On Gandhi’s Path:
Bob Swann’s work for peace and community economics

by Stephanie Mills
New Society Publishers. Gabriola Isl. BC. 2010.
149 pp. paper. photos. $16.95

Bob Swann may be the most important pioneer for a just world whom you’ve never heard of. A war resister and peace advocate, practicing economist, builder, developer, and the creator of the community land trust (CLT) in the United States, Swann founded the E.F. Schumacher Society in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He worked tirelessly over a long life to bring together practical structures for economic justice, land reform, rural investment and credit, complementary currencies, and education. Swann, working with his long-time companion Susan Witt—who now directs the Schumacher Society, laid the groundwork for the successful rollout of Berkshares, a community currency for the Berkshire region of Massachusetts and New York, where the Society is headquartered, by helping to create both Berkshare Farm Notes and Deli Dollars, two small but successful community enterprise funding efforts based on local scrip.

Stephanie Mills, an accomplished author of seven books, including Epicurean Simplicity and Turning Away From Technology, has given us an elegant, short biography of Swann’s monumental life. The comparison to Gandhi is apt. Not only had Swann, a largely self-taught man, studied Gandhi’s life and work, but he too was committed to righteous action for peace and justice. Gandhi’s memory will always be associated with India’s achievement of independence from Britain—the righting of an historic injustice, but the non-violent methods he practiced, which so influenced Martin Luther King and others, were specific in their focus on deep change. Gandhi broke the British Raj’s monopoly on salt, by marching to the sea with his followers to make salt in defiance of the imperial tax on this essential of life. He lived simply and spun cotton thread for weaving into cloth, a gesture both symbolic and practical in asserting India’s economic independence from the manufacturing interests of Lancashire and their garrison armies, and one still proudly enshrined (the spinning wheel) on the Indian national flag.

Swann too, helped to forge a path for practical change. He was a big thinker who focused on the needs of the small farmer and merchant, inner-city residents and rural and small town dwellers: those who made their living by bread labor and community service, often close to the land. He lived his life in the mood of the question, “And how can this be made better?” Much of his research and practice lay in the realm of land tenure, where his major innovation, the CLT, was intended to wed community values to security for the cultivator. The vehicle he invented nearly 40 years ago, now used by hundreds of organizations nationwide, has been adapted to conserve low-cost housing, healthy forests, and farmland under threat of development.

Swann forged his ideas in the crucible of practice. He worked with leaders of the black community in Mississippi in the 60s to help displaced black agricultural laborers and farmers secure land to farm again, and he helped put together a million-dollar project in Georgia for cooperative farming by African-American families. But Swann’s interests were broadly in all forms of what in permaculture are called “invisible structures” to support economic justice. He was an innovator in the field of money and currencies as well as land and enterprise development, working with Ralph Borsodi in the 70s on the Constant, a private currency backed by a basket of commodities and designed to be non-inflating in a period when inflation threatened to undermine even the national economy.

Swann had an abiding interest in all aspects of rural and local economic development: microcredit, socially screened investment—which he saw as a way to fund social and economic change, local currencies, and land trusts, and he innovated in all these areas. His life touched nearly all the decentralist pioneers of the 20th century: Arthur Morgan, Helen and Scott Nearing, E.F. Schumacher, Borsodi, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Kirkpatrick Sale, and J.P. Narayan. Under the auspices of the Schumacher Society’s annual lectures, Swann and Witt brought together a stellar cast of thinkers, writers, activists, and culture makers, among them Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, Francis Moore Lappé, Jeremy Rifkin, Leopold Kohr, Hazel Henderson, Thomas Berry, David Orr and David Brower, Ivan Illich, Paul Hawken, Winona La Duke, Jerry Mander, Chellis Glendinning, David Korten, Amory Lovins, Cathrine Sneed, Oren Lyons, and Judy Wicks. The Society’s small quarters at Great Barrington became a hub of intellectual ferment for decentralist politics and economics. Swann and his life of selfless service lay at the center of it all.

Mills renders this very public life sympathetically and deftly with just enough touches of the personal to ground this good man’s visionary ideas in his real struggles. Although her subject is nominally the man, his life was so identified with the causes for which he worked: economic justice, decentralism, rural renewal, and international peace, that the book is as much a story of the persistence and flowering of these noble efforts in 20th century America as it is about Bob Swann.

In the early years we see the young man of Cleveland Heights, Ohio on his path of interest in art, design, and building, unable because of the Depression’s effects on his family’s fortunes to attend university, but auditing classes nonetheless. Drawn to the populist architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Swann was a carpenter all his life. He firmly believed in and worked for self-help and the notion that, given a fair deal, all people could better themselves and contribute to their communities.

Against a backdrop of empire and militarism, economic giantism and inequity that colors the story of the United States since at least World War I, Swann’s life stands out as a brightly colored contrast to the dominant and somber tones of oppression. I would suggest that he walked among the angels of our better nature, and when we are finally down so far that there is nowhere to look but up, we will very much need to reclaim the history he and others helped chart for us: a road not so heavily traveled, but a real and true path forward nonetheless. Permaculture, for all its odd Aussie origins, belongs to that path and that community of visionary and creative naysayers. Let us celebrate one of our own, a quiet and unsung hero.

Mills has a graceful way with words and she has given this story a simple structure that nonetheless captures the essential features of a notable life. The book, which is superbly researched and documented, reads quickly, and I have to recommend it to all younger readers of conscience especially, for whom it may be a first introduction to their true elders and to a history they may not know they deserve. ∆