Climate Choices

By Scott London — April 14, 2016

At yesterday’s White House Science Fair, President Obama called on our current generation of students—those in elementary, middle and high schools today—to take up the grand challenges of our time, from forging new solutions to cancer to combatting climate change.

To advance the cause, he launched the Climate Education and Literacy Initiative, a program aimed at giving students the knowledge and skills they need “to develop and implement climate solutions.”

As part of that initiative, the White House is including Climate Choices, a new publication I helped to develop for the National Issues Forums (NIF) and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE).

Climate Choices explores the advantages and disadvantages of multiple options for addressing climate change, from reducing carbon emissions to protecting our communities to accelerating innovation in the search for new solutions.

The guide will be used as a springboard for deliberative conversations across America over the next year—not only in schools, but also in communities, on college and university campuses, and online. The fact that the President singled it out as part of his initiative within weeks of its publication represents an exciting and promising start for the project.

I led the development of Climate Choices for NIF beginning in 2013, doing most of the initial research, issue framing, and writing of the manuscript. When the NAAEE came on board as a partner , we worked closely to develop a guide that would be useful and effective in classrooms and on campuses. The idea was to create a tool for having meaningful, robust, and deliberative conversations about how to tackle climate change.

Getting the science right was a key priority, and we received input from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several other leading climate scientists. It made for a rigorous and time-consuming review process that delayed the production. We had hoped to have Climate Choices published in time for the Paris climate talks last December, but it simply wasn’t ready in time.

But today, with the guide finally published, the roll-out of a national conversation on climate change set to begin, and now the President’s inclusion of it as part of his climate education initiative, the timing seems rather auspicious after all.

For a copy of Climate Choices, or to find out how you can be part of the national conversation on climate change, go to NIF or the NAAEE’s Environmental Issues Forums page.


Climate change threats in the U.S. by region—from “Climate Choices”


Bill Drayton on Becoming a Changemaker

By Scott London — March 14, 2016

Bill Drayton“An invasion of armies can be resisted,” said Victor Hugo, “but not an idea whose time has come.” This certainly holds true for social entrepreneurship, an idea that has attracted an enormous amount of attention—to say nothing of money and talent—in recent years.

The rise of social entrepreneurship reflects a growing sense today that many of the most promising solutions to global problems don’t necessarily depend on charity, government aid, or foundation grants. They come from individuals at the grassroots level willing to bring entrepreneurial thinking to bear on some of our toughest social problems.

No one has done more to put social entrepreneurship on the map than Bill Drayton. In fact, he’s widely credited with having coined the term in the early 1980s. He’s the CEO and founder of Ashoka, a global association of social innovators. Since 1981, the organization has elected some 3,000 leading social entrepreneurs as Ashoka Fellows, providing them with living stipends, professional support, and access to an outstanding global network of peers.

I caught up with Drayton in Oslo, Norway, to talk about the movement he started and how it’s evolving. He told me that we live in a world structured around efficiency and repetition, yet the rate of change today is accelerating to the point where our institutions can no longer adapt fast enough. The only way to respond to the challenges we face is to become an agent of transformation and renewal.

“The biggest problem we have is that people don’t yet see the change that’s going on,” Drayton explained. “Once people understand that we are moving from a world of repetition to a world of change, then the role of the social entrepreneur becomes obvious. You cannot have the problems outrun the solutions when everyone is a changemaker. We become like smart white blood cells. We see a problem and move right to taking care of it.”

You can read the full interview here.

How Paradigms Shift

By Scott London — February 12, 2016

'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' by Thomas S. KuhnMore than 50 years have passed since the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a slim little book that introduced the word “paradigm” into common parlance and shattered our conventional way of looking at change. After half a century, it still represents perhaps the best thinking on how transformation happens, who drives it, why it’s so vehemently resisted, and what it really asks of people.

The book explores the psychology of belief that governs the acceptance of new concepts and innovations in science. Kuhn showed that the history of science is not one of linear, rational progress moving toward ever more accurate and complete knowledge of an objective reality. Rather, it’s one of radical shifts of vision in which a multitude of nonrational and nonempirical factors come into play.

Kuhn showed that the theories of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were all self-contained and “incommensurable” with one another. There was no steady accumulation of truth in the form of objective knowledge about the physical universe. Instead each theory was a revolutionary break from the previous theory, resulting in the arbitrary replacement of one conceptual matrix, or worldview, by another. Once the matrix changed, the way science was done and applied was fundamentally different.

Kuhn used the word “paradigm” to describe this conceptual matrix. A paradigm, in his formulation, is a constellation of facts, theories, methods, and assumptions about reality that allows researchers to isolate data, elaborate theories, and solve problems. Aristotle’s “Physica,” Ptolemy’s “Almagest,” Newton’s “Principia” and Lavoisier’s “Chemistry” are examples of scientific classics that gave rise to new paradigms. Each of these works triggered a revolution, rendering irrelevant much of what came before them. The chief characteristic of a paradigm, Kuhn argued, is that it has its own set of rules and illuminates its own set of facts. Because it is self-validating, it tends to be resistant to change.

Kuhn pointed out that as long as a paradigm is successful at explaining observed phenomena and solving problems, it remains dominant. But as new phenomena begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. And as anomalies multiply, it is thrown into crisis. At this stage, what is needed is the articulation of a radically new theory or insight, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, that can explain the apparent contradictions. In this way, long periods of “normal” science are followed by brief intellectual upheavals that reorder the basic theoretical assumptions of the field.

New paradigms rarely appear on the scene full-blown. Their early formulations are typically crude and incomplete. They are often the products not of deliberation or interpretation, but of “a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the gestalt switch,” Kuhn wrote. “Scientists then often speak of the ’scales falling from the eyes’ or of the ‘lightening flash’ that inundates a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution.”

New paradigms are never immediately accepted by the scientific community. They may gain ground because of some dramatic and unforseen verification, or for personal or aesthetic reasons — they may appear “neater,” “simpler,” or “more elegant” than their older counterparts. But the choice between competing paradigms ultimately comes down to personal conviction since, as he put it, “the competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.” While the new paradigm tends to be more successful in accounting for and predicting phenomena, there is ultimately no absolute standard for determining whether one paradigm is better than another.

Kuhn stressed that a new paradigm is almost always the work of a young person or someone new to the field. After a number of years in a certain discipline, a scientist tends to be too emotionally and habitually invested in the prevailing paradigm. Indeed, the established leaders of the older tradition may never accept the new view of reality. As Kuhn wrote, “Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the ‘Principia’ appeared. Priestley never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on.” Adherents to the old paradigm usually go to their graves with their faith unshaken, Kuhn wryly noted. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, they stubbornly stick with the wrong but familiar.

The fact that Kuhn’s treatise — an academic essay on a fairly specialized subject, the psychological factors at work in the advancement of science — went on to win a wide audience is one of the great surprise stories in the history of ideas. But Kuhn had put his finger on something that was widely intuited, if not openly acknowledged or articulated, namely that change proceeds by upheaval. It’s not a smooth and gradual process. Transformations are violent because they necessitate the destruction and reordering of our most basic conceptual frameworks. That was an insight even a general readership was happy to embrace.

Not all of Kuhn’s conclusions have stood the test of time. For example, recent work has called into question the idea that scientific paradigms are “incommensurable” and that paradigm shifts are therefore essentially irrational events. For example, Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard says there is enough continuity in scientific revolutions to suggest that the process is not really arbitrary or non-linear. He likens a paradigm-shift to the process of learning a second language. (Read my review of Thagard’s book here)

But never mind. Kuhn’s basic insights stand and his service to our understanding of the psychology of change has been incalculable. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was described by Scientific American’s John Horgan as “the most influential treatise ever written on how science … proceeds.” Philosopher Richard Rorty called it “the most influential English-language philosophy book of the last half-century. It sold the most copies, made the greatest difference to our ways of thinking, and was the subject of the most intense and complex debates.” “For a quarter of a century,” Huston Smith wrote in 1982, it was “the most cited book on college campuses and … turned ‘paradigm’ into a household word.” The book, in other words, is an evergreen.

John Taylor Gatto on Beating the System

By Scott London — November 20, 2015

John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto’s career as a school teacher began in 1965 when he borrowed his roommate’s teaching license and began working as a per diem substitute in New York City. He went on to become the city’s Teacher of the Year three years in a row and then New York State Teacher of the Year. But Gatto didn’t care for being in the public spotlight, and he ended his teaching career in 1991 with a now famous resignation letter published in the Wall Street Journal.

In the letter, he criticized the public school system for teaching what he called “a curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, disrespect for privacy, indifference to quality, and utter dependency.”

Since then, Gatto has traveled across the country talking about the need to overhaul America’s public education system. He’s also written numerous books, including Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction.

He’s a strong advocate of homeschooling. His books left a profound impression on me and were a key influence in my decision to homeschool my own kids.

On one of his visits to California, I sat down with him to talk about the trouble with America’s schools. We spoke at length about his experiences as a school teacher. I was especially curious to know how his students managed to win New York State’s essay contest year after year. His answer surprised me but also revealed an essential truth about our public education system.

“A girl came to me early on in my teaching career,” Gatto said. “She wanted to enter a congressman’s essay contest. I don’t know if she wanted to win a trip to Washington or a gold star. ‘Why are you wasting your time chasing these prizes?’ I asked her. ‘There are so many worthwhile things to do.’ But she pressed the point. So I said I would help her. I couldn’t promise that she would win, but I could guarantee that she would be in the finals.”

“How could you guarantee that?” I asked. “After all, there were some fifty schools in the running for the prize.”

“Here’s what I told her,” he continued. “‘You have to follow my instructions to the letter, and it’s going to be a lot of work for you. I want you to take a week off from school. I’ll cover for you. I want you to research the congressman’s career from the beginning. I want to know what college he went to, his earliest public speeches, and what he is famous for. He’s going to give this award to somebody who agrees with him. And no one your age will be able to agree with him other than in some generic fashion. But you are going to agree with everything he said at the time when he was class president in 3rd grade. You’re going to research this man and find out what his hot-buttons are.'”

The Trouble With America's Schools

“Isn’t that a rather cynical way to go about it,” I protested.

“If that sounds cynical, Scott, let me tell you that’s as idealistic an enterprise as I can think of,” he shot back. “It’s showing people how to pull the screen back and see for themselves how the system really works.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “What happened?”

“Well, she did in fact win the trip to Washington (or whatever it was he was giving away). And a couple of her friends won second and third place. My students did this year after year. My kids were the valedictorians of the school. Our school gives the valedictorian prize not for the highest average but for the best speech.”

“What did you tell your kids about giving good speeches?” I asked.

“I said, first of all, that we would have to practice giving speeches in the auditorium, because they don’t want to pick someone for valedictorian who is going to embarrass them by freezing up on stage. So I got a key from the custodian — he was Irish, so it took three bottles of whiskey — and we made a master so that we could do all our practicing in the auditorium. Then I told them they had to know exactly what the committee believed. The committee was made up of a social studies teacher, a science teacher, and the principal. They had gone on record many times about who they were and what they believed. I said to the kids, “you’re going to say in your speech that who they are is the best of all, that’s how you’re going to be valedictorian.'”

Gatto registered the concerned look on my face. “Well,” he added, “you don’t actually believe that anyone in charge of giving a prize could give it to someone who contradicts their dearest, most cherished beliefs, do you? It would be madness.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree with him. And, in fact, what he said opened my eyes to an essential truth about awards and honors — that oftentimes they are given to those who express or exemplify what the award-givers themselves most fervently believe.

What Gatto was telling me — and who can deny the truth of it? — is that awards say more about the people who give honors than it does about those who receive them. This is a subject I want to come back to in future post.

For more on John Taylor Gatto, go to Wikipedia or his official website.

Extraordinary Women

By Scott London — July 26, 2014

Women and PeaceThe late British economist Robert Theobald once asked me, “of all the people you have interviewed over the years, who left the deepest impression?”

His question was not easy to answer. Memorable conversations, I find, often have less to do with the person you’re speaking with and more to do with the insights they lead you to. Nevertheless I came up with a half-dozen names.

To my surprise, all of them were women.

“Why do you think they were all women?” he asked.

I ventured something about how women seem more grounded in their own experience and their own inner authority.

That was true for him as well, he said. Some of the most remarkable women he had met combined the qualities of the thinker, the philosopher, the mystic and the activist. Unlike many of the brilliant men he knew, he said that women seemed to understand the importance of grounding their ideals in practice.

Years later, I mentioned this exchange to Adam Curle, the distinguished peace scholar and international mediator. He had spent more than half a century trying to understand the roots of violent conflict. Over the course of his career, he had also negotiated settlements and facilitated behind-the-scenes talks in places like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Echoing what Theobald had said, he told me that many of the best mediators he had worked with were women. He thought it might be because “women are not so impressed by hierarchy.”

“There is a certain competitiveness among men that can impede development of friendship and common understanding,” I offered.

He agreed, saying that he often found himself “slightly in awe” when he would meet a president, prime minister, or other important figure.  “I realize that in a lot of relationships between men, there is a kind of subtle, sensitive ‘who’s on top and who’s on bottom.’ Women don’t have that.”

He went on to say whenever he had worked with women, they immediately created an easy rapport with men, especially those in positions of power. “Women are not intimidated,” he noted. “They don’t have a need to secure their position in a hierarchy. They seem to be more concerned with fundamental things.”

I’ve thought often about these conversations with Theobald and Curle. Odd as it may sound, I’ve found myself in more than a few situations in the intervening years — in professional meetings or encounters with dignitaries, for example — when I’ve asked myself, “what would a woman do in this situation?”

I think most men would benefit from doing the same.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2013

By Scott London — October 12, 2013

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Announcement

The routine is the same every year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee calls a press conference on the second Friday of October at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, the chairman enters the room, greets the international press corps, and announces the committee’s choice for the annual Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement typically consists of a short written statement, read first in English and then in Norwegian. The chairman then takes a few questions from the press, whereupon everyone rushes off to file their news reports.

This year was no different, except that word got out about an hour before the announcement that the winner was the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N. watchdog group. NRK, Norway’s leading news organization, had leaked the information ahead of the announcement and it spread like wildfire, thanks in no small part to the social media rumor mill—Twitter, in particular.

It wasn’t exactly an exciting choice, especially for those of us gathered at the Nobel Institute hoping for a big win for, say, Malala Yusoufzai—the global favorite this year—or Russian human rights activists like Svetlana Gannushkina and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, or the great American peace scholar Gene Sharp, whom I’ve been pulling for in recent years.

The leak meant that by the time Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee chairman, stepped up to the microphone, the announcement seemed like more of a formality than a riveting news event.

It goes without saying that the OPCW is a worthy recipient. Over the last decade and a half, the organization has been working to dismantle and destroy chemical weapons, to prevent the creation of new ones, and to help countries protect themselves against chemical attacks.The organization has been especially busy in recent months working to eliminate Syria’s stocks of chemical arms under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

This award follows in a long tradition of Nobel Peace Prizes to individuals and groups working for disarmament. This work is as vital as ever and a crucial part of the international peace effort.

But I was disappointed to see the Peace Prize go to an organization for the second year in a row. The best awards are those given to individuals, not organizations. Both the international recognition and the money mean far more to an individual laureate than to an impersonal institution or association.

I have spoken with individuals who were part of organizations that won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some will tell you, without batting an eye, that receiving the award and being under the global media spotlight distracted them from their mission and created organizational challenges that set their work back.

It’s worth noting that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who founded the prize, did not intend for it to be given to organizations. He wanted to support men and women who were “champions of peace.” For him, that term implied a passionate activism and idealism. He saw his prize as a kind of development grant, like the “Genius” awards given out by the MacArthur Foundation, that would have no strings attached and could free a laureate to pursue his or her highest calling.

In a curious twist, Nobel’s intentions were ignored after his will was probated. In drafting the statutes of the foundation established to oversee the awards, Nobel’s heirs and their lawyers insisted on a more open-ended interpretation of the founder’s wishes—presumably to avoid any possible corruption of the prizes. That has freed the Nobel committee to give the award to individuals and organizations alike.

Oslo City Hall

This year I reported on the Nobel Peace Prize for the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). In the reports and interviews following the announcement, the question on everyone’s mind revolved around Malala. Why didn’t she win the prize? Would it have been too heavy a burden to place on a 16-year-old girl? Will she perhaps win next year?

Who knows? She certainly would have been a risky choice for the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She’s still a child, after all, and there is no telling how a prestigious award of this magnitude could change the direction of her life. She has already been targeted and nearly killed by the Taliban for her campaign to promote education for girls in Pakistan.

As I mentioned in an AFP interview the other day, Malala would also have been a controversial choice for the committee in the wake of several unfortunate awards, including those to President Obama and the European Union.

There’s a growing chorus of critics around the world saying that the prize has become overly politicized, that laureates are chosen less on merit and more on their perceived publicity value, and that the committee has, in some profound way, deviated from the original charter of the prize. Those criticisms would almost certainly have grown louder had Malala been chosen this year.

Malala said herself that she hasn’t done enough to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. I agree. But she’s still young and she will no doubt go on to do even greater things. And she may yet win the prize in coming years.

As I made my way back to the hotel last night, I walked past Oslo’s City Hall. At the top of both towers, a large-scale projection with the words “Because I am a girl” marked the International Day of the Girl. It seemed fitting that for all the talk about advancing peace and doing away with chemical weapons, at the end of the day the conversation came back around to that Pakistani schoolgirl, the one who has captured the world’s imagination and emerged as one of its most compelling symbols of freedom and courage.

announcement at the Nobel Institute

Here I am (in the front row with a gray jacket) at the Nobel Institute in Oslo

How Do We Get American Politics Back on Track?

By Scott London — June 27, 2013

A healthy skepticism of government is built into the American character. But public attitudes have gone beyond mere skepticism in recent years. Surveys show that disaffection with government is at or near an all-time high. Many people have abandoned their faith in our elected leadership.

Some of the public’s frustration can be attributed to economic anxiety and uncertainty about the future. But it also reflects deep concerns about the forces shaping American politics—from partisan rancor and congressional gridlock to the high cost of political campaigns and the growing influence of special interest groups.

Any one of these problems taken in isolation would represent a serious challenge to our democratic process. But taken together, they make it almost impossible for government to address the nation’s most pressing issues.

In a new issue book, just published by the National Issues Forums, I write about how deadlock and dysfunction have become the new norm in American politics. I also explore a number of options for addressing the problems and getting the system back on track. The issue guide is part of a series of publications used to promote serious discussion in communities and on campuses across the country. Here’s an excerpt:

Art from 'Political Fix,' an issue guide for the National Issues ForumsToday Washington D.C. is home to a growing special-interest and lobbying industry, one that employs as many as 100,000 people, making it the third largest sector in the American capital after government and tourism.

The health care industry alone employs six lobbyists for every elected politician in Washington. On key issues like energy, defense and education, they exert an influence that is difficult to measure but undeniable.

Lobbyists advocate on behalf of organizations and constituencies, attempting to influence lawmakers and shape policies to suit their own interests. “The Catholic Church has lobbyists,” says American University professor James Thurber. “The Boy Scouts have lobbyists. The AFL-CIO has lobbyists. Apple does. Everybody has a lobbyist.”

Because lobbying firms represent special interests—those of the few rather than those of the many—their efforts tend to distort legislative priorities, sow contention and conflict, and compromise the government’s responsiveness to the public good.

As the number of lobbyists has grown, so has the influence of big money. With the soaring cost of political campaigns, lawmakers have to spend much of their time fundraising. Studies show that a typical senator working 40 hours a week would need to raise about $2,400 per hour to finance the cost of a re-election campaign.

Lobbyists and special interest groups have often proven willing, even eager, to contribute. But they expect a return on that investment in the form of access. That could mean personal invitations to parties, functions, or even meetings with legislators.

An analysis by Mike McIntire and Michael Luo of the New York Times found that most of the major contributors to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, especially those who gave $100,000 or more, were later invited to the White House to meet the president.

Of course, the Obama administration, like those before it, deny that there is a link between contributions and access to the White House. But the facts suggest a different story. Many of President George W. Bush’s biggest campaign contributors won ambassadorships or other special favors, and President Clinton famously invited big donors to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom, a guest suite on the second floor of the White House.

Cases of outright corruption are rare, but it’s well known that lobbying firms working on behalf of wealthy clients routinely gain access to politicians, lavish them with gifts and special benefits, and then sway them to make minor changes to legislation or offer tax breaks favorable to their clients.

Jack Abramoff, once one of Washington’s highest-paid lobbyists, was convicted in 2006 for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. After four years in prison, he wrote a book, Capital Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, detailing how lobbyists go about buying powerful friends and influencing legislation.

“I think people are under the impression that the corruption only involves somebody handing over a check and getting a favor, and that’s not the case,” Abramoff told 60 Minutes. In fact, members of Congress regularly accept gifts from influence-peddlers in what amounts to a form of legalized bribery. “It was done everyday,” he said, “and it’s still being done.”

The influence of money is nothing new in American politics. But not since the Gilded Age in the late 19th century has our political system been so inundated by corporate contributions and funding from secret sources. And the new era of big money has just begun.

The contributions that poured into the 2012 election—close to $3 billion, by some estimates—came largely as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In January 2010, a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to limit spending by corporations or other entities in candidate elections, because such limits violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

A subsequent court ruling helped to create “super PACs,” a new kind of political action committee that can collect money from individuals, corporations, and other groups to support or defeat political candidates.

Super PACs act in much the same way as political campaigns do, running ads, making calls, and sending out mailings. But unlike conventional campaigns, there is no limit on the amounts of money they can raise and spend.

Super PACs are required to disclose the sources of their contributions. But that doesn’t stop them from accepting donations from outside groups with secret donors. As a result, many well-heeled super PACs buy campaign ads with “dark money”—funds that can’t be traced to their original source.

The 2012 election cycle was shaped to an unprecedented degree by campaign ads created and paid for by super PACs. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, close to $1 billion was spent by outside groups trying to influence races around the country—a full 25 percent of which was dark money.

This means that corporations and other moneyed interests can now spend unlimited amounts of money supporting candidates aligned with their agendas and opposing those who don’t, all the while hiding their identity behind front groups.

Wealthy individuals and organizations may not be able to buy a politician or dictate the outcomes they want, but they influence the electoral landscape like never before. “If we don’t find some way to respond to this,” says former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, “it’s going to turn us into a plutocracy, where a very few powerful people control the public agenda.”

Many Americans insist that we must curb the influence of special interests and restrict the flow of big money into government to ensure that the good of the few never takes precedence over the good of the many. But there are some drawbacks to consider. As the Supreme Court made clear in its controversial Citizens United ruling, restricting the ability of corporations, unions and other groups to broadcast political messages or otherwise participate in the marketplace of ideas can be interpreted as a form of censorship.

The question is to what extent we are willing to curb the rights of a few in order to protect the common good.

On Collaboration

By Scott London — December 8, 2012

Tate: On CollaborationOn Collaboration is a new essay collection exploring various challenges, benefits, methodologies and approaches to collaborative practice. It brings together several general essays on collaboration—including a contribution of mine titled Building Collaborative Communities—as well as a half-dozen case studies of collaborative projects carried out in the U.K. under the auspices of Tate.

As I note in my piece, collaborative efforts tend to be loosely structured, highly adaptive, and inherently creative. As a form of joint decision-making and collective action, they represent one of the most promising ways that individuals, groups and organizations can work together for change because, unlike mere cooperation, they are based on advancing collectively-defined goals.

On Collaboration was edited by Marie Bak Mortensen and Judith Nesbitt and published this month by Tate, London.

The Art of Grafting

By Scott London — November 15, 2012

In horticulture, the art of grafting involves fusing the stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits of one plant with the rootstock of another. The process is especially useful with plants that can’t be propagated easily by seed.

The basic principle also applies to ideas. Sometimes the best way to introduce a new concept is to marry it to one that is already firmly established. The early scientists understood this when they depicted the atom as a microscopic solar system, or when the early web developers pitched the Internet as an “information superhighway.” A concept that is fuzzy or abstract often has a better chance of flourishing if combined with one that is already well-rooted.

What’s interesting to note is that grafting, as it was traditionally defined, meant “the healing in common of wounds.” It referred to the process by which the old and the new rub against each other. It was always a time-consuming and painful thing. But if a healing took place, common suffering could become the basis for a powerful and mutually sustaining bond.

Looking Ahead to the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize

By Scott London — October 8, 2012

The winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday, October 12th. Speculation about who will win is heating up, as it does every year at this time. But the field seems to be wide open this time around, without any clear favorites or front-runners.

There were 231 nominations this year, according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, of which 42 are organizations. The nominees are kept secret, but that doesn’t stop nominators from going public with their choices.

We know from news reports and press releases that various heads of state have been nominated, for example, among them President Bill Clinton, former Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl, and former Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti.

What is less widely known is that these nominations don’t carry any real weight since they could be made by anyone qualified to nominate. In the end, the decision will be made behind closed doors by a five-member committee elected by the Norwegian parliament. What they will decide is anyone’s guess.

Among the other nominees this year are Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina and Memorial, the organization she founded working to document historical injustice and violence. This is the third year in a row that Gannushkina has been tipped as a strong contender for the Peace Prize and it would be well-deserved.

Also nominated are Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), a radio station, and its chief editor, Aleksei Venediktov. Echo of Moscow has been an important source of independent news and reporting at a time when the Russian government has been cracking down on the free press. (Aleksei Venediktov was profiled in an excellent piece in the New Yorker some years ago.)

A prize to either Memorial or Ekho Moskvy would be well-deserved — and noteworthy too, because in the 111-year history of the Nobel Peace Prize no award has ever been given to a journalist or news organization (with the possible exception of the 1935 prize to Carl Von Ossietzky).

In recent years, the Nobel Committee has significantly broadened the scope of what it considers peace work by giving awards to social entrepreneurs and environmentalists, among others. While it has been criticized for deviating from Nobel’s original intentions for the Peace Prize — a subject I explore at some length in this review, and elsewhere — I think the Norwegian committee is right in acknowledging that there are many pathways to peace and fraternity among nations.

My personal preference among recent nominees is the noted peace scholar and researcher Gene Sharp. He is perhaps the world’s leading expert on nonviolent revolution and has been described as the “Machiavelli of nonviolence.” His work, which combines historical analysis and political theory, shows that nonviolent grassroots action — of the kind that we have seen in many parts of the Arab world over the last year or two — can be a peaceful means of creating political change.

A Nobel Peace Prize to Gene Sharp would be the first of its kind to a scholar and researcher working for peace.

This year, Sharp was the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” That award was created in 1980 by Swedish journalist and philanthropist Jakob Von Uexkull and represents what many regard as a more grassroots peace prize for our times — one given to the kind of activists working for social and political change from the ground up, often in remote parts of the world, far from the media spotlight.

I met Jakob Von Uexkull some years ago to talk about the prize he created. He told me that when he created the prize, he never expected to give it to those also being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. But when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its prize to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai in 2004 — someone who had received the Right Livelihood Award 20 years earlier — it was as if Von Uexkull’s prize had come of age in a very real sense.

If Gene Sharp were to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, after already winning the Right Livelihood Award earlier this year, it would be a richly-deserved grand slam.


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Honoring the Late James Hillman

By Scott London — July 12, 2012

The Sun MagazineThe current issue of The Sun magazine includes an interview I did with the late psychologist James Hillman. Hillman passed away last October at the age of 85 and to honor him and his contribution to the world of ideas, the magazine is reprinting portions of several interviews originally published in the 1990s and early 2000s.

My interview with Hillman took place in November 1996. His book, The Soul’s Code, had just been published. The Sunday we met it had debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list (thanks in large part to an appearance he made on the Oprah Winfrey show). Hillman had authored more than a dozen books on a variety of subjects but this was his first bestseller. When we met, he seemed especially buoyant and good-natured.

Even so, he was a notoriously prickly interview subject, someone who disdained journalists and disliked answering questions. He agreed to an interview, he told me, because he had something important to say in the book. Ideas are like children, he said, “and you should try to get your children into the world if possible, to defend them and help them along.” It isn’t enough “just to write and throw it out into the world — it’s useful to have to put yourself out there a little bit for what you believe.”

The conversation ranged widely. We talked about the shortcomings of conventional psychology, the question of character and destiny, and how to find and follow your calling in life. The best moments came at the end when Hillman riffed on the pursuit of happiness.

The interview aired on National Public Radio stations in the U.S. and on global shortwave, and later found its way into the pages of The Sun magazine. It was subsequently translated into Spanish and Italian and published elsewhere as well.

I still regard it as one of the finest interviews I’ve done. It shattered many ideas I had carried with me for a long time and Hillman’s comments festered in my mind, eventually opening up new vistas of understanding. He seemed to have that effect on people.

You can read the interview in The Sun here. If you pick up a print copy of the magazine, be sure to check out the brilliant personal tribute from Hillman’s friend and writing colleague Michael Ventura as well.

Remembering Elinor Ostrom

By Scott London — June 12, 2012

I was saddened by the news that Elinor Ostrom passed away today. She was the winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (along with Oliver Williamson). She and I shared a common connection to the Kettering Foundation, but I first discovered her work some 20 years ago after the release of her seminal book Governing the Commons.

Elinor Ostrom was a maverick, someone who challenged conventional wisdom in political science and economics. By awarding her the Nobel Prize in Economics, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did something rather remarkable — it acknowledged the need for new models and new ways of thinking in economics. It was a daring choice, and I think a very good one.

She was the first woman to win the economics prize, which is significant. And with the exception of the prize to Amartya Sen (for his work on welfare economics) it was one of the few awards that recognized alternatives to traditional neoclassical economics.

Ostrom showed that the three dominant economic models used for dealing with collective resource management — the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’s dilemma, and the logic of collective action — were all inadequate. They were not necessarily wrong, but the conditions under which they held were very specific. 

Her research suggested that there were other viable systems for managing shared resources. For example, she looked at Swiss grazing pastures, Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines that are based on sound principles of collective decision-making that are both democratic and empowering to ordinary people.

The subject of her research had long been considered peripheral to the main business of economics. But today, as we face a global recession and a very serious environmental crisis, her work has special resonance. It offers a roadmap for making resource management more democratic, more participatory, more community-based, and above all more responsive to ordinary citizens.

For more on Elinor Ostrom: