Young Vigor Searching for Light: Bob Swann, Arthur Morgan, and the Pantheon of Decentralism

Young Vigor Searching for Light:

Bob Swann, Arthur Morgan, and the 

Pantheon of Decentralism

by Stephanie Mills

 
 

Part of the draft of a biography of Robert Swann entitled On Gandhi’s Path (New Society Publishers, 2010).

 


 

“We never know when or where young vigor may be searching for light, craving to be inspired and given direction."
                      -Arthur Morgan, The Long Road.

 

Coming of age in the sixties as I did, attending college in the San Francisco Bay Area during the Vietnam War era and winding up as part of the bioregionalist vanguard of the ecology movement, I imagined that my generation had invented war protest and a critique of industrial civilization. It took me a while to learn that there is a pantheon of anarchist and decentralist thinkers. I discovered the indomitable belief, flowing like a mighty underground river throughout human history, that sovereign persons in human-scale communities are more competent to manage their own affairs than some remote bellicose state, imperium, or theocracy.

As a long-time bioregionalist I believe that to endure, human societies have to be place-based, living in just proportion to their terrains. When, in the early nineties, I first met and briefly sojourned with Robert Swann and his partner Susan Witt at the E. F. Schumacher Society in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, it was Swann’s work in community economics that I knew him for. His passionate promotion of community land trusts, “honest money,” micro-credit, and local currency had created a vital set of means to encourage bioregional economies.

Later, around the turn of the century, when I was asked to undertake this biographical writing, I learned that Bob had been a conscientious objector (CO), an absolutist war resister, and had done a stint in federal prison on that account. That he had taken his principled stand during what I thought had been a “good” war enhanced my already considerable respect for him.

Finding out about Bob’s younger times has taught me some of the long history of war resistance in the United States. The more radical war resisters like Bob Swann looked at political economy to discover the roots of war. Lewis Mumford, whose work would be a lifelong influence on Bob Swann's thought, writes in The Culture of Cities: "At no point have the realities of social existence coincided with the claims, the demands, and the pretenses of the power-state: its politics can be successfully driven home, momentarily, only at the point of a bayonet" (352). Or as the stirring young pacifist Randolph Bourne (1886-1918) put it, “War is the health of the state.”

If war is what it takes to consolidate and maintain a “power-state,” then, Bob Swann and like radicals reasoned, an enduring peace might be found only by addressing the realities of social existence—like land, labor, and capital—in inventive, cooperative, at-home ways. Doing so by devising institutional structures that rely on democracy and assume the ability of everyday people—neighbors—to arrive at sound decisions for their community characterized Gandhi’s seminal “constructive programme” for India. Similarly, this regard for and confidence in the common person was at the heart of Bob Swann’s nonviolent localized economics.

In the course of his life Bob Swann, a true American Gandhian, created a handful of institutional structures that could abet, in the United States, the peaceful flourishing of small communities and of local and regional economies. Although not unique in being an economics bricoleur, he was among the deepest-thinking and most careful. If striking at the root of war and enhancing the condition of the whole community, including the land, was the objective, he simply saw no satisfactory alternative to the creation of democratic, participatory local economies. Not all pacifists were decentralists and not all decentralists were anarchists, but the sizable cohort Bob belonged to did not countenance the authority of the nation state to conscript them. Nor did they fancy that large-scale government or economic enterprise could shape and sustain the beloved community. Their views were lapped by that underground river.

All his life Bob Swann read and studied seriously. From his adolescent tutelage in philosophy and literature by Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran pastor in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to the reading he did in prison for Arthur Morgan’s correspondence course on the small community to the articles on novel energy sources on his desk at the assisted living center where he spent his final year, Bob nourished his intelligence purposefully. It was avid, self-directed study. Thus, what follows is partly conjectural, an attempt to illuminate some of Bob Swann’s intellectual and philosophical sources.

It’s axiomatic that dissenting views, especially dissent from the political economy of possession, dominance, and competition, will be marginalized. Meanwhile, in a noosphere yabbering with blogs, web sites, and the invitation to publish any thought any time in a promiscuous variety of media, it seems crucial to remind today’s readers that significant thought has roots as well as branches and fruit. All ideas have a genealogy, some in works still unsurpassed. The written works that informed dissent in Bob Swann’s generation articulate a vision of community that goes with the grain of human dignity and with nature’s patterns as well.
 

Jail is not necessarily a dishonorable place to be. Henry David Thoreau spent a night in the Concord jail for declining to pay his poll taxes, reasoning that they went to support the Mexican War and, by extension, slavery. Afterwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and mentor, asked him why he had gone to jail, to which Thoreau responded by asking Emerson why he had not. This essay’s touchstone is the relationship of a twentieth-century Henry and Waldo, with Bob Swann on the inside and Arthur Morgan on the outside, two highly principled men, each living and working for the common good by the light of his conscience.

Thoreau’s night in jail led to his world-changing essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” more popularly known as “Civil Disobedience,” whose influence would run through Tolstoy to Gandhi to A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name but a notable few. During World War II, a little less than a century after Thoreau’s hitch in the pokey, several thousand young men, Bob Swann among them, were in jail or prison for reasons that would have made perfect sense to Thoreau: They would not suffer the state to make them commit murder nor even recognize its claim to conscript them.

Nonviolence is the sublimest form of courage. Gandhians and pacifists before them, like members of the Religious Society of Friends and other Christian “peace churches,” choose to suffer willingly and lovingly for the sake of obeying the scriptural injunction not to kill or of achieving revolutionary change in social relations nonviolently. During the years when Bob Swann was growing to manhood, Gandhi was rallying hundreds of thousands of followers, first in South Africa and then in India, to practice absolute but respectful noncompliance with injustice. Gandhi called this civil disobedience satyagraha, or truth force. In A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories Dave Dellinger, a CO contemporary of Bob’s and one of the twentieth century’s most constant nonviolent activists, wrote of Gandhi’s influence in the United States:“[T]he thirties was a time when the nonviolent Gandhian movement against the British occupation and rule in India was highly publicized. . . . I was thrilled to know that a creative and powerful nonviolent movement for justice and equality existed in India, even if it had not yet achieved most of its objectives (30).”

In addition to the headlines, Richard Gregg’s 1934 book The Power of Nonviolence brought word to Americans of Gandhi’s campaigns. (Among Gregg’s other works which would later inform Bob Swann’s projects were The Big Idol, dealing with money and providing an introduction to Silvio Gesell’s demurrage currency, and Which Way Lies Hope?, which explained and argued for Gandhi’s agrarian approach to India’s development. Gregg, a labor lawyer, lived in India on different occasions. He wrote several books propounding different facets of Gandhi’s vision for an independent, self-reliant India.

The Power of Nonviolence provided vivid firsthand accounts of Gandhi’s satyagraha in action. Not only does Gregg explain the praxis of nonviolent resistance, he reprints newspaper accounts of the confrontations between Gandhian resisters and British-commanded troops at the salt pans near Bombay. These encounters transpired at the culmination of the 1930 Salt March, near the midpoint of the thirty-year struggle for Indian independence. To see unarmed marchers brutally beaten and not retaliating was gruesome—and amazing. Many hundreds suffered, and a handful died. Some, whom Gregg refers to as the “weaklings,” turned and ran. Eventually the viceregal troops sickened of what they were doing. The world was watching this phenomenal display of courage that confounded the British government and gained the moral high ground for the Satagraphis. Satyagraha is obviously not a strategy for the faint of heart. Yet it is perhaps the only strategy capable of changing struggles for liberation from rounds of violence, repression, resentment, and revenge into a triumph of compassion.

The Power of Nonviolence brought the Gandhian example to receptive young Americans like Bob Swann. Not long before his incarceration he met Richard Gregg at a nonviolence workshop in New England. In his autobiography, Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community, Bob wrote that this meeting was his “first real contact with the intellectual ideas behind nonviolence and with others who were also seeking alternatives to violence (21).”

Other American peace activists, like A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, also drew inspiration and learned technique from Gandhi’s program and practice. Pacifists mobilized to support Gandhi’s cause through demonstrations at the British Embassy and consulates in the United States and by raising funds for the Satyagrahis. (Marjorie Shaffer, who would become Bob Swann’s wife, was among these campaigners.)

As the editors of Power of the People: Active Nonviolence In the United States make clear, Gandhi’s work brought a new dawn: “World War II COs had something . . . going for them that their World War I counterparts lacked: the beginning of a theoretical study of Gandhian Nonviolence as a positive force for social change. Gandhi’s brand of nonviolence emphasized building decentralized communities grounded in truth, justice, and mutual aid, and encouraged the use of mass civil disobedience and noncooperation when the state interfered with the constructive programme . . . . [B]y the 1940s, pacifists had begun to implement American versions of Gandhi’s program. They started with communities, variously called colonies or ashrams, and by the end of the war they had gained more experience with organized direct action techniques” (93).

While most of us may be familiar with Gandhi’s use of nonviolent direct resistance, his “constructive programme,” which would advocate voluntary land redistribution, local production for local needs, and voluntary simplicity, is less well known. Yet Gandhi’s notion and example of developing a nonviolent, cooperative society, community by community, are a mainstay of decentralist thought and became a beacon to Bob Swann and many others of his generation. These early-twentieth-century pacifists were effective to a degree that people born after World War II and a half-century of adventurist militarism might find surprising.

World War I had been unpopular, a tough sell. It took a lot of propaganda and coercion to bring about the U.S. entry into the hostilities. In those days, conscription was opposed by both secular individuals and by members of the peace churches. Mennonites, for instance, were imprisoned by the thousands as conscientious objectors, and many were brutalized. These outrages occasioned reforms that would moderate the treatment of COs during World War II.

It was around the challenge of conscientious objection as well as from an overarching abhorrence of war that pacifist organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the War Resister’s League came into existence in the teens and early twenties. Their efforts helped develop a small but significant radical antiwar culture that existed in the United States between the wars. In their introduction to A Few Small Candles the editors, Larry and Lenna Mae Gara, write, “[World War II] followed years of disillusionment with World War I and two decades of antiwar writing and activity in the United States” (xi).

Larry Gara, also a conscientious objector, served part of his sentence in Ashland Federal Correctional Institution, where Bob Swann was imprisoned. We spoke on the telephone in January of 2005. “The prewar era was pretty much an antiwar time,” said Gara. “ Schools would have antiwar speakers on Armistice Day. The Gandhian revolution [had] demonstrated other ways of masses of people dealing with conflict.” Among the most effective of those speakers against conscription and militarism was Bayard Rustin. Swann first met Rustin, whom he regarded as a genius, when Rustin spoke at a Civilian Public Service Camp near Worcester, Ohio. Rustin and Swann would meet again in Ashland.

One upshot of this antiwar activism was that “[t]welve thousand men served in alternative service projects during World War II . . . . [N]early six thousand war resisters . . . served terms in federal prison for violating the draft law,” according to the Garas. They stress that “men who served prison terms for war resistance . . . were not draft dodgers. Their opposition took the form of open resistance, not evasion” (xii).

Having long since made up his mind that he wasn’t going to submit to the government’s command to kill, late in 1942 Bob Swann officially became one of those six thousand absolutist war resisters. Federal marshals came to the intentional community on the farm near Bennington, Vermont, where he was working to arrest him for not registering with the Selective Service System. In an instant, this uncommonly free and independent young man became a prisoner.

Remembering his time in prison from a distance of sixty years, Bob didn’t dwell overmuch on the hardship of it. The worst of it, he said, was the endless monotony. “Going to jail was not as big a deal as most people would think. When people ask: What was jail like? How did you feel about it? I sometimes answer by saying, How did you feel when you went to high school? It’s not that much different.” Yet for this hale and handsome fellow who followed both his intellectual interests and his conscience with ready energy, who loved farm work, loved being out of doors and doing tangible things, to have his entire world shrunk to the confines of a prison, to be bounded by walls or even more narrowly pent in the individual dungeons of solitary confinement, to be subject to endless rules, fed mediocre food, and be allowed out under the open sky for only a brief time daily must have been pretty damn rough. “I tried to get the most out of everything and to look at everything as an experience. OK, here you are in this eight by ten room. You can’t get out of it; it’s locked up. So what do you do there? Well, it’s a real challenge (personal interview, 26 March 2001).” Among the greatest of the challenges, surely, was living under a completely authoritarian regime.

“Ashland was the model of a police state,” wrote another of the Ashland COs, Arthur Dole, whose recollections appear in A Few Small Candles: “We were controlled by clanging cell doors, whistles, and calls for ‘count’ (when we were supposed to stand at the doors of our cells). Dressed in blue denims, we marched to meals or recreation. Much depended on the warden, whether he was benevolent or tough. Officers took their cues accordingly; a write-up for a trivial offense could lead to “the Hole.” Spies or finks would rat on their fellow inmates in return for favors. Tension was always just under the surface (66).”

Camaraderie with the COs and other prisoners leavened the duress: “There were companions there. They were good friends. They were taking the same commitment, so I could feel really close. That was where a real sense of commitment, or community I should say, began to take place,” said Bob. “Going to jail or civil disobedience or anything in which you broke a law brought out a greater sense of commitment and community. In prison when you performed a joint project of breaking down the segregation or discrimination, then that added to and strengthened your commitment” (personal interview 26 March 2001).

Reading the mature reflections on their imprisonment by some of Bob Swann's CO contemporaries, along with his own memories, one is struck not just by their decisiveness in refusing the draft and accepting incarceration but by their principled consistency within the institution. They were smart enough to understand that they needed to abide by the general prisoners’ mores. Yet they strove for just treatment for all within the institution. They took action, practicing nonviolent direct resistance behind bars.

William Roberts, another contemporary of Bob’s in prison and also a contributor to the Garas’s book, described life in Ashland as “a mix of regimentation and boredom, instructive work in the machine shop, close friendships with COs and non-COs, and through it all were the protests, fasts, and hunger strikes (usually focused on some prison injustice such as racial segregation), acts of peaceful noncooperation and their inevitable punishments” (157). The COs saw themselves as members of the prison population, subscribing to Eugene V. Debs’s view that “while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

For their involvement in actions against prison rules and regulations the prisoners were punished by being placed in solitary confinement. In his memoir Bob described “the Hole” and his pastimes there:

The room actually did have a hole in the center of the concrete floor for us to perform our “necessities.” The small concrete-floor room which measured roughly six by eight feet contained no toilet, no bed, and no running water. We wore a one-piece gray coverall and were given pull-on leather shoes. A single light bulb shone during the day and at promptly 8:00 the lights went out and the guards threw a blanket in. In the morning, the blanket was taken away. The door also had a small cubby hole for food to enter. Meals were usually brown baked beans, potatoes, and lots of white bread. And of course, water.

People often ask me, “What was it like in solitary confinement?” I suppose if you are a Tibetan monk (I was familiar with Zen), solitary confinement wouldn't feel much like punishment since meditation requires silence. But if you are a moonshiner from the Kentucky hills, it may not be so good. Some men go berserk and beat the walls of their cell until they drop from exhaustion. As for COs like myself, we could find ways to amuse ourselves. I would take the white bread they gave us for meals (I was on a fast for most of the time anyway), wet it, and roll it into balls about the size of golf balls. I let them get hard and used them for games: juggling; mini basketball using a shoe for a basket; bowling on the hard floor, and the like. (26)

This sounds debonair but also very like a valiant attempt to maintain some sanity.

Susan Witt, Bob Swann’s colleague and partner of later years, called prison Bob’s “monastery and his university.”

Because the COs were in the special category of being prisoners of conscience, or political prisoners, their status and condition would earn them the attention of Arthur Morgan, a great teacher and moralist. By offering the COs a correspondence course, Morgan supplied the university curriculum while the federal government provided the monastic accommodations. “Arthur Morgan was something of a folk hero to me,” wrote Bob Swann in his memoir, “because of his varied experience, his social conscience, and for his ideas on community cooperation” (28).

At the time of his flourishing in the first half of the twentieth century, Arthur Morgan was celebrated for both his civil engineering and his work as an educator. His flood control projects around the country included a system of dry dams still protecting Dayton, Ohio. He was the first director of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), serving from 1933-1938, and was President of Antioch College from 1920 until 1936. His written opus distilled his vision, practice, and scholarship in books on community, education, utopias, engineering. Of these, The Small Community is perhaps best known. In this age of PR, the sound bite, self-help, and spin, it is remarkable and as bracing as a dip in a clean spring river to encounter conviction and altruism like Arthur Morgan’s.

Teachers really crave good students, and Morgan was an inveterate educator. He appreciated that the COs were a self-selected, extraordinarily principled group of men. He offered them a correspondence course on the small community, which he was convinced was the seedbed of democracy, with this challenge:

The men in the [Civilian Public Service] camps are intelligent, with sincere and strong convictions. Rarely are there gathered for continued living together a company in which these characteristics are so marked. For these men to be associated for a considerable period without undertaking as a group to make their highest possible contribution to society would be a tragic waste, almost akin to disloyalty . . . . Men in CPS camps, instead of just passing the time in physical work with incidental study, or even in individual searching of their minds and motives, might also be doing a more difficult and more important job of working out together a common faith and a common way of life . . . .

You are in camp because of one common element in your outlook—objection to military service. That is not a sufficient basis for a common life purpose and commitment. If you are to come to have such a common way, it must be achieved by deliberate and sustained group effort. The result of such achievement could be a fellowship which would be one of the most vital and creative influences in our national life. (personal letter to COs in CPS camps, March 12, 1942, Antiochiana)

Morgan’s curriculum aimed at stimulating and informing that group effort. And if the COs and CPS men were, perhaps by their very nature, too fractious to become a fellowship, they would be, severally, at the fore of peace and civil rights activism as well as a new poetry following the war. That said, Larry Gara remembered that “the [Morgan] course did give us sort of a focus” and evidently laid hold of the men’s imaginations because, he recalled: “We had a harebrained scheme of dominating Idaho. All the pacifists would move out there and take over the state through elections” (telephone interview).

The course consisted of twenty lessons, each with a choice of topics for papers. A minimum of one a month was required, to be sent to Morgan at Antioch. The generous but frugal Morgan supplied books and also gummed labels “so the same envelopes can be used until worn out.” He viscerally understood the rigor of learning. Out of his own experience, yet in the third person, he offered this: “The writer [of this letter] got much of his education in engineering by studying at night after long, hard days of physical work. He would be so tired and so very drowsy that effective study would be almost impossible, and years were required for what might have been accomplished in as many months under more favorable conditions. If it should be feasible to retire early and to spend an hour or two in study before breakfast, while mind and body are comparatively fresh the results may be better. At best, serious study combined with full days’ work is a very difficult process and you should not be discouraged if it seems to go slowly. Relatively few people succeed at it, but those few may build capacity for significant living.”

Morgan’s assignments included selections from the expertise of his contemporaries and other works that had stood the test of time, or bid fair to. In addition to taking the students through his book The Small Community, Morgan’s syllabus for the course required them to read then-current books and pamphlets on rural community, democracy, social organization, and government. Reports of the Ohio Farm Bureau’s advisory council meetings, works on the cooperative movement, adult education, credit unions, and eugenics were on the list. Among the major works assigned, books big enough to undergird a common faith were Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities, and Liberty Hyde Bailey’s The Holy Earth.

With the genius of a seasoned teacher Morgan took the measure of his students and offered them Liberty Hyde Bailey’s agrarian zeal, Mumford’s erudition, critique, and regionalist vision, Kropotkin’s learned credo. Throughout the course Morgan’s own writings and his voluminous comments on the papers would sound a bass line of discipline and prudence as well as a concern for practicality and application. As an engineer and administrator Morgan had not only studied and pondered but had also led men in groups. His grail was the small community, but he didn’t imagine that the existence of huge industrial, economic, and bureaucratic systems could be wished away: “The day is past for America to solve its problems by a return to primitive living. Our enormous economic structure has made possible a density and an interdependence of population which are, in turn, dependent upon it,” wrote Morgan in his wisdom book, The Long Road. “. . . The stability of life in America depends upon the maintenance of a very intricate economic balance. . . . Those people play with dangerous possibilities who say that nothing can be worse than our present condition. . . . We must move forward and not back. We must plan and not drift. At any given moment there are vast areas of our common life within which planning is imperative” (21-22).

Indeed, as a director of the TVA Morgan planned and helped build an infrastructure of regional economic development from hydroelectric dams to communities planned down to minute details, like the height of the doorways in individual dwellings. David Shi, author of The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, quotes Morgan as saying that the Tennessee Valley is “the first place in America where we can sit down and design a civilization” (236).

Morgan, like Mumford, was a regionalist and wrote sensibly about the articulation of different functional units of administration, from the small community to the nation as a whole, “in which each level of society shall exercise control over subordinate levels, but only to the extent necessary for the social welfare. With every stage of social organization all necessary control from above should be combined with all feasible freedom below . . . . There can be no sharp, predetermined boundaries between social freedom and social discipline, but in such determinations, society must rely on the responsible good will, common sense, and judgment of its members” (63).

The existence of those virtues in society’s members was largely a function of the moral quality of their communities. The long road of character formation could be traveled only within and on behalf of community. Good character would emerge from sound community and in turn devote itself to fostering community soundness. Because in today’s public discourse the expression of morality has been reduced to sanctimony, invoking it makes many good folk nervous. Morgan’s life of service, however, exemplified a true civic morality. There are certain self-evident truths we might wish to dodge, but to encounter them, as in this passage from The Long Road, is to see clear light: “[F]or Americans as a whole, the great need of the coming years in whatever field they may work, is the building of great character, the defining and clarifying of purposes and motives, the development of integrity and open dealing, the increase of self-discipline, the tempering of body and spirit to endure hardship, the growth of courage, the practice of tolerance, the habit of acting for the general good, and the growth of human understanding and of neighborly affection and regard” (34).

Peacefully devolving power—most importantly the power of local provision—to the village, small community, or region would go against the grain of history but be more commensurate with human capacities and wisdom. Whatever its limitations, the small community is the socio-economic form that has characterized the vast majority of human experience. Thus, Morgan’s championing of the small community was not utopian or sentimental. He’d sifted through history, sociology, and his own working experience to distill a program for the development of communities that would function much in the timeless way of villages. Yet these communities would be modern. The last paragraph of The Small Community voices Morgan’s ideal: “The genius of democracy is to eliminate compulsion to uniformity, whether that compulsion be physical force or social pressure, and to develop common outlooks and aims by mutual inquiry, mutual interest, and mutual regard. That process seldom if ever takes place on a large scale. Rapid large-scale changes generally come by ignoring individual variations and by enforcing large-scale uniformities. True democracy results from intimate relations and understanding, with the emergence of common purposes. The community is the natural home of democracy, and it can be the home of tolerance and freedom” (282).

As a first assignment for the COs, Morgan asked them to “[m]ake a careful statement of your experience and acquaintance with small community life, its shortcomings and values, as you have seen them from your personal experience.” From his cell Bob responded with this vivid recollection of his childhood:

I believe the term “small communities” would include small local communities or “neighborhoods” within the domain of the larger city. At first thought I interpreted “small communities” to mean small, rural communities, but it is now clear that small neighborhood groups that have the sense of community, of social cohesion, or integration, are just as truly small communities. Therefore, I’ve chosen to write concerning my experience from childhood to the age of seventeen in a neighborhood community within a city. (I have also lived in small, rural communities and my interest in this course is in part due to my intention of returning to a rural community. However, I have chosen to write here of my earlier experiences in the city because they are more intimate and perhaps, on analysis, will bear more fruit.)

My parents moved to the city of Cleveland when I was but two years of age. After moving once or twice within the city they settled down on a short street in Cleveland Heights, a small undeveloped suburb of Cleveland at the time. Here on this same street we lived for fifteen years. This was where my experience with a small community began. Our street when we moved there contained only a few houses besides ours and these had only recently been built. The street itself was unpaved and dead end; that is, it ran into a fair sized woods of perhaps ten or fifteen acres and was only but five hundred yards long. Due, perhaps, to the relative seclusion and rural nature of this street, and to the fact of recent development, a sense of “pioneering” seems to have developed from the very start. By this I mean the families who were thrown together here developed the pioneering spirit of cooperation, and the sense of mutual community responsibility. At any rate by the time I was old enough to be aware of things, I was already conscious of myself as a member of a community larger in scope than the family group. As kids all of us on the street played constantly together, developed a strong sense of rivalry as well as a sense of camaraderie. Due to our fortunate situation on a dead-end street, where traffic was scarce, the street itself became our playground—baseball, football, hide-and-seek, etc., were all our constant source of diversion, and common activity. Moreover, the woods at the far end of the street was a haven for us against the encroaching aridity of the city—the automobile, the trolley car etc. There we could commune in solitude and feel ourselves to be a part of a larger and still unknown universe. The woods, too, were a source of other diversions: in winter there were hills for coasting and the snow made excellent foot-prints for a fox and hound hunt. There, too, we could practice forms of wood-craft—building fires, building cabins or huts, playing indian, or collecting wild-flowers, and, of course, having picnics, wiener roasts, etc. Yes, we used to haunt the woods, but occasionally when the loneliness and “spookiness” of the woods (especially at night) would frighten us then we could come running back home to the security and safety of the community. Then it was, I think, that we realized how secure and safe our community was, and how glad we were to get back to its sanctuary, safe from the “boogey” man that might have frightened us. Looking back on it, it seems to me that living though we did in the twentieth century (1920s) and within the area of a large city, yet we experienced something of the feeling the pioneer must have had about his community. We had a definite sense of “belonging.” (paper written for Lesson No. 1 in the course on the small community).

In addition to being a pleasant reminiscence, this paper of Bob’s reveals his awareness of the concrete influence of terrain and of the built environment on community. He understands that community has a structural, physical dimension and a necessary relationship with nature, that it consists in more than social relations.

The conviction that human beings possess an innate capacity for forming and participating in community, that what human communities require ultimately is not reformed rule or new rulers but ground and liberty and the means to sustain and govern themselves, is undying. Peter Kropotkin’s timeless Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, his classic statement of nonviolent anarchism, argues the case for the natural competence of human and more-than-human communities to attend to the common weal. Morgan asked the COs to read it and also drew their attention to Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Kropotkin’s meticulously documented work on economic decentralization.

Mutual Aid was written to refute the Social Darwinism expressed in Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1888 “The Struggle for Existence,” but the book is vastly more than a rejoinder. Kropotkin’s extensive researches in natural and human history convinced him that cooperation is as powerful an evolutionary force as competition, if not more powerful. In his travels in Siberia and West Asia Kropotkin had seen countless instances of mutual aid everywhere in nature and in every order of being, from flocks of birds and throngs of grazers to the elegant organization of the free medieval city-republics.

Kropotkin was a remarkable figure. A Russian prince and a scientific genius possessed of uncommon empathy with the great lot of humanity, he turned away from life at court and volunteered to serve in the military ranks in eastern Siberia, where by his explorations and analysis he made discoveries that revised the world’s concept of the region's geography. His intellectual accomplishments won him acclaim and the possibility of a comfortable life of scholarly pursuits. Yet Kropotkin again declined his privilege and became a social revolutionary, a radical, a writer and journalist, and one of anarchism’s greatest theorists. He too would be a prisoner of conscience. His advocacy got him in trouble with the state, and his activism led him a not-so-merry chase through prisons, escapes, and exile. None of this corrupted his faith in human solidarity.

When confronted with suffering and injustice or simple daily necessity, individuals and communities always spawn ideas for taking care of themselves and making some gesture toward posterity and the hope of continuance of the common life. Mutual aid, avowed Kropotkin, is not charity but reciprocity. It is the metabolism of the small community. In his introduction to Mutual Aid he wrote:

It is not love, and not even sympathy (understood in its proper sense) which induces a herd of ruminants or of horses to form a ring in order to resist an attack of wolves; not love which induces wolves to form a pack for hunting; not love which induces kittens or lambs to play, or a dozen of species of young birds to spend their days together in the autumn; and it is neither love nor personal sympathy which induces many thousand fallow-deer scattered over a territory as large as France to form into a score of separate herd, all marching towards a given spot, in order to cross there a river. It is a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy—an instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution, and which has taught animals and men alike the force they can borrow from the practice of mutual aid and support, and the joys they can find in social life.

. . . [I]t is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience—be it only at the stage of an instinct—of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own. (16)

Bob Swann described himself to me as an anarchist. He simply didn’t want to have much truck with the state. Like Kropotkin and like Gandhi, who professed “an irrepressible faith in human nature,” Bob possessed, said Susan Witt, “a deep trust in other individuals” and a “deeply-seated confidence in the common people to do right.”

Morgan exposed the COs to Liberty Hyde Bailey, assigning The Holy Earth, a stirring personal and theoretical work that advocated human relationship with the land which was both “biocentric” and agrarian and that envisioned a permanent agriculture. Bailey was a horticulturist, teacher, plant breeder, administrator, conservationist, and a leader of the Country Life movement, an offshoot of Progressivism launched in 1908. He was a writer of no mean gifts, as this excerpt from “The New Hold” in The Holy Earth attests:

My reader must not infer that we have arrived at a permanent agriculture, although we begin now to see the importance of a permanent land occupancy. Probably we have not yet evolved a satisfying husbandry that will maintain itself century by century, without loss and without the ransacking of the ends of the earth for fertilizer materials to make good our deficiencies. All the more is it important that the problem be elevated into the realm of statesmanship and of morals. Neither must he [sic] infer that the resources of the earth are to be locked up beyond contact and use (for the contact and use will be morally regulated). But no system of brilliant exploitation, and no accidental scratching of the surface of the earth, and no easy appropriation of stored materials can suffice us in the good days to come. City, country, this class and that class, all fall and merge before the common necessity. (252 -253)

One can’t say with certainty whether Bob Swann read every assignment in the course. Yet if he read The Holy Earth in prison, Bailey’s agrarian paean must have caused him a love-pang for the land outside the walls. Elsewhere in “The New Hold” Bailey voices an intuitive, spontaneous approach to living, working, and acting one’s way into community, particularly agrarian community. Bailey’s invitation to originality here and the self-organization it implies may well have affirmed Bob’s own natural attraction to the land and his nondoctrinaire approach to social change. (In later years Bob’s development of the community land trust would encourage “a new hold,” a way for communities to have tenure but not property in land. It would be a new institution, with a minimum of organization and a departure from conventional approaches.) Wrote Bailey:

I am not thinking merely . . . of any movement merely to have gardens, or to own farms, although this is desirable provided one is qualified to own a farm; nor of rhapsodies on the beauties of nature. Nor am I thinking of any new plan or any novel kind of institution or any new agency; rather shall we do better to escape some of the excessive institutionalism and organization. We are so accustomed to think in terms of organized politics and education and religion and philanthropies that when we detach ourselves we are said to lack definiteness. It is the personal satisfaction in the earth to which we are born, and the quickened responsibility, the whole relation, broadly developed, of the man and of all men—it is this attitude that we are to discuss.

The years pass and they grow into centuries. We see more clearly. We are to take a new hold. (Quoted from an excerpt in Thomas Lyon’s book of American nature writing, This Incomperable Lande [sic], 254)

Reading this, one can see that Morgan was nurturing his students’ understanding of a truth that subsumed pacifism and human equity. He was teaching not political science or economics but an integral philosophy of life.

This teaching must have been entirely congenial to Bob Swann. Community was his lodestar. All his life he worked for the common good, whether by protesting conscription or the nuclear arms race or by bringing his creative intelligence to bear on the political economy of competition, war, and inequality. He would develop a remarkable ability to see through politics to economic structures and to imagine and implement alternatives that could foster community, equity, and democratic planning.

This penetrating comprehension of Swann’s was also cultivated by his long engagement with the works of the magisterial culture critic Lewis Mumford. He first encountered Mumford in Morgan’s course through the assigned reading of The Culture of Cities. Mumford seemed to know just about everything, and the quality of that knowledge was material. He was a Manhattanite who loved cities as they had been and again might be. He begins the Culture of Cities, written in 1938 as the second in the four-volume Renewal of Life series, by conjuring the feel and proportion of the walled medieval city, a community comprehended and functioning organically. The work is arresting in its sensuous grasp of the politics of architecture and technology, of the sensory and cultural dynamics produced by buildings and devices. There was still the reek of dung in the medieval city, but, Mumford reminds us, the countryside was not so distant nor the gardens so small that other fragrances wouldn’t mingle in the liberating city air.

Mumford’s critical stance toward power was bracing; his vitalism was ferocious. “We must erect a cult of Life” (11), he declared; how could any thoughtful young iconoclast fail to respond to such a cry? Mumford proposed radical redesign, not merely of settlements but of what he termed the “pecuniary economy.” In this passage he entertains an end to private property and a Georgist-sounding regime of community landholding: “The pattern of outright individual land ownership makes it difficult to zone land areas for permanent uses that will best accord with the solid needs and interests of the community . . . . If individual land ownership works against the best utilization of the land as a human resource, it is not the environment that must be sacrificed, but the principle of unrestricted individual ownership . . . [W]hat is important in a sound scheme of land-utilization is not individual ownership but security of tenure: this is what makes possible continuity of use, encourages permanent improvements, permits long range investment of effort. The public control of land for the benefit of the region and the city as a whole is the outstanding problem for modern statesmanship . . . . (327).

Grappling with this outstanding problem would become a focus of Bob Swann’s attention in the late 1960s and would lead to his innovation of the community land trust.

The early years of this twenty-first century may mark the apogee of gross metropolitan and suburban sprawl. The causes are many, but the automobile and the capitalist relation to land surely rank high among them. Today’s valiant citizen groups around the country struggling to promote oxymoronic “smart growth” hark back, if unknowingly, to the regionalist movement of the early twentieth century. Mumford was among its leading lights. This, like pacifism, is a body of thought that isn’t part of our common understanding of social ideas. Yet a tremendous amount of biogeographical, demographic, and historical research as well as a great many plans were generated by the regionalists. They made the case that wholesome, productive, beautiful new communities could be established across the land. The mindless, dehumanizing growth of cities could, given the political will, be redirected, decentralized.

Reading Mumford exposed Bob Swann to some plenipotentiary critiques of overlarge communities and to some visionary directions for shaping the life of settlements. The region would be the middle ground, a sensible territory, not an imperial power state or an isolated sectarian enclave. “In its recognition of the region as a basic configuration in human life;” Mumford writes, “in its acceptance of natural diversities as well as natural associations and uniformities; in its recognition of the region as a permanent sphere of cultural influences and as a center of economic activities as well as an implicit geographic fact—here lies the vital common element in the regionalist movement. So far from being archaic and reactionary, regionalism belongs to the future” (306).

As Paul Costello puts it in his World Historians and Their Goals, Mumford’s The Culture of Cities “reached a climax with evangelical exhortations for the new town movement and bioregionalism. [Mumford] also speculated ahead to the Biotechnic, where decentralized ‘Garden Cities’ would be limited in size to where each member of the community could know the others, where in the breakdown of the factory system people would revert to the full expression of what Veblen called the ‘instinct of workmanship’ through a revival of the arts and crafts, and finally, where the world economy would be diminished in scale to a simple ‘reserve for surpluses and specialties’” (173).

In his essay responding to Morgan’s assignment to discuss The Culture of Cities Bob Swann perceives the region as a whole organism and can fairly touch its life. In this view, there is no hierarchy, nothing extraneous. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. It is a vision as radiant and persuasive to this young man as were Cezanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

 

Lesson 5, “Towards An Organic Regionalism”

by Robert Swann

Ever since reading Mumford and becoming more aware of the importance of the idea of Regionalism, I have been doing a great deal of reading and thinking on this subject which is coming to mean more and more to me every day. For what has great meaning to me is the concept itself, a concept which correlates in the field of politics and economics to the basic truths which have come to mean so much to me in the fields of the biological sciences, and in the arts. Briefly these truths are: the concept of the organic whole with the parts working within the larger whole in the interrelated and interdependent fashion, and the sum of which is more than the mere mathematical total, possessing the quality of the organism itself, that indefinable something we call life; and this whole organism is in a constant dynamic relationship of the parts (in art this is called plasticity or continuity) and yet no one part achieving dominance over the others but rather each retaining equally vital relationship to the whole (in recent art terms as well as in chemistry this is called equalvalence). Thus the concept of regionalism comes to me freighted with great meaning for I am already aware of its vital counterpart in the realm of art and the biological sciences, two fields, especially the former, which are most familiar to me. For instance if I were to take you to the origin of these concepts in the world of art, it would be clear that while (as Mumford points out) the impressionists opened up a new world of fresh air and sunlight, it was Cezanne who solidified their transient visions into the pulsating organic life which breathes through almost every painting he ever made. Impressionistic sunlight and air made solid and real and endowed with the vital life of the organism! Thus the concept of regionalism was first put forth in terms of paint in the paintings of Cezanne and now that vision is becoming the political and economic reality of the emerging future. To me it seem as clear and inevitable as the sun rising in the morning. Yet though the vision is becoming clear in my mind the techniques of its realization are nebulous and ill-defined, or do not exist in fact. Yet the faith that they will come remains.

In fact, Bob’s life work would be an implementation and justification of this faith by the crafting of techniques for holding the elements of a region—people, land, and community—in the dynamic relation of an economy. These are practices that would embody and advance the region’s civic and economic interdependencies. Interestingly, Bob goes on to disavow any decentralist dogmatism:

One thing I would like to make clear [is] that whereas several men in the class have tended to overemphasize the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the region and community in their reaction to the extreme centralization of the modern state it seems clear to me that if we are to achieve a real life synthesis we must not make the mistake of returning to a narrow provincialism, a meaningless isolation. It is quite understandable how modern man having had his hands burnt by the “Power State” is only too ready to condemn all centralization because of the inherent danger now manifest. But it is for this very reason—the difficulty of seeing clearly—that we must struggle all the more intensely to retain a clear vision, and to realize that if decentralization is going to have meaning it can only do so in relation to an equally vital concept of centralization. But the type of centralization which we must have is not one which maintains unity of the part only at the cost of a tyrannical dictatorship, but one which depends on the voluntary acceptance of central coordination of vital functions.

Arthur Morgan called this paper of Bob’s excellent and “as fine a brief statement of the essential principles of regionalism as I have ever read,” though, he added, “as to the significance of Cezanne’s art I am no judge whatever.”

Another enormously important intellectual interest presented itself to Bob Swann during his time in Ashland: Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, which Mumford extols in The Culture of Cities, illuminating the social potency of the architect, the person who can design, build, and realize the (not merely) physical bases—the dwelling-houses—for a life-affirming, Biotechnic society. Wright’s architecture was both beautiful and iconoclastic. It was, as Mumford recognized, truly novel in being freer of line than anything done before. Rhetorically, if not practically, Wright’s architecture respected the disciplines of site, budget, and materials. In his exploration of the potential of materials newly come to hand and his instinctive reinterpretation of the age-old practice of fashioning dwelling houses harmonious with their settings, Wright aimed at providing the common man with a worthy, simple, and comely dwelling: the “Usonian” house. In the late 1940s and 1950s Bob would work in the area of Kalamazoo, Michigan, as the contractor on some Usonian houses. And the houses that he himself would design were also Wrightian: modern in a timeless way and sheltering psychologically.

In Ashland Bob’s bubbling enthusiasm for building and design found expression in a proposal (not archived, evidently) made in an assignment on “preparation for community design.” The idea was to establish a community architectural and building service. Morgan thought it feasible and commented: “It would be important that you keep your whole pattern of action in mind—of architecture as related to the whole life of the community. To center on architecture as a thing of itself might bring quicker cash returns, but would become relatively insignificant.” He then asks, “Would you like to undertake such a project in some sort of association with Community Service, Inc.?” (The letters hashing out the details of the possible association are preserved in Antiochiana, the archive at the Olive Kettering Library at Antioch University [née College] in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the town where Morgan lived and worked for most of his life.

On June 24, 1944, Bob responded to Morgan’s invitation with pleasure and surprise: “I can only wish that circumstances would make it possible to accept your generous offer immediately. However . . . the government is exhibiting a very slow willingness to parole COs . . . .” He goes on to explain the restrictions on parole and mentions that he’s applying for employment at Cornell’s agricultural experimental station—a tax-supported institution, thus meeting the government’s criteria for CPS placement. Bob hoped against hope that it might be possible to come up with an acceptable plan paroling him to work with Morgan in Yellow Springs. Regarding his proposed architecture service, which he was discussing with two fellow COs, Bob mentions that “it would be difficult to say, considering the uncertainties of the future and our lack of experience and knowledge, how soon such a service might materialize. Certainly no long-term commitments would be advisable now. We all feel rather keenly the need for experience, study, travel, and perhaps a period spent working with an experienced architect.” He goes on to say:

As to the emphasis being placed on the community as a whole rather than upon architecture as a thing in itself, this would certainly be aimed at. However, one of my difficulties in the past has been [that I] “spread myself too thin,” [I] have such a wide variety of interests that I could hardly know or master any of them. Feeling that one of the faults of this age has been over-specialization, I have consciously avoided specialization myself. Now, however, I feel the need to concentrate along one main line, to begin to direct my energy and interests into a channel in order that I can produce something of value. Nevertheless, I do not want this to mean a narrow specialization but rather an integration so that I am trying to look upon architecture as a “focal point” of these varied interests, in the light of which they take on a new and more effective meaning. I hope that I shall be able to do this, but the danger for me lies, I believe, not in over-specialization but in too much generalization.

Later, when he began to work in community economics, Bob found a way to think about and deal with the encompassing generality of economics in detailed and specific ways.

Morgan responds with the possibility of something other than work with Community Services, a job working with his son at the Yellow Springs News. On July 29, 1944, Bob writes to say he would like that very much, but given the government’s restrictions on COs’ parole, it would seem impossible. Therefore, he’s going ahead with plans for parole to a job in Baltimore supervising boys at a Child Study Center for pre-delinquent children. And, “Incidentally, I may have an opportunity to put into effect the proposal to make a regional survey with the assistance of the young people in my care.”

By September of that year Bob had been released on three years’ parole after having served two years of his five-year sentence. With a new suit of clothes and $20, he went to Washington, DC, to check in at the American Civil Liberties Union‘s Committee on Conscientious Objection, which had been established to monitor the COs’ treatment. Marjorie Shaffer, a highly competent administrator and radical pacifist was directing the office. She and Bob evidently hit it off, for although he would work for some months in Baltimore, in his autobiography he wrote, “I reluctantly shuttled back and forth between Washington and Baltimore in order to spend as much time as I could with Marj.”

He wrote Morgan from the Child Study Center in Baltimore that the facility was shorthanded. Bob confronted the fact thoughtfully and constructively, although he found the deficiencies “abysmal.” “In my spare time,” he wrote, “of course, I shall continue to prepare myself for community work, and I am hoping that it will not be too long before parole restrictions will be eased enough that I can come to Yellow Springs.” He gropes for ways to apply what he has learned through the course to the new confines of his job at what was almost, but not quite, a reform school.

Morgan writes back and, among other things, asks Bob to track down some information about birthrates in Baltimore during the Depression. In a letter of November 1944 Bob obliges to the best of his ability, having done a fair amount of legwork despite being in a terrible funk: “I am very sorry to have delayed answering your letter for so long. The main reason has been due to the low mental condition I have been in since release from prison. I have found this job very taxing on my energies both physically and mentally. I had thought, having been in such excellent condition while in prison, that nothing could get me down, but I have discovered that something can, and that something is some twenty kids with extreme emotional and neurotic disturbances. Not having had any experience with children before, I have found myself all but snowed under. To this deficiency has been added the difficulties of adjustment to outside conditions after two years in prison.” Morgan responded to this situation sympathetically.

By March 30th, 1945, Bob had decided “to ignore my parole officer” and moved to Washington, DC, where a fellow CO helped him find work at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Bob moved in with two other recently released COs and three women, one of them being Marjorie Shaffer. He wrote Morgan that his health had improved “100%.” He mentioned sitting in on “discussion groups in relation to a large cooperative housing project which has been proposed for this area” and commented that this “has been informative and interesting but my impression is of a small group attempting a rather grandiose project (at least a million dollars would be required for a project the size of the one discussed) without the necessary experience or financial backing to carry it through. Perhaps it is more practical than I think. Certainly the tentative architectural plans were good, and the vision of a neighborhood housing group including community building, provisions for school and recreation sound.”

In a letter from Philadelphia dated October 27 Bob tells Morgan that he’s married and working at the Friends Neighborhood Guild, still on terms of parole. He describes the Guild as a “Settlement House emerging into the status of a Community Center” and says, “Here I have an opportunity to explore what some of the possibilities of ‘community’ are within the limits of the City.” He also mentions that he’s been helping a local architect build himself a house and expects to help him with other projects around Philadelphia in the months to come.

In early spring of 1946 the correspondence between Bob Swann and Arthur Morgan concerns Bob’s bid to serve as the executive secretary of the Miamisburg, Ohio, Community Civic Association, a job for which Morgan had recommended him. Although he was considered an attractive candidate, he wasn’t hired because there were some objections to his prison background. Then follows an exchange of letters trying to figure out a way for Morgan’s organization, Community Service, Inc., to employ Bob and Marj and house the newlyweds with their new baby, Barbara. Morgan is gracious, working with slender means and trying to strike as good a bargain as are the Swanns.

By June of 1946 the Swanns are having their household effects sent to Yellow Springs. “Marj, baby Barbara and I left [Philadelphia] to begin a new life in Yellow Springs working with Morgan,” wrote Bob in his autobiography. “My work with Morgan, however, didn’t last even a year. He really needed an administrator to manage the office and plan conferences, skills which I didn’t really have. Marj worked in the office, too, and was much more useful than I.” The Swanns remained in Yellow Springs for a few years, continuing their peace and civil-rights activism and involving themselves with cooperatives. It was there that Bob learned building and construction, which would be his bread labor for the rest of his life.

Bob wrote that Morgan’s course “was the most important experience of my prison term.” Not only had it provided him with a liberal education on community—a matter as dear to his heart as it was to Arthur Morgan’s—it brought him into a mentor-student relationship with Morgan and this at a time in his life when encouragement from an older, admirable man may have met a great need. Swann and his father had been at odds for a long time.

From the time he left home, Bob Swann was a communitarian, happiest in a group larger than the confines of an individual household. Significantly, he titled his autobiography, “Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community.” Bob’s disposition, it seems to me, was to be social rather than deeply personal. He was warm and gracious and at the same time very much an idea man. If he had a private self apart from his life’s work, it went largely unvoiced.

Bob Swann lived in community for most of his life. Except during his stints in “the Hole” he never, that I know of, lived alone. Communal living, after all, can free its members to follow a calling, to pursue a common ideal. Sharing space and chores—mutual aid—reduces costs, allows things to be accomplished that can’t be done single-handedly. From his student days auditing classes at Ohio State University and living in a philosophic commune in a warehouse to his time on the farm in Vermont to the fellowship of COs in Ashland, Bob spent most of his early manhood in versions of intentional community.

Nor did he and Marj and their four children ever live in nuclear fashion for very long. During their marriage the Swanns often lived in community. In Chicago they and Bob’s brother Jim and his family, along with one other family, occupied three apartments in one building, where they shared meals and child care. Later, during the 1960s and 1970s, Bob and Marj led a genuine and unique commune of New England peace activists at the Committee for Nonviolent Action’s farm in Voluntown, Connecticut. In interviews I conducted with him late in the summer of 2001 Bob reminisced warmly about the intensity of community feeling there and the freedom it permitted.

Whatever else they are, intentional communities are decision-making gymnasia, which by virtue of their homogeneity don’t quite model the real world. Whether intentional or de facto, actual community depends on face-to-face communication. There’s still no way to foster it without lots of meetings, potlucks, informal conversation, and other kinds of group process. Amiable and low key, Bob Swann was comfortable in community. Interestingly, he said that if he’d lived a thousand years ago, he would have been a monk in a monastery. He admired “those guys” in their self-reliant enclaves for tending the gifts of civilization during the centuries that elapsed between the fall of Rome and the rise of the modern state.

Americans, and all people in the overdeveloped world, are entering times that will test our mettle, make or break us as individuals and communities. Global warming is well underway, oil and natural gas production are peaking, and a host of other grievous ecological and social problems are concatenating. Collapse, a 2005 book by the Pulitzer-prize winning physiologist, evolutionary biologist, and biogeographer Jared Diamond, has lately brought the subject of the environmental practices leading to civilizational collapse into wider discussion. At the same moment, Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead explores the systemic cultural decline underway in Western society.

Apparently the time for building cultural lifeboats and establishing what Kirkpatrick Sale calls “ecosteries” is upon us. “Many times in history urban civilizations have broken down, leaving society to rebuild, largely from the village level,” wrote Arthur Morgan in The Small Community. “Should there be a breakdown in the present social order, the small community is the seed bed from which a new order would have to grow. If it now deteriorates by neglect and by being robbed of its best quality, the new order will not be excellent. Whoever increases the excellence and stability of small communities sets limits to social retrogression” (12).

In later years Swann’s wisdom would be that the smaller the scale on which one worked, the greater the possibility of fundamental change, with regions as the matrices for living, participatory economies. Thanks to Arthur Morgan and his curriculum, to the legacy of decentralist thought from the West and the genius of Gandhi from the East, and to the moral clarity that landed him in prison as a war resister in the first place, young Bob Swann became an inventor of a better day to come. In the likely event of a collapse—that is, a reversion to a less complex level of social organization—Bob Swann’s communitarian economics, imbued with his natural altruism and informed by great thought and good teaching, may well prove to be indispensable means for community resilience and resurgence.

Another Bay Area denizen of the 1970s, my author friend Chellis Glendinning, wonders where in the world I’m living if I’m talking about collapse in the future tense. In her village in Northern New Mexico, which has been ravaged by U.S. colonialism, exogenous federal land use policies, and heroin, to name but a few of the Leviathan phenomena that beset her small community, the collapse of industrial civilization is self-evidently well underway. We were talking on the phone a while ago about things falling apart and about this biographical writing.

“You know how after civilizations collapse archaeologists and historians are left to sift through the ruins for fragments and clues, remnants and relics that may inform their own and future time?,” she asked. “Well, what if your writing on Bob Swann wound up being such a fragment?”

“Write it like that,” she said.

 

Stephanie Mills has been a writer and editor of matters ecological, bioregional, social, and political for the past thirty years. Famous for her commencement address at Mills College in 1969, "The Future is a Cruel Hoax," she went on to serve as the editor of Co-Evolution QuarterlyNot Man ApartCalifornia TomorrowEarth, and Earth Times. Mills's 1989 Sierra Club book, Whatever Happened to Ecology?, is a personal narrative of her journey into the bioregional movement. Her 1991 Schumacher Lecture "Making Amends to the Myriad Creatures" later became part of her book, In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land. Her 2002 book, Epicurean Simplicity, explores the grace and freedom of the simple life as well as its challenges.

 

 

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Schumacher Center for a New Economics and Stephanie Mills