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Living With the Planet in Mind

Robert and Diane Gilman seek answers to global conflict and over-commercialism

THE small ranch-style house with the Dodge mini-van out front could be in Anywhere, USA. Nothing to tell it apart from the other modest dwellings in a quiet neighborhood on Bainbridge Island, Wash. A family of four lives here - mother, father, and two kids.

But downstairs, in a basement converted into a warren of small offices, a half-dozen people are looking for ways to save the world. They would not put it as immodestly as that. But in their writing and publishing, their organizing efforts around the country, and their trips abroad, Robert and Diane Gilman and their colleagues are searching for answers to global conflict and over-commercialism.

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The Gilmans are founders of In Context, described as "a quarterly of humane sustainable culture." While it chronicles the world's environmental, economic, political, and social problems, the magazine is also a journal with a sense of hopefulness, seeking out the ways in which individuals and communities are looking for and finding answers. "All along, we've been solution-oriented," says Robert.

Long before most Americans could pronounce "glasnost" or "perestroika," the Gilmans also were active in establishing citizen diplomacy with what used to be the Soviet Union, "bringing hope and bringing possibilities," as Diane puts it.

The Gilmans, who have been together for about 20 years, didn't start out intending to publish a magazine. Diane studied art at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Robert has a PhD in astrophysics and cosmology from Princeton, taught astronomy at the University of Minnesota, and did research for the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and NASA's Institute for Space Studies. 'The stars could wait'

But early in their marriage, the couple determined that more important things needed doing. Or as Robert likes to say: "I had decided that the stars could wait but the planet couldn't."

In 1975, they moved with their young son to the small community of Sequim, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula. There they built an experimental solar house, grew much of their own food, and managed to live for the next five years on less than $5,000 a year. "We wanted to see what we could do in our own lives to put together a lifestyle that would be attractive to 5 billion people," says Robert, referring to world population. "It gave us a chance to try things out and 'walk our talk.

They also formed the North Olympic Living Lightly Association and began writing and circulating a newsletter on living styles and techniques with low environmental impact. As word spread of their work, requests for information began coming in. "First it was Colorado, then Wisconsin and New York, then Australia and Germany," says Diane. "We also taught some classes at the local community college, then on Vancouver Island and in Wisconsin. Other associations began forming, modeled after our own."

At this point (around 1980), Robert recalls, "we wanted to do something that allowed us to go into more depth and that was not geographically bound." Thus was born the Context Institute (a nonprofit research and educational organization) and In Context magazine. Robert is editor and publisher, and Diane is special-projects manager. This means she takes the lead on things like the citizen-exchange program with the former Soviet Union.

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The Gilmans have traveled to Moscow eight times, leading group tours, setting up conferences, and helping get fax machines and computers with electronic mail systems to non-government groups of citizens there. "It was only a drop in the bucket," Robert acknowledges. "But many drops in the bucket can fill the bucket." The Gilmans spent last summer in northwestern Denmark helping develop a new eco-village and demonstration farm.

Closer to home, the Gilmans have helped organize "Sustainable Seattle," a network of government, business, environmental, and civic groups interested in the future of a booming urban area. And they are moving into a new "cohousing" development of attached family units, communal buildings, and open space on Bainbridge Island patterned after projects in Scandinavia.

While In Context's circulation has more than doubled in the last year or so, it remains modest (8,000). But it is distributed in 50 countries. And among its well-educated readership are many people in positions of influence. (Subscribers include the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, whose assistant will meet Diane in London later this month.) Focus of recent issues

The most recent issue focuses on politics, including political leadership and the ethics of campaigning. It outlines ways for those who may be turned off by the power of special interests and the degeneration of political discourse into sound bites to take an active and constructive role.

The lead article ("Reclaiming Politics") is by Robert. Other writers in the issue include journalist Bill Moyers, Mexican grass-roots organizer Gustavo Esteva, Frances Moore Lappe and Paul DuBois (founders of the Institute for the Arts of Democracy), and Dartmouth professor of environmental studies Donella Meadows (co-author of the 1972 report "The Limits to Growth").

Other issues of the magazine have concentrated on housing and community development, gender, families and children, militarism, and education. In Context has been described by Library Journal as "an outstanding magazine" whose approach is "as objective and as free of political bias as possible." Last year it received Utne Reader's "Alternative Press Award" for "best coverage of emerging issues."

There's a regular demand for back issues, including the Winter 1988 issue on "Transforming Education" now in its fourth printing. "Back-issue sales are one of our main sources of income," says Diane.

Long before it became a buzz-word with the environmental movement, "sustainability" was the core of everything the Gilmans tried to do. In a conversation over tea in their living room, Robert defines this as "moving from linear use of resources to cyclic use of resources." This includes recycling, using renewable resources instead of those that run out, and consciously deciding not only to make do but to enjoy the freedom of owning or using up less stuff.

The technologies to do this are at hand, the Gilmans say, but it's a change that will be "more fundamental than the shift from hunting and gathering to cities."

To some observers this inevitably means (as a recent headline in the New York Times put it) "Lavish Amounts of Stinginess." The Gilmans don't see it that way. In an earlier interview, Robert said, "The only things that we really need to give up are our wasteful technologies and our cowardice in confronting those special interests - and those habits of thinking within ourselves - that are attempting to block and delay these beneficial changes."

After a decade marked by a high level of acquisitiveness (bordering, some say, on the selfish), the Gilmans might be justified in feeling pessimistic. Instead, they agree with Czechoslovakia's president Vaclav Havel when he says, "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the conviction that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

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