Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Bob Swann’s “Positively Dazzling Realism”

Introduction by Hildegarde Hannum

Writer, ecologist, and activist Stephanie Mills, my friend of many years, was my husband’s student at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he taught literature. The teacher-student relationship was later reversed as Stephanie introduced both of us to the emerging environmental movement.

There have been two major turning points in Stephanie’s life, the first while she was still in college. She read an essay on overpopulation by Paul Ehrlich, author of the then recently published book, The Population Bomb. What she read opened her eyes to the growing environmental crisis and set her on a path from which she has never strayed. She has been a committed defender of the Earth in numerous ways: as the author of books, essays, and book reviews; as an editor, a speaker, and a teacher. Her primary tool is language, which she uses with elegance and grace.

A native of Arizona, Stephanie remained in the Bay Area after graduation, moving to San Francisco, where over the years she edited several environmental periodicals, most notably Not Man Apart, which was the journal of the organization Friends of the Earth, and CoEvolution Quarterly.

In 1984 came the second turning point. She moved to northern Michigan, the home of her husband-to-be, whom she met at a bioregional conference. She has, by the way, been in the forefront of the bioregional movement and has played a leading role in advancing it.

When the marriage ended in divorce, I assumed Stephanie would return to California. I was wrong. She stayed in Michigan. With the settlement money from a car accident in which she was seriously injured, she bought 35 acres of land adjoining her house. She soon learned that this land of hers is, to quote her, “a universe-a-plenty . . . with not a square foot unworthy of respect.” Clearly, she had found her place in Michigan’s Leelanau County, Kasson Township. And there she has been putting into practice the theories she advocates, working tirelessly on behalf of the Earth and its ecosystems, acutely aware that our human fate is inseparable from that of the planet’s.

In her writing, with its close observation and compelling descriptions of the natural scene, Stephanie proves herself a worthy successor to the grand tradition of American nature writing represented by Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold. Her most recent book, Epicurean Simplicity, describes her life of material simplicity in Michigan–a life lived without abandoning the pleasures provided by good food, good companionship, and good work.

Some of you will remember Stephanie’s 1991 Schumacher lecture, entitled “Making Amends to the Myriad Creatures,” in which she spoke about the growing field of restoration ecology. She pointed out that as a result of the despoiling of ecosystems, a watershed has been reached in evolutionary history: instead of being better off without human intervention, the natural world is now in need of us to restore and heal it.

Today Stephanie will speak about the book she is currently writing, a biography of Robert Swann. In case any of you are new to us, Bob was the co-founder in 1980 of the Schumacher Center and its president until shortly before his death in January 2003.

Please welcome a true Earth steward, who was designated by Utne Reader as one of the world’s leading visionaries.

In 2001 I began writing a book about Bob Swann, founder with Susan Witt of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. What I am sharing with you today is an element of that work in progress. As a word mechanic who has not written a biography before, I am finding that the prospect of doing justice to a human life that was long and rich and productive, as Bob Swann’s was, is very daunting. When I was trying to extract a bit of it for today, like John Muir I found that everything is connected to everything else in the universe, and every aspect of Bob’s work that I had to omit in the interest of not doing an eighty-year-long rendition was hard to relinquish.

Just before the coffee break I was told a Bob Swann story that bears repeating. Virginia Levasseur, who is the mother of a former stalwart Schumacher Center staffer and who, through her daughter, was touched by Bob Swann darshan, said she had made a poster with a huge blown-up photograph of Bob and carried it in the peace march in Washington last March. It was captioned, “I’m here for Bob.” And out of those millions of people, long-time peace activists came up to her to introduce themselves and to affirm that connection and that heritage.

Bob was born in March of 1918 and died in January of 2003. He was a peace activist, a Gandhian, minted in the late 1930s. At that time Gandhi’s practice of satyagraha—nonviolent direct action—in India’s struggle for independence was conceptual news. It is perhaps hard for us to imagine, now that Gandhi has been iconized, what an extraordinary development was the practice of nonviolent direct action along with the idea of Gandhi’s constructive program as inseparable from the interventions. This meant an enormous new possibility to people in the peace movement in the United States. Through the media, through authors like Richard Gregg, Bob as a young man had an encounter with Gandhi as a living leader and revolutionary.

Our time is so pervaded by violence of every stripe and temperature—from tortures coldly calculated to annihilate the selves rather than the bodies of captives, to the invention of machine guns capable of firing a million rounds, to the violence being wrought on organisms, cells, genes, and molecules by advanced technologies—that a thoroughgoing practice of nonviolence has become ever more imperative.

In my talk I want to focus on Bob’s active nonviolence as well as on the timeliness and increasing urgency of the constructive programs that he, like Gandhi, saw as integral to achieving peace. The title comes from “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” by Albert Camus. The essay was written in 1946 for Combat, a successor to a Resistance news-sheet run largely by Camus. “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” was translated into English by Dwight MacDonald and made its American appearance in Liberation, a mid-century radical pacifist journal. This passage, in which Camus envisions a global peace movement, brought Bob Swann much to mind: “Little is to be expected from present-day governments, since these live and act according to a murderous code. Hope remains only in the most difficult task of all: to reconsider everything from the ground up, so as to shape a living society inside a dying society.”

“Let us suppose,” Camus continues, “that certain individuals resolve that they will consistently oppose to power the force of example; to authority, exhortation; to insult, friendly reasoning; to trickery, simple honor. Let us suppose they refuse all the advantages of present-day society and accept only the duties and obligations which bind them to other men….Then I say that such men would be acting not as Utopians but as honest realists. They would be preparing the future and at the same time knocking down a few of the walls which imprison us today. If realism be the art of taking into account both the present and the future, of gaining the most while sacrificing the least, then who can fail to see the positively dazzling realism of such behavior?”

Like Camus’ realism, Bob Swann’s involved a refusal to sanction murder. It saw beyond ideologies and nationalism. It meant the practice of what Camus described as “a modest thoughtfulness which without pretending to solve everything will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life.”

It was in the library of the A. J. Muste Center in Voluntown, Connecticut, that I met up with Camus this past summer. An organization called the Equity Trust, an offshoot of Bob’s community land trust work, was in its last days on the premises. I had gone there because at one time the place, an old farm, had been the home of the New England chapter of the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), which Bob Swann and his then-wife Marjorie had coordinated. Once again the Center was changing hands, this time destined to become a Catholic Worker meeting place. From 1962 onwards, the Voluntown farm had been an epicenter of action for peace, draft resistance, social equity, and civil rights.

The Center’s meeting hall cum library was named in honor of Abraham Muste, dean of twentieth-century American pacifism. When I visited, on one of the last days of a big move, the place was in disarray. Crime pays, but radicalism doesn’t. Refusing all the advantages of present-day society often means operating on a shoestring, deferring maintenance.

When it began in 1962, the CNVA Center occupied a three-story, eighteenth-century farmhouse. Its focus was a huge stone fireplace in a roomy kitchen. On my visit I noticed Time magazine covers featuring Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave hanging on the kitchen walls. “We have come to loot you with love,” Vinoba was saying. Buckshot holes, mementos of a 1968 attack by the right-wing paramilitary Minutemen still pock the living room walls.

I’d gone to Voluntown mainly to see some of Bob Swann’s buildings, for he was a designer and contractor throughout his working life. The snug low-cost Wrightian house Bob had built there for his family had been standing vacant too long and looked desolate. The Muste Center is another Swann edifice. Like that of some of his other structures, the ambition of its design was way ahead of the performance of its materials. The Muste Center’s roof had sagged as soon as it went up, I was told, and the radiant heating had never worked all that well.

As dusk gathered, I sat at a desk in the library and counted forty shelves bowed under a weight of evidence that scores of minds have fixed themselves upon the possibilities of peace and justice. There was a shelf devoted to Simone Weil, a sneeze-inducing complete Tolstoy—it was, after all, the “musty” Center—a collection of Liberation magazines, and Camus. Among the cardboard boxes on the floor were collections of Gandhiana as well as works by and about Dorothy Day and Bayard Rustin.

The existence of a specialized library, which is one of the main services the Schumacher Library performs, is absolutely vital. Yes, this is the present, yes we go forward, but if histories like this and bodies of thought like this go down the memory hole, we are losing our elders from the written tradition. Alas, because this Center was operating on such a shoestring, it didn’t have the ability to transmit the collection as a whole. Instead, it was parceled out, and that’s how I made away with a core collection of anarchist literature.

Over the years of its existence the Center was a place where young people came to find themselves, or at least to find a measure of respect for their need to question the established order. At the height of the summer when I visited, the place was lusher and leafier than it must have been in the Swanns’ day. Then there had been as many as twenty peaceniks in residence doing their best to stop the deployment of nuclear submarines, end the Vietnam War, campaign for civil rights, and in their spare time tend the garden and do KP.

It is easy to imagine Bob Swann in passionate conversation at the farmhouse dinner table or leading workshops in the shed dubbed Danbury after the federal prison where he and other CNVAers did time for acts of civil disobedience. He loved to expound his ideas, but he was no idle talker. Many of the ideas he worked with—among them means of land tenure that bar speculation and hold land in trust, systems of money and credit that don’t concentrate wealth and capital in too few hands—now have lives of their own.

Writing about Bob Swann’s life has led to an encounter with the considerable history of radical pacifism and active nonviolence in this country. It’s obscured, omitted, and forgotten as regularly as women’s history. Indeed, the two are often coterminous, but that’s another story. Bob’s activism spanned more than sixty years of the twentieth century. For at least thirty of those years he and Marj were right in the faces of those who would transgress the first of the ten commandments.

As a young man Bob Swann prized his freedom, the ground of his being. Yet he was willing to risk years in prison rather than concede to the nation state the right to conscript men to kill. In prison Bob continued to assert his freedom of conscience. He paid the price in willing suffering, plunged in solitary confinement.

Bob was the first of two sons. His father was the treasurer of a printing company, and his mother was a homemaker. The family lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Their prosperous middle-class lifestyle would be severely reduced during the Great Depression.

In first grade Bob had a radicalizing experience with unjust authority and Draconian punishment. When he was twelve, he became aware of his own capacity for injustice upon realizing that his merciless teasing of his younger brother Jim was, as Bob put it, “nonsense.” He said he became a different person after that. During his teens Bob’s intellect was cultivated and nurtured in a friendship with the scholarly young pastor of the local Lutheran church.

Bob Swann came into manhood in the thirties. It was a dire time, yet there still was time for a young man simply to be and to explore his interests. Although the Depression beset America, the war that was brewing was oceans away in the Old World and East Asia. In 1935 there wasn’t enough money for him to enroll in the University of Ohio, but he went anyway and audited classes, gravitating toward art. He did some odd jobs, like being a disk jockey, to support himself. He lived with an aunt and subsequently lived in a warehouse with a bunch of young philosophers. subsisting mainly on oatmeal.

An important early influence on Bob’s thought was Richard Gregg, whose 1934 book, The Power of Nonviolence, related the story and sense of Gandhi’s campaigns. A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin, both organizers for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, were also pivotal in inspiring Bob Swann’s pacifism. By 1939 he realized the truth that he would not submit to the draft. “I was not going to let myself be taken.” he said in one of our interviews. “Nobody was going to tell me what to do.”

The belief that animated Bob Swann fits no small category and serves no ideology. Still, you can’t mistake the worldview, for—as Dwight MacDonald summed it up—”The root is man.” It’s a conviction of the sovereignty of the human person within the unity of all life. No firsts, all equals.

Bob left college to work on a farm in Ohio, then went to live in an intentional community in Vermont. He was there when the federal marshals came to arrest him in 1942 for violating the Selective Service Act. Bob Swann was one of 43,000 Americans who refused to fight during World War II; he refused alternative service and was jailed along with about 6,000 other war resisters. They said, you have no claim on my time, no claim on my person. I’m not going to cooperate with this, even to the extent of going and planting trees or doing alternative service. As Susan Witt, Bob’s partner in his later life, put it, “Prison was Bob’s monastery and his university.” This does not gainsay the hardships the C.O.s endured. Jailing these youthful pacifists tested and strengthened their commitment. In prison Bob and his fellow C.O.s protested Jim Crow policies and regimentation generally. “I tried to be a nice troublemaker,” he said.

Prison provided a setting for seven-days-a-week conferences, tutorials, and seminars. This cohort of nonviolent jailbirds had considerable power of mind. Evidently it took some well-built gray matter to reason one’s way into such demanding opposition. The C.O.s shared with one another the works of a radical decentralist pantheon, including Lewis Mumford and Ralph Borsodi. In prison Bob first learned of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose design philosophy would inspire Bob’s lifelong work as a builder. Arthur Morgan offered the C.O.s a course by mail on the small community. The groundwork for Bob Swann’s interest in community-based economic projects was laid behind bars.

While on parole, Bob went to Washington, D.C., where he checked in with the National Committee on Conscientious Objection. Marjorie Schaefer, the administrative secretary, must have “looked like an angel” to Bob, their daughter Dhyana thought. With this encounter began a partnership of more than thirty years. Peace and justice were the newlyweds’ vocation. They marched, demonstrated against militarism, the bomb, and the peacetime draft, and witnessed for peace on the streets, carrying the latest of four babies or taking one or another of their young ones by the hand.

During the late forties and early fifties the Swanns lived and worked in the Midwest, first in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This is the home of Antioch College, where Arthur Morgan had at one time been president. Morgan is one of the greatest champions of small communities that America has produced and one of the most thoughtful. As a civil engineer, he was a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Roosevelt Administration. Morgan was interested in the TVA because it represented the possibility of comprehensive regional economic development. After leaving the TVA Morgan began a little organization called Community Service, which has been advocating tirelessly ever since for the small community as the crucible of democracy and the best matrix for the formation of human characters able to engage in democracy. After a brief try at working with Arthur Morgan, Bob learned carpentry, design, and construction. For a while he worked with his architect brother Jim on houses in the Chicago area. He also worked on some Wright-designed “Usonian” houses in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In 1956 Morris Milgram asked Bob to come to Philadelphia to supervise construction on a pioneering multiracial housing project. The Swanns lived in the project, and Dhyana recalled that their home was constantly visited by the leading lights of nonviolence, among them the saintly Peace Pilgrim.

While Bob built, Marj kept Bob’s business organized. She was active with the American Friends Service Committee, the Congress on Racial Equality, the war-tax resisters group Peacemakers, and the War Resisters League. Schaefer was, as a CNVA comrade would write, “an exceptionally talented administrator, writer, and speaker who had the sustained drive and fearlessness needed to maintain a radical pacifist peace organization even under extremely trying circumstances.”

That peace organization was the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action, formed in 1960 as an independent branch of the CNVA. The group brought active nonviolence to Groton and New London, Connecticut, where the Electric Boat Company’s manufacture of nuclear submarines was a mainstay of the region’s economy. The official name of the subs was Polaris, so this began the Polaris Action project, which involved witnessing against the deployment of Polaris submarines, bold attempts to interfere with their launching, and offering leaflets to Electric Boat workers, among many other activities. Bob and Marj Swann moved to Connecticut to help sustain the action year-round. By and by the Swanns, their children, and an ever-changing volunteer staff wound up living in an intentional community at the old farm in Voluntown. In their day it was a nonviolence training center, a hotbed of actions—walks, fasts, vigils, and demonstrations—a gathering place, a sanctuary for draft resisters, and most importantly a think tank for military conversion programs.

Eventually, Bob told me in an interview, he’d come “to the conclusion that [protest] wasn’t going anywhere and that you have to have a much more developed alternative so that you can show people the difference.” It was in the mid-sixties in the South, where he’d gone to help rebuild burned-out black churches, that Bob began to work on that alternative in a big way. As the newsletter MANAS—produced by another C.O., Henry Geiger—put it, “The vision which engages Bob Swann’s hopes and energies is the prospect of a civil rights movement which gradually becomes a community-based economic movement.”

What emerged, in 1969, was New Communities, Incorporated, in Lee County, Georgia. A more than five-thousand-acre community land trust, New Communities was organized to provide secure tenure and thus an economic base for a number of low-income black farm families. Bob’s concern was to formalize a means of holding land as a trust rather than treating it as property or a salable commodity. He studied and made on-site visits and was very mindful of traditional occupancy, understanding how traditional peoples related to the land, not holding it in fee simple, not treating it as a commodity. So there is a carrying forward of indigenous knowledge into this effort to codify in common law a way of treating land—which is given, not made, as a trust rather than an object—and considering the good of community. Bob Swann’s innovation and formalization of the community land trust is one of his most important contributions to economic alternatives.

The precept of the community land trust was not so much common ownership as ownership for the common good. Research in Israel on the Jewish National Fund’s land trust, certainly Henry George’s thinking about the evil consequences of land speculation, and Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan or land-gift movement; and J. P. Narayan’s Gramdan gift movement in India—all informed Bob’s effective creation of the community land trust. Henry George, by the way, is a lost hero of American social thought, but in the late nineteenth century he galvanized Tolstoy, among others. Bob was a student of George’s and also of Vinoba Bhave, who was an associate of Gandhi and who was “looting people with love” to effect a redistribution of land in Indian villages.

In the late 1960s Ralph Borsodi, another radical decentralist and economic innovator, and Bob Swann founded the International Independence Institute. Among its many initiatives the Institute had by the early 1970s produced a handbook that would help launch a scattering of “back to the land” trusts around the United States and spur the idea of urban land trusts, scores of which have been established throughout the country.

Around 1979 the Swanns’ marriage ended. The International Independence Institute had spawned the Institute for Community Economics. ICE was carrying forward the work on community land trusts and other economic innovations. Susan Witt, a Waldorf educator, had been drawn to this work by a sense that in our time the challenges calling for actual heroes were in this realm. Ere long Bob and Susan embarked on their long, productive partnership.

In 1980 they were asked to come to the Berkshires to establish a regional land trust. They fell in love with the area and decided to stay. Bob kept doing design and construction. By this time E. F. Schumacher’s essays—which had been known to Bob first through the weekly Peace News from London and then in the pages of Resurgence magazine—and several of his lectures had been collected and published as Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. The book was languishing, and Bob became its champion. With Hazel Henderson, doyenne econoclast, Bob helped organize a U.S. lecture tour for Schumacher in 1974.

In 1980 Resurgence editor Satish Kumar, John Papworth’s successor, encouraged Swann and Witt to establish a Schumacher Center in America. Today’s lectures are among the Center’s numerous ways of advancing decentralist thought and building an economics of peace.

There’s an enormity of licit, institutional violence in a globalized economy, in the ecocide and cultural annihilation incidental to the world trade that provisions consumerism. Inextricable from the violence that’s a cost of doing business is state violence. Those of us who pay our taxes finance the security forces defending the resource expropriations and acquisitions committed on our behalf. As consumers and taxpayers we are complicit in the destruction of the biosphere and of the human beings who are part of its fabric.

Our mainstream political discourse fails to acknowledge either the violence integral to our way of life or the possibility of structural alternatives. Bob’s lifelong wisdom was that “we need something deeper than politics.” The radical’s job is going to the root. That “something deeper than politics” is a way of life. It means making, as Bob Swann did, an existential commitment to shaping a living society inside one that is not only dying but deadly.

A statement of Bob’s written in 1961 for the Polaris Action Newsletter expresses not just the depth but the vitality of that kind of commitment:

It seems to me that the most dynamic life (‘peace’ is a debatable word) movement will develop when we combine direct action against war and weapons of destruction with constructive action which affirms life. The greatest vitality will exist at the point where these positive and negative aspects are most intensively expressed, as it is the tension created between true opposites which always creates vitality ([for instance,] the Yin and Yang principle of Taoism). We may look upon them as necessary aspects of the same program but in reality they are true opposites, just as male and female are true opposites, but united in marriage are part of the same organic family. In the same way, negative action against total destruction and constructive program are part of the same organic whole.

Therefore, while I advocate the strongest kind of negative action (civil disobedience, nonviolent obstruction, etc.) I also advocate the strongest kind of constructive action. What kind of constructive action? To me the clearest approach to our problems is in the suggestions of Lewis Mumford, Arthur Morgan, Jayaprakash Narayan and others who are working for regional community redevelopment and revitalization. In this, the concept of regionalism is central. This means the economic, political, physical and social reorganization of our communities, regions and the world itself along organic, human lines of thinking that will bring the machine and our vast technology under the control of Man, instead of serving some abstract purpose such as the ‘free enterprise system,’ ‘the state,’ ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ etc.

Bob Swann’s advocacy of a reorganization from the ground up, with its anarchist spirit, anticipates bioregionalism. It prefigures the participatory democracy that characterizes today’s planet-wide movement of movements. Millions of participants–in ski masks, saris, and sport shirts–are variously engaged in resisting, outwitting, and, we may hope, outlasting the global empire of neoliberal economics.

Elsewhere Bob wrote that “local and democratic participation in the economy is essential to our economic survival and to our humanity.” Understanding that participation in one’s local economy is essential to being human harks back to a durable wisdom, and ultimately to the lifeway of subsistence. Participatory economics addresses the undignified states of complicity and learned helplessness that descend on people who find themselves at the mercy of large faraway systems of finance, trade, food production, and livelihood. In all but the most aberrant times subsistence is humanity’s basic occupation. Decentralist economics honors the workshop, the cottage industry, the local entrepreneur providing some useful service. There’s no disdain for enterprise but a working consciousness of the morality of scale.

Naturally, the pundits of power and economic orthodoxy dismiss decentralism as impractical or utopian. For most of us, simply becoming conscious of our ordained economic and geopolitical arrangements is a stretch. We can imagine winning the lottery but not a home-grown sufficiency. Yet for many concrete reasons regionalism or decentralism may soon become our dazzling realism.

Collapse of the sort that Rome experienced is a common fate of complex societies. Given the scope of the global market and the sway of its labor-displacing technologies and thought-displacing media, as well as the reality that the ecological overdraft, which began in good earnest with fixed human settlements, has yet to let up, it’s possible that our civilization’s collapse will be faster and more devastating than Rome’s.

In Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community, Bob’s web-published autobiography, he reflected that “[d]uring the Great Depression the spirit of people helping each other prevailed… a sense that we’re all in the same boat.” He went on to say, “If the coming computer collapse on the first day of the year 2000 is anywhere near as bad as the Depression—or worse as many people are predicting—then I hope this spirit will be revived.”

Thanks to a hectic multimillion-dollar patch job the big Y2K discontinuity was a nonstarter, and the spirit of mutual aid didn’t find its big opportunity. Once again, events proved that well-known futurist Chicken Little wrong. Technological optimism, or at least the effectiveness of muddling through as a strategy, was vindicated.

Since my start, thirty-five years ago, as a catastrophist I’ve often announced that some chunk or other of the sky was falling, only to be mocked by the persistence—despite its moral, aesthetic, ecological, and thermodynamic flaws—of what Ralph Borsodi referred to as “this ugly civilization.” Clearly, it doesn’t do to be too specific about the date the sky’s going to fall, although with Y2K that was the point.

It was a little surprising to find that Y2K reference in Bob’s autobiography. He didn’t predicate his economic ideas on catastrophes any more than an architect designing a comely home needs the hurricane flattening all the ugly houses in the realm to justify the beauty of her structure. Although Bob wasn’t apocalyptic, he could imagine crisis—a “Keynesian Catastrophe,” as Borsodi put it—leading to a world financial collapse. While the tenuousness of the dollar could result in a crisis that would relocalize economies in a hurry, there’s another possible precipitating factor that I’d like to mention today. It’s called “peak oil,” that is, the peak of production of oil from the Earth.

Some folks choose decentralism, many may have it thrust upon them as the primary fuel for transporting goods over long lines of supply becomes prohibitively expensive. If we may believe the predictions of folks like Jan Lundberg, a former petroleum market analyst who founded the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium in the early 1990s, and Richard Heinberg, whose recent books The Party’s Over and Powerdown address the ramifications of the imminent demise of the petroleum era, the end is nigh. Decentralist economics, under these circumstances, might be a better idea than world trade. Access to land for local food production could soon be urgent. Community land trusts are likely to become critical, for people who want to produce food in their communities shouldn’t be impeded by land prices driven out of reach by sprawl and speculation.

The inevitable peak of petroleum production has caught the attention of Community Service, Inc., which Bob’s by-mail mentor, Arthur Morgan, and his family founded and sustained. A small salient organization akin to the Schumacher Center, Community Service has been providing education and advocacy for the small community since 1940. In “Community Resurgence and Oil Depletion,” an article in its January 2004 newsletter, the editors wrote:

Because we view the optimum development of man to be in small communities…. we looked at the issue of peak oil and what was projected to follow and wondered if this represented the trigger event that will reverse urbanization and globalization and spur the beginning of decades of decentralism…. We wondered if an oil crisis would reverse the long-term decline of small communities. We wondered if we could shift from the gentle position of holding on to a faded dream (humored by others with a tolerant smile and the phrase ‘you can’t go home again’) and move from ‘keeper of the past’ to ‘visionary of the future.’

If you’re a real decentralist, the thought of what we might have to confront on the other side of the petroleum era, while arduous, wouldn’t be completely appalling. With any luck, the center will not hold—although one shudders to think of the armed might, flailing bureaucracy, and haste to artifice that would be marshalled to impose order on a society running on empty.

Now, Bob Swann was nowhere near the technological pessimist I am. He was a modernist. During some of our conversations he waxed enthusiastic about hydrogen fuel-cell technology and even fringier cold fusion. Bob didn’t long for a return to a pre-Tudor peasant lifeway; like E. F. Schumacher, he saw the need for intermediate and appropriate technologies. He was alert to the possibilities of alternative energy development because he understood how indispensable our mechanical slaves have become and saw no intrinsic value in toil—certainly in good work, but that as distinct from toil.

Where I might regard a big discontinuity and the fear of privation as possible stimuli to the crafting and establishment of self-reliant bioregional economies, Bob was a visionary of the here and now. He envisioned the elegant organic sufficiency of community economics—and not as a last resort. He had experienced tastes of that sufficiency while living in intentional community and wasn’t motivated by fear but alive to possibility. His hope was grounded in community. With all his risk-taking, he had to have known some dark hours of fear and despair, but throughout he had a vital experience of community.

Whether or not the dollar evaporates, oil ends, or civilization collapses, we are going to have to learn to navigate past our fears to oppose to power the force of example. Talking with Bob about his draft resistance and some of the other protest actions that would land him in jail induced a perhaps inordinate estimate of the courage this had required. I kept wondering how he’d managed to be so impossibly brave. He situated his courage when he asked me, “How afraid were you when you went to high school?”

We live in precarious times, times of upheaval. What will we make of them? Good outcomes will depend on our willingness to reconsider everything from the ground up, on having good examples before us, and on our own steadfastness of purpose. Absolutism was what the non-cooperating C.O.s called it—a positively dazzling realism.

Question & Answer Period

(Questions were inaudible; only the answers follow.)

If we are going to enjoy a decent survival in our communities from hence, the example that Bob and so many other people in his cohort laid down in our history needs to be brought forward. It’s remarkable to encounter the breadth and learnedness and inventiveness and intensity of nonviolent direct action in America in this country. On this subject, may I recommend a wonderful book, probably no longer in print, an illustrated history of nonviolence in America titled Power of the People. It was the goddess method of research, which allows serendipity to function in the scholarly process, that brought a copy of the book into my possession. I was in the Bay Area this spring working on the book, interviewing Bob’s children and Marjorie Swann. I went to Moe’s, a great big used bookstore, and Power of the People more or less just tumbled off the shelf into my hand. There are photographs in it, including one of a handsome young Bob Swann walking along with baby Dhyana, neé Barbara, in his arms. Active nonviolence is a great American heritage, albeit underreported.


I think Bob felt that the economic work merited his full attention and was where he wanted to place his energy. As someone who has basically been interested in bugs and bears for the past thirty years, I’m gaining enormous respect for people who can parse economics in new ways. It’s terribly difficult, and one of Bob’s extraordinary gifts was his ability to penetrate the mystique, make the concepts lucid and then transform them. It’s a little bit like being able to understand progressive jazz: You have to be able to discern patterns that ordinary folk don’t necessarily get. Bob certainly did years and years of service on the hustings, always making economic experiments. An element of his work that I wasn’t able to address today was his involvement in cooperatives. It was all third-way economics and the neither-left-nor-right decentralist approach that is omitted from the discourse all too much. That is why the Schumacher Center’s work is so vital–to articulate all that and to say this crazy dichotomist thinking that characterizes our discourse is a form of violence too.


The obliteration of the past by technology, the obliteration of skillful means, of leisurely communication, of so much else—that is not something I want to be party to. Part of the reason I have reservations about technological systems is that I really think what needs to be fixed lies within persons and societies more than in our material arrangements. It’s the discipline that Oren Lyons spoke of earlier today. I don’t know that we need to make things any easier or keep making more things. Do we really need a greater volume of anything in this culture?

Yes, I’m a Luddite. One of the things I came away from Voluntown with, in addition to the wonderful books, was an Underwood desk-model typewriter; even though I carried it loose in the trunk of my car from Connecticut to Michigan, it worked fine when I got it home. With that old dreadnought I’ll be able to turn out copy when the lights go out. That said, one does have to interface with the real world. Richard Heinberg, whom I mentioned, makes me look like a Pollyanna in regard to his ideas about what may await us in the post-petroleum era. In his publication, the Museletter, he warns that. if the peak of production is imminent, as many independent petroleum geologists are now saying, we don’t have enough cheap fossil-fuel energy left to underwrite a transition to elegant high technologies. In addition to advocating lots of good gardening Heinberg talks about people who are trying to retrieve skills like flintknapping, making stone blades as being on the cutting edge of future technology. The point is, we may be set so far backward that the old ways will be forward.

We’ve become radically dependent on our technologies, and I see no reason for us to put much faith in them. I am not against technology per se but certainly against industrial-scale applications of technology. I don’t want what has been learned over the millennia of human civilization and invention to be obliterated at a stroke by the silicone chip or nanotechnology or genetic engineering. Jerry Mander, a Schumacher lecturer in 1999, produced two important and durable critiques of technology: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and In Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of Indian Nations. One of his strongest points is that virtually all technological introductions are absolutely undemocratic; such democracy as there is getting to be happens in the streets. It happens in the streets when people turn out by the millions to protest the introduction of genetically modified seed, for instance. Part of why I focused on the aspect of Bob’s life that I did was to call attention to the fact that at our moment everything is in play. To have a voice, we will have to use every medium we can, and the medium of the street is one such. A profound commitment to nonviolence is absolutely essential to the arena of mass demonstration and intervention.


We can do a tremendous amount. The models and the tools are laid out before us, such as the kind of innovative work Judy Wicks is doing in her community in the way of relocalizing economies. As Pogo said, “We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.” There is plenty to do.

I think that a permaculture-style redesign of the landscape would be a good outcome. Tweaking automobiles and the transportation system we now have would not be realism in the sense of sacrificing the least to gain the most.


I suspect that in this shift we’re making, there will be collapse in some areas and in other areas there will be flourishing. A propos the linking of economics and ecology, another great thinker on the subject of economics and its discontents and contents is Herman Daly, who has pointed out that properly understood, economics is a sub-set of ecology.

Closing Remarks

Pieces of wisdom kept going through my mind as I listened throughout the day. And there is good news. In this dark time it is a fine thing that Wangari Maathai, a woman who plants trees and organizes people to plant trees and who took many a beating but never ever gave up, won the Nobel Prize.

One bit of wisdom that has come to mind is something the wonderful sage Arne Naess said when he was quizzed about the future. He said he was pessimistic about the twenty-first century, optimistic about the twenty-second. I’m also mindful of a saying of Luther’s: If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.

And finally a bit of wisdom from a fellow named Sterling Bunnell, a Jungian analyst and zoologist in the San Francisco area. In an interview with the late, lamented magazine Gnosis Bunnell, an ecologist, was addressing some of the enormous ecological and climatological global changes that Oren Lyons referred to this morning. It’s hard news to take in, and the implications are confounding. He was asked, What do we do? And he answered, “We’re in for some pretty rough bumping over the next two hundred years.” So what would I recommend? Don’t panic, try to appreciate your own lives, and try to help a little loveliness to continue.


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

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Thoughts in the Presence of Fear
A New Peace