Riding the Rapids:
An Interview with Robert Theobald

By Scott London

Robert Theobald
Robert Theobald

The late economist Robert Theobald spent the better part of four decades grappling with the dynamics of change. He was thrown into the public spotlight in the 1960s when he and some colleagues published The Triple Revolution — a report to President Johnson which argued that the weaponry, computer, and human rights revolutions were ushering in a new post-industrial era. As the report put it, "We believe that these changes will compel, in the very near future and whether we like it or not, public measures that move radically beyond any steps now proposed or contemplated." Theobald's work was considered ahead of its time then. But today it fits the general perception that we are, as anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "immigrants into a new time."

An Englishman who moved to the United States in the late 1950s, Theobald was a popular lecturer, teacher, and — as he liked to say — inveterate networker. He was also a tireless community organizer and an early proponent of the Internet as a tool for social change. He authored more than 20 books, including The Rapids of Change, Turning the Century, and Reworking Success. He died in November 1999.

I worked with Theobald on several occasions. He was a warm, lively, and generous person with a fine sense of humor and a great love of conversation. The following dialogue took place at my home in Santa Barbara, California, in the fall of 1996.

Scott London: A phrase that you come back to again and again in your work is one by Tom Atlee: "The world is getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster."

Robert Theobald: I find that it's helping people recognize that this is an incredibly complex, rapidly evolving rapids-of-change sort of world. Some people can't imagine the time-scale I think we're living in. But if you look at how long it took to go from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and compare that to how long it took to go from agriculture to industry, and then compare that to how long the new transition which we are so clearly in will take — then clearly everything is happening at a faster pace than ever before.

It seems to me that we're caught in a situation where there are so many things that have to be resolved, and so many people fighting about them, that they either tear us apart or we find some new ways to stay together. The tearing apart now seems to me increasingly visible. We are no longer willing to compromise. We are all out on the extremes.

London: Why are people so unwilling to change?

Theobald: No culture, I think, has ever changed internally — at least at the magnitude we're talking about. Arnold Toynbee got it right: he said that cultures die and new ones come along and take their place. It's been the historical pattern.

People think, "If it works why should we change it?" They say, "Everything works, everyone has a car, everybody has a fairly decent house (well, not everybody — but many people). Why can't it go on forever?"

The problem is that we're now living in a global culture and there is no one to take up a new model, because the Chinese — who are the logical ones to take up the new model — have bought into exactly what we're doing, which is exactly what is fatal because of the environmental question. If the Chinese decide that they are going to have the American standard of living, the environmental ballgame is over.

So, somehow, we have to do it. That's why I'm a rational pessimist.

London: A rational pessimist?

Theobald: Yes. If I look at this stuff rationally, it's not going to happen. But if we would only get up and move, it could change so rapidly it would make our heads spin. A guy named Paul Ray has pointed out that 25 percent of the people are ready to change. But, he says, "they are all audience." They are all waiting for somebody to do it! Somebody ought to be on stage. But I keep saying to people: "you are going to have to get up on stage." [Laughs]

London: One of the points Ray makes is that most people don't realize how many others there are who share the same concerns and who are also looking for new solutions.

Theobald: That is exactly right. But why? That is the question I've been asking myself for at least ten years. Why have we (and I include myself in this) been so incredibly ineffective at finding each other and getting on with it. Why are we absent in the presidential and congressional elections? Why isn't our voice being heard? Why isn't anything being said about this alternative way of looking at reality? I'm really not exaggerating much — it isn't being said.

London: You've done a lot of work in communities, helping people to look at what they want to achieve and bringing them together to see whether they can establish a shared model of reality and move toward effective action together. What can you tell me about this work?

Theobald: First of all, it's very hard [laughs]. Very tedious. We're not used to the idea of working with each other. We're not used to working across boundaries. Yet, as I listen across the country, I find more and more stuff going on in communities which is invisible to us. There is a new book out by a woman named Leslie Dreyfous, called Getting a Life. She has pulled together these stories from communities that are saying, "We can't just leave this alone anymore. Either we pull it back together or it's going to get worse, because this is not a national issue, it's not a state issue — it's a community issue."

Can we as communities make our communities work or not? It's not going to be healed at the national level. There are a lot of tools these days which allow people to sit down together and act in good faith and begin to find out that they really want very similar things.

London: One of the themes that runs through your work is the need for collaboration and a different kind of decision-making than we've had in the past.

Theobald: I think the reason that we insist on our extreme positions is that everything gets settled on the basis of compromise. So, the further away you are at the beginning, in a sense, the more chance you have that the final agreement is going to be on your side. So, the National Rifle Association says, "We cannot even think about banning assault weapons..." They really don't want to give any ground. We have the same thing with people who are pro-choice. They are not willing to look at the fact that we shouldn't be having abortions late, unless there is a profound medical reason. The fact that a woman changes her mind in the second or even third trimester should not be a reason for an abortion. There is now evidence coming out that some of the late abortions are not to do with medical problems but with parents changing their minds about the desirablity of having a child.

London: So, we have to expand the debate?

Theobald: What we have to do is say, "How can we change this debate so that we get to somewhere where we can agree." Now we know where that is on the issue of abortion. There have been groups across the country which have met from pro-choice and pro-life vantage points and have said, "We can both agree that the real problem is that there are too many unwanted pregnancies." So what can we do to limit the number of kids that are conceived that are unwanted and then cause abortions? Once you start thinking of this in terms of unwanted pregnancies, instead of abortion, it suddenly becomes a totally different issue.

So what I'm saying is that we've got to rethink the issue. Take another issue — one that I'm very much involved with. So long as we say that the answer is jobs, and that's the only answer we'll look at in the economic area, we're not going anywhere, because there are not going to be enough jobs to go around — that's already clear. The way we do work is going to be very different in the 21st century. But we need to get people out of the job arena into a new arena where we can begin to talk about how we do work, what is work, what's valued, how do you value it, what gives you prestige, what gives you purpose. That's a different debate, and even more complex. It's a debate that demands that you give up the idea that a job and an income are totally related, and that's the only way you can relate them.

London: You've thought a lot about the future of work. One thing you've written about, for example, is the role of the young and the old. In today's labor force we are excluding these important groups more and more.

Theobald: Yes, what we're saying is that there is a role for people for a lesser and lesser proportion of their life. You prepare up to 22 or 24 or 26, and at 55 you're considered beyond it. That's a pretty small hunk of life you're actually functioning in society as we define it. We better broaden out the society again. We better start asking, "Why do we keep people outside of life for their first 18, 20, 22, 26 years? And why do we say that after 55 there is really nothing for people to do?" We need these people. We may not be able to put them into jobs, in the old sense. But there is plenty of work to do. Anybody who looks at our society knows how much isn't being done — how much caring isn't being done — and how we need everybody to be involved.

So, again, it's only as we open up that question and say not, "How do we find jobs for everybody?" but "How do we find purpose and meaning and rights to resources for everybody" — which is a completely different question.

London: What are your thoughts on that? How do people find purpose, meaning?

Theobald: I don't know. I think we need a great debate. Supposing we suddenly imagine a world in which nearly everybody is doing what they want. Then we don't need to be paid in order to work and the whole issue of how money circulates, how we get things done, suddenly alters. So you have to do this enormous sudden shift and say, "If I could imagine that everybody is doing work that they cared to do..."

London: Yes, I think we need to look deeper at this. The vast majority of people do not, first of all, have work that is meaningful to them and that they do love and foresee doing five or ten years down the line. And, secondly, most people wouldn't know what their ideal work would be, given the choice.

A great number of people seem to be struggling with this colossal issue of what to do with their lives: "I don't know what meaningful contribution I can make to this society." I think this is one of the critical issues of our generation.

Theobald: Yes, but let me turn it around and let me point out that the very fact you're asking that question is new. My generation said, "I will find a job and that is the way it works." So I don't see anything wrong with the fact that people are asking that question. It's the right question.

London: But there must be some way that we can, as a culture, find better ways to help people, to mentor people, to foster and nurture their own process of finding out what their purpose is — if indeed they have a purpose. I don't know about this word "purpose," by the way. How are you going to know if you've found it? And once you've found it, does that mean you're not going to find a new purpose down the road?

Theobald: [Laughs] Of course not. But we all have an implicit purpose. We either recognize it or we don't. We all make decisions based on some set of criteria. Every day we go through life making choices. Those choices have to come out of something. So, we have a purpose.

I think the real extraordinary thing about this moment is that you can't live without your own self-decided purpose anymore. You see, we used to live in a cocoon. The cocoon said, as a white male you do this sort of thing — and most of us did. It said, as a black female, you do this sort of thing — and most of us did. Suddenly all of those cocoons and boundaries and neat ways of dividing us up and determining us are going.

Now whether the human race can grow up and cope with this freedom, whether your generation (because you're the ones who are going to drive this) can begin to say, "I can live knowing that my purpose isn't final, that my mission statement isn't final, and I don't know what I want forever but have to have something to live by, because it's not going to be given me by my company or by anything else, it's going to come from inside me." Can your generation and the one that's coming up deal with that? I don't know.

We're doing a lousy job, as you said, of helping our kids. What we're saying to our kids is, "It's still the way it always used to be; you're crazy to see it any other way; you're irresponsible, and we will teach you what we know." But, in fact, we're all "immigrants into a new time," and I have no right to say to anybody anything else than my own understanding, because it's personal. It's not correct. It's not objective. It's not expert.

London: I would like to go back to the beginning for a moment. You were born in India.

Theobald: I was born in India and was there when I was very young. I was born to English parents. My father was in business. I came back to England in 1945, just at the end of the War in Europe. In fact, I was on the boat coming back when Germany surrendered. I went through public school, which I hated (what is called "private school" here). Then I went into the army. When I came out, I was going to do engineering and I was really doing badly at that. So I went to a guidance counselor and he said, "You really ought to take economics because you like people." [Laughs] I've always felt I ought to have written to him and said, "You really don't understand the subject." [Laughs]

Anyway, I took economics. I went to Paris for three and a half years, which was a wonderful time — 1953 to '57. It was just after the War. The automobile hadn't come in and ruined the city. You could make money go a very long way. And we found out what living in the city can be like. It was beautiful.

London: How did you make your way to the States?

Theobald: Well, my friends couldn't believe it because my wife was set for life. She was the first English person who had ever been asked to teach at the Sorbonne (the most prestigious French university). But we decided that we really couldn't understand the world if we didn't understand the United States. So I came here for a year and went to Harvard. They were teaching me exactly what I learned at Cambridge, and I thought, "This is stupid, I might as well think." I've often said, you should never think at a university, and this was certainly true there.

I came up with an idea about the relationship between the rich and the poor countries, and I rushed down to my dean. He said, "If it's new, it isn't important; if it's important, it isn't new." [Laughs] I wasn't very pleased at the time, but basically, I decided afterwards, it was the best introduction to the problems of social change I could ever have gotten.

London: But that idea you had of the rich and the poor turned into your first book, right?

Theobald: That's right. I went down to New York and I met an guy named Victor Waybright — a remarkable man — who looked at an inadequate draft of mine and gave me a contract. It was for $2,000 which was a lot of money in those days. That turned into a book called The Rich and the Poor.

Then he let me write a book called The Challenge of Abundance, which was a direct response to a book by John Kenneth Galbraith called The Affluent Society. Galbraith, I thought, said: you can't change society and you are going to have to put up with private affluence and public squalor. And The Challenge of Abundance basically said that eventually we would have to come to grips with this issue and many others because the system wouldn't hold up. In 1961, you can imagine that this was not a message that anyone was quite ready to hear.

Then I did a book in 1963 called Free Men and Free Markets which got me a lot of attention. I was the first non-administration speaker at some very major hearings in Washington in 1964. Those were the days when hearings meant something. People actually came, as opposed to these days.

Then we put out a document in '64 called The Triple Revolution. We sent a document without any credibility — we called it "a report to President Johnson" — and it just caught on. The New York Times put it on the front page. It got reprinted all over the place.

London: You've always been a maverick. It's been about 35 years since you started writing books and talking about change. What is your perspective on where we've come since then?

Theobald: What I think has happened in the last thirty years is that we've been building towards change. The change process appears to happen slowly, but of course it doesn't. You have to do the building, and then some catalytic process comes along and people say, "Oh! Everything has changed." But the everything changing does not happen overnight. It happens because of all the previous work. I think we're at the point where massive positive change can happen. That's where it's different today. In the sixties, basically people played with the idea of fundamental change knowing it couldn't happen. So we were what I call the clowns of the culture. It was fun to play with this stuff because you knew it couldn't happen. Now, I think, people know it can.

London: As we look to the new century, what do you see as our most fundamental challenges?

Theobald: I think, first of all, that there are two directions: things are going to get a lot worse, or whether things are going to get a lot better. I think that probably the key issue is whether we can move away from power and control over other people, toward working with other people; whether in that context we can believe in original blessing rather than original sin; whether we can recognize how quick the time scale is. I think those are three critical issues that we have to face.

I would like to find a place where we can discuss these sorts of issues with competent people, and begin to say, "Where do we stand?" "What sort of authority do we need for the future?" "Where does decision-making power go — does it really go at the community level and, if so, what does that imply for how we organize things?"

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." An earlier version was published under the title "Social Entrepreneurship."