The theme runs through cancer literature like a consolation prize: Cancer as a turning point, a priority setter in life, a wake-up call, cancer as a gift.
Cancer, futurist Robert Theobald thought, a bloody nuisance.
He didn’t need cancer; he needed Australia. A five-week book-signing and lecture tour to connect with listeners open to his views on social change. That would tell him whether, after 40 years of bringing people together to talk, he had anything more to say.
The plane tickets were purchased, the trip a week away when doctors diagnosed the difficulty he’d been having swallowing.
Cancer, they said, of the esophagus.
He responded in typical fashion: pulling in as much information as possible. He chose surgery Monday in Spokane but declined chemotherapy or radiation. He’s been learning about the immune system and using visualization, massage and vitamins. He’s not looking for one answer, but for many.
But first, he went to Australia. At a point where Theobald should be most concerned with his own future, he remains mostly concerned with the world’s.
“What’s the wake-up call for this culture?” he wonders. What’s the turning point for a society of consumption? What will do for society what a terminal illness does for individuals?
At 68, the author of more than 25 books, speaker and socio-economist is treating cancer as he has life: as material to educate others.
“It’s consistent with the very soul of who he is,” said his friend and colleague of 30 years, Robert Stilger of Spokane. “What has been important to Robert all along is learning, helping other people learn.”
“I am driven by a sense that we have relatively little time,” Theobald said in an interview last week.
Since his work first drew the attention of the White House and The New York Times 33 years ago, Theobald has argued that blind confidence in economic growth, technology and the culture of consumption and materialism destroys the environment and fails to provide opportunity and income for many people.
His message was so eerily timeless that Canadian radio producers hearing his 30-year-old taped lectures thought they were recorded last year.
“I never intended to be doing this so long,” he says with a bemused British laugh. “I thought we’d have saved the world by now.”
Instead, in the decades since the brash socio-economist found his voice, the richest percent of the world has grown richer while the poorest has lost ground. The culture of work reached unprecedented absurdity: thousands laid off while CEOs reaped bonuses. The gap between the rich and poor is now so wide that Theobald says it proves how nonsensical it is to continue believing that people earn what they’re worth. It is an inequity that pushes people into dangerous levels of anger, debt and spiritual emptiness.
“We’ve halved the size of our families, doubled the size of our houses and have to fill four times as much space with stuff,” he says. “We’ve taken all gains in technology in the last decades in ‘stuff’ rather than in time. Yet, we’re not willing to say that consumption doesn’t make us happy.”
Theobald warns that history is littered with cultures that collapsed under their own success, unable to maintain their ecosystems as their populations grew, or whose citizens were unable to find roles within a changing economy.
In his latest book, “Reworking Success” he calls for fundamental change at the new millennium.
“Our probable future is negative,” he writes. “If we do not change direction rapidly, the impact of technology will deprive many people of the possibility of earning a living and will lead to despair and disruption. In addition, rampant technology will leach the meaning out of life.”
It is the cry of a lone wolf. Theobald never developed a staff or took a permanent position with a foundation, think tank or university. The independence that brought him creative freedom took him to the brink of bankruptcy three times and into obscurity for decades.
From the beginning, he rejected the notion of himself as guru.
“It’s real easy to gain and sustain fame by being an articulate blamer or having a ready list of things we must do,” says Stilger, executive director of Northwest Regional Facilitators (NRF), a local non-profit agency. “Robert has always said the problems are much more complex and the easy answers don’t work.”
The son of a British businessman, Theobald was born in India and moved to England at age 7. He studied economics at Cambridge, worked in France, and eventually continued his studies at Harvard University.
Walking home one day, he realized that people had been manipulated to see jobs and consumption as central to their lives - a crucial pillar of the current economic system. But what if the economic system was structured to fit cultural desires instead of the other way around?
At the time, fewer than 100 people in the world knew what he was talking about. Today, there are thousands. The voluntary simplicity movement, the reality of downsizing, and the obvious problems created by the auto culture and overpopulation have raised awareness. But the stakes are higher, too.
“The problems look so vast that we find it easier to continue to live in a cultural trance,” he writes. “Rather than finding today’s rapids of change exciting and exhilarating, we are terrified by them. We look for our leaders to find answers rather than be involved ourselves.”
Theobald does not believe any one person, including himself, knows where the culture should go. But he is confident that, together, people can figure it out.
“If you cannot believe that human beings are more caring and compassionate and value based than we allow them to be, I have no solution for you,” he says.
That’s why he went to Australia. His book “Reworking Success,” based on a series of lectures, electrified audiences of business managers and activists, climbing to No. 8 on the best-seller list.
Friends say his use of stories and metaphors conveys abstract ideas in ways that make sense of people’s own experiences.
“He creates these handholds that people grab onto,” Stilger says. “It’s an extraordinary art.”
Such skills built a network of supporters worldwide. As news of his cancer spread, Stilger fielded up to 40 e-mail messages a day from people offering books, advice and support. After Australia, Theobald opted not to return to New Orleans, where he’d been living alone. He moved to Spokane to be close to Stilger and his wife, Susan Virnig, during his treatment.
The two friends had organized nearly 30 environmental seminars for Expo ‘74 and worked on Future Spokane in the 1980s. Stilger has run NRF for the past two decades, providing housing and a variety of other services for low-income clients.
Monday, Theobald underwent nine hours of surgery to remove a portion of his cancerous esophagus.
In the days before, he sits in an apartment on the South Hill, a big-picture thinker with a big picture window overlooking hospital complexes. Between doctor appointments and handling paperwork like taxes, he contemplates an edited book on healing: his own healing, environmental systems that heal, how communities can heal.
“I am part of a group of people who say it has to be different,” he says. “Most people feel alone and don’t realize even in Spokane there are thousands who think like this. The question is: How do we it?”
He believes the answers will come if people have a space and a means to discuss solutions, not from the top down, but from good people up. He’s planning workshops in Canada and Australia. He needs to act quickly.
He has no regrets. He didn’t need a wake-up call or change in life direction. He didn’t need cancer, and, with an abrupt change of subject, says simply he has no more time for it.