20 Years of Utne Reader

A yearbook of stories and themes from our first two decades

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Call us the little newsletter that could. It’s hard to believe, but it’s been two whole decades since Utne magazine burst on the scene in the form of a slender bulletin that digested the best of the alternative press. To celebrate our 20 years on the planet, we put together this scrapbook by paging through all 125 issues, looking for a story from each year that reflected the times. We also kept watch for the ideas and themes that have shaped the magazine’s spirit. To top it off, we looked forward to what the future might bring. Here’s what we found.—The Editors 

Dissecting the New Age 1984
Though critics have sometimes accused Utne of New Age navel-gazing, we proved we could be critical of the movement early on, in a section that suggested that the New Age’s certainty that global transformation is happening may actually discourage people from bringing about that transformation.

Sorting Out South Africa 1985
The anti-apartheid struggle was blazing in South Africa, and Utne stepped back to give readers some context. We presented the roles of young black students and white dissidents, as well as a prison interview with Nelson Mandela.

Great Toons 1986
Before they were famous, we highlighted a new crop of cartoonists who were keeping sharp the edge of alternative journalism: The Simpsons creator Matt Groening (a year before the first Simpsons cartoon aired), deadpan jokester P.S. Mueller, and the soon-to-be-famous Lynda Barry.

Predicting a Crash 1987
Utne editors picked up a vibe: overvalued stocks, driven sky-high by the mid-‘80s takeover mania, might soon take a plunge and bring Wall Street to its knees. Four months after we crafted a section called “The Coming Crash,” the market posted a 504-point loss on October 19, 1987—a deeper fall as a percentage of the whole market than the 1929 crash.

Remember Sex? 1988
In the late 1980s, the mainstream press’s mantra was “The AIDS crisis has killed sex.” Utne dug deeper and found a host of other reasons that Americans weren’t getting any: family pressures, work stress, insane schedules, and the increasing complexity of relationships. (We quoted one 20-ish man who vowed celibacy after a bad breakup: “I didn’t want to deal with all her issues”).

You Can Save the Planet and Have Fun, Too 1989
In “How the Environmental Crisis Can Improve Our Lives,” Utne looked at a crisis that usually prompts only guilt and worry—and found . . . well, happiness. Environmentalists and futurists like Murray Bookchin, Stephanie Mills, and Jeremy Rifkin suggested that the planet’s peril is also an opportunity to remake society by finding rewarding work, avoiding the thoughtless worship of the new, and doing daily tasks in the simplest ways.

A Census of the Global Village 1990
We’ve had tons of requests to reprint a back-page feature, originally taken from World Development Forum, that imagined the world as a village of 1,000 people. There would be 564 Asians and only 60 North Americans—and no fewer than 600 people would live in shanty towns.

The Spirit of the Salon 1991
Utne issued an invitation: Why not restart salons, those open-form talkfests hosted by aristocratic French ladies and bohemian artist divas? The response bowled us over: 8,000-some requests for information about how to get together and talk. Utne inaugurated the Neighborhood Salon Association and eventually published a book about salon history and technique. Thirteen years later, many salons are still running, and many have changed people’s lives by cementing friendships, changing minds—even sparking marriages.

Is Psychotherapy Useless? 1992
We looked at the pros and cons of the burgeoning Science of Mind movement—a therapy with New Age roots that says going to the shrink is pointless. You’re unhappy simply because you think you are; you’ve bought in to erroneous perceptions that obscure your essential mental wellness. We included a screed by Jungian analyst James Hillman, who accused therapy of standing in the way of social change.

A Blueprint for Sustainable Business 1993
“Let Them Eat Rainforest Crunch” was an influential section whose highlight was Green businessman Paul Hawken’s “Declaration of Sustainability.” Among other things, Hawken called for a radical new tax scheme that would make renewable energy cheaper than industrial technology; he reminded us that corporations are chartered by governments and can be reined in by public action; and he insisted that human health should be considered in all business decisions.

Too Busy! 1994
We analyzed everybody’s time crunch as a complex of factors: diminished leisure enforced by sped-up workplaces; our addiction to busyness as a way to prove ourselves worthy; busyness as a marketing opportunity (hucksters love to sell us images of peaceful leisure). Plus a defense of busyness by (of all people) a Buddhist teacher.

Utne Celebrates 100 Visionaries 1995
This cover section was the culmination of a long-term project: contacting 100 fresh and vital thinkers in many fields, from spirituality (Thich Nhat Hanh, Starhawk) to deep ecology (Wendell Berry), Afrocentrism (Molefi Kete Asante) to politics (Noam Chomsky, Winona LaDuke). Along the way we weighed in with cyberpioneer and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, poet Gary Snyder, playwright and performer Anna Deveare Smith, feminist historian and theorist Riane Eisler, and philanthropist Teresa Heinz (who was soon to become Teresa Heinz Kerry). We celebrated these visionaries in an evening at New York’s Town Hall, during which performance-art stars Blue Man Group entertained and technoskeptic writer Kirkpatrick Sale smashed a computer onstage.

Tree Heroes 1996
British journalist John Vidal chronicled a crusade by young people to save a Berkshire forest, and Tony Olmos’ brilliant photographs caught the contrast between the shaggy-haired young idealists (many of whom tied themselves to trees) and the grim-faced men in hard hats whose job was to fell the Druidical old oaks to make way for a motorway.

The Most Enlightened Town in America 1997
It was Ithaca, New York, our editors decided, and we profiled the bustling alternative culture there, which includes a pioneer community currency, a thriving ecovillage, and more grassroots political organizations, cultural enclaves, and environmental groups than in most cities three times its size. We honored enlightened towns in the 49 other states, too, from Bisbee, Arizona, to Iowa City, Iowa, to Charleston, South Carolina.

Designer God 1998
More and more Americans are crafting personal versions of spirituality by mixing and matching various traditions. Nature mysticism, belief in reincarnation, and elements of Native American spirituality fuse easily with Buddhist meditation and a pagan feel for the solstice. Utne looked at the social and historical reasons that Americans are becoming “cafeteria” believers.

Rescuing the 20th Century 1999
What a nasty century: two huge wars and countless smaller ones, mass murder, AIDS, environmental spoilage. What’s actually worth keeping from the 20th century? We answered the question in essays praising, among other things, antibiotics (“the least complex and least expensive of life-sustaining technologies”), crossword puzzles, Earth Day, neon lights, European social democracy, and the zipper.

Hail the Quirkyalones! 2000
We reprinted a lively little essay by Sasha Cagen from a brand-new zine called To-Do List, and a trend was born. Quirkyalones refuse the dating scene—not because they reject love, but out of sheer romanticism. “For the quirkyalone,” Cagen wrote, “there is no patience for dating just for the sake of not being alone. We want a miracle.” Her website was inundated with quirkyalones seeking contact, and the book Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics was published in January 2004.

If the Planet Is Sick, We Can’t Be Well 2001
In “The Coming Age of Ecological Medicine,” Bioneers cofounder Kenny Ausubel quoted public health expert Carolyn Raffensperger: “Truly holistic medicine extends beyond the mind-body connection to the human-planet whole.” When human breast milk is one of the most dangerously contaminated foodstuffs—laced with dioxin from burned PVC plastics—how can we talk about raising healthy children apart from altering our habits of consumption?

Heeding the Call of the Soul 2002
“Who Are You Really?”—that’s the title of a section that explored how Americans find and follow their true callings. We told the stories of a woman who has struggled to become a priest in the Catholic Church, a man who has helped thousands of inner-city kids make it through college, and a spirit-based interior designer who transforms living spaces in line with the owners’ dreams and values.

The Greening of Tony Soprano 2003
The Sopranos has been analyzed from many angles: shrinks have weighed in on the show’s depiction of therapy, academics have scrutinized its use of Italian-American folkways. Utne found a fresh approach: ecopsychology. This movement asserts that our psyches are out of balance at least partly because our relation to the physical environment is. Maybe Tony Soprano—a troubled Mafia “sanitation executive” who has a panic attack when the ducks living in his yard fly away and who has named his daughter Meadow—should stop blaming his mother and start cleaning up.