that you took LSD on your own and zeroed in on a provocative question, which was, why haven't people seen a photo of the Earth from space? Nowadays that would maybe be turned into an online conspiracy theory. But that's not what happened. What did happen? What did you do?

BRAND: What was happening was I was reading and listening to Buckminster Fuller in those days, and he was focused on sort of world system thinking. And I was also a photographer, so I'm always thinking about, what are the images that change people's minds? And I was on the rooftop of my place in North Beach in San Francisco with, you know, probably a half-dose, quarter-dose of LSD, just watching the afternoon scintillate, and then pretended to myself that I can see the buildings downtown - the tall buildings were not exactly parallel. They diverged slightly because they were on the curved surface of the Earth. And then I imagined myself going to a higher and higher altitude, and that curve would extend and then close all the way around on itself. And you would have San Francisco as seen from space on the surface of the sphere.

And that point, this is 10 years since Sputnik. And so it certainly seemed very strange to me that both the Soviet Union and the United States had been in space for - on the order of 10 years, and I could have taken serious photographs near Earth from space and apparently hadn't done so. And I just thought, well, as soon as that photograph happens, everything's going to change because I knew enough science to know that the way people thought the Earth looks from space was not the way it probably really looked. And the difference would blow their mind, in the parlance of the time. And a year or two later, that's exactly what happened.

ZOMORODI: In a moment, Stewart Brand describes how seeing the Earth from space for the first time really did change how people thought about our place in the universe and why it inspired him to launch something called the Whole Earth Catalog. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today, we are talking to writer and futurist Stewart Brand, who helped usher in San Francisco's hippie counterculture in the 1960s. And as we heard before the break, Stewart got somewhat obsessed with wanting to see a picture of Earth from space. Now, remember, this was before the moon landing, when satellites and space travel were pretty new. And, Stewart, you became kind of an analog meme, I think it's fair to say, in some ways. You made this big sign, and you printed out a bunch of buttons that ask the question, why haven't we seen a photo of the Earth from space? And then you went around to different college campuses and just, like, handed them out. So, I mean, what did people think? Did they think you were a crackpot or were they actually, like, huh, this is kind of interesting? How did people respond to you?

BRAND: I can't say why it just seemed like the obvious thing to do, but what I had acquired by then was the habit of you have a good idea - and if you're not burdened with a job, which I wasn't, then you just start to work on your cool idea and see if there's anything to it and see if you continue to be amused by it or if other people are. And so I stood in these places where there were young people with open minds and also teachers, many of them involved in astrophysics and the space program and so on. And the ones who were interested would come up and say, what's going on? And I'd say, well, you know, what do you think it'll be like when people really look in the big mirror? So it became just a way to have public discussion on the question of photographing the Earth from space.

ZOMORODI: So not too long after, NASA actually did take a picture of the Earth from a satellite and share it, and it was the first time the public saw a picture of the whole Earth. What impact did it have on people?

BRAND: So I think the photographs that really got people was the Earthrise photograph from Apollo 8 going around the moon and recording the lunar surface in the foreground and the Earth in the background. And 'cause they were in a big hurry when they took that picture, the horizon is not exactly level. So there's a kind of a interesting, unstable urgency to it as a photograph. And the contrast between the extremely dead, boring-looking, gray, brown planet in the foreground - the moon - with this vivid, scintillating, bright blue, living, but distant and kind of small in the enormity of black space - that contrast is what got people - dead planet, live planet. And we're on the live one. And then that raises a question. Well, now that we've seen that, what does that mean? What do we do with that?


ZOMORODI: So we're talking about the late '60s here, and that's really when a sort of new consciousness about the environment - this understanding that we are shepherds of the Earth. You put a picture of the planet on the cover of a magazine that you started publishing that you called the Whole Earth Catalog. It became a cult read, and it made you pretty famous in the U.S. You were on late-night talk shows. But for those who are not familiar with it, what was the Whole Earth Catalog? What was in it?

BRAND: The Whole Earth Catalog was a very tightly selected and edited collection of tools and ideas. So the important subtitle of the Whole Earth Catalog, was Access to Tools. And it was trying to give you enough of a sample that you can make your own decision. We didn't sell things in the catalog. It was just a catalog of stuff that we were pointing out. We were a pointer, not a seller.

ZOMORODI: And it was like, here's where to get the best kerosene lamp, and here's where you can buy instructions to build your own dome on your commune if you wanted. It was all kinds of things, right? Do you remember one thing in that catalog that's standing out to you right now?

BRAND: There were things like the snuggly baby carrier, which was just sort of a wrap and attached the baby to the front of the woman in a pleasant way for both the baby and the mother. You know, happy baby food grinder was you could grind your own baby food. Something-or-other jug and bottle cutter was a device that you could put in any bottle and turn it into a glass. This was somehow seen as - we didn't call it ecological yet, but that was - a whole lot of being a hippie was living as cheap as possible, whether or not you happened to have means of your own. And so all the creativity went into learning how to dumpster dive and how to find roadkill that was fresh enough you could cook it and eat it or make a hat out of it or something.

ZOMORODI: OK. So in 2005, many years later, Steve Jobs gave a commencement address at Stanford University, where he talked about how inspired he was by the catalog when he was younger, especially by the way it ended. Let's listen.


JOBS: Stewart and his team put out several issues of the Whole Earth Catalog. And then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words stay hungry, stay foolish. It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay hungry, stay foolish. And I have always wished that for myself.

ZOMORODI: Stay hungry, stay foolish - words for someone to live by. But, Stewart, you stopped publishing the Whole Earth Catalog regularly in the middle of the seventies. And now we are coming to a part of your biography that I just don't quite get. So you get introduced to another subculture in California at that point. It definitely wasn't mainstream yet - the world of computers and hackers. But with the back-to-the-land movement, the hippies, they were not into technology. So what was going on that kind of sucked you in.

BRAND: Really been coming for a long time in the sense that, in '62, I happened to see - at the Computation Center in Stanford when I was getting a tour, I saw young - we later called them hackers - young programmers playing Spacewar and absolutely filled with glee and out of their body into the computer in these little dueling spaceships on the first interactive computers. So 10 years later, we're up to '72 now, '73. When I stopped the catalog, the guy who ran Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner, invited me to write something for them. And I thought, great, I get to be a journalist. And he said, what do you want to write about? And I said, well, actually, I think something is going on with computers.

And I wound up reporting on things going on at Xerox PARC, which was a research center in Palo Alto, and at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab where Spacewar was - had moved right along 10 ten years. It was an even more interesting game. But also, the ARPANET was just starting to happen, what became the internet later on. And robotics was starting to happen. And so there were robots wandering around the laboratory. And I just reported on all of that in '72. The opening line was, ready or not, computers are coming to the people.

ZOMORODI: I mean, you were one of the first people who even used the phrase personal computer publicly.

BRAND: That's true. I did that in a follow-up version of that article.

ZOMORODI: So you saw the direction that computers were going. You saw before a lot of people did that this was going to completely change the world. And you decided to jump in, to throw yourself into the forefront of that conversation. In 1984, you threw yet another legendary event, The Hackers Conference, where you brought together all these incredible minds, I mean, the top engineers and programmers. They were all there. And there are people who say that, if in the '70s, things were kind of bubbling along when it came to tech, this event really kicked off the computer revolution.


BRAND: This ever-expanding library with millions of people online simultaneously, they will all be able to publish simultaneously, add things, annotate, make links, and we hope live in a freer environment than we live in now.

ZOMORODI: I mean, on the one hand, it feels strange to me that, like, you go from this back-to-land movement to being in the midst of computers and high-tech stuff. But I guess what was similar with both of them is this indie sort of spirit that there was. It was about - if before you were about making tools available to everyone, this was about making information available to everyone. It was the ideas of creating a digital utopia.

BRAND: Well, once computers became personal, they flipped from being seen as these machines of oppression to machines of liberation, because the individual could grab it and then run toward whatever horizon they thought most interesting. And they were not only using it, they were programming it. And so, again, sort of like the Trips Festival, that everybody is a performer, with personal computers, everybody's a creator. So that - this was an unleashing of the most powerful tools individuals had ever had.

ZOMORODI: Stewart, it feels like if there's one thing that is a constant throughout your life, it has to be that you get restless. Because a few years after immersing yourself in computers, in business, you pivoted yet again, and you started another organization. And you called it The Long Now. Basically, this is a nonprofit dedicated to getting people, getting all of us to think more long term about the future. Why did you think people needed this?

BRAND: Well, my sort of opening line of, what is the Long Now Foundation for, is that humanity has revved itself into a pathologically short attention span. And that thanks to science, we know a whole lot more about the long-term past and have a lot more knowledge about the systems that are going to be functioning into the long-term future than we've ever had before. And so to not act on that knowledge is at best a waste and at worst an extreme hazard.

ZOMORODI: And kind of the signature project of the Long Now Foundation is this massive clock that you're building, a clock to keep time for 10,000 years. It ticks just once a year and bongs just once a century. And the goal of the project is to encourage us to think about our connection to the centuries, to the millennia, ahead of us. You actually gave a TED Talk about the clock in 2004. Let's listen.


BRAND: For 10 years, I've been trying to figure out how to hack civilization so that we can get long-term thinking to be automatic and common instead of difficult and rare or, in some cases, nonexistent. It would be helpful if humanity got into the habit of thinking of the now not just as next week or next quarter, the next 10,000 years and the last 10,000 years - basically, civilization's story so far. So we have the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. It's an incubator for about a dozen projects, all having to do with continuity over the long term. Our core project is a rather ambitious folly - I suppose, a mythic undertaking - to build a 10,000-year clock that can really good - keep good time for that long a period. And the design problems of a project like that are just absolutely delicious. How do you house an eventual monumental clock like this so it can really tick, keep good - save time beautifully for 100 centuries?

ZOMORODI: So here we are now, Stewart, 20 years later. Where's the clock?

BRAND: Clock's in a mountain in west Texas and nearing completion. It'll be operational and should be visitable by later in this decade.

ZOMORODI: How do you explain the purpose of the clock to people who might think it's a ridiculous way to spend time and money - I mean, you called it a folly yourself - when we have so many problems on Earth right here and right now?

BRAND: It's hard. It's land art. In this particular case, it's a machine. It's a great, big mechanism that, all by itself, just using the energy and the difference between a cold night and a hot day, drives a genuine clock to keep very good time. And it also has chimes designed by Brian Eno.


BRAND: Jeff Bezos paid for it and also participated in the design. I visited it a couple of times. It is intended to be mythic. And I think it achieves that.


ZOMORODI: I can only imagine the sense of smallness one must feel as a human, who will live less than a century, compared to this timelessness that you are capturing with the project. But I have to say, one thing that sort of seems like a paradox to me is that, as you said, one of the biggest supporters of the Long Now Clock is Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, the sort of king of our on-demand, consumerist society. And many people blame him for exactly the problems you're hoping to solve even just a little bit with this project.

BRAND: Good Lord. I think that's completely misplaced.


BRAND: Talk about access to tools and ideas. And that's where I buy most of my stuff, don't you?

ZOMORODI: I really try not to, Stewart. I mean, I have - take a lot of issue with warehouse conditions, how much they pay their workers, how they undercut small businesses and people willing to buy things just because they can so easily. It just...

BRAND: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: I take a lot of - I have a lot of problems with Amazon.

BRAND: OK. Let's see. Do I have problems with Amazon?

ZOMORODI: I mean, climate change also. Like...

BRAND: Well, I mean, I got - because I knew the guy who started it and knew - who I got to know because his very first hire, besides his wife, was a guy who used to work at the Whole Earth Catalog, so I got to know Bezos very early on. And when they went public, it was sort of considered a really risky thing to put money into, you know? Amazon.toast, some were calling it. But I wished him well and was buying books from them then. So I bought a little bit of stock in the very beginning and then, you know, watched it get threatened for a few years. And now I'm very glad I have it. The thing I'm having to keep saying from the beginning with the internet is that it was always a mixed bag. And yet somehow, things proceeded and became OK. By and large, what we've got is much wider capabilities and communication opportunities than we had before. And we shouldn't be blaming the folks who provided that because they got big. We got big because we used them.



BRAND: But, look; this is a debate. All of these things are negotiations that go on. And they're important. And they never quite finish. You solve one set of problems. And another set comes along, which is even stronger. And that's just how it goes over time.

ZOMORODI: All right, agree to disagree. I'm going to send you an article that I wrote. I hope that's OK.

BRAND: Oh, good. Yes, please. Thank you.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

Coming up, more from my conversation with Stewart Brand about the big ideas filling his mind today, projects he's working on, like bringing the woolly mammoth back to life. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. We'll be right back.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, a conversation with futurist Stewart Brand, who has had quite a few pivots in his life from a stint as a photographer and journalist to starting the first hackers convention and then the Long Now Foundation. And for the past decade or so, Stewart has gone in yet another direction - this time, to a project straight out of science fiction - the possibility of bringing back extinct species. Here he is talking about it on the TED stage in 2013.


BRAND: Now, extinction is a different kind of death. We didn't really realize that until 1914, when the last passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. This had been the most abundant bird in the world. It had been in North America for 6 million years. Suddenly, it wasn't here at all. The Carolina parakeet was a parrot that lit up backyards everywhere. It was hunted to death for his feathers. There's a bird that people liked on the East Coast called the heath hen. It was loved. They tried to protect it. It died anyway. A local newspaper spelled out, there's no survivor. There's no future. There's no life to be recreated in this form ever again. There's a sense of deep tragedy that goes with these things, and they happen to lots of birds that people love. That happened to lots of mammals. Another keystone species is a famous animal called the European aurochs. And the aurochs was like the bison. This was an animal that basically kept the forest mixed with grasslands across the entire Europe and Asian continent, from Spain to Korea. The extinctions still go on. There's an ibex in Spain called the bucardo, went extinct in 2000. There was a marvelous animal, a marsupial wolf called the thylacine - Tasmania, south of Australia, called the Tasmanian tiger. It was hunted until there were just a few left to die in zoos.

Sorrow, anger, mourning. Don't mourn. Organize 'cause the fact is, humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years. We have the ability now and maybe the moral obligation to repair some of the damage. Most of that we'll do by expanding and protecting wild lands, by expanding and protecting the populations of endangered species. But some species that we killed off totally we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.


BRAND: I think it's time for the subject to go public. What do people think about it? You know, do you want extinct species back? Do you want extinct species back?


ZOMORODI: All right. So walk me through this, Stewart. How is de-extinction supposed to work?

BRAND: So, well, it's called ancient DNA - basically DNA from dead animals, dead in museums or dead in the ground. You can actually basically reassemble from the zillion fragments a very good sense of what the original genome was. And if you can compare it to a closely related living animal, you've got a structure where you can, you know, really make it - not only approximate the original reality, but you can think about editing some of those genes into the relative and potentially moving them in the direction of the extinct animal. And so you adjust the genome of Asian elephants, who are the closest living relative of woolly mammoths and begin to get an elephant that can once again reinhabit the mammoth steppe of northern Eurasia and North America.

ZOMORODI: I mean, once again, you are taking an idea that is sort of niche and bringing it to the general public, giving it a name, calling it de-extinction. What do people think about it?

BRAND: I think so long as it's a theoretical idea, the argument is not as substantial as one would like. And so we've now done cloning of endangered species, two of them - Przewalski's horse, which is the true, original wild horse, and the black-footed ferret, which is America's most endangered mammal. These animals are not extinct, but they - both of them were running out of the genetic variability they needed to have a really healthy genome. And by cloning some animals whose cells were preserved 30 years ago, we're able to reenrich the genome. And that's a piece of the kind of thing we're talking about with de-extinction.

ZOMORODI: But I want to go back to the more - I don't know - sexy and divisive example that you've been associated with, which is this idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth. I just watched the documentary about your life. And you've actually seen frozen woolly mammoth bodies, right?

BRAND: Yeah. A trunk in a - in Siberia. That's amazing.

ZOMORODI: Who - what was that like? I mean, who - where are these bodies kept? Tell me about that experience.

BRAND: OK, so the Mammoth Steppe, once upon a time, was like the Serengeti. The northern grasslands - that's where a steppe is, where the - maybe the largest biome in the world. And it had cave bears. It had all kinds of grazing animals, which were making the grasslands actually work, musk oxen and woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros. And then humans show up, and all of those megafauna disappeared. And so that's what happened to the large animals of that terrain. And it turned into tundra. And now the tundra is busy melting. And this is very bad for climate. So what one would like is to bring the grasslands back, and that's what this outfit called Pleistocene Park is in the process of proving you can do.

ZOMORODI: And you visited this area - right? - in Siberia, where...

BRAND: I did visit there, and it's great fun. So in Yakutsk, which is sort of the largest city in that enormous region, they have freezers full of well-preserved mammoth flesh from on the order of many thousands of years ago, mostly more than 60,000 years ago and older.

ZOMORODI: I mean, talk about mind-blowing, huh?

BRAND: Yeah. And so these are like museum specimens. It's not frozen in the sense that it's cryopreserved and you can just take the DNA and bring it back to life. But you got a lot to work with on the project to eventually bring back a cold-adapted elephant. Now, elephants used to be on every continent except Antarctica. They were a real keystone species. They're even what are called the bioengineers, in the sense that they knocked down trees. They're good at that. And so they keep the landscape a mosaic. A mosaic is the richest possible landscape you can have, where there's shrublands, woodlands, grasslands all mixed closely together and all changing around one to another. And so everywhere that elephants were, you had a much richer ecology than you have where you don't have elephants anymore. And this was particularly the case way the hell up north. So, you know, part of what's taken over that terrain is the forests of very boring, un-ecologically rich conifers that are not the kind of rich forest that you want.


ZOMORODI: OK. So say this place in Siberia called Pleistocene Park can, in theory, support woolly mammoths again. I mean, Stewart, come on. Didn't we learn our lesson from "Jurassic Park"? We don't know how nature will react to being manipulated, at least not to this extreme, right?

BRAND: Yes, we do. We do know.

ZOMORODI: To this extreme?

BRAND: OK, so "Jurassic Park," you know, the line that everybody quotes as, oh, my God, watch out, their character says, "life finds a way."


BD WONG: (As Henry Wu) You're implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will breed?

JEFF GOLDBLUM: (As Dr. Ian Malcolm) No. I'm simply saying that life finds a way.

BRAND: It's actually how reintroduction of animals, which is done all of the time by wildlife biologists, it succeeds because life finds a way. So when the apex predator of wolves was brought back to Yellowstone Park after a century of having been hunted out of existence, it turned out not only good for the wolves, it turned out good for the whole ecosystem. The rivers became richer and so on.

Same thing is happening with beavers reintroduced from Europe. They've been gone for 400 years from Scotland. They were brought back, and Scotland instantly got ecologically richer, to the point that England is now doing the same thing. So we have every region going through all of those stages with de-extincted creatures will be exactly like the reintroductions that are done now all the time.

ZOMORODI: So, OK, so let's say you can convince people that maybe de-extinction isn't dangerous, and that it might be one way of helping solve climate change. Do you think...

BRAND: Let me focus on that it isn't me or anyone else convincing people. It's success convincing people. We've learned this over and over again, especially in conservation biology, that what is persuasive is a successful outcome. And to get to that, you have to go through the process of, you're not sure if it's going to be a success.


ZOMORODI: With all these cultural shifts that we've discussed over the last hour, do you feel that you helped make them happen? Or were you really just very good at understanding how to explain them to people on a broader scale, gathering the key people together, giving these subcultures names and sort of making them feel inevitable?

BRAND: Yeah, there's some of that. Basically, Manoush, what I do when I see what I think is an interesting area and it feels like a problem area that I might be able to and some ability to help, then I'll think about what's the mode that might do that. Like with the image of Earth button campaign seemed like the right thing to do. Each time I get on these problem areas or opportunity areas, I think about, you know, is this one for a book or event or organization?

ZOMORODI: But it sounds like having a good time to you is following your curiosity.

BRAND: Yeah, I think that's right. And, you know, what are the interesting problems? That question turns out to keep some very easily bored people fascinated.

ZOMORODI: Stewart, I've read that people, young entrepreneurs especially, love to ask your advice, and I've heard that they ask you one particular question. How do you stay so creative? Is that true? Is that the No. 1 question you get asked?

BRAND: No. It's mostly about, you know, how did that work back in the day in the Bay Area in the '60s and '70s and '80s? And is it working now? And how do you get the best benefit of the Bay Area? And the thing I point out is San Francisco area is a little different than Los Angeles or New York in the sense that people don't go to San Francisco to succeed, or at least not most of the time. They go to San Francisco to be happy. And that keeps them loose enough, focusing enough on trying stuff - low threshold of success and comfort in, you know, moving on, changing communities, changing disciplines that you work in, having a good time.

ZOMORODI: So not to end on a morbid note, but you do think a lot about the future, Stewart. May I ask what you want to happen after your death? Do you want to be an AI version of yourself to - I don't know - live on in the metaverse? Or are you going to have your body cryogenically frozen so we can de-extinct you (laughter)?

BRAND: Oh, God.

ZOMORODI: Like, what are you going to do?

BRAND: I have picked a nice place to be planted, and I like the idea of being planted intact. It's one of those sort of semi-organic graveyards where they - you don't have yourself one approved crypt. You have some kind of wood or otherwise biodegradable coffin. And I'm biodegradable, so I can't imagine doing anything cryogenic. And you never know.

ZOMORODI: What if we contribute this conversation to, like, the database that's compiling everything you've ever said so that they could make an AI version of you?

BRAND: Oh, gosh. You know, anybody who wants to become a scholar of that...


BRAND: And, you know, it gives them freedom. They can pick and choose whichever version of the character. They pick the setting they want.

ZOMORODI: Oh, OK. So, like, we could just hang out with 1966 Stewart.

BRAND: Yeah, sure. Why not?

ZOMORODI: There's a book that's an extremely comprehensive biography of your life. There's a documentary coming out - also very comprehensive. There is something about you that fascinates people, Stewart. And I guess I'm wondering, if you had to pick one, what do you hope your biggest legacy is?

BRAND: It's hard to know. You know, legacies have their own life. One of the things I was surprised by in biographies is - I hadn't really paid attention to it, but reviews of biographies are usually a review of the subject more than the book itself. And so, boy, have I been getting mixed reviews out there, from, pay no attention to this Zen playboy, to, you know, here's the key to understanding the last 50 years. They're all looking at the same book. So...

ZOMORODI: You're complicated, Stewart.

BRAND: No, it's just what people do. So, you know, we held a 50th anniversary of Whole Earth Catalog, and we printed up a T-shirt for people that said, still hungry, still foolish. And I put it on the back of the Whole Earth epilogue in 1973. And what did I mean about it at the time? I was - it's appetite. It's willingness to be ridiculous on the way to something you think might be interesting. But everybody has their own reading, I guess.

ZOMORODI: Stewart Brand, thank you so much.

BRAND: Well, thank you. This was great.

ZOMORODI: Stewart is currently working on his seventh book. It's called "The Maintenance Of Everything." And he's writing about maintaining, well, everything from sailboats to civilizations. And you can see all of his previous TED talks at And if you want to learn more about Stewart Brand and all the ideas that we talked about, check out John Markoff's biography "Whole Earth: The Many Lives Of Stewart Brand" and the documentary film "We Are As Gods" - many thanks to them for their help, too.

Thank you so much for listening to our show this week. It was produced and edited by Rachel Faulkner, Katie Simon and me, with help from producers Katie Monteleone and James Delahoussaye. Our production staff at NPR also includes Sanaz Meshkinpour, Fiona Geiran, Matthew Cloutier, Katherine Sypher, Julia Carney and Beth Donovan. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.