I was commissioned to write a book called A Smaller Circle: The Search for Community in 1990 by a London publisher, Random Century, part of Random House. The acquisitions editor described it as “Small Is Beautiful [the 1970s bestseller by E. F. Schumacher] by a woman, and the catalog description read:
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A Smaller Circle: The Search for Community
“The Jane Austen of the alternative world.” –Kirkpatrick Sale
The quest for community – for a smaller circle in which to share and grow – may be the quintessential search of our time. In this moving and exploratory narrative, a young mother with American roots and European experience undertakes that quest, led on by the sense that a life which is simple, sustainable and satisfying must be achievable. Passionate, perceptive and irreverent, A Smaller Circle will challenge all who ask themselves whether, and in what conditions, community is possible.
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At that point, I was 32 years old and had lived in London for over 10 years. My first book, Home Ecology,had been published the year before and was doing well until McDonalds threatened a lawsuit as part of what became McLibel, but A Smaller Circle is still unfinished. In the years since then I have done things I couldn’t have imagined – not only the Encyclopedia of Sustainability but the Encyclopedia of Community, published in 2003 with Sage, and all our new work on and in China – and learned about the human past from world historians, especially from W. H. McNeill, in whose work the question of community comes up again and again. Bill’s innovative Moving Together in Time (Harvard 1995) is about how human communities bond through dance and movement. In fact, his 1964 bestseller, The Rise of the West (published about the same time as Silent Spring), was nearly given the title A History of the Human Community. Today I have his perspective and knowledge to draw on as I resume work on a book that is very different from anything he would write but that derives from the same curiosity about human beings and how we live together, more or less successfully.
Instead of finding the simple country life on a commune that my editor envisioned, I’ve ended up running a global business and having a personal life that extends from Main Street to Beijing. A slogan popular around the time of Rio 1992 was, “Think globally, act locally.” Berkshire Publishing’s authors think and teach globally, but their influence, and ours, is based on how we act locally—in our neighborhoods, our towns and boroughs, in the classroom and in the boardroom. The Encyclopedia of Sustainability has been designed to help in education both local and global, and we look forward to building on this shared effort to do more and do it faster. We could be discouraged by the lack of progress since 1992. We could be discouraged by the lack of progress at Rio +20. What I tell my kids, when they complain about the mess my generation has made and the huge difficulties they’ll confront in the decades ahead, is that this is our time in human history and each of us has a chance to make a difference, in a smaller circle or a much larger one. What matters is that we find new ways to connect, share knowledge, and take action. Archimedes said, “With a lever long enough, and a place to stand, I can move the world.” Knowledge is the lever, community is our place to stand. Together we can move the world.
This blog explore the subject of community in books and in real life, in my stories and in the stories of many other people.