Monday, October 13, 2014

Ralph Borsodi:  Prophet of Decentralization
Bill Sharp

Mildred Loomis, Association to School of Living founder Ralph Borsodi (1888 – 1977), called him the Decentralist Supreme.  Borsodi was arguably the most outspoken advocate of decentralism in the twentieth century.  His influence was widespread.

Decentralism is perhaps best defined in the words, quoted by Borsodi in his A Decentralist Manifesto, attributed to Henry David Thoreau:  “That government is best, which governs least.    That government is best which governs not at all.”

The idea of decentralism has roots in the French Enlightenment and Revolution.  Its objective was the overthrow of the centralized authority of the Church and monarchy.  One of its leading proponents in France was Alexis DeTocqueville.  DeTocqueville visited and then wrote an insightful book about American life at its peak of decentralized social and economic organization:  Democracy in America (1835). 

A quick search of the web shows a profusion of economic and political theories and social philosophies related to decentralism and decentralization.  Many of these are written abstractly as academic performances.  Typically they address “what ought to be.”  Borsodi painted a vision of practice, not just ideas.  His vision of the ideal decentralized life was the self-sufficient homesteading community, a community model he labored to the end of his life to establish.  It is to that practical, down-to-earth vision of Borsodi’s that I dedicated this article.

Ralph Borsodi wrote 14 books, several pamphlets and a large number of articles during his long lifetime.  The story of his life and work can be found in a series of articles previously published in the Green Revolution[1].    He was raised in New York City and learned typesetting, printing and advertising in his fathers printing business.  He became an accomplished cost accountant and earned his living as a consultant to businesses, some of them Wall Street giants.

Borsodi’s father was an avid Georgist, a follower of Henry George.  George, a famous popular American economist and an icon of the Populist movement, author of the best-seller (still in print) Progress and Poverty, ran for mayor of New York City in 1886[2] and had a sizable following there and across the country.  Ralph Borsodi had a close connection to the movement in the city through his father and his friends.  As an avid reader Ralph Borsodi was well informed on the major issues of the movement.  The mission of the Georgist movement was, in short, to preserve the agrarian, that is to say, decentralized and self-sufficient, way of life in America.

Following a book on practical accounting which Borsodi wrote to help small businesses become more self-reliant, he wrote two books that critiqued two of the major forces in the rapidly expanding American commercial enterprise:  mass production and mass distribution.  Already homesteading, he knew that he and his family could produce food for less than the factories.  While true that a can of beans or a loaf of bread could be produce at lower cost by a factory, by the time advertising and shipping and the value chain between farm and table were added in, his home canned goods, including time to produce them, were twenty to thirty percent less costly than factory products.  Another way of looking at this is that it takes less time to produce these goods than to earn the money to buy them.  They were also of higher quality and nutritional value. 

Borsodi did not advocate the elimination of the factory system but rather eliminating its dominance of the economy and to reduce the joyless drudgery of the factory worker.  Manufacturing could be smaller, more localized, produce quality goods, provide meaningful work, a safe working environment and fair earnings.

In 1929, just before the onslaught of the Great Depression, Borsodi wrote This Ugly Civilization, a systematic critique of the urban industrial blight he thought would be the ruin of the country.  In that book he wrote about his back-to-the-land lifestyle.  Nearly a decade earlier Borsodi moved his family from the city to a rural homestead at Suffern, New York.  There he built a home of local, natural materials, planted gardens and developed a model that later became known as “appropriate technology.”  He called his home Dogwoods.  The book was published in condensed form in a leading national magazine and drew widespread attention.

In 1933 Borsodi published a popular book about his homesteading experience, appropriately named Flight from the City[3].  The US was then in the depths of the Great Depression and efforts were being made all over the country to find models for restoring personal security to jobless families.  In 1934 Borsodi was invited to Dayton, Ohio to consult on a homesteading project intended to enable chronically unemployed families to rebuild self-sufficient lives on the type of small homesteads Borsodi had advocated.   The Federal government took over the program, centralized it, and Borsodi went back to Suffern where he established the first of several homesteading communities along the lines he had advocated:  each free and independent; seeking to allow families to achieve self-sufficiency, self-governance, and independence from the larger, failed, economic order.  World War II and Borsodi’s critically ill wife ended his homesteading experiments and pushed him into a new level of work writing about his experiences and creating a detailed vision of the self-sufficient community.

Following the death of his wife and homesteading coworker (of cancer) Borsodi remarried, set out on a world tour in 1952 and closely studied the emerging influence of the western urban-industrial mania on Asian countries.  He wrote about his experiences in The Challenge of Asia in 1956.  He returned to India and worked with Gandhist groups to work on an alternative, agrarian, village-based economic model, something that Gandhi himself had strongly advocated.  At the time of this close association with India he wrote A Decentralist Manifesto:  An Alternative to Monopoly Capitalism and Statist Socialism[4], a small and powerful pamphlet published in both India and the US, that warned of the detrimental influence of western industrialism on traditional societies and how to overcome them.

The Road to Decentralization

This Ugly Civilization[5]was a response to what Borsodi called the age of hysteria that defined the beginning of the twentieth century.  He denounced, in a thoughtful and systematic manner, the ills of the age and called for a revolution, a peaceful revolution, away from the ugly, urban-industrial life that had come to dominate America life.  His socio-economic context was the age of the Robber Barons who subjected workers to cruel conditions, Scientific Management that literally reduced the human worker to mere cogs in the machinery of industry, and the squalor of life in the cities built to support the factories.

Borsodi’s indictment of the factory system can be seen in these lines:
“Now what has the factory done to the worker, and what is it continuing to do to him?
1 It relentlessly mechanizes the workman and reduces all workers, except the few "blessed" with administrative genius, to mere cogs in a gigantic industrial machine.
2. It decreases the number of workers engaged in productive and creative labor by reducing the number of workers required to produce things and by condemning the remaining workers to elaborate methods of flunkeying for one another.
3. It arrays worker against employer, separating capital and labor into two independent and mutually antagonistic interests, and inflicts upon society an unending succession of foolish and often bloody strikes.
4. It makes it almost impossible for individual workmen to be self-sufficient enough to develop their own personalities.
5. It destroys the skilled craftsman to whom work is a means of self-expression as well as a means of livelihood, by offering work only for machine feeders and machine tenders, thus making it more and more difficult for skilled workmen to find employment.
6. It creates workers without initiative and self-reliance, and fills the state with citizens who lack a sustained interest in public affairs and good government.
7. It transfers the satisfying of the economic needs of the worker from the home to the factory, robbing the worker, his wife and his children, of their contact with the soil; depriving them of intimacy with growing things--with growing animals, birds, vegetables, trees, flowers; and destroying their capacity for fabricating things for themselves and of entertaining and educating themselves.
8. It condemns not only the natural robot, but those capable of creative effort in the crafts, the arts and the professions, to repetitive work, because it leaves open no field in which they may exercise their talents and earn a livelihood.

Since those days the global economy has eliminated a majority of America’s industrial jobs and moved us to a “service” economy model; from blue-collar to white-collar, many of these jobs at relatively low wages.  With the Great Recession of 2008, labor force participation, if not the official “unemployment” rates, have steadily declined to the lowest in over half a century.

The plight of the buyer is no better than the factory machine feeder and machine tender.  The buyer becomes a shopper, or today, a consumer, who earns money to exchange for goods and services.  In Borsodi’s day most women were homemakers and they had become the chief buyer in the family; no longer performing the productive work their mothers did.  Today it takes two solid incomes, both parents working fulltime, to acquire the stuff we are conditions to want.  We have become a consumer culture.  The economy is a consumer economy.  We have lost our sense of “production.”  Indeed, “homemaking” is now a politically incorrect term.

Borsodi moved from a thoroughgoing critique of the American urban-industrial dis-ease to describe the advantages of homesteading life.  Being a master cost accountant he did the numbers for the economic advantages of home production of food and other goods.  His argument is compelling[6].
The problem he found, however, was how to change the mindset of the American public to make it receptive to a transformation back to a human-scaled life.  The mindset of the ugly civilization is what he called the “quantity mind.”  The quantity mind is about stuff; about numbers and dollars and cash flow.  It is driven by what we today know, in terms even clearer than is Borsodi’s day, as the financial industry, the source now of nearly 40% of corporate profits:  That is profits on the trade of money[7], not of goods and services.

Then, in the age of print media and at the dawn of the radio age, advertisement was already working to condition people to work for money to exchange for goods others produced[8].  Borsodi saw television come to dominate the advertising world.  Then T.V. was available on only a few channels and at midnight the stations went off the air.  He did not see the rise of the cable T.V., the personal computer and cell-phone world where the indoctrination went to 24 x 7 and became personally focused.
The drivers of the commercial world seek, in Borsodi’s words, a mass or herd mentality:  John and Jane Doe Consumer.  We must break free from both the herd mentality and the quantity mentality and develop quality mindedness, he asserted. 

Borsodi was realistic in understanding that not everyone would, could, or wanted to break free.  He clearly saw that the tool for our liberation from the herd mentality was education.  This is a view he shared with many leading minds of the day.  This was, remember, the era of the Populists and Progressives, two movements shaped by Jefferson’s ideal that a self-governing people must be a well-educated and informed people.  And, that the farm was the foundation of American life and values.
At the top of the list of social leaders Borsodi put the teacher; not necessarily the person with a degree or job in education, but, indeed, rather those who were not; those who were self-informed, well read, critical in their thinking, perceptive and aware that things are not as they should be and sought to serve their community by helping others learn, to become what was latter known as self-actualized.
Borsodi was seeking a revolution and a renaissance.  In his words:
Social changes find their genesis in three forces: (1) the forces set in motion by great natural convulsions--changes in climate such as those caused by the movement of the glacial ices--and which are independent of man[9]; (2) the forces set in motion by the efforts of ambitious individuals to sate their appetites for pelf or power--the forces set in motion by an Alexander, a Caesar, a Napoleon, and to come up to date, by the forces set in motion by the activities of a John D. Rockefeller, an Andrew Carnegie, a J. Pierpont Morgan; (3) the launching of new ideas, as for instance, the forces set in motion among men by the idea that the world is round; by the idea of immortality; by the idea of equality; by the idea of democracy.

It is the operation of the second of these forces that explains most of our social, economic, and political history. Quantity-minded men, in their struggles to sate their ambitions, have been able to impose their wishes upon mankind because of their domination of the herd-minded masses and the dependence upon them of the quality- minded individuals.

Let the quality-minded individuals free themselves from this dependence upon the quantity-minded and the civilization of the future will be built upon the basis of intelligent ideas of what changes are desirable in society and how it is most desirable to bring the changes about.
Borsodi sought to identify and describe the quality minds of his age and offered this outline, from the works of Harvard President and progressive educator Charles W. Eliot, of what the quality-drive person should take from his or her education[10]: 
1. An available body. Not necessarily the muscle of an athlete. Good circulation, digestion, power to sleep, and alert, steady nerves.
2. Power of sustained mental labor.
3. The habit of independent thinking on books, prevailing customs, current events. University training, the opposite of military or industrial.
4. The habit of quiet, unobtrusive, self-regulated conduct, not accepted from others or influenced by the vulgar breath.
5. Reticent, reserved, not many acquaintances, but a few intimate friends. Belonging to no societies perhaps. Carrying in his face the character so plainly to be seen there by the most casual observer, that nobody ever makes to him a dishonorable proposal.

This is an excellent concise statement of the values to which men of superior qualities attach importance. But it is most interesting as a revelation of what Eliot himself considered the "durable satisfactions of life."

In simple terms the difference between the quantity-minded and quality-minded person can be found in these two statements:
The quantity-minded react to how many; how large; how expensive.
The quality-minded react to how fine; how unique; how beautiful.

The quality-mind person, I should add, is by definition a self-sufficient homesteader.  Only by freeing ourselves from the domination of the quantity-minded can we hope to achieve the liberation of, and I will use the term of Abraham Maslow, self-actualization.  Maslow himself, in his hierarchy of needs, saw that the higher realm of attainment was achievable only when we are free from what he called the deficiency needs, the basic needs for which consumers virtually slave to achieve.  Borsodi wrote several chapters in This Ugly Civilization to promote and describe the idea of self-reliant homesteading.
Borsodi added chapters about the Barriers to achieving self-reliance and how to overcome them.  Again, the answer is education.  One of the bright beams of Borsodi’s genius was his capacity to penetrate to the essence of issues, to achieve a compelling clarity of understanding; something radical, Counterculture era, sociologist C. Wright Mills would later call a “lucid summation.”  Mills said that the lucid summation, the product of the sociological imagination, provided not only clarity but the moral energy need to affect change in a broken society. 

Again, This Ugly Civilization is available, and downloadable from the School of Living web site as indicated in a footnote above.

School of Living

This Ugly Civilization was widely read.  It inspired back-to-the-land pioneers such as the Nearings and many others.  Borsodi’s publisher asked for a more popular edition focused on homesteading and Borsodi produced Flight From the City in 1933. 

Flight From the City is a personal account of the Borsodis’ own homesteading experience.  The Borsodis had lived at Dogwoods for a dozen years by then.  In Chapter Seven he wrote of the need for a School of Living.  The idea started with his own children’s needs and his own mixed success with school in New York City.  His personal response to stultifying schools was to spend his days at the library reading across a wide range of subjects.  Ralph, drawing on his own school experiences, and Myrtle Mae started a homeschooling program for their two sons in large part because they found the local school systems woefully inadequate for the proper cultivation of a non-industrial personality, a person of quality rather than quantity.  Here is a list of subjects he devised for a curriculum, starting with the home school and extending through life:
“We need for every-day living: (1) economic polices, (2) physiological, (3) social, (4) biological, (5) psychological habits; and (6) religious, (7) moral, (8) political (9) education, (10) individual values.” 
To that list he added history – past, present and future.  He also added arts and sciences.  These subjects were learned not in separate compartments but as different facets of the whole of living our lives.  They are approached not in the abstract but in terms of their use in life.

In the introduction to the second edition of Flight from the City, Borsodi listed the purposes of the School of Living:
·       To associate a select group of artists, craftsman and teachers in a demonstration of the contribution which decentralized, self-sufficient living in the country may make to redress the economic and psychological insecurity of our industrialized civilization
·       To study and develop the possibilities of the home and homestead as a productive and creative institution
·       To furnish to men and women the opportunity to follow a carefully developed plan of learning and experiences in living securely, comfortably and richly and in leading others to live equally well
·       To offer those who may be able to come for short visits only a place to see and study the relationship of homesteading and domestic produce:
o   To the past, present and future
o   To our present industrialized, centralized, organized, political society; and
o   To make life more meaningful to themselves here and now.

Community or Anarchy?

Building community is an immensely challenging undertaking.  Most “homesteaders” are in fact at least marginally standoffish.  Very few, however, are very self-reliant, therefore highly dependent on the global factory system they, for the large part, despise.  Both formal studies, discussed in my Community, Energy and Economy[11], and practical experience tells us that many have the attitude of “just leave me alone.”  Repeated efforts to build communes and communities have had relatively rare instances of “great success.”

American’s are, by definition, highly individualistic.  Too often this translates into “isolated and alone.”  Alienation is a way of life.  A scattering of friends, perhaps; a communal association based on profound emotional commitments, rarely.  This is not a normal state of being for human beings.  We are social animals, tribal by instinct.  As Buddha said, life has no meaning without human association. 
Our history before industrialization is one of communities, of Main Streets, of a sense of place and neighbors who care for each other.  True, they have conflict, but so does any family.  It takes deep emotional bonds to make a community work.

The failure of community in America, essentially the result of our urban-industrial way of life, is arguably the greatest crisis of our time.  Building community in the US continues to be one of the most challenging issues.  Unless and until we achieve a communal and agrarian reengagement, there will be no real prospect of building a better way of life.

Borsodi envisioned homesteading communities of 40 or more families.  He saw families as three-generation units so that means groups of between two and three hundred:  a village.  That happens to be one of those as yet not well-understood numbers that represent the scale of successful human social organization.  It is also around the number necessary to provide a division of labor sufficient in scope to assure a high degree of local self-reliance.

Since we no longer have the institutions around which a successful community can be formed, Borsodi proposed a School of Living as the center of the homesteading community.  This is not a school in any way like those we see today.  In Education and Living[12] (1948) Borsodi did indeed acidly critique modern education; and we’ve come a long way downhill since.

In Education and Living Borsodi continued his critique of centralization with a lot of focus on how it has adversely affected public education at all levels.  This involves not only schools but “educational” medium; advertising and public media in general. 

By then, just following the carnage World War II, much of the world had experience the horrors of political centralization carried to an extreme.  Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and just then emerging the People’s Republic of China, demonstrated how centralization could readily reach levels of not only completely annihilating individuality but also mobilizing the masses to commit acts of genocide on an unpredicted level.  And, just at the time the book came out, the world entered what would become a generation-long Cold War, a war with many hot and lethal conflicts in which more millions of lives were consumed.  The ideological issue were a centralized economy, communism, verses the more open market economy of capitalism.

Ironically, the post World War II era also witnessed the rise of the multi-national corporation, business giants that transcended borders and regulations, with revenues larger than many nations and with a highly centralized form of organization that differs from communist societies not in kind but in degree[13].  These corporations today dominate the world’s economy and have a huge influence on national governance.

As noted, Borsodi outlined a School of Living program in Flight From the City in 1933.  He had, by that time been working with prospective homesteaders for over a decade.  Weekends would see families coming out from the city to work with the Borsodis’ at Dogwoods.

The purpose of the Borsodis’ homesteading program was to help families improve the quality of life but quality is more than homegrown food and fiber.  A “normal” human being requires a quality education not only in basic skills but in critical thinking and access to the world’s accumulated store of knowledge.  For those of us already “educated,” this requires reeducation.

Is anarchy part of this model?  The short answer is no.  If anarchy means disorder and protest against established political regimes, it is not a part of Borsodi’s vision.  Anarchy as a political-economic theory has a historical association with guns and bombs.  The objective of such revolutionary anarchy tends to be a socialist, centralized, state.  Today anarchy is associated with survivalists, preppers, doomsters and the like.  Again there tends to be a lot of guns and talk of violence and definitely anti-communitarian. That is not a part of Borsodi’s vision.  He was communitarian to the core and, as we shall see, a man of peace.

In Education and Living, a two-volume work, Borsodi elaborated the model of the School of Living.  Most of volume one consists of a critique of “mis-education.”  Most of that critique focuses on the problems of centralization; centralization of industry, the economy, politics and education.  He defines the idea of decentralization in these terms:  “Decentralization … is not merely the opposite of Centralization; it is not merely the negation of Centralization.  It is a positive process.”  As he described it, decentralization is communitarian, cooperative, provides local autonomy in the governance of affairs and promotes personal freedom. 

Borsodi’s decentralization is not a political model at all.  It is first and foremost a model for development of human potential and the means to that end is education.  We need not a new state but a new state of mind.  The second volume of Education and Living explains Borsodi’s vision of achieving decentralization in detail.  The second volume is in two parts: Right-Education and Re-Education.  It explains how to educate for the “Normal” human being and for achieving the “Normal” way of living.  This is not the “normal” of the bell curve, the average of a population.  This is normal in terms of what a human being is innately capable of.  It is not the “normal” of “the noble savage” but the norm of a person whose capacity for life, whose capacity for action, has been nurtured by education and training for life; who is the product of a School of Living.  Volume 2 provides an insightful description of what and how a person of high individual and social potential can be developed.

A Visual Model of the School of Living and Community

In my Green Revolution article on “The School of Living and Community[14]” I outlined Borsodi’s ideal homesteading community.  In Flight From the City, Borsodi gave us a model of an ideal homestead.  He provided a birds-eye view of such a three-acre homestead: 



Following publication of Flight From the City, Borsodi spent the next eight years working to develop homesteading communities.  Near his hometown of Suffern he acquired 40 acres and invited sixteen families, families that had been visiting him during weekends to learn homesteading, to settle into a community (the site of which I visited in 2012; photos on School of Living Facebook page).  He founded two other homesteading communities before the war and unanticipated resistance to communal living brought the experiment to an end.  He spent the war years refining his vision of the homesteading community and the means to bring it about which he published in Education and Living.  In that book, Volume Two, he provided an aerial view of the community that would form around the School of Living:


He also depicted a landscape covered by a pattern of School of Living Communities:

India

One of the most productive periods of Borsodi’s life included a stay in India working with Gandhist educators.  Gandhi is, of course, best remembered for his non-violent resistance to and overthrow of British rule of India.  But the India that emerged was a far cry from Gandhi’s vision:  It sought to become an industrial state, much as Borsodi had foreseen in his The Challenge of Asia[15].

We see images of Gandhi in a homespun traditional Indian dhoti sitting with a simple spinning wheel.   In part he was protesting the fact that India grew cotton for English mills and was forced to buy English cloth.  Gandhi, as perhaps best portrayed in his Salt March, insisted that Indians learn to produce for themselves.  His life in a rural ashram was about very much what Borsodi envisioned:  local self-sufficiency.  Gandhi at his spinning wheel was a personal statement of what Indians living in villages could do for themselves.  Borsodi naturally fell in love with this model of life, one so like his own[16].

Borsodi became deeply involved with Gandhian educators in India, men and women like himself who sought a means to transform education into an instrument for the upliftment of people; not the production of quantity-minded cogs in the machinery of progress but of quality-minded people who could live as human beings.  They encouraged him to produce a volume of his educational ideas that was printed (in India in 1973) as The Education of the Whole Man.  In it Borsodi reiterated the theme that “All knowledge is indivisible.”  In a forward to the book by S. Radhakrishnan, we find a brief summary of this “indivisibility:” 
“Science and technology, literature and art, philosophy and religion are varied manifestations of the spirit of man.  They do not contradict one another but complement one another.”
“In the name of science and rationalism many of our societies have broken off their connection with the past tradition.  Their lives have become rootless.  We have to grow our roots again.  We have t combine ancient tradition with modern knowledge.
“The development of the human individual makes for the uniqueness of the individual.  This uniqueness contributes to the fellowship of human beings.  It leads one to the creative realization of the unity of mankind.

In The Education of the Whole Man, Borsodi outlined what he hoped would be a sequence of volumes, each devoted to one of the major aspects of human life; in short, a detailed outline of the curriculum of The School of Living.  Drawing in no small part from the example of Gandhi, Borsodi proposed his curriculum for the elevation of men and women most receptive to uplifting the human race who in turn would become the teachers in their own communities.  This was Borsodi’s model of leadership:  the teacher.

There are four qualities, he said, that distinguish this natural leadership: 
1.      They are thoughtful.  They have not only learned but seek to penetrate and understand what they have learned.
2.      They are concerned.  They realize this is an age of crisis and personal involved in addressing the issues of that crisis.
3.      They are courageous.  They are willing to struggle and sacrifice for the cause of human advancement.
4.      They are dedicated.  They are devoted to achieving something of greater than personal scope

Each of Borsodi’s proposed volumes would address a universal problem of living.  These problems are Borsodi’s hallmark.  He was a man people sought out for help with the problems of living.  Being the methodical person he was, one day, just after the founding of the Suffern community, he made a note of a problem brought to him on a 4 x 6 card.  After accumulating about 1,000 of these cards he sat down one day and sorted them out.  He found they represented eleven major types of problems.  By the time he had accumulated 8,000 cards he had seventeen problems.  These became the outline and structure for his educational system.

Borsodi accumulated a considerable library at the School of Living[17].  He sorted this library not by alphabet or Dewey Decimal classification but according to the universal problems of living.
From these universal problems he proposed first the outline of the detailed volumes about resolving these problems in The Education of the Whole Man and then his famous Seventeen Problems of Man and Society[18].  In Seventeen Problems, also originally published by Borsodi’s friends in India, you will find an encyclopedic outline of each of the major problems and a list of books about each.  These books, several hundred of them, represented the best literature of the day.

Before he left India Borsodi wrote a brief pamphlet:  A Decentralist Manifesto[19].  In it he outlined his philosophy of life centered on decentralism.  He started the pamphlet with these lines: 
A new world is being born.

If this new world is to be a better world than the one now dying and to make possible a fuller fruition of the human spirit, then it will be very different from the Capitalist world of today, and different from the world which the dictators of Russia and China are providing, and different from the Socialist world into which most of the world is now drifting.

Concerned and thoughtful men and women are challenged to arrest the present drift and drive into a mechanized barbarism, and to contribute to the birth of a world in which persons will be free to realize their potentialities as creative beings. Such leaders must have the courage to assert themselves, and must discipline themselves to think about all the institutions essential to such a world.
The pamphlet is in three parts:
1.     Humanization and Social Renaissance
2.     Political Liberty
3.     Economic Justice.

It begins and ends with a call for leadership, a leadership not of warriors, kings, priest, politicians, businessmen and financiers but of “concerned and thoughtful teachers,” of writers, artist, poets and even men in women in professions who “consecrate themselves to the search and realization of what is true, what is good, what is beautiful.”  In short, the quality minded.  Above all else these gifted people must teach.

How we achieve decentralization is through education, learning, and moral-re-education.  It is also about how to revive the small community.  It is about how the small community is nested within the larger human social system; an ethos Borsodi called “pan-humanism.”  All human beings, all around the world, he asserted, have the right to a quality life, to a just and secure form of life that is denied them by the predatory practices of established and dysfunctional urban-industrial social institutions.
In 1978 Mildred Loomis edited and republished A Decentralist Manifesto in the US.  In 1980 she published her own work on decentralism:  Decentralism:  Where It Came From – Where Is It Going?  In this book Mildred gave a short history of decentralism but focused on where the School of Living was taking the idea.  There is some wonderful history about the School of Living and its role in the decentralist movement of the day.  This was written just as the Counterculture, a movement Mildred was named grandmother of, was ebbing.  It was the dawn of the Reagan era and the globalization of the American economy.  Again, a forgotten book and forgotten legacy[20].

Where do we go from here?

It puzzles many of us who are attracted to Borsodi’s work, why he should have been forgotten.  The School of Living organization he formed exists today as a land trust organization with several member properties.  The School of Living as an educational institution and center of homesteading communities around the world as Borsodi envisioned it, however, is an unrealized ideal. 

Yes, many find Borsodi’s genius daunting, his books taxing.  But there is much more than that.  As indicated in his four qualities of the teacher cited above, there must be a compelling drive in those who would found a School of Living; or any other community.  It is very clear, both in Borsodi’s work and in our personal experience, that few seem to have the capacity to embrace this level of personal commitment to labor in a meaningful way for the wellbeing of humankind.  Indeed, too few these days considers that ideal as more than a quaint and romantic sentiment.

During Borsodi’s day that “quaint” sentiment, of bringing freedom, peace and prosperity to the world, was one of the leading subjects in a very large literature.  Liberals and conservatives shared it.  The world was full of humanitarian heroes in all walks of life.  Those who had experienced the horrors of world wars and a sequence of economic panics and depressions, had a much different view of life than those of us in this energy-driven, materially affluent and highly individualistic day. 

We need to remember too that many of Borsodi’s contemporaries grew up in Main Street and farmland America.  They had the personal experience of a pre-industrial life.  Most of these have also sadly been forgotten and where books are still published, they are given more of a historical referent than treated seriously in their own right.  What happened to Borsodi is thus by no means unique.  That a small group has become dedicated to reviving his legacy, his vision of a decentralized, homesteading, learning-driven, communal life, is an extraordinary opportunity.  We have, however, only a narrow window of opportunity for affecting his dreams, or the dreams of other great humanitarians.
Borsodi was a man, as they say, ahead of his time.  Now it appears the times have caught up with him.  At the end of his life a post-industrial movement emerged, closely associated with the Counterculture.  It looked like a new dawn but a vast gray cloud of progress again darkened the sky of the promise of renewal.  Progress has been driven by an abundance of oil but we have come to near the end of the petroleum age.  Yes, there are probably a few decades of petroleum left but when that is gone, the world will either find a cheap or abundant new energy[21] or succumb to planetary poverty.  The alternative is an agrarian reengagement:  getting back to the basics of small-scaled and self-reliant, farm-based, communities.

Those of you reading these lines probably believe we are entering a serious age of crisis and are appalled by the prospects.  But where we go next is a matter of choice; for those with the courage to choose.  Shaking ourselves out of this deep slumber that benumbs us could make a tremendous difference in the course of history over the next few, crucial, decades.  Can we do that?

Borsodi was a pioneer.  He had to work, as we all do, by trial and error.  To criticize him and those like him, people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, for shortcomings is about as foolish as criticizing nature for evolution.  If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Experience, one sage said, is the name we give to our mistakes.  Without risk there is no progress and we live in an age of great risks.  Our choice is whether to become committed to making the changes we need or rather take what we get.  We are nature’s most highly evolved adaptive organisms.  We have to learn what we are capable of.  We must shake off the tangled shackles of the urban-industrial way of life and return to a natural way of life.

The difference between us and all the other species is that we do have a choice.  We have the capacity to learn.  Learning implies a School.  For us it is a school not of ideas but of living.  Indeed, our failure as a species is that we have detached mind from body, from being in this world.  Over the course of history that brought us to this modern age and the human race has made some very serious mistakes in the process.  Some of them are rooted in antiquity, like that mind-body split, but this modern age has spun out of control. 

We have defied not only the laws of nature but the essence of human nature.  We have not, in short, learned what we need in order to take our place in this world.  It is said that we do not own the Earth but are a part of it.  It is true that we are an integral part of the Earth and that we have forgotten that but it is also true that the Earth in a very real sense belongs to us.  It belongs to us in the sense that nature has created us with the capacity for stewardship.  Our choice is to be responsible for our destiny.  Or not.  I would remind you that Nature is not merciful.  Nature is just.  Our fate is on the balance of Lady Justice.

If we were a failing sports team, the coach would take us back to the practice of the basics.  Between where we are and savage barbarism lies an agrarian culture that only a century ago defined the virtues of great peoples.  This is our “basics.”  Agrarian life is small-scaled, local, decentralized.  Decentralization is not an ideal; it is virtually a law of human nature.  Also virtually law-like is the arithmetic of human association.  “It takes a village” is more than a cute byline.  It is another law of human nature.  It defines the scale of association that is literally hardwire into our nervous system.
We are not all alike.  As I demonstrate in my enneagram workshops, there are many basic forms of personality and there are also many basic forms of “intelligence.”  Each has a different perspective on a set of ideas like Decentralization and the School of Living.  Again, that is the way nature made us and we need to learn the wisdom of this evolutionary fact.  We need to bring all of these perspectives into an understanding of the human ecosystem.  That is what a School of Living does.  And yes, a human community is an ecosystem just like a lake or forest.  It is an ecosystem nested within what we call the biosphere.

Borsodi sought to mobilize us to achieve a more ideal, decentralized, way of life by presenting us a learning system for the “whole (wo)man.”  He was one of those rare individuals, a polymath, whose mind spanned a vast scope of human knowing.  He was in a very real sense of collage of human culture, of the legacy of human experience.  Our job is to start where he left off. 

Between Borsodi’s life and today is an unprecedented stretch of history.  We have learned a great deal.  I believe our job is to first re-create, and then bring up to date, a library of materials that will give us the knowledge and skill we need to reestablish the agrarian ideal; not one of austerity, not one of a struggle merely to survive, not one stripped of appropriate technologies, but one that works on the scale that we can master as human beings.  It is one close to nature, where the “sweat of the brow” is a gift rather than a curse, where the focus of life is the practical, where the scale of life is the community – that place and the people where we invest the totality of our being.

We have a lot of work to do.  The history of our country and the world in the last third of a century is one of steady economic erosion.  The American factory system has largely moved offshore and left in its wake even uglier, now desolate cities, both large and small; depopulated, ruined buildings and homes, vacant lots, empty downtowns people by the poor, the aging and minorities.  Many of these communities are seeking to develop urban agriculture as a means to restore local self-reliance.  Here we find profound challenges and equally profound opportunities for not only rural but urban agrarian renewal.  It is a very fertile ground and earnestly seeking the leadership to bring these communities into a state of vibrant livingness.

To achieve our destiny I believe we would do well to consult Borsodi, to bring his library and the agenda of his School of Living up to date and to set out to again create not only self-sufficient homesteads but the decentralized, homesteading community and that central, vital school that is the great attractor that holds it all together, gives it order and gives us a vision of a life that is lived to the fullest.

In closing, I would like to strongly emphasize that for Borsodi, learning is not head smarts; it’s about living.  From the beginning he saw that life is about solving problems.  He based his entire system upon the thousands of people who came to him for advice; many going on to start their own homesteads, farms, sustainable living projects, land trusts, local currencies:  An as yet uncataloged list of influences; many of them noteworthy.

We can just keep on with what we are doing or we can learn new options.  Brain and body, and this is hard for many of us steeped in Western culture to truly grasp, are part of the same organism and the organism is part of an environment:  a physical environment, a social environment and an economic environment.  We must learn, first and foremost, that life is an integral system and that we human beings were designed by nature to live well within that system.  We can do that if, and only if, we understand who and what we are and make the right choices.

Our most pressing need is for reeducation.  It is particularly hard for people with a western education to think holistically, naturally, relationally; particularly Americans.  We have a lot to relearn and it starts with a school, a School of Living and what that model represents.  The cornerstone of right-living is, again, the small, agrarian community, a decentralized, self-reliant community.   We have to learn once again how to live like that and to do so in such a way as to allow us not only to live, but to live well.

State College, Pennsylvania




[1] Link to Green Revolution Articles:  http://www.schoolofliving.org/publications.htm#borsodi.
[2] George did not win the mayoral race but did draw more votes than Theodore Roosevelt who would in coming years be a champion of the populist, agrarian American lifestyle.
[3] The book was reprinted as a paperback in 1972, the height of the youth Counterculture movement in the US.  A pdf copy of the book can be found at http://www.metropioneer.com/docs/Flight_from_the_City.pdf.
[4] Copy available at the School of Living web site: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1wQ6T5I3eBVbGR0SzRaNlJBTDQ/edit.
[5] A digital copy is available on-line at the School of Living web site:  http://www.schoolofliving.org/Borsodi/This_Ugly_Civilization.pdf.
[6] Borsodi elaborated in “realistic economics” in his Prosperity and Security, published by Harper and Row in 1938.
[7] Money or fictitious financial commodities such as derivatives.
[8] At least then most of the production was “Made in the U. S. A.” 
[9] Alas, this is an age of “changes in climate” and they will very likely shape the evolution of history to come.
[10] These are qualities that can be found in the works of Emerson and Thoreau.
[11] Community, Energy and Economy is soon to be published.
[13] The “degree” defined largely in terms of if you didn’t like working for one corporation, you could change jobs, you could join unions, and where allowed you could claim the privileges of national citizenship to insure certain basic human rights.
[15] India has become a notorious example of super-industrialization by a developing country; along with China, representing a third of the world’s population, the extremes of the chasm between wealth and poverty leave much of its population below world poverty levels today.
[16] Borsodi described weaving his own wool cloth in Flight From the City.
[17] Which grew to 2,500 volumes before lost.
[18] Seventeen Problems was the first of Borsodi’s books brought back, after 35 years out of print, by Bob Flatley and Bill Sharp.  It can be found and downloaded from the School of Living web site:  https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1wQ6T5I3eBVWG1xT2xoZlhRRFU/edit. 
[19] At the School of Living web site as referenced in footnote above.
[20] Mildred’s legacy is on the list of projects related to the revival of Ralph Borsodi’s School of Living model.
[21] The prospects of either a new energy source or timely development of renewable energy are not encouraging.

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