ROBERT GILMAN : Cast Lot With the Planet

Robert Gilman, 44, was trained at Berkeley and Princeton as an astrophysicist, but after a few years of teaching and research, he decided "that the stars could wait, but the planet couldn't."

So he shook off an academic career and cast his lot with the planet.

He and his wife, Diane, moved from Massachusetts to the Northwest, built a solar house and "committed ourselves to the challenges of adjusting to life on a small planet."

In Washington state's North Olympic Peninsula, they organized the North Olympic Living Lightly Assn., a group linking people interested in alternative energy, natural health, organic gardening and other sustainable lifestyle issues.

They were not dropping out. "From the beginning, we wanted these ideas to become mainstream," says Diane Gilman. And when the local League of Women Voters started sponsoring solar home tours, they knew the message was getting through.

Gradually the circle widened. When their monthly newsletter began drawing requests from all over the world, the Gilmans enlarged their focus and in 1982 launched "In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture."

"We could see that there were solutions to such problems as pollution, housing and education, but they were being ignored," says Robert Gilman. "So we created a forum to bring together the most promising solutions."

They took subsistence salaries and published the magazine in their basement, knowing, he said, that they were swimming against the tide. "The '80s was a time of denial for most of these issues, but our understanding of history led us to expect that the tides would turn, and we wanted to do as much homework as possible to be ready."

The homework paid off. The nonprofit journal, with its earnest title and emphasis on environmentally sensible living, became a handbook for a new generation of environmentalists who knew what the word "sustainable" meant.

There was no lack of material. "In Context" has spotlighted Colorado's Rocky Mountain Institute, with its low-cost, high-efficiency energy strategies; Scandinavia's efficient and graceful co-housing communities, and Minnesota's cooperative learning programs, where students teach each other.

The Gilmans devoted issues of their journal to new patterns in education, new ways to live with the land and innovative uses of communications technology. They solicited contributions from the people who were doing "quality thinking" and never ran short of material, Robert Gilman says.

They have organized sustainable living workshops and led citizen diplomacy trips to the Soviet Union, focusing on personal contact with ordinary people.

Nothing made a big splash. Each effort was "one more drop in the bucket, pulling down some of the barriers," he says.

"I know we've been an influence, although I can't say it has been world-shifting. Our circulation is about 4,500, which is not large, but it reaches 30 countries and a large part of our audience are people in the trenches themselves. And for five years our journal has been carried into the Soviet Union and shared by the people in the reformist and activist movement there, so I know we've made an impact there."

The Gilmans, who have two children, are still publishing out of their basement--they now live on Bainbridge Island, Wa.--but the staff has grown to six. Robert Gilman is currently working with an ad hoc group of Seattle civic leaders and innovators to create ways to spread some of the innovations he has written about. The tides, they believe, are turning.

"At this point we are still hanging onto the surfboard as best we can," he says, "but the wave is really moving."


Research fellow, Harvard Astrophysical Observatory, 1975; solar and environmental design consultant, 1975-80; co-founder, Context Institute, 1979; founding board member, Foundation for Soviet/American Economic Cooperation, 1989; editor, "In Context" magazine.


TITLES: Astrophysicist, environmentalist, publisher and writer.

QUOTE: "Thinking about the future improves your clarity of mind: There is an enormous number of reasons to be hopeful about what we may be able to do as a planet."

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