Publications / Tribute

Bob Swann Obituary

Robert Swann, a peace activist and seminal figure in the decentralist and community economics movements in the US died peacefully at his home in South Egremont, Massachusetts on January 13, 2003, where he had lived for twenty-three years. The cause of his death was lung cancer, said his partner, Susan Witt. He was 84.

A modest, genial man, Robert Swann led a life of activism. When the US entered the second World War, Mr. Swann was auditing courses at the University of Ohio. He refused to co-operate with the draft. As a non-compliant conscientious objector, he was sentenced to two and a half years’ federal imprisonment. Incarceration with other conscientious objectors developed Mr. Swann’s knowledge of decentralism and community economics as well as his practice of civil disobedience.

“Prison was his monastery and his university,” said Ms. Witt. In later years, Mr. Swann was president and founder of the Schumacher Center in America. The Schumacher Center, a private not-for-profit educational organization, hosts a variety of projects that implement the philosophy of Small Is Beautiful author E. F. Schumacher. Mr. Swann was instrumental in bringing Schumacher’s work to the attention of audiences in the US. Swann’s lifelong interest in land trusts, community credit, worker cooperatives and local currency all stemmed from his peace activism. He felt that in the absence of what his friend Schumacher called an “economics as if people mattered,” conflict and war were inevitable.

In 1972, with economist Ralph Borsodi, Mr. Swann revivified the local currency movement in the US. Some twenty-three communities since that time have created their own money systems.

Based on his researches in Israel and India Robert Swann pioneered the community land trust, which is a means of stabilizing land tenure together with its status and value. Over one hundred community land trusts now exist in the US. Among them is the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires in Massachusetts; comprising 49 acres in three non-contiguous parcels, this land trust includes two neighborhoods of owner-occupied homes that are kept permanently affordable through resale covenants, and Indian Line Farm. Indian Line is the first Community Supported Agriculture farm in the country, growing organic vegetables for its shareholders and for local markets. Many of the buildings on the two residential sites, including the Schumacher Center Library, were designed and built by Mr. Swann, who worked as a carpenter and contractor for much of his life. He was especially influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and in the 1950s had occasion to build several houses designed by Wright.

Born March 26, 1918, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Robert Swann was the elder of two sons of Clarence Swann and the former Aline Abrams. He attended public schools. Shortly after his release from Ashland Federal Prison, Mr. Swann married Marjorie Schaefer, a fellow peace activist, from whom he was separated in 1978 and later divorced.

In the early 1960s Swann and Schaefer established The Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA). Begun in support of the Polaris Action Campaign, CNVA used nonviolent confrontation to oppose nuclear weapons testing and deployment. From Groton, Connecticut, to the Caribbean island of Culebra, Mr. Swann played a supportive role in many direct actions during the 1960s and 70s.

David Ehrenfeld, author of The Arrogance of Humanism, called Robert Swann a model of “…intellectual creativity and productivity, of honesty, of steadfastness of purpose, compassion, moral strength, hard work and humility.”

“Bob Swann learned how to build things right,” said Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale, “and that is what he did—in the peace movement, in community land trust initiatives and in the Schumacher Center.”

Robert Swann is survived by his partner, Susan Witt; his brother James; his daughters Barbara, Carol and Judy, a son, Scott; and a grandson, Tyler.

A memorial service was held February 22nd, 2003 at 2:00 P.M. at the First Congregational Church, Main Street, Great Barrington.

Publication By

Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills has been a writer, editor, and speaker on matters ecological, bioregional, social, and political for the past fifty years. Famous for her commencement address at Mills College in 1969, “The Future is a Cruel Hoax,” she went on to serve as the assistant editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly and editor-in-chief of Not Man Apart, Cry California, and Earth … Continued

Related Lectures

Stirred by Necessity and Promise
Tributes to the Life of Bob Swann
A New Peace
Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community: An Autobiography
Redefining Development