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:

Partnership for Change 2012

By Scott London — March 27, 2012

I’m back from a week in Oslo, Norway, where I was invited to emcee the Partnership For Change conference for the second year. The event brings together world-class thinkers and practitioners in the field of social entrepreneurship.

In just two years, it’s established itself as the biggest of its kind in Scandinavia, a coming together of business leaders, foundation executives, government officials, grassroots activists, and social innovators of all kinds.

Among the highlights for me was getting to spend time with some of my longtime heroes, such as Ashoka founder Bill Drayton (the man widely credited with having invented the concept of social entrepreneurship), and Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire, winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize.

Video from the event was streamed live and you can view the complete footage in the Partnership for Change media archive.

Here are some photos from the event:

Oslo Opera House - Partnership for Change 2012 (Photo by Scott London)
Oslo’s remarkable Opera House, site of the 2012 Partnership for Change conference.

Partnership for Change 2012

I always love mingling with great people between the sessions.

Partnership for Change 2012

As emcee, I presented the speakers in the general sessions and tried to keep things moving along smoothly.

Partnership for Change 2012

A view from the main stage of the Opera House.

 

Partnership for Change 2012

Here I talk with Jonas Borgchgrevink, a young Norwegian entrepreneur, about his start-up MyGoodAct.com. (You can watch this on YouTube.)

Partnership for Change 2012

Sitting down with Mairead Maguire, winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, after one of the panels.

Partnership for Change 2012

A panel discussion with Bay Fang, Marcus Bleasdale, and Kathrine Aspaas on “The Changing Role of the Media.”

The Spirit of Service

By Scott London — February 2, 2012

Robert Coles“There is a call to us, a call of service,” Dorothy Day once said, “that we join with others to try to make things better in this world.”

This phrase gave rise to the title of Robert Coles’s 1993 book, The Call of Service, a meditation on the meaning of voluntary service — the kind we offer to others and the impact it has on us in the process.

I was quite inspired by the book when it came out. Coles himself seemed to exemplify the spirit of service in his writing, in his teaching and in his own personal life.

After reading The Call of Service, I went on to read several other books by Coles and eventually to write an article about his work. I then posted the piece on my website. This was in the early days of the Internet, before most people had discovered e-mail or started searching the Web.

One day, about a year later, the phone rang. When I answered, the voice at the other end said, “Hello, Scott? This is Robert Coles. I just read an essay you wrote about me. It was a very fine piece of work, and I just wanted to say thank you.” He didn’t use a computer, he told me, but a friend of his had run across my article on the Internet, printed it out and mailed it to him.

We went on to talk for almost an hour. He called me one of the “finest interpreters” of his work, which was quite a compliment given that he has been the subject of countless newspaper and magazine profiles, at least a half-dozen TV documentaries, and several major biographies.

He wasn’t very interested in talking about himself, it turned out. He kept on asking me about my work, my family, how I liked living on the West Coast, and so on. It was a warm and inspiring conversation, one that subsequently blossomed into a friendship.

Parents League Review 2012After our talk I asked myself what it was that prompted Coles to call me that day. I can’t be sure, but I believe it was something deeper than just the impusle to say thanks. It was more likely a desire to give something back. It was a gesture born of gratitude, not obligation or duty. A kind of reaching out. And that, I think, is the essence of true service — a desire to acknowledge another and give thanks in whatever small way we can.

To write a book about service is one thing, I realized, but to exemplify it in our everyday lives is quite another. Coles taught me that in a vivid and direct way.

I was reminded of this episode because my essay on Robert Coles — the one that prompted him to call me that day — has just been reprinted as part of a special tribute to Robert Coles in the new issue of Parents League Review. The man and his work are still timely, perhaps more so than when I first discovered him almost twenty years ago. My piece is called A Way of Seeing: The Work of Robert Coles.

Immigration: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis?

By Scott London — January 28, 2012

National Issues Forums (NIF)Immigration has always been a subject of heated debate in America. But the issue reached a flash point after a controversial Arizona statute was passed in April 2010 taking a tough — some say too tough — stand on illegal immigration. The measure required that immigrants carry documentation at all times. It also gave law enforcement officers wide latitude to stop anyone they had “reasonable cause” to suspect was in the country illegally.

An injunction not to enforce the Arizona measure was filed by a federal judge just days before it took effect. But the new law had widespread public support and similar legislation is now being considered in other states. In Alabama, for example, lawmakers recently approved an anti-immigration bill that’s widely regarded as the toughest of its kind in the country.

The current debate has zeroed in on the millions of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S. But the problems with our current system aren’t limited to people overstaying their visas or crossing into the country illegally. Consider that

  • More than half the crop pickers in America are undocumented, and across the country otherwise law-abiding citizens routinely hire maids, nannies, gardeners and construction workers without legal papers. Our economy now depends — to an extent it never has in the past — on the energy and hard work of people living here illegally.
  • Arbitrary visa caps have created enormous backlogs where family members have to wait up to 20 years to be reunited with relatives living in the U.S. Bureaucratic hurdles also make it hard for skilled workers from other countries to come and be part of America’s unique culture of entrepreneurship.
  • While we offer visas to students from around the world so they can earn degrees from our top universities, our laws effectively discourage them from putting their talents and energy to work right here in the U.S. Instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs on our shores, we train our competition.

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted in April 2010 found that a vast majority of Americans think that the U.S. immigration system is in need of overhaul. While many of those surveyed said it needed “fundamental changes,” a full 44 percent insisted that it needed to be “completely rebuilt.” But the public remains divided about what kind of reform the country needs.

For a growing number of Americans, the immigration issue is a tangible and pressing one. Those who support immigration are often bent on helping or employing newcomers. Those in favor of restricting immigrants worry about the growing costs — both social and economic — of assimilating and aiding new arrivals. For their part, immigrants themselves typically want little more than a better life. Whose interests should be served? Can these often-conflicting interests be balanced?

These are some of the questions at the heart of a new issue book that I prepared for the National Issues Forums. It presents an in-depth look at the immigration issue. The idea is to promote dialogue and deliberation — the kind that spans ideological divides — about the need to overhaul our immigration system. For more information, you can get a copy (or download a Kindle version) at Amazon.com.

Hangovers and Hope

By Scott London — January 1, 2012

I love reading people’s tweets and status updates on New Year’s Day. A mixture of hangovers and hope — and wacky resolutions.

For me, the start of a new year is as good a time as any to reflect on the importance of staying grounded in the present, in the now.

Here’s a line by Emerson, taken from his Essays and Lectures, that captures this point in a vivid and poetic way:

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time for them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to forsee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

A Favorite Holiday Tradition

By Scott London — December 23, 2011

My secret glögg recipe by Scott London

I’m getting into the holiday spirit by making glögg, one of my favorite holiday traditions. Here I’ve brought together cinnamon, cloves, cardemon, ginger, orange peel, and other spices and let them soak in vodka for a couple of days. Next the booze will be sifted, mixed with red wine and a little sugar, heated and served with raisins and slivered almonds. Wonderful stuff, especially on a cold winter night.

Update: There was a story on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday with a recipe based on port instead of vodka. I’ve never tried that, but it sounds good to me. Here’s the story: Get Into The Holiday Spirit With Scandinavian Glögg

The Still and Secret Revolution

By Scott London — November 5, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk of revolution in 2011, especially in connection with the Arab Spring and the continuing Occupy Wall Street protests. The word revolution conjures up images of political violence and social turmoil, of insurgent militias and defiant chants, of street barricades made from overturned vehicles and ragged crowds armed with makeshift weapons. In recent months, the word has often been paired with images of stormed palaces, angry mobs, even bullet-riddled dictators being dragged through the streets.

For those of us who came of age at the end of the Cold War, the word may have kinder and more benign connotations — the “velvet” transition toward free-market economics, perhaps, or the end of institutionalized racism. It’s also synonymous in many people’s minds with the notion of progress and technological advancement, as in the “digital revolution,” the “communications revolution,” or the “biotechnology” revolution.

But there is another kind of revolution, one that is less apparent but more profound. It’s the sort that begins at the level of perceptions, ideas, and values. We don’t know much about these types of revolutions, because they tend to proceed quietly within the minds of individuals for a long time before manifesting outwardly in the culture at large. They are silent, invisible, and relatively rare in human history.

Writing a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville described them in a vivid way. “Time, events, or the unaided action of the mind will sometimes undermine or destroy an opinion without any outward signs of change,” he noted. “No conspiracy has been formed to make war on it, but its followers one by one noiselessly secede. As its opponents remain mute or only interchange their thoughts by stealth, they are themselves unaware for a long period that a great revolution has actually been effected.”

Instigating a good old-fashioned revolution is comparatively easy compared to bringing about this kind of “noiseless secession” from the dominant way of seeing the world. It’s easy because the key ingredient of a traditional revolution is anger, bitterness, and opposition to a perceived enemy or system. A bit of public outrage coupled with a revolutionary group and a charismatic leader is not a promising formula for long-term change.

The trouble with mere regime-change is that if and when such an effort succeeds the new leaders typically lack the experience and the constructive attitudes needed to create and maintain a new social order. The negativity then turns inward and breeds divisiveness, in-fighting, and ultimately counter-revolutions. As history clearly shows, most revolutions become self-defeating and even dangerous since the struggle against “the enemy” becomes an end in itself.

The question we need to ask today is whether it’s possible to start a revolution the other way around — whether it’s possible to have a general shift in mood and action first. Such a revolution would build on values and perceptions, not bullets and bombs. It would be constructive, not contentious. It would emphasize design, not criticism. It would be self-organized, not centrally planned. It would take its cues from imagination and vision, not opposition to the status quo.

I believe this kind of movement is possible. In fact, we’re already seeing signs of it all around us — and I’m not talking about the Occupy Wall Street protests, though some of the people spearheading the effort clearly embody a new vision. This silent revolution I’m talking about gathers into its framework a wide range of innovative ideas drawn from across a host of disciplines, from science and technology to psychology and education. Its leaders can be found all over the world. They make up what might be called an invisible network — a global underground of individuals from different cultures and backgrounds who are committed to a more humane and sustainable world, who embody a value-system based on compassion, kindness and respect for diversity, and who see the fulfilment of our highest capacities as human beings as the single most important goal as we look to the future.

The revolution comes as a response to breakdowns on many fronts — the environmental crisis, the deepening divide between the world’s richest and poorest, the crisis of confidence in institutions, and the bankruptcy of once-dominant ideologies and systems of belief, such as communism and free-market economics. But the revolution is not a reaction to crisis so much as a reflection of an emergent culture rising to take the place of the one we have now. It is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

I must confess that for almost two decades now, I’ve devoted much of my professional life to seeking out these quiet revolutionaries — to learning from them and to trying to articulate and disseminate their ideas in as clear and compelling a way as I can. In the early days, I had some trouble identifying these instigators. I used to think all good ideas were equal. It was only later that I understood that ideas and intentions go hand in hand. The mark of a good idea, I learned, is that it’s backed by a noble intention. I don’t mean the kind of noble intention we pay lip-service to; I mean the kind that is born from a faith in human virtue and possibility, from an animating vision of a more humane and sustainable world.

The German philosopher Hegel once remarked that great revolutions are always preceded by “a still and secret revolution in the spirit of the age.” This revolution is “as hard to discern as to describe in words.” Those who fail to recognize it as it gathers strength, he said, are always astonished by the sweeping changes left in its wake.

That’s what we are in the throes of today — a still and secret revolution, one that will ultimately change how we see ourselves, how we define our collective purpose, and how we take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet.

Update: If you haven’t already seen it, check out this YouTube clip in which Charles Eisenstein brilliantly describes the vision I’m talking about as a revolution of love.

Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

By Scott London — October 7, 2011

Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

The question is often asked: how political is the Nobel Peace Prize?

I view it as an inherently political award, and I think Alfred Nobel intended it that way. That’s why he left it to the Norwegian parliament to elect the committee that picks the winners each year.

Given that the laureates are chosen by current and former politicians, it stands to reason that it would be a political prize. But if your politics are motivated by a yearning for peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, and the empowerment of women, is that a bad thing?

Here I discuss that question with Larisa Epatko of the PBS Newshour: Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

Who Will Win the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize?

By Scott London — October 6, 2011

The winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced tomorrow. Some leaders of the Arab Spring uprisings are favored to win it this year. But based on the way the Norwegian Nobel Committee has been selecting its winners in recent years, I don’t think that will happen. I’m pulling for long-shot Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and still the only woman elected head of state in Africa. Her many remarkable achievements include helping to bring an end to the nation’s long and bloody civil war.

Steve Jobs Has Died

By Scott London — October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs in a suit and tieThe news just broke that Steve Jobs has died. It comes as a bit of a shock. I never met him, but like millions of people the world over I was the beneficiary of his brilliant mind and unique vision.

I’ve been using Apple computers for most of my professional life and rarely has a day gone by that I haven’t felt a sense of gratitude for the technologies he brought into being. I’ve produced radio programs, written books, edited films, retouched photos, and created graphic designs on the Mac. And that’s just the beginning. My story is hardly unique. Countless people will tell you the same thing.

Though I never met Jobs, I photographed him some years ago in Oslo. He was there to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for his friend Al Gore. My photo made the rounds. Apparently people were shocked to see Jobs in a suit and tie. They imagined that his closets were full of nothing but black turtlenecks and blue jeans, and I had proved them wrong.

People will be discussing his legacy for years to come. But right now, all I can say is that feels like the sudden end of an era.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you’re going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You’re already naked. There’s no reason not to follow your heart…. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” — Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement address, June 2005.

Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011

By Scott London — September 30, 2011

Wangari Maathai, the environmental and political activist from Kenya, passed away on Sunday. She was one of the most memorable figures I’ve covered as a journalist, a woman of extraordinary courage and dignity. She was also possessed of a disarming humility, a wonderful sense of humor, and a rare luminosity of spirit.

Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 chiefly for her environmental work in Kenya. In 1977, she started the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots tree-planting campaign aimed at combating soil erosion and deforestation while also providing fuel for cooking in rural villages where women were often forced to walk miles in search of firewood. To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted over thirty million trees, provided work for tens of thousands of women, and seen its efforts replicated in countries across Africa.

For Wangari, planting trees wasn’t only about protecting the environment. It was a way to promote democracy, empower women, and safeguard human rights in Africa. As she saw it, there was a direct connection between the depletion of natural resources and the failures of Kenya’s authoritarian government. In fact, she had taken on Kenya’s ruling party and its autocratic president, Daniel arap Moi, on numerous occasions during the 1980s and 90s. Though she was vilified by the government, arrested more than a dozen times, and even beaten by police, her methods were surprisingly effective.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Wangari Maathai was the first ever to an environmental activist and still the only award to an African woman in the prize’s 111-year history. She accepted it at an unusually festive award ceremony that included African drumming and performances by a Kenyan dance troupe. Over 1,000 guests filled the auditorium of Oslo City Hall, including a large delegation of Africans, many of them cheering, whistling and waving small hand flags — a welcome departure from what tends to be an overly solemn and formal award ceremony.

Dressed in a bright orange gown with a matching headband, Wangari was radiant that December afternoon. She said she was humbled and uplifted by the award and accepted it “on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa.” In her acceptance speech, she looked back on her work over the course of three decades. The Green Belt Movement, together with other civil society organizations and the Kenyan people as a whole, had much to be proud of, she said — most notably, the peaceful transition to democratic government in 2002. Yet there were still a host of critical challenges.

She concluded her speech with words that are still vivid in my memory. “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fears and give hope to each other.” That time, she said, is now.

Wangari Maathai Inscription

Wangari's inscription in my copy of her memoir 'Unbowed'