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Thoughts from our founder Eric Utne.

Remembering Brenda Ueland's Words

Last January I received an email from a Minneapolis city planner informing me that a demolition permit has been submitted for the house of writer, feminist, and activist Brenda Ueland.

Brenda’s home, demolished!? How could they? Brenda was one of Minnesota’s best-known and most beloved writers. Tearing down her house, the place she lived and wrote for the last three decades of her life, (1954-1985), would be like tearing down her friend Upton Sinclair’s house in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house across the river in St. Paul. How could they even consider such a sacrilege?

For me, this was personal. Brenda was my step-grandmother. During the last couple years of Brenda’s life I turned time and again to her for advice and counsel about everything from how to be a good husband, a loving father, and a real man, to how to make a difference in the world. Brenda’s encouragement helped me start the Utne Reader.

The city planner’s message turned my world upside down. For the next 11 weeks I dived into a full-out effort to save Brenda’s house. My life was all Brenda, all the time — day, night, and in the middle of the night. I sent email alerts to the people on the neighborhood distribution lists where she lived, and wrote personal letters to writers, scholars, and historians around the world, asking them to testify as to Brenda’s historical significance. Scores did.

I joined a group of neighbors and Brenda fans to form the BUGS (Brenda Ueland’s Gang of Seven) to save the house. We created a Save Brenda’s House Facebook page. Two of the BUGS hired a preservation lawyer. Midnight phone calls, sidewalk demonstrations, letters to the media, backyard confrontations, and lobbying city hall all followed.

Mysterious interventions from “over Yonder” occurred. I consider them grace notes. I was frequently reminded of Brenda’s words:

You know much brighter souls than I say that when we die we are not dead. I cannot help but believe that. It is a certitude. Death is unbearably tragic and grievous because it is a kind of farewell. But it is not forever. Those who are Yonder, in a queer way — I have discovered this myself — are more puissant (more powerful) than ever. They are more befriending, more strengthening, more helpful….

I certainly felt befriended, strengthened, and helped throughout those 11 weeks. In the end, our efforts to save Brenda’s house failed. The house was demolished on April 4, 2017. But something marvelous came out of these efforts. Many people deepened their connection with Brenda’s writings. And I realized that Brenda has an important message for our times.


Brenda did for me what elders can do for young people, in fact, what each of us, no matter what our age, can do for everyone around us, especially in “hopeless” times — she had a way of listening to me that always made me feel seen and heard. Even if she did most of the talking, which was usually the case, I always came away from my sessions with her feeling good about myself, and clearer about whatever issue was at hand.

So ... the next time the world feels too much with you, the next time global climate chaos, or the breakdown of civil discourse, or Islamophobia, or the attack on civil liberties, or the rolling back of social and environmental protections — the next time these and other outrages push you into genuine despair, remember these words from Brenda:

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force ... When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand ...[a] creative fountain inside us begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom .... This little creative fountain is in all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination — whatever you want to call it ...”

And these, “Be bold! Be grand! Be mighty! We need you! The world needs you!”

And these, “The point is not to live long — we live forever anyway. The point is while you are alive, be ALIVE.”  

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader.

A Clash of Paradigms

Rarely have two visions of the future stood in sharper contrast than those represented by two recent publishing projects.

Project Drawdown is an ambitious new research and marketing campaign that is founded on the premise that climate change can be “solved” with a combination of smart technology and social engineering. Launched in April 2017, the project is the brainchild of business writer and environmental entrepreneur Paul Hawken, (Natural Capitalism, The Ecology of Commerce, Blessed Unrest), and outlined in his latest book Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming (Penguin Random House).

The drawdown.org website states that it may be possible to “reverse global climate change” by rolling out and scaling up 100 existing solutions ... The solutions are technological, like renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, social ... like food choices and educating girls, and ecological, like restoring forests, grasslands, and soil to sequester carbon dioxide.”

Hawken defines “drawdown” as “the point in time when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begin to decline on a year-to-year basis.” He says it’ll take about 30 years, and that in doing so we will, “improve well-being, create jobs, restore the environment, enhance security, generate resilience, and advance human health.”

A few years ago I’d have been excited about Project Drawdown. But Drawdown is heavy on the techno fix, and does little to challenge the logic of the market economy and the compulsion for growth that drives it. Nor does it question techno-industrialism, or consumerism, or the myth of “progress,” or the centrality of human beings over nature. And it doesn’t ask the reader to do much at all.

Compare Hawken’s techno-utopian vision to what I consider the more compelling future envisioned by David Fleming in his two books Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It, and Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival, and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy (Chelsea Green). Fleming is the spiritual and conceptual godfather of the Transition Town movement. Though Fleming died in 2010, his colleague Shaun Chamberlin edited the books and Chelsea Green published them in late 2016. Fleming believed that the global market economy is doomed, and he shouts “Good riddance!” from nearly every page. The market economy, with its energy hungry machines, and its imperative to get the lowest price, got us into the mess we’re in, Fleming says. It’s certainly not going to get us out.

Instead, Fleming argues with clarity and wit that we need to segue now from the market economy to its sequel, i.e., much smaller scale, less energy-intensive, more localized communities of “reciprocity and freedom,” communities that prize food growing, knowledge-sharing, myth-making, musical celebrations, and convivial neighborliness. These are the basis of a society that can survive and thrive in the rocky “climacteric” that may already be upon us.

According to Chamberlin, Fleming’s true passion and genius was for that mysterious thing called ‘community,’ in all its disparate forms. He admired tradition and ceremony for their ability to engender cultural stability, and he was a passionate advocate for the critical importance of pubs.

Here’s a brief extract of Fleming’s definition of “Carnival” from Lean Logic:

Carnival: Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilization descended like a frost on public joy. ... The decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centered culture to a city-centered one. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. ... Carnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. ... The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety, and depression. ...

I’m all for Project Drawdown. But I don’t believe it will “solve” the climate crisis. For that, I’ll see you at the pub.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader. He is writing a memoir, to be published by Random House.

Conversation Requires Listening

How often do you have a real conversation? By real conversation I mean one that goes beyond the exchange of pleasantries and opinions. In a real conversation both participants venture into uncharted territory. You say things you never said before and have thoughts you never thought before. In a real conversation you have to listen to what the other is saying. Each person needs to feel seen and heard. Sometimes you’re moved to see things in a new light. A real conversation expands you, deepens you, makes you feel more alive, more fully human.

Right now there’s a great deal of talk in the world and very little real conversation. The 2016 election season and its aftermath often feels more like an assault — a war of words rather than a national conversation about the kind of world we want to live in. There is much heat, but very little light.

The word listen comes from the Old English hlysnan, and means, “to pay attention to.” To listen is to be attentive, concentrate, keep one’s ears open, prick up one’s ears in order to hear and comprehend. Listening is a conscious act, an intention. If we don’t listen, how can we hear? Too often, I think, conversation consists of two monologues taking turns, or, as we witnessed in the presidential debates, talking over each other.

Technology gives the illusion of connection, but connection is not conversation. MIT’s Sherry Turkle, in her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, writes, “Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt ... I am not anti-technology, I am pro-conversation.”

Conversation requires listening, and that’s a skill in short supply these days. How do we break out of the echo chambers most of us spend so much of our time in, our circle of like-minded “friends” on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat? How do we learn to listen? Turkle’s surprising answer is that listening requires solitude.

She writes, “People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, ... if we don’t have experience with solitude — and this is often the case today — we start to equate loneliness and solitude ... If we don’t know the satisfactions of solitude, we only know the panic of loneliness.”

We experience the rewards of solitude when we avoid reaching for another shot of digital stimulation every time things get quiet, when life slows down. Practicing meditation is a start. So is creating a work of art. Cooking. Cleaning. Quietly doing something for someone else. Anything that reduces the external distractions can encourage you to listen to your own thoughts.

In his famous speech “Adventure,” the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen declared, “Deliverance will come not from the rushing, noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places ... from the wilderness. ...True wisdom is found far from men, out in the great solitude ... .”

When I’m alone in some wild place, and when I really listen, sometimes the place itself seems to talk back. This experience has changed me, made me feel more connected to and a part of the world, made me feel that I belong.  And it’s given me a greater sense of urgency about the global climate crises. It has also made me a better listener.

In her classic essay “Tell Me More,” my step-grandmother, the author Brenda Ueland, wrote, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force ... When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand ...[a] creative fountain inside us begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom ... This little creative fountain is in all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination — whatever you want to call it.”

During the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, the sun appears to pause. Perhaps we should too — pause, be quiet, savor the solitude. Out of this silence, if we give each other the gift of listening with an open heart, we may have some real conversations that begin to heal our divided world.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader. He is writing a memoir, to be published by Random House.

“We Are As Gods…”

In her new book, We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America, author Kate Daloz lovingly conjures up the unbridled idealism and gritty resolve of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a period some historians now call America’s “Third Great Awakening.” Back-to-the-landers and anti-war protesters alike, yours truly included, rejected the techno-industrial system that brought us Muzak, Cool-Whip, and Agent Orange, and set out to build a new world — one that was more egalitarian, more peaceful, and more free — through the power of Love.

The Whole Earth Catalog was our field guide. I remember the day in early 1969 when I got my hands on my first copy. It was massive — a thick, black, tabloid-sized paperback. Its cover featured NASA’s first photograph of planet Earth taken from space. There it was, our celestial home — a shimmering orb laced with eddies of wispy white clouds. Oceans, grasslands, and forests glistened in blues and greens. Deserts, too hot for cloud cover, sat sun-baked and blood red. There were no borders.

That first catalog was a scrumptious smorgasbord of reviews and excerpts of the works of Bucky Fuller, Carlos Castaneda, the I Ching, the Dome Cookbook, “The Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes,” how-to guides on keeping bees, making tipis and building solar panels, where to get the best calculators, desert moccasins, kerosene lamps, baby carriers, and much more.

Stewart Brand proclaimed his publication’s purpose on the first page: “We are as gods,” he wrote, “and might as well get good at it.” I thought it was a statement of humility, not hubris.

Now, nearly half a century later, I read Brand’s statement differently. With his Long Now Foundation and his many books, most especially his Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary, Brand has become the techno-industrial state’s highest-leaping cheerleader and one of its principal spokespeople, giving talks all over the world arguing the case for nuclear power, megacities and GMO crops. Brand leads a posse of West Coast authors, entrepreneurs, and business consultants, who advocate for techno-utopianism, neo-environmentalism, and the Singularity.

In his book, What Technology Wants, former WEC editor and Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly writes about what he calls “the technium, a global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us,” which is now “as great a force in our world as nature.” This a good thing, Kelly
believes, because “technology has its own imperative.” We should “surrender to its advances” and “listen to what it wants.” This will “unleash human potential” and lead to “deep progress” as we merge with machines, (the Singularity), and become greater than the merely human. Kelly concludes his apologia for the new order rhapsodizing that, “We can see more of God in a cellphone than in a tree frog.”

Asked by an interviewer for his thoughts on the future of humanity, Kelly, whose new book is titled, The Inevitable, said, “I think we’ll evolve until we’re unrecognizable, that we will become something so different from what we are that we’ll want to give it a different name … a plural. I think that our destiny is to be many species.”

Ninety years ago, in his prophetic Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence warned about “the insentient iron world … of mechanized greed, sparkling with lights and roaring with traffic … the vast evil thing ready to destroy whatever did not conform.”

Today when I think of Stewart Brand, I picture Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb contemplating man’s awesome power to split atoms, modify genes, engineer weather patterns, transplant
entire populations, even revive extinct species. Dr. Faust never had such grandiose ambitions.

Then I see Kevin Kelly as Slim Pickens’ character in the same film, straddling a nuclear bomb as it tumbles from a B-52, triggering the Doomsday Machine and rendering the surface of the earth uninhabitable. Pickens (Kelly) rides the bomb like a rodeo rider atop a bucking bronco, hollering “Whaaa Hooo!!!” the whole way down. “We are as gods…Whaaa Hooo!”

Eric Utne is writing a memoir to be published by Random House.