Fifteen Ideas That Could Shake the World

From secession to songs, here are 15 inspiring ideas that could radically change the world

| March-April 1999

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 lifeand 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 Statescorporate 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.

—Jay Walljasper