Conversation around the kitchen table expands our minds more than any think tank
I’ve never been one to put stock in prophecies or premonitions. It’s not that I believe such things are fraudulent. Indeed, I think the world is blessed with many mysteries we do not yet understand. Never would I scoff at anyone else’s sense of what’s to come. It’s just that such things don’t happen to me.
I can think of only one instance when my pyschic radar had an accurate reading on the future. I was on a train barreling through November rain after researching an article at Schumacher College, an ecological learning center in Devonshire, England. I would be spending the night in London at the home of Fourth World Review editor John Papworth before flying home to Minneapolis. Aboard the train, I suddenly remembered that John was a friend of Nicholas Albery, whose writing about social inventions in the British alternative press had captured my imagination. I hurried to John’s house from Paddington Station with the idea that he might phone immediately to see if Nicholas would come out on a blustery night to meet a wayfaring American admirer. I knocked on John’s door with a certain sense of urgency, and when it opened, there stood a man not John with a shaggy mop of hair and a bright smile. "Hi, Jay," he said. "I’m Nick Albery."
We all passed a marvelous evening around John’s big kitchen table, eating hearty stew and fresh-baked bread, making a dent in a jug of burgundy, talking the whole time. I went to bed with my mind swirling, more from all the ideas we exchanged than from the wine I drank. Ever since then I’ve kept a close watch on all the wondrous and wild schemes flowing out of Nick’s Insititute for Social Inventions.
Although I met him only that once, I was deeply saddened to learn of Nick’s death in an auto accident last June. But I am happy to honor his memory by sharing some of his favorite ideas in our cover story on social inventions (see page 50). I trust that Nick’s indefatigable spirit and his never wavering belief that big changes in the world can come about through small, creative acts will move you the same way they did me. And if you are inspired to do some social inventing of your own, please send in your results to our Great Ideas contest (details on page 62). Also see John Papworth’s tribute to Nick (page 60), reprinted from Fourth World Review.
Thinking about this cover story in light of that splendid London evening, I am struck by how large a percentage of the information I find worthwhile comes from outside the usual media and intellectual channels. Remarkable but little-known folks like John, Nick, and the revolving roster of visionaries who teach at Schumacher College each year spark my imagination far more than mainstream media and well-funded think tanks.
That trip to England felt like an intellectual barnstorming tour. Satish Kumar, the Indian-born founder of Schumacher College and editor of Resurgence magazine, spelled out his belief that spirituality and ecology are one and the same, a unified worldview based on wonder at the universe. John, the founder of Resurgence who now pours his considerable wit and wisdom into Fourth World Review, offered the hard-to-dispute opinion that everything in modern society, from grade schools to nation-states, is too big to function with integrity, intelligence, efficiency, or elegance. Nick detailed his thoughts on social inventions as a movement of grassroots creativity providing us with an alternative to the programmed visions of the future cooked up in corporate headquarters, government agencies, and the increasingly chrome-plated ivory towers of academia.
Bold thinking and social inventing are by no means a strictly English phenomenon, nor is the belief that all of us ought to have a stake in envisioning the planet’s future. The British, with their history of independent ingenuity and a long-abiding respect for eccentrics, do offer some inspiration for those of us eager to bring fresh ideas into the discussion of issues large and small. Yet you can turn to North America’s alternative media for many examples of sharp minds and brave souls willing to stand up against the conventional wisdom of an industrialized, market-driven, and often coldhearted system. That’s been our business here at Utne Reader for the past 18 years—uncovering the views and voices that deserve more attention from our society than they get.
Carrying this mission to a new medium, we recently published a book, Visionaries: People and Ideas to Change Your Life, co-authored by contributing editor Jon Spayde and me, that introduces the work of 60 of the world’s most original thinkers. (To order it see page 89.) Satish Kumar and John Papworth are profiled, along with architects and activists, physicists and priests, therapists and dancers. While the great majority of these visionaries are not household names, we feel that what they have to say is more important than what we hear from the usual suspects quoted in the morning paper and TV news.
One of the main themes in our book is that each person, in his or her own way, has the potential to be a visionary. Like me, you may not be able to predict the future, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help shape it. By tapping your creativity, you could change the course of history or perhaps make a big difference in your own neighborhood. That’s the vision Nick Albery left for all of us.
I am delighted to announce the promotion of Karen Olson to senior editor. She joined Utne Reader in 1999 after helping launch the literary journal Thin Air in Flagstaff, Arizona, and serving as managing editor of Colorado Review in Fort Collins. Karen is the hardiest outdoors enthusiast on our staff, as you can see by this photo from her recent caving expedition in Tamaulipas, Mexico.