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

Icon Magazine

By Scott London — December 14, 2011

Eight of my photos from Burning Man appear in this month’s issue of Icon, the British architecture and design magazine, together with a nicely written piece by Charlie Hailey titled “Burn After Building.” Read more about the issue here. Here’s a preview of the spread:

Aerial View of Black Rock City

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

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.

It’s Nice That

By Scott London — October 11, 2011

Earlier this week I was interviewed by It’s Nice That about my Burning Man photography. It’s Nice That is a beautiful and well-curated art magazine and website based in London. The interview appeared along with about a dozen of my photographs. Since it was edited for length, I’m including the complete exchange below.

Neverwas Haul - A Photo from Burning Man by Scott London

You’ve been documenting Burning Man for the last eight years. Why do you find it so compelling to document?

Burning Man is one of the most interesting events in the world, in my experience, but also one of the most difficult to describe. It’s not quite an art festival, not quite a desert rave, and not quite a social experiment, but something of all three. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s organized around creativity and self-expression. The idea is to fully immerse and express yourself in some creative capacity — through building installations, making art, playing music, dressing up, walking on stilts, spinning fire, or simply being beautiful. It means that it’s an endlessly fascinating place where you never know what to expect and surprise awaits you at every turn.

The scale and the ephemeral nature of the event must be hard to communicate to people who haven’t been there.

Yes, there is no way to convey the sheer immensity of Burning Man to someone who has never been there. There is also something rather dreamlike and enchanting about the way it rises out of the open desert for a few brief days only to vanish again after the event is over. Toward the end of the week, much of the infrastructure — including the 40-foot effigy from which Burning Man takes its name — goes up in flames.

Have you noticed it changing and evolving over the years?

When the event got its start 25 years ago, it was little more than a bonfire on a beach in San Francisco. It moved to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada some years later but was still relatively small and unstructured. For many participants, the appeal of the desert was that there were no rules. If you wanted to shoot guns, play with fire, or blow up cars, there was no one to stop you. But as the event grew, so did the need for order and safety. Today the event attracts over 50,000 people from all over the world. It’s highly organized and tightly run, and perhaps a little less fun. Old-timers complain that the anarchy and lawlessness of the early days has been lost.

Do you recognise people when you go back each year?

Yes, a lot of people return to Burning Man year after year. I’ve developed some quite special and enduring friendships there. It’s also allowed me to explore the anthropology of the event — the way people’s perspectives change over time. This is reflected in some of my photographs of artists and their installations, for example, which show how their creative vision has evolved and transformed.

Would you describe yourself foremost as a photographer or a journalist/writer?

I would say that my journalism takes different forms depending on the nature of the project. I started my career in radio and still think that’s the best medium for conversation and storytelling. Over time I shifted to print and devoted myself more to writing articles and books. Print excels as a medium for presenting facts, analysis, and ideas. In recent years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of photojournalism. Though I learned photography as a kid and studied it in college, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered how powerful it can be.

Burning Man has helped me in that process. When I first attended the event, I was struck by the sheer inadequacy of words. Photography seemed like a more powerful medium for documenting the experience. Photographs convey but don’t interpret. At their best, they are very intimate. They capture the imagination and speak to the heart, but without saying a word.

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'

Burning Man 2011

By Scott London — September 20, 2011

Burning Man 2011 Photos by Scott London I’m back from an enchanting week at Burning Man 2011. It was my eighth consecutive year at the event. The gathering felt massive this year, from the huge crowds (nearly 54,000, according to reports) to the sheer size of the “city,” which was scaled up in 2011 and was in fact so big that there were large parts of it I never got to see. There were many impressive art installations, wacky art cars, and mindblowing performances in 2011, but I found myself mostly drawn to the beautiful and creative people of Burning Man. This is reflected in the sizable number of portraits in this year’s batch of images. My 2011 set can be found here. In addition to my usual collection of 100 images, my plan is to launch a new photoblog devoted to the people of Burning Man. Please stay tuned.

See also:

John Taylor Gatto on Beating the System

By Scott London — August 20, 2011

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.

Tweets and Retweets

By Scott London — July 23, 2011

Scott London on Twitter

Here’s a handful of recent Twitter entries on random subjects like kindness, grievances, consensus, and the limits of humility. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter here.

  • The trouble with opinions is that they drive wedges between people. Stories unite, opinions divide.
  • I look forward to the day when journalists, producers and filmmakers describe themselves not as independent but as interdependent.
  • Technological advances have to proceed in step with social advances or they lead to recklessness and misery.
  • I shudder every time I hear someone say that the iPad, and other devices like it, allow us “to consume content.”
  • Sooner or later we come to recognize that most of our problems in life are tied to grievances we simply refuse to let go.
  • The only change that matters in the end is the kind that starts with me.
  • Sometimes a loving act may be perceived as unloving — refusing to commiserate, for example.
  • I think consensus is better to strive for than to attain.
  • I used to say “I don’t know” a lot. Humility is good, right? Then a wise friend told me: “Stop pretending you don’t know and live your truth.”
  • Why do we know more at 25 than we do at 50? Because it takes half a lifetime to fully confront our own ignorance.
  • We don’t need our kindnesses returned, we need them passed on.
  • Gratitude is the highest form of devotion.