From secession to songs, here are 15 inspiring ideas that could radically change the world
15 years ago, the first issue of Utne Reader landed in the hands of 25,000 curious readers. It was hardly an upbeat time for advocates of alternative thinking and social change. The spirited energy of the '60s and early '70s seemed finally to have fizzled, and Ronald Reagan was well on his way to one of the biggest landslide elections in presidential history. Yet somehow Utne Reader survived and thrived. Even now, we're not exactly sure why. But we suspect it was our mission of offering new ideas—lots of ideas, on every subject under the sun—that had been ignored, suppressed, or simply forgotten by the major media. And that's still our primary mission. So to celebrate our 15th anniversary, we are proud to present 15 ideas that we believe could make a difference in the world over the next 15 years.
Downsizing the United States
American reaction to the breakup of the Soviet Union consisted mainly of self-congratulatory sermonizing about the superiority of our economic system. But the USSR's sudden and unexpected collapse should stand as a warning. The Soviet Union, like the United States, equated bigness with greatness. Governing a land stretching from sea to sea was a massive operation in which key decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of millions were made by a few power brokers. A small coterie of party bosses called the shots in the USSR; in the United States it is a narrow set of corporate bosses. As merger mania eats its way through our economy, these faceless business executives are gaining more and more control over every aspect of American life—and like Communist Party officials, they run things on the basis of what's best for them.
As the Soviet experiment proved, the more that power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of people, the greater becomes the likelihood of political tyranny, economic inefficiency, and general disregard for the quality of life. We are already seeing signs of this in the United States—corporate campaign contributions dictate the terms of political debate, chain outlets crowd out independent businesses, and soulless strip-mall architecture spreads dreariness across the landscape.
What can be done to prevent America from following the Soviet Union's path toward a creaky, clanking, centralized system that eventually will self-destruct in spasms of misery? The answer: Say no to bigness. We need to start dismantling the United States right now, before social conditions deteriorate to the point where it shatters all by itself. Dissolving the country into smaller, more efficient, friendlier units is the best means to ensure that basic choices affecting our communities are made by us, not by greedy, uninformed strangers thousands of miles away. Thomas Naylor and William H. Williamson, professors at Duke University, declare in Downsizing the U.S.A. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997): “We believe the time has come to reconsider secession as a viable option for dealing with our own problems of big government, big military, big business, big labor, and big cities. . . . Our states should be allowed to secede from the Union; megastates like California, Texas, and New York should be permitted to break up.”
An independent New Mexico or Wisconsin or Pacific Northwest could retain its connections to the rest of the United States, à la the European Union, but gain the opportunity to steer its own clear course in social and political matters. While outside corporations would still exert economic pressure, a government closer to the people would do a better job of standing up for its citizens' interests. And small size is no barrier to prosperity; Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands all rank near the top of the global scale for per capita income and quality of life.
The Bioneer Movement
A bioneer is a biological pioneer, an ecological inventor who's got an elegant and often simple set of solutions for environmental conundrums. The term comes from the pen of Kenny Ausubel, co-founder of Seeds of Change, a company that conserves and sells seeds for native plants that have been overshadowed by mega-agriculture's mighty, and unsustainable, hybrids. Ausubel's adventures with a variety of modern-day Johnny Appleseeds convinced him that bioneering was a widespread and underappreciated reality. Under the umbrella of their nonprofit Collective Heritage Institute, he and partner Nina Simons run the annual Bioneers Conference, where, since 1990, crowds of green problem-solvers have gathered to share their knowledge.
Who are the bioneers? John Todd creates “living machines” that use various plants to carry out simple miracles of waste treatment. Vinnie McKinney's Elixir Farms gathers and preserves neglected and rare strains of medicinal herbs, particularly herbs used in Chinese medicine. John Roulac researches worthwhile uses for that infamous “weed,” hemp. The list goes on, but what unites Bioneers is the belief that in paying attention to how nature works, we can find the best ways to heal nature.
Intuitive and Hands-on Healing
You've got your family doctor, your gynecologist or urologist, your chiropractor—and a decade from now, you won't even consider medical treatment without your healer. Two types of “out there” healers are beginning to infiltrate the ranks, or at least nudge the boundaries, of modern medicine. One is the medical intuitive, who can diagnose certain maladies after hearing only the name and age of a patient. The other is the hands-on or energy healer, who works with the body's vibrational force fields—a treatment approach common to other cultures but still suspect in the Western world.
These practitioners are not unschooled wackos; medical intuitive and neuropsychiatrist Mona Lisa Schulz, for example, holds M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Boston University School of Medicine. The author of Awakening Intuition (Harmony, 1998), she separates her intuitive practice from her traditional medical practice and maintains no illusion that the former will become mainstream anytime soon. Julie Motz, veteran of the public health master's degree program at Columbia University and author of Hands of Life (Bantam, 1998), practices energy medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
Both healing approaches involve emotions, which are often discussed in conjunction with the chakra system, which Hindus believe consists of seven emotional centers in the body, each linked to certain organs or physiological systems. The chasm between this ancient belief and modern science is narrowing: In studying the mind's effect on healing, Candace Pert, a neurological scientist from Georgetown University, has identified neuropeptides, or strings of amino acids, that form an information network inside the body. She believes that emotional energy releases these peptides, which affect different cells in different ways, thus creating a biochemical circuitry that could underlie—or explain—the types of healing we have yet to endorse with medical insurance coverage.
Like Schulz, Motz doesn't expect to see HMOs hiring energy medicine specialists just yet, but in an interview with Intuition magazine (Nov.-Dec. 1998), she acknowledges a shift in awareness that began as part of the cultural revolution of the '60s. “People have been taking their emotions back. . . . [They] are beginning to admit that they can be considered experts on their own feelings,” she says. “The next decades are going to be about people reclaiming their bodies.”
Noted environmental philosopher and activist Theodore Roszak raised a few eyebrows with his book The Voice of the Earth (Touchstone, 1993), which suggested that being extravagant is a basic human need. “We all need to have a certain sense of opulence or extravagance in our lives,” Roszak told the British magazine Self and Society. “Environmentalists will never achieve their ends by creating a sense of privation, which can lead to hostility against those who are seen to be censoring people's real needs. It's rather like Puritans telling people to rein in their sexuality.”
In traditional cultures, this impulse for excess is expressed at festivals in which people dress up, feast, and dance all night. But for many of us in the modern world, natural extravagance has been distorted into compulsive shopping, which is as joyless as an alcoholic's binge.
“I would like to see addiction to consumption replaced with the idea of sustainable extravagance,” Roszak says. Instead of harping on how we must all lead ascetic lives, environmentalists ought to offer ideas on how our appetite for excess can be sated without endangering the planet. Indeed, many of the loveliest, tastiest, most exciting pleasures on earth don't necessarily take a high toll on the environment. Occasional splurges—fancy cheese, a bubble bath, a night on the town—offer far more satisfaction than the dreary day-to-day consumerism that demands so much time and money. And time itself can be the ultimate indulgence: Take a day away from working and shopping to do the things you really love.
No a la deuda externa!
No a la deuda externa! (No to the external debt!) has long been a rallying cry for Latin American social activists. They see the crushing sums of money their nations (and scores of other poor countries) owe the World Bank and other creditors as the biggest obstacle to prosperity and social justice in the “developing” world. The debts, mostly contracted in the 1970s between petrodollar-drunk Western banks and greedy authoritarian regimes, have created a legacy of hardship: Young democracies now struggle under staggering loads (one of every three Indian rupees paid in taxes goes to debt service) or International Monetary Fund-imposed “restructuring” plans that mandate harsh cuts in government services (usually health, education, and welfare).
As the millennium approaches, more and more voices in the “developed” world are taking up this cry. Religious organizations advocate debt relief in the spirit of Jubilee, the biblical injunction to celebrate every 50th year by canceling debts and freeing the oppressed and enslaved. In December, 300 young delegates formed a human chain around the main meeting hall in Zimbabwe, where the World Council of Churches general conference was being held, chanting “Cancel the debt!” The Catholic Maryknoll missionary order helped form Jubilee 2000/U.S.A., one of scores of debt-relief campaigns worldwide, which is circulating a petition that calls on lenders to cancel debts “in a way that benefits ordinary people and without conditions that perpetuate or deepen poverty and environmental degradation.” According to the campaign, debt relief is a good idea for rich nations as well as poor ones. It could expand overseas markets for American goods by helping the Third World out of penury, protect American jobs by easing the pressure on Third World economies to undersell U.S. labor, and lessen the social and political strife that sends refugees and immigrants north.
But the best argument is the simplest: The debt has already been paid, many times over, in the suffering of people who were never in on the deal in the first place. Relief for them is the only decent solution.
Mother Nature made a serious miscalculation when she made it possible for humans to make a baby with as few as two participants. It takes more than that to comfortably guide a child toward a happy, meaningful adult life, as the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” makes clear. In North America, the extended family traditionally played this role, pitching in with advice and hands-on help. While rarely a perfect arrangement, it was preferable to the isolation, loneliness, and exhaustion today's typical nuclear or single-parent families often experience.
Just because grandma no longer lives down the block shouldn't mean parents are left on their own. Taking a cue from the Christian custom of godparents as well as the highly successful Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs, we should establish a new tradition. Couples expecting a baby would designate two “co-parents” who would be present at the birth and maintain regular contact with the child ever after. This relationship would have an independent dimension, with each co-parent spending regular time alone with the child and becoming an adviser and confidant. Co-parents might be drawn from among the growing numbers of childless people, many of whom would welcome a bond with the coming generation.
Singing and Dancing
When was the last time you burst into song or waltzed someone across the room? Sixty years ago, a party would have been deemed an absolute dud if no one gathered around the piano to harmonize or rolled up the carpet for some fancy footwork. Now other people sing and dance for us while we watch, which means we're missing out on two of life's most sterling opportunities for joy.
The good news is that we're getting bored with “consuming culture passively,” as music producer and manager Linda Goldstein puts it. In response, she is orchestrating a tour for singer Bobby McFerrin in which local choirs and entire audiences will participate in the performances.
Singer, songwriter, and voice coach Barbara McAfee says her teaching practice is burgeoning simply because people are recognizing that singing leads to happiness. “We are beginning to reclaim a part of us that has atrophied,” she says, “to recognize that singing and dancing are an essential part of being human. Our culture is parched from lack of participation. Singing with others, vibrating in sync together, gives us something we need.”
Marcela Lorca, creator of BreathDance, a body awareness technique, maintains that by using breath, voice, and movement, we can release negative emotional patterns without intellectual processing or even conscious understanding. In her work with actors, workshop participants, and corporate clients, Lorca explores how leading and following or finding balance have direct, not just metaphorical, relevance to how we engage in the dance of life. “Free movement of energy through the body is the definition of health,” Lorca insists, adding that our sedentary lives block the sensuality that is our birthright.
So shut the door, pull down the shades, and try a song-and-dance routine to a tune you love. There's no telling where that freed-up energy might take you. You might feel foolish, but that's rarely fatal; chances are that, at the very least, you'll start having more fun.
When Pascal wrote in 1670 that “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know,” did he know something that the Western medical establishment is only just discovering? Researchers around the world are finding evidence that the heart is more than a simple pump. Psychologist Paul Pearsall, who specializes in psychoneuroimmunology and works with heart transplant recipients, believes that there's a two-way feedback loop between the heart and the brain. In The Heart's Code (Broadway Books, 1998), he writes that heart transplant recipients often report uncanny changes such as apparent recollections from the donor's life and moment of death, dramatic shifts in food and musical tastes, and facial expressions reminiscent of the donor.
As Daniel Goleman asserts in Working with Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1998), attributes that folk wisdom and traditional religions have long associated with the heart—love, care, appreciation, compassion—are more crucial to success than a high I.Q. And researchers at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California, propose in The HeartMath Solution (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999) that the heart has its own brain and nervous system, and acts as a kind of internal gyroscope to help maintain balance between our brain's left and right hemispheres. Most importantly, they conclude that the heart and its electromagnetic field are sources of intuition, intimacy, and creativity. We've got a hunch that doctors, psychologists, business leaders, and others will come to see the heart as not just an eight-ounce bundle of throbbing muscle, but also a source of untapped intelligence for human development and global cooperation.
Kids as Activists
Three years ago, Toronto 12-year-old Craig Kielburger read a newspaper article about the murder of a 12-year-old boy from Pakistan who had been sold into slavery when he was 4 and shackled to a loom to make carpets.
“I decided right then that I had to do something about the problem of child labor,” Kielburger recalls. “The next day, I stood up in front of my class and said, 'I want to start a human rights group.’ ”
Kielburger went on to launch Free the Children, an anti–child labor group with more than 100 chapters around the world. He and other organizers, all under the age of 18, educate the public, write letters to world leaders, and raise funds to create alternatives for children who are being abused and exploited.
Sure, everyone agrees that child labor is bad, but maybe we should bend the rules just a bit when it comes to activism. After all, kids have the energy, good humor, optimism, and integrity that world-weary elders often lack.
While the abuse of young workers is an issue with obvious appeal to kids, youth activist groups have also sprung up around animal rights, nuclear disarmament, and environmental issues. In Romania, for instance, kids developed an eco-detective agency aimed at uncovering crimes against nature.
Kid-run activist organizations produce more than cute photo ops. Free the Children has helped purchase milking animals and sewing machines that provide enough income so that Indian families can send their children to school rather than to work.
“Adults underestimate youth and their ability to do good in society,” Kielburger explains, “but I think kids are the ones who are going to change the world.”
Creativity is a major business these days. In management schools and corporate boardrooms, consultants offer executives a whole range of new, exotic business tools: mind-mapping; creative problem-solving; awareness of learning styles; even improvisational comedy and labyrinth-walking. Outfits like the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, New York, and the Center for Research in Applied Creativity in Ontario combine humanistic procedures and lively exercises to help clients understand how their own creative process works. The goal is to foster innovative thinking, decision-making, and teamwork.
The ultimate rationale for business-based creativity is usually some form of the dreary old bottom-line argument. The techniques, however, are powerful and ought to be in the tool kit of every citizen, from adolescence (when kids' awesome natural creativity tends to dry up in the face of social pressures) through old age.
Though it regularly calls upon the arts to make its points and help people free their creative flow, creativity training is different from art school—it's training in how the mind can be stretched and played with to foster fresher solutions to changing and growing problems. Imagine an educational system, for instance, that retooled itself to teach based on the ways that people actually learn. It would be dramatically different from today's regimen of classroom lectures and discussions, since research shows that 60 percent of the population are visual learners and 20 percent need to move around in order to best absorb knowledge. This step-by-step help in thinking 'outside the box' can be applied to everything from organizing a block club to negotiating with opponents to learning how to live sustainably.
The Depaving of America
Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, nestled alongside the Willamette River in downtown Portland, Oregon, qualifies as one of the modern wonders of the world. Kids dodge in and out of a streaming water fountain, couples nuzzle as they stroll along the riverbank, families spread out blankets for sumptuous picnics—all in a spot once occupied by a four-lane road.
Over the past 75 years, roads have scarred the face of North America, stealing prime farmland, ruining natural scenery, and ripping apart vital neighborhoods. As much as one-third of the space in urban areas is buried under pavement. For years this was seen as the unfortunate price of progress, but now a new movement is attempting to reclaim the streets. People all over the world are working to create parks, playgrounds, trails, woods, neighborhoods, and farms out of land once reserved for cars. And it doesn't stop at roads. Jan Lundberg, a former oil industry analyst who now directs the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, tore up his driveway in Arcata, California, and turned it into a garden. Meanwhile, back in Portland, just a few blocks from Tom McCall Park, you'll find Pioneer Square: the pulsing heart of the city where musicians put on impromptu concerts, office workers eat brown bag lunches in the sunshine, kids gather to flirt and gossip—in a spot once occupied by a parking garage.
No Taxation Without Participation
Even the most casual observer of the political scene knows that taxes are wildly unpopular with Americans. Many candidates for public office build their entire campaigns on noisy denouncements of their opponents as “tax-and-spend” liberals, often with great success on election day. Even on the left, there is widespread resistance to how many of our tax dollars go to weapons, dams, corporate subsidies, and highways. Yet almost every reputable opinion poll shows that Americans are overwhelmingly committed to public education, environmental protection, law enforcement, Medicare, and other social services, all of which are funded by—you guessed it—taxes.
It's not taxes themselves that make people so ornery, but the sense that we have little say in how tax money is spent. If we could directly participate in deciding priorities for public investment, then the angry backlash against taxes and government itself, which fuels right-wingers like Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms, might fade into the dim mists of history.
One intriguing suggestion comes from David Wallechinsky, editor of The People's Almanac. He proposes that the federal government return $100 in taxes (or $25 or $500) to each citizen, not on an individual basis but to community groups created by dividing the nation into units of 1,000 people. Each group would meet to decide how $100,000 (or $25,000 or $500,000) might best be spent to improve their community—perhaps funding a small business to create new jobs or pooling their money with other groups to refurbish a park or build a new library. Poorer communities could receive additional funding because their need for public services is greater.
While this would amount to only a small portion of the federal budget (and should not be used as a pretext to slash existing social programs), it would bring visible and significant improvements to every neighborhood in America. The idea could also work on the state or local level. In Minneapolis, for example, a percentage of property tax revenues was redistributed to elected organizations in each of the city's 81 neighborhoods to undertake community projects. Not only did everyday people become involved in putting their tax dollars to work, but some groups conceived practical new approaches to community problems that never would have been thought up inside city hall.
When baby boomers began having babies of their own, they revolutionized childbirth by insisting on emotional support and comfort during what had become a cold clinical process. Now, as this rebellious, questing generation passes the half-century mark, we can expect similar changes in the rites of death. Don't call it progress, though; it is more likely to be a sensible return to past wisdom from this and other cultures.
Commercial funerals, often costing thousands of dollars, flourished with the advent of modern medicine and medical insurance; people died in hospitals, and the funeral homes that removed the bodies handled the rituals. This was good for business, particularly for the three largest funeral companies, who now bury one in four Americans, but hardly necessary, say Julie Wiskind and Richard Spiegel in Coming to Rest: A Guide to Caring for Our Own Dead (Dovetail, 1998). Funerals can be do-it-yourself affairs conducted at home: Only nine U.S. states have laws saying a funeral director must be involved; embalming, introduced in America during the Civil War, isn't necessary either. And letting the pros handle it robs the family of the healing that begins to happen when loved ones wash and care for the body. Home funerals would restore spirituality and community to living rooms and the hearts of the bereaved.
With luck, attending more funerals also may relax our uptight attitudes. For example, in Europe, you can buy funeral supplies at supermarket-type stores, and in England, the Natural Death Centre offers complete instructions for all aspects of these intimate last rites. Accepting death as a sad but natural part of life has the power to change how all of us view our existence here on earth—and our exit from it.
“Walking is the most powerful creative tool I know,” says creativity guru Julia Cameron, author of the best-seller The Artist's Way. She points out that numerous great poets—Blake, Rumi, Rilke, Whitman, Wordsworth, Keats—were all avid walkers.
The simple act of taking a walk can dramatically boost insight and understanding. There's something about stretching your legs, breathing fresh air, and experiencing the passing landscape that stimulates the mind. A long stroll by yourself offers the perfect chance to reflect on the world around you as well as what's going on inside your own head. And walking with other folks holds potential for creating merriment, building friendships, and conceiving new ideas that would never come to you while you were sitting in a chair. In 1982, Soviet and American negotiators, struggling to hammer out an arms control treaty in Geneva, took a walk together in the woods. They returned to the table with a joint plan on how to reduce the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Nicholas Albery of the Institute for Social Inventions, an English think tank that scouts the world for useful new ideas, organizes walking salons every Saturday—a healthy and intellectually satisfying alternative to cocktail or dinner parties. “Normally there are between 4 and 17 of us, depending on the weather,” he writes in The Book of Visions (available from Loompanics Unlimited, 800/380-2230), a compendium of ideas from the Institute. “We tend to walk about eight miles, stopping for lunch at a pub and having a cream tea somewhere afterwards. It is a wonderful day out, with the walking stimulating conversation and an anarchic spirit.”
The Resurrection of Ruins
“Down the ages men have meditated before ruins, rhapsodized before them, mourned pleasurably over their ruination,” wrote Dame Rose Macaulay in Pleasure of Ruins (1953), the definitive treatment of the European fascination with ancient, broken-down cities, abbeys, and castles. America, on the other hand, worships the future and rarely lets us enjoy the genteel decay of anything. But with the rapid deindustrialization of the past 30 years, our landscape is now dotted with plenty of abandoned factories, farms, and houses. Whenever the fate of these buildings comes up, the only choices seem to be demolition or historic preservation, which usually means transformation into upscale housing or trendy retail. But what about meditation?
Every community ought to have at least one Ruin Museum, an obsolescent structure that, under curatorial supervision by historians, archaeologists, botanists, and poets, is allowed to fall apart and return to Mother Earth before our eyes. Discreet signage and informed guides would explain the history and original purposes of the ruin and how vegetation is reclaiming it and animals are reinhabiting it. Minneapolis, for instance, is planning to make the Washburn-Crosby “A” flour mill, devastated by an explosion more than a century ago and by several recent fires, part of a new park (although upscale condos are also planned). By allowing history to offer its own story in rust and dust, we can provide a powerful reminder that the cherished accomplishments of every era, whether it's the optimistic industrialism of the 1880s or the globalized capitalism of today, are as fascinatingly mortal as we are.