Gordon Feller: Voluntary Simplicity

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Gordon Feller believes that the growing interest in self-reliance has far-reaching econominc implications, and even relates to the chances for a workable disarmament.

Can growing cabbage contribute to the quest for world peace?

Before you answer that question, consider that the head of a large stock-brokerage firm recently noted that the commonly publicized economic statistics ignore the fact that many individuals are swapping quantity for quality in their lives, and that such folks are often doing productive “private” work, including raising much of their own food.

“Many people,” he said, “have realized it’s cheaper to grow a head of cabbage in the back yard than it is to ship it in from California.” And he suggested that this sort of activity has contributed to public optimism and to the rising stock market.

Now that may surprise you, but Gordon Feller–who lives in New York City’s Harlem with his lifemate Mary and their infant daughter Jessie–has made even vaster connections. He would agree that the U.S. population’s growing interest in self-reliance has far-reaching economic implications, but he also feels that it could relate to the chances for a workable disarmament.

“In another era, I might have been a monk on a mountaintop,” Gordon admits. But in this life, an artistic mother and an engineer father brought him up to have an imagination with a practical bent, and he’s turned his energies toward helping to change the world. This might seem like a quixotic ambition, until you realize that–though Mr. Feller is only 23 years old–he has already received his master’s degree in international and public affairs from Columbia University, where he was the university’s first Wallach Fellow of World Order Studies.

Furthermore, during his undergraduate years, Gordon worked at the United Nations as convener of the U.N. Headquarters Youth Caucus, and there promoted youth participation in a variety of international projects (including the International Year of the Child). He later worked with the Humanity Fund, which financed groups tackling projects that aimed to augment local self-reliance and neighborhood power, was on the staff of the World Policy Institute, during which time he completed his first book, Peace and World Order Studies (which has since become a standard reference for college and university curricula), served as executive director of Planetary Citizens, a U.N. project initiated by Norman Cousins, and cofounded the Business Initiative, which allows corporate leaders to explore the views of the alternative culture. He has lectured to college audiences and professional groups throughout the country, has written for numerous national and international publications (and has a new book, The Eye of the Storm, coming out in the spring of 1984), and is currently a director for Liberty Media, which has an hour-long television special in the works on interconnectedness and the emerging new world view.

When Associate Editor Sara Pacher talked with Gordon recently, he was recalling the days when he was “the token youngster in jeans” at the United Nations.

“It was an opportunity for someone without any credentials to explore material in a very fresh and–I think–kind of childlike way that would have normally been resisted. But because I was the only youngster in some environments, I was allowed to ask a few basic questions that more experienced individuals might have been embarrassed to bring up.”

Gordon has also made some basic connections between individual lifestyles and planetary problems. However, as is almost always the case with the men and women featured in our interviews, not all of Mr. Feller’s ideas and beliefs will appeal to everyone in MOTHER’s audience. (His references to global politics, for example, will probably raise a flag of caution in the minds of some of our conservative readers.) Whether you agree with all that he says or not, though, we feel that you will agree that the world very likely is heading into an era of almost unprecedented change, and that any opportunity to explore the views of someone who aims to be an architect of that change is well worth taking!

I don’t think many people would link the quest for a workable disarmament with a back-to-basics lifestyle. How did you come to tie the two together?

I guess the thought started forming a few years back, when I was invited to be on the Global Coordinating Committee for the International Year of the Child. That experience taught me a lot about the orchestration of various world forces–including governments, nongovernmental organizations, and a variety of institutions, such as banks–all of which were wanting to rethink the question of how we treat children.

As a result of that, I had to confront the disarmament issue, because I realized that few of the changes needed by the world’s children–and few of those innovations that were necessary in such areas as neighborhood self-reliance, alternative technologies, and the global economy–were going to be possible unless some of the $500 billion that was then being funneled into the arms race (and that figure is up to $900 billion today!) could be reallocated and rechanneled. Without a share of that money, I knew that few of those needs were going to be addressed, and UNICEF would just serve as a “Band-Aid” remedy to a deepening crisis.

That initial involvement in the disarmament question later led me to a staff position with the Institute for World Order, which is a global think tank with transnational connections to institutes around the world. In addition to studying the issues and analyzing why the arms race is happening and what the alternatives are, the people there also asked questions about the relationship between the arms race and humanity’s tendencies toward centralization, political authoritarianism, and hard-energy paths.

From there, I went to work for Planetary Citizens, a group which–among other things–tries to help people recognize that, once they’ve simplified their lifestyles by reducing their consumption and moving toward soft-energy paths, the next step is to translate that politically into new attitudes, new policies, and eventually new governmental leadership.

That’s a big step. How do you believe that it can be accomplished?

Well, part of the process involves redefining politics, because it’s no longer just a question of what candidate or party you vote for. Today it’s also, for example, the question of what kind of food you eat, or of whether, when given a choice, you bicycle to work or drive a car.

In fact, perhaps for the first time in many people’s lives, politics is being pared down to a size that they can understand and grapple with. That means that such people can take personal steps that translate into meaningful actions. For instance, if you solarize your home and reduce your demand for a nuclear power plant’s energy supply by 40%, your neighbors will very likely find that the drama of such a political action–which has nothing to do with lobbying or placards, but everything to do with impact, because you’re actually helping to withdraw the legitimacy of, and the demand for, nuclear power–suddenly makes a whole lot of sense.

Politics is as much concerned with how you live your life and what your attitudes are toward your neighbors as it is with what you think about national security issues or the problems of the global economy. When self-reliant people understand that, they also understand that their involvement in politics doesn’t imply any compromise of their values, but rather is a grounding of these hard-earned values in the larger society.

Is that why you helped create the Business Initiative?

Yes. I wanted to offer senior business executives a chance to look at issues from the standpoint of their impact on business and the economy–and also from the vantage point of personal concern–without having to feel that they’re treading on controversial terrain.

What kind of people has this forum attracted?

Well, some of the participants are what I call “transformative infiltrators.” These are individuals who are–in effect–in the belly of the beast. However, they know that at some point their dinosaur is going to fall, so–because they have some sense of responsibility to their work, and because they desire some personal security–these men and women want to know the time frame they have to work with, so they can have some impact on the way in which it collapses, and know where they should stand when it does.

Furthermore, I’m convinced that many of those people want to play a part in developing alternative futures, both because they care about their own security and because they recognize the insecurity that’s inherent in what they’re currently doing.

That may come as a surprise to those who view all corporate “movers and shakers” as “the enemy.”

Yes, and many in the corporate world feel very defensive as a result of that attitude. It implies that there is no humanity in these business people, and that sort of misconception is one of the things that I’m trying to “demythologize” as much as possible. We also need to do away with other obstacles that have arisen between the “new” culture and the establishment, because there are many things about the old culture, including two centuries of experience with democracy, which we could never afford to jettison.

Of course, I have no illusions about the fact that many corporate executives couldn’t care less about whether or not their industry is collapsing, because–at the same time–they’re experiencing the executive benefits of owning and managing companies. But that’s not the issue. Instead, we have to understand that the creation of us/them dichotomies can only hinder the widening of the circle of people who are working at creating a better future.

The Business Initiative, therefore, tries to call the executives’ attention to the new, parallel culture that’s rising. We want these men and women to understand that they are participating in the unfolding of a global drama, and unless they take time out to appreciate that, to analyze it, and–I hope–to also believe in it, then they’re going to lose effectiveness in the roles they choose to play.

And how do you convince pragmatic business people that this new culture isn’t just a flash in the pan, or the wishful thinking of a handful of young people?

It’s reasonable to assume–whether I’m talking to a corporate leader, a diplomat, or a government official–that he or she already knows at some level that many things aren’t functioning as they used to, and that, if we’re going to make the world work, we’ll all have to undergo some fundamental changes in the way we think about our planet, the way we behave in the world, and the expectations that we bring to this earth.

What’s more, some of the mainstream think tanks in the business community, such as SRI International, have done very sophisticated surveys and studies in which they’ve discovered that the rise of the new culture is a very vital force to be contended with. Recently, for example, a Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company report revealed that more Americans now believe in spiritual ideals than at any other point in our history! Such data simply can’t be ignored.

So the Business Initiative is just one small way to try to forge a synthesis of new values, new lifestyles, and the kind of corporate policy today’s business people need to construct. However, I have no illusions that it’s going to be very quick in helping a society and an economy that seem to need exceedingly big and rapid transformations, but we are working in circles where we can at least begin the process of creating change.

And the process of expanding those circles, moving in different worlds, and helping people to identify with the larger community that they’re a part of is very important, because some of the main problems that we face today–both politically and individually–are related to our generally limited concept of community.

For example, when I talk to corporate executives about environmental pollution, their response will be determined by the size of the community that they see their corporations as serving. If that community includes the whole of the biosphere and all of humanity–as opposed to only the personnel they happen to be payrolling–then their concerns will have to take into account the generations that are going to suffer the impact of today’s toxic wastelands.

This need to expand horizons, expand the sense of loyalty, and expand personal identity is crucial. And the voluntary simplicity movement–which is a widespread, grassroots expression of a shift in loyalty from concern with personal day-to-day needs to a kind of global community consciousness–is particularly exciting to me.

There are many people today, however, who have been forced to adopt a simpler lifestyle as a consequence of the state of the economy, and I doubt that they find it exciting at all.

But I think even people in economic distress sometimes understand that being selective about the products they consume involves political choices. There is, of course, a big difference between willingly reducing consumption and adapting to a dying economy, which is, essentially, what most folks are having to do today. Whether it’s reluctant or voluntary, though, many of us are now also coming face to face with a whole new way of looking at physical life: reassessing our needs and luxuries, the way we use energy, and the way we view our neighborhoods.

For a number of years now, Scandinavians–on a fairly large scale–have been simplifying their lives voluntarily.

That’s true. It seems that the lifestyle achieved in Scandinavia was in such great contrast to what was happening in so much of the world that their national conscience could no longer cope with it. This was expressed a few years back, when 60% to 70% of the Norwegians polled said that their standard of living was much too high, and some 90% of those who felt that way said they were willing to uncouple from their current lifestyle and move in a new direction. That was when their voluntary simplicity movement called “The Future In Our Hands” really took off.

Yet, when I visited Denmark a couple of years ago, many people were surprised to learn that a similar movement even existed in the United States!

For some time now, Europeans have seriously questioned America’s morality and wondered whether our society has anything left to offer the world. Moreover, those that are involved in alternative movements have very little appreciation for the fact that there’s a large community of people here who share their commitments, a group that might even be numerically stronger than its European equivalent! Unfortunately, the face of what we do isn’t often seen, because the media in this country tend to have a very selective vision, and either don’t perceive what’s happening or don’t want to communicate it.

A few Europeans, though, are beginning to understand that the traditional American foreign and economic policy is often at variance with the rising culture that many Americans are beginning to align themselves with.

However, I don’t think it’s world-mindedness that’s bringing about some of the same changes in the United States. More likely, we’re recognizing that all of our bills are coming due, and that we’re experiencing the consequences of past actions in the form of environmental pollution, unsatisfactory military and foreign policy, and deteriorating lifestyles. And because we’re attached to our way of life, often measuring our status and maturity as people with the material wellbeing that we’ve been able to achieve, the personal adjustments that we have to make are sometimes very difficult and painful.

They can be so painful, in fact, that today (as during the 1929 crash) people sometimes do desperate things–such as jumping out of a window–when they lose their status symbols, because, in their minds, personal status is based upon possessions. Unfortunately, I think this is a concept that people in our culture have to struggle with, on some level, all the time.

Learning that the basic self is distinct from the physical, emotional, and mental selves is a fundamental and lifelong process. However, this psychological and spiritual grounding can really be helped tremendously–both in a person’s political and personal life–by virtue of a very simple technique that the psychologist Roberto Assagioli called “disidentification.” It’s a long word, but the concept is relatively simple: “I am not my physical body, although I use one. I am not my emotions, although I have them. I am not my thoughts, although they come through my mind.” In short, though all of these things are tools we can use to help us grapple with the experiences of life, the “I” that is experiencing that physical, emotional, and mental life is something more, although it shares and invests itself at all of those other levels.

Obviously, a lot of our political problems result from ideological rigidity, from people identifying too closely with their ideas. The results, of course, are greater and greater divisions among people, whereas the basic self–when it’s experienced in meditation, in prayer, in contemplation, in the dream life, or just in the process of learning to disidentify–suddenly exposes to us our underlying human unity. The ecological movement has told us that everything in the world is interconnected, but we very seldom–in this country, at least–apply that knowledge to our relationship to the rest of humanity.

So my view is that the most fundamentally political thing that you can do for people is to give them the experience of the basic self, because–once someone has experienced that–the next thing he or she will experience is the unbelievably vast gap between this simple unity and the way things work in the “real world”…and the natural urge is to want to bridge that gap. That’s probably why, in past times, many religious and spiritual teachers have told us that trying to change the world might not be as productive as simply increasing our self-knowledge.

Most of us, then, have to do a lot of unlearning about who we truly are. But once we lessen the number of trappings that we burden our lives with, we’ll start looking at ourselves in a new way, because our inner life will be less cluttered, too. And when that happens, there’ll be a real opportunity for change to take place.

Can you give me an example of the types of changes an uncluttered life could help bring about?

Well, let’s suppose that you don’t have the money for a car, and so you have to get around on a bicycle. That can be looked upon as a harsh reality and faced with an attitude of deprivation, or it can be seen as making a commitment to the environment and faced with thanks for the opportunity to get exercise, enjoy the scenery, and not be trapped in a little box that runs on petroleum.

Voluntary simplicity, you see, is really all about happiness. It’s learning to be pleased with the simple things that come with living a good life of self-reliance. But that happiness also derives from the fact that folks who simplify their material lives have more time to focus on their inner lives.

That’s probably why spiritual and intentional communities–such as Findhorn in Scotland–which experiment with new lifestyles can be such dramatic and motivating forces in people’s lives.

I see the model that Findhorn has for a small, 250-member community as being very viable for our planet’s four-billion-plus-sized community. And Findhorn is not alone. In fact, there are so many other places around the world that are taking similar steps toward change that one begins to get a feeling that there’s a much greater force moving through this neural network we’ve created with our communication system than most of us realize.

When I was at Findhorn, many visitors to the community discovered that their experiences of a deeper unity–or of new possibilities for the real world–were not just occurring in their heads, but that they were also being developed in some real places!

Not everyone, however, can have the chance to experience the supportiveness that such New Age communities offer.

But even people in suburban row houses and city apartments can support one another by taking small steps, by establishing hydroponic and community gardens, solarizing, buying food through co-ops, creating cooperative day care centers, and so forth. The point is that even the smallest step can have wide significance, because it builds hope, it builds trust, it builds community, and, ultimately, it strengthens the knowledge in each of us that we’re connected to a wider world.

Bringing inner unity into outward manifestation is, incidentally, the “magic” of the human-potential, New Age movement. And even though that loose weave of individuals and groups is fundamentally still at a psychological, not a political, stage right now, it has already produced a cadre of thousands of people who have touched base with who they really are, and who now have the sturdiness, the strength, the wisdom, and the courage to face up to, and to initiate, change. And when those people begin to link personal transformation with social transformation, we’re going to see a snowball effect.

You’ve said you want to offer people hope, and you do paint a hopeful picture. Certainly, it’s far from the notion that voluntary simplicity is little more than genteel poverty.

Poverty is involuntary. It’s degrading, inhuman, and oppressive, and it destroys the spirit.

A lot of people also confuse voluntary simplicity with asceticism. Right off, let me say that I’m not an ascetic. I appreciate the luxuries of using a typewriter, having warm clothing, maintaining a sane and stable physical life, providing for a family, and so forth.

But voluntary simplicity is making an effort to really look at, reassess, and carefully choose among the things that we use in our lives, and making sure that their use is ethical. It involves becoming conscious of our actions and having the direct experience of a life uncluttered and unmediated by things.

And how do you see that lifestyle translating into political action in favor of disarmament?

The disarmament movement has some very interesting parallels to the effort to become more autonomous in the economy and more responsible in our consuming, and it also involves as great a shift in loyalties and attitudes, because it’s starting to ask critical questions about what security really is.

Basically, our government–as well as a lot of individual people in America and the rest of the world–operates on the old mathematics that more guns equal more security. Oddly enough, it’s just like the old consumption-oriented lifestyles that we’re beginning to question, in which more products and more luxuries equal more security. But our experiences in Vietnam, Iran, and Nicaragua–and, perhaps in the coming months, in El Salvador–are teaching us that even though the military size is usually greatest on the side that the U.S. government hopes will win, those large forces don’t always triumph.

What we’re now beginning to understand–it’s a form of political new mathematics–is that more community equals more security. And as we begin to define who we are in a different way, we’ll see that we’re a part of a global community of nations and that America doesn’t have to be number one in every sector of the planet’s life.

After all, we’re together on a spaceship without an operating manual. We have to recognize that we’ve compartmentalized ourselves and–in the process–have jeopardized our life-support systems. And there are a lot of things that we need to understand better before we can try to write a definitive manual, one that would allow people in the future to actually handle the problems that arise. First of all, we need to shift our jurisdiction and our sense of loyalty as individuals to the widest frontier possible, that is, a planetary frontier.

Until recently, the disarmament movement has been pretty much focused on questions of hardware: the MX, Pershing, and cruise missiles, the military budget, and so on. We, of course, need to be concerned about these things, but we should also recognize that they’re just symptoms.

So, while we’re dealing with the manifestations of the arms race, we also have to be concerned with constructing the realities of peace.

People have tried for centuries to achieve world peace, and they’ve had precious little success. I’d be interested in how you propose we should do it.

First of all, it would require an attitude change, a new global identity, and a real sense of community at the political and policymaking level. More important, however, it would probably demand a shift in the way we think about our personal and national security.

After 200 years of living under our Constitution, we’ve developed the art of handling most of our conflicts nonviolently through law. Certainly, we have a lot of problems with our legal system and with the way conflicts are sometimes resolved. But back in the late eighteenth century, 13 separate colonies decided that the only choice they had was to unite or perish, and I see that as a grand rehearsal for what the global community has to go through.

The United Countries of the World?

Well, I don’t expect a world government by the year 2000, nor do I particularly want that. But I do expect that we’re going to take the lessons that we’ve learned about nonviolent resolution of conflict, about the force of law, about the ability to implement binding arbitration in situations where the parties are no longer willing to deal with each other fairly, and then figure out how we can apply the experiences that we and other nations have had on a global level. We might, for example, begin to use more international peacekeeping forces where local “brush fire” wars have the potential for triggering international conflict, use binding arbitration (as we’re doing now with the Law of the Sea Treaty), use mediation and conciliation in much more sophisticated ways, and eventually start to construct a new security system.

Already, there are government leaders who know that nuclear weapons don’t provide any real security, because we can’t use them. And we have to recognize that, while those in power might be willing to back away from the brink of Armageddon, no other security system is available to them, because they have no experience in handling global conflict in ways other than by resorting to threats or violence.

So what steps could we take to provide alternatives?

First, the system’s roots would have to be established locally, because all global conflicts start at a local level, and that’s the point at which they should be handled.

In fact, because we’ve tied ourselves into a nuclear defense position, the whole nature of the ballgame has changed. We’re now being forced to look at our conflicts and ask not “How can I eliminate the other party?” but, instead, “What are the sources of the conflict, and what is the potential for a creative resolution?” Whether these conflicts are personal, social, economic, international, or environmental/industrial, we should realize that they are actually gifts, because they offer us the chance to reexamine our attitudes, and to make some choices that might be beneficial.

You believe, then, that political, social, and economic issues are closely intertwined?

Yes, because there’s no longer one discrete thing we can call the population crisis, the hunger crisis, the energy crisis, or any of the other problems we might be concerned about, because all of those things are inextricably woven into one another. Therefore, trying to legislate change that’s limited to any one of those levels won’t work. Furthermore, any such laws–to be effective–would have to be grounded in people’s attitudes and in a desire for change.

Without that sort of support, it would be impossible, for example, to legislate population control, even in a totalitarian nation such as China. You can offer threats to those who have more than two children and rewards to those who have only one, but the real reason the Chinese are getting some cooperation in this area is that–to the nation’s people–population control really means community survival.

And we’re all facing a similar situation, at the global level, with the arms race. But for any president of this country to advocate serious arms reduction and–paralleling that, of course–the building up of a new security system, he or she would have to have great public support.

Right now, I’m hopeful that the forces that are locked into the old view that security equals more guns will eventually be offset. But no one should be fooled: Those forces are very real. There is a military/industrial complex of companies that are wed to military budgets and defense contracts. So we can expect those firms to support massive military armament.

However, if we can begin to uncouple our lifestyle and our income expectations from the mainstream economy in which these companies thrive, perhaps we can begin to pull the rug of legitimacy from under some of the old institutions and values. And I do hope this change is as painless–in terms of personal suffering–as possible, but I also think the more we can speed it up, the more likely it is that we can lessen the time anyone has to endure its discomforts.

I hope, too, that we’ll have a situation in which–as the old culture and the old attitudes that we have about the world, our foreign policy, and those “foreign” people out there begin to change–the withdrawal of energy from the existing system will be paralleled by the buildup of new ways of dealing with conflicts.

But do you really think we have time to establish something better?

That will depend a lot on individual actions. Those people who are concerned with competence and craftsmanship, those involved in gardening and in developing a self-reliant personal economy, and those who also have a caring commitment to seeing the arms race capped and reversed need to recognize that all those goals aren’t separate, and don’t necessarily require joining different organizations or political movements. Instead, most of these aims could benefit from a wedding of their forces.

And that involves more than just talking, for example, about the environmental impact of the arms race.

We also have to understand how our lifestyle helps to generate the manipulative, exploitive world view of nature that gives us endangered species, pollution, and the arms race. Once we’ve reassessed (and “delegitimized”) those old ways of thinking about nature, we can reinstill the reverence for life that ought to be reflected in our foreign policy, and that would never allow the kinds of attitudes we commonly have today about Central America, or even about the Soviet Union.

But, obviously, any nation that arms itself to the teeth has to be dangerous.

I don’t argue that the Soviet Union presents–as does the United States–a real threat to the world. But I suggest that because (in President Reagan’s terms) it takes two to tango, we have to try to really understand what’s happening in foreign policy right now. It’s a deadly game, and people shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that reversing the arms race is going to be easy. It will probably require the emergence of nonviolent civil resistance that will involve, among other things, massive economic boycotts and the increased politicization of our consumption. After all, we, as consumers, have tremendous untapped power. What’s more, it can be wielded through the very simple means of not doing. In fact, sometimes it is what we don’t do that is the most powerful.

Yet many caring people are overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness when they consider the world’s problems.

It is, of course, sometimes really tough to get individuals to see beyond their despondency, because of the pain those people experience when they look at the world. To do so means facing suffering and death, and the proof that the world isn’t perfect despite what they’ve been told. It also implies the recognition that each of us has a personal responsibility, and that, in turn, implies change, and everybody resists change. Added to all this is the sense of powerlessness that comes in the face of complexities, which often translates into political apathy and the helplessness that you’re talking about.

To combat that, we need a human chain reaction on the order of that which occurs on the atomic level. We need to recognize that the power of every person–like the power of every single atom in a nuclear weapons so vast that, while one warhead can destroy a whole city, one individual (or one small group of people) can unleash enough creative power to remake an entire civilization. And I’m convinced that, in the next 20 years, the very small tangible things that people do on a massive scale will begin to change the world’s values, its lifestyles, and its governments’ views of one another. The effects of people talking to people and demonstrating new lifestyles and new community-based security systems can spread rapidly. I’m very open to the magic of momentum, and that’s what we have to build. Momentum, however, is based on communication, and in some areas of the Third World, the necessary tools are not yet available, so it’s difficult to even let such people know about, for example, new energy sources.

Fortunately, I feel we’re near a sort of critical mass and that change won’t necessarily involve convincing everybody. We simply have to reach the people who already recognize that powerlessness, as much as powerfulness, is a matter of personal choice. We have to find those people in the kinks of society and get them into communication with one another, so we can build a common strategy and take on common goals. That’s going to require that many organizations and movements finally begin talking together and dealing with the personality conflicts that their leaders may have.

In other words, we need to recognize the power of the community and network that we’ve already organized, and then we have to project the inspiration, the hope, and the vision we have to a wider community of people.

It’s very necessary to consciously think about these issues in terms of political strategy, and ask such questions as “How many resources do we have? How much time do we have until the MX missile becomes activated and militarizes large areas of our country even more?” and “How do we capture our opportunities effectively enough that we can still recognize our responsibilities to our loved ones, our mates, and our families?” My parents, for example, have no concept of why the drama of a potential breakthrough in civilization has called me out of the profession I was slotted for–they believed I’d be a wealthy lawyer–and turned me into someone who lives a voluntarily simple life here in Harlem, and who’s essentially trying to pursue a path of service to humanity.

I’m very curious as to why you’re living in New York City, and what motivates you to stay here.

I’m convinced that, at this point in history, we need some people who are dedicated enough to the pursuit of harmlessness that they are willing, for a short time, to sacrifice some of the personal benefits of homesteading, gardening, and living a saner life than can be had in an inner-city urban culture. Such individuals might just be able to have some impact on the way the dinosaur falls.

However, life in the city can be distracting and can disperse personal energies. For one thing, it’s difficult to root projects in such a setting, mainly because people exist, but they don’t relate, so the experience of community is lacking.

It’s important to remember, though, that even people who put themselves in the center of a hopeful network will still face instances of powerlessness, so–both as individuals and as groups–we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that not everything is possible, and we’re going to have to strategically choose those goals that are easiest for us to reach.

Sometimes, too, trying to make a difference seems to involve issues of time. Do we have enough time to tackle this when that exists?

That’s why it’s necessary to choose the challenge that’s going to be impacted in the most creative and fundamental way. That may seem hard and brutal, but I don’t think it is, because what we’re seeking is to make the greatest impact that we can on relieving human suffering in the widest circles possible. Gandhi provides the perfect example. He constantly reminded his followers that though you may feel–and, in fact, though it may be true–that what you do has no meaning, you still must do it, because you are one of the few. Therefore, we need to look at ourselves as tiny inlets for the creative potential that is sort of waiting for humans to allow it in. It’s been sensed throughout history, but now, I think, there are more change agents–more inlets for this evolutionary type of energy–than there have ever been.

And why do you think that might be happening now?

I think it’s partly because the bills are coming due, and the forces are waking us up. The catalysts are out there, continually hammering away. Of course, many of us take refuge in psychotic behavior when we get hammered too much, but some of us tend to respond by snapping out of our unawakened state. To use another Reagan term, there’s a “window of opportunity” that severe crisis and breakdown offers in the psyche. And on a personal level, when the psyche breaks down–when you begin to experience odd sorts of psychotic or neurotic phenomena in your own life–you have an opportunity to break through and become a new and revitalized person. And that’s true in the economic and cultural sectors. Breakdown offers a chance to break through to something better, but it’s sometimes a very fleeting chance.

There have, of course, always been movements for change, alternative communities, and calls for human improvement, but never before has there been such a mass of people who have come to grips with their basic selves, who understand the dynamism of change and the power of personal conviction, and who are going on to work on the political and social levels.

And we must never underrate the potential power of an individual person in the political process, because it really is immense. All sorts of new possibilities unfold in the lives of ordinary people as a result, for example, of their being involved in a simple act such as supporting a nuclear freeze or solarizing a local building.

Didn’t René Dubos say that people should think globally and act locally?

Yes, and it’s become a kind of motto. You see, if we can connect our identity to a wider global community while doing the thing that’s right and appropriate in our own locale, then we can imagine that same thing happening in thousands of places at once. I try to remind people that nothing is global unless it’s happening everywhere locally, which means there are no global problems, there’s just what’s happening here and, simultaneously, everywhere else. And that realization can be extraordinary for people, because then global concerns are no longer complex and alien to their own lifestyles. Those “unimaginable” problems suddenly become part and parcel of what people are experiencing every day!

But what can an individual actually do about global concerns, how can one man or woman help build a better world?

Well, for one thing, each individual’s commitment contributes to what Rupert Sheldrake, in his book A New Science of Life, called a morphogenetic field, which–as I see it–is sort of an etheric web of energy, a subtle, telepathic communication vehicle that encircles all life-forms. And the existence of such fields is starting to be verified scientifically.

One example that’s very popular nowadays is referred to as “the hundredth monkey”. It seems that a study was conducted on some Japanese islands to find out about the living habits of the primates there. And while the scientists were investigating the monkeys’ behavior, one younger female monkey, named Imo, discovered that when she took sandy sweet potatoes (which the scientists had introduced into the animals’ diet) and washed them in the sea, they were tastier. So she taught a couple of other monkeys in her particular subculture about washing potatoes, and the idea spread throughout the island in a natural way, one monkey teaching another. Then, when knowledge of this new concept had reached about 100 of the animals, monkeys on surrounding islands suddenly began washing their potatoes, too. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The details of this research can be found in the book Lifetide by Lyall Watson.]

I don’t know how many concerned humans it will take to have the same effect on the globe that those hundred monkeys had on their world, but I’m convinced that we’re near that point and that people who might be losing faith should hold on a little longer, because the knowledge that we’re all connected to one another is no longer an idealistic notion, it’s become a key to survival. If we don’t grow up, we’re going to blow up.

Furthermore, the practice–for example–of voluntary simplicity is very practical, tangible, meaningful, and readily accessible to ordinary people in different communities around the world. After all, it really involves simply moving away from patterns of behavior that tend to promote big-scale and inhuman structures, and giving people a sense that they can be quite close to everything that can provide them with what they need. The alternatives that are emerging in this decade are based on personal choices that people are going to make, rather than on choices that government officials or business executives are going to make for the public. And in the final analysis, most of the economic factors that operate in the world are motivated by the personal decisions of individuals.

And small efforts on the part of ordinary folks, such as shutting off a light when you leave a room, can ultimately lower oil prices or undercut the need for nuclear power plants. The kind of attitude I want to promote is based upon the understanding that a single action, when multiplied a thousandfold, can create a political momentum that’s unstoppable. In other words, we all ought to adopt what I call the “as if” technique, we ought to act as if our actions are simultaneously being done by thousands of others. That is, in essence, what thinking globally and acting locally is all about. In other words, when you do something such as shutting off an unnecessary light, you’re taking a global action. And visualizing the effects of your small, positive acts multiplied thousands of times over can be a tremendous motivating force!