Robert Theobald: the ultimate model of citizenship

Every once in a while, you read a book that shakes your world. In 1970, a friend gave me Robert Theobald's "An Alternative Future for America," and I was never the same after that. The book suggested we were headed for disaster - police state, environmental meltdown, economic disparity - unless we created a different future: one in which exponential growth in material things wasn't the primary goal.

Occasionally, when you read a book like that, you find the author is open to dialogue. You meet, become friends, bounce ideas off each other, consult, and co-create. You discover he doesn't always live up to his own ideals, so you don't speak for a time. Then you reconcile and create together again.

That was what it was like for me and Theobald - the agile-minded, big-thinking futurist and socioeconomist who died late last year. He devoted his life to helping people create a positive future. If his memorial service in December in Spokane, Wash. - and online - was any indication, he helped a lot of people ask better questions and transform their lives. He was in a conspiracy with everyone to reach their wildest potential.

Like any futurist - and he preferred the label "radical economist" to futurist - Theobald had his opinions about what would happen in the future. But unlike some others, he suggested there are a number of ways the future can go. And that if we want to survive, we need to learn the skills to make tomorrow different from what it will be if we go on with business as usual.

Born in India, raised in Britain, Theobald dropped out of graduate school at Harvard and went to live in Arizona, where he rode horses and learned from his cats.

But he didn't drop out of world problem-solving. He consulted with President Kennedy on economics, promoting the idea of a guaranteed annual income (later implemented in modified form by President Nixon). He worked with the United Nations, corporate executives, and citizen and church groups on how to create a better future.

He distilled his wisdom into memorable aphorisms:

"Abundance is a free gift."

"You can change the world, but you can't get credit for it."

"You can only teach a person what he already knows."

"Some of us had better choose to define ourselves as world-problem-solvers."

"When information doubles, knowledge halves and wisdom quarters."

He once said that for any system to function, it needed only five things: honesty, responsibility, humility, love, and respect for mystery. He sometimes called himself "a secular preacher."

But his aphorisms only tell part of the story. Theobald was a complicated person, who pushed his friends and colleagues to live what they believe. He pushed himself, too. For example:

*He never had a secretary, because he felt we needed to find new forms of collaboration in work.

*The prolific writer, speaker, and thinker never affiliated with a university, because he wanted to be a "public intellectual," avoiding "industrial-era institutions" and bureaucratic traps.

*He practiced "ethical communication," responding to all calls and queries within three days.

*He published most of his books in "pre-publication copies," with room for people to challenge his ideas and scribble their own.

*He got involved in the communities where he lived, helping neighbors to imagine and move toward the future they wanted.

At his memorial service, e-mails from around the world were read that celebrated his role as bard of the communications era, teacher and colleague in the art of social transformation, and father of "information networking." But what I most remember him for is his extraordinary enthusiasm for my own forward thinking, even if it disagreed with his.

He loved to quote the Whole Earth Catalog: "We are as gods, and we'd better get good at it."

Even though he thought there was a good chance that we would destroy the planet if we didn't change rates of growth, pollution, and negativity, he said, "We need to put all our energy into the 5 percent chance that we will make it."

The challenging ideas of this original thinker are still with us, though we will miss his laugh: "Dream no small dreams."

*Stephen Silha, a former Monitor staff writer, is a freelance writer and communications consultant.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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