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Issue 265
March/April 2011
Intrinsic Values

Reviews

A Stellar Life
by

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Cover: Brown Hare. Photograph: David Tipling

 

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A Stellar Life

Chellis Glendinning is inspired by one of America’s greatest peace activists. On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics by Stephanie Mills. New Society Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 9780865716155

In the wild and eager 1960s a San Francisco radio announcer named Scoop Nisker ended each newscast with “If you don’t like the news…go out and make some of your own!”

That is exactly what the US social innovator Bob Swann did – except that his handmade news sprang from the generation that paved the way for the activists of the sixties, just as we hearty souls laid some good ground for today’s youthful movers and shakers.

Swann was a nonviolent war resister. He was a civil rights activist, an agrarian decentralist, and a pioneer of intentional communities, local currencies, micro-lending, natural architecture and land trusts. And along with fellow just-economics thinker Susan Witt, he co-founded the US-based E.F. Schumacher Society in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

On Gandhi’s Path provides the long view of this stellar life, penned by ecologist Stephanie Mills as fluidly as a breeze through one of her subject’s beloved New England woodlands.

Robert Swann was born just as World War I was winding down, in 1918. He spent his formative years in a neighbourhood/forest matrix in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The tightly knit sense of community and closeness to Nature on Sycamore Street laid the basis for a lifetime of ideas and passions. But the 1920s were also times of excessive corporate amassment of capital, and this fact – so blatant in industrialising Cleveland, with its Rockefeller and Carnegie mansions on Millionaires’ Row, and its exclusive golf course in Cleveland Heights – also had its impact on Swann’s growing psyche.

Of particular interest in Mills’ quest to capture the vitality of the man who came from such a historical environment is the web of fellow newsmakers whose work interfaced with and enriched Swann’s own, and this piece of social-change-movement geography, beginning in the 1940s, is worth the price of the book.

African-American war resister Bayard Rustin. Consummate decentralists

E.F. Schumacher and Leopold Kohr. Organic homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing. Radical resister Dave Dellinger. Organiser Marj Shaffer. Social philosopher Arthur Morgan. Regionalist Ralph Borsodi. Civil rights activists Juanita and Wally Nelson. Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day. Writer Barbara Deming. MANAS editor Henry Geiger. Folk singer Pete Seeger. They were all there, each adding his or her own ingenuity to the building of a viable movement for peace and justice.

And, of course, not as an in-the-flesh colleague but as a far-off light beaming first from South Africa and later from India, there was Mahatma Gandhi – whose belief in satyagraha, or respectful nonviolent noncompliance with injustice, inspired Swann to engage in “open resistance” to World War II.

What followed was a two-year prison sentence, highlighted by conscientious-objector organising against the institutional racism and absurd regimentation that reigned – and eight months of punishment by solitary confinement.

In January 2003, Bob Swann’s spirit passed from the world he worked to ease towards economic justice and peace. At a commemoration in Massachusetts at his E.F. Schumacher Society, the late religious philosopher Thomas Berry commented of Swann: “He was among the noblest persons I have ever known”.

On Gandhi’s Path captures Swann’s person in such a straightforward way that it inspires us – in these disillusioning times of surreal war-making, down-and-dirty poverty, total encasement by technology, and chaotic breakdown – with exactly what we need: to stay the path.

And make our own news.

Chellis Glendinning grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She is the author of five books, including the award-winning Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy, she now lives in Bolivia. www.chellisglendinning.org

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