2015 Awardee: Stephanie Mills

On September 27th, 2015, at the conclusion of our annual conference, Tools for Transition, Community Solutions presented the Arthur Morgan Award to Stephanie Mills. Stephanie Mills is an acclaimed author, bioregionalist, speaker and activist. 

Stephanie Mills grew up in Arizona and learned a love and respect for nature from her mother in their backyard garden. She began writing early, circulating one page satirical papers in the back of the third grade classroom. As a teen she wrote critiques of her high school, continued to put out humorous and satirical pieces, and began writing about social justice issues. She was heavily influenced by Mad Magazine. She went on to attend Mills College in Oakland, where she became involved with the literary magazine, the paper and an anonymous column talking about campus affairs.

“It was 1965, radicalism was beginning to emerge and blossom as a result of the free speech movement, the Vietnam War and anti-racism,” she says. “The politics of the time and even the radical politics were somewhat off putting...Then the concern for ecology began to be voiced, and that did speak to me deeply.”

In her 1969 college commencement address she decried overpopulation and natural resource exploitation, and vowed to never have children — a statement The New York Times called “perhaps the most anguished…of the year’s crop of valedictory speeches.”

“[The speech] got coverage on its own merits and also because of the moment,” she says. “Over the years, one of the things that I said is that I would not have any children in light of the population explosion, and I haven’t. It seems to me that this is something that people in the developed world need to consider and act on. There were roughly half as many people alive then as there are now. I don’t think a single thing has been improved by the growth of human population. Not to regret the lives of individuals extant, but just the species phenomenon is really catastrophic.

“Of course, how we live is critical and inequality within our species is egregious and the history of wrongs that capitalism, colonialism and empires have committed is great. Human population growth seems capable of trumping just about everything we try in the way of mitigating our impact. Not that we shouldn’t try every way we can to mitigate our impact, but the proliferation of human beings, rich and poor, presses against the earth’s capacity to sustain other forms of life. It’s an enormously complex system and over the years if I have learned anything, it’s that it’s foolish to try to say this is the issue to address to the exclusion of others or the understanding that everything is influencing by everything else at all times. Nevertheless if you’re called on to act you have to resort to some generalizations and set meaningful priorities. 

How much time and how many opportunities to improve the conditions of human life and leave some space for the other many millions of species have been lost as a result of religiously ‘justified’ social conservatism and left-wing dogmatism that stems from the idea that if you look at the numbers of people you are not going to be addressing distribution issues?” 

In 1984, as a result of a bioregional romance, Mills moved to Northwest Lower Michigan and was able to begin writing books.  

“I wanted both to serve the cause and create works of literary merit,” she says. “Two books--Whatever Happened to Ecology? and Epicurean Simplicity--were memoirs.  In Service of the Wild, concerning ecological restoration and environmental history was my favorite project.  It allowed me to learn about changes in the landscape and to walking alongside wonderful naturalists who were working to restore damaged lands.  These were men and women trying to thwart the extinction crisis acre by acre, stream by stream, plot by plot. 

“Now and again I hear that my books have meant something to somebody--encouraged and affirmed a certain understanding or given them company in their worldview and sensibility, and that's a great satisfaction to me.” 

Author Chellis Glendinning wrote: “While the essays in Tough Little Beauties were penned over three decades and alight on such disparate topics as religious experience, birch trees, birth control, the collapse of civilisation, voluntary simplicity, and ambiguity, the timbre of Mills’ voice never wavers. Like the source of her inspiration, she develops her thoughts in a self-fashioned surround of time and space that emulates that of another era; she draws wisdom and wonder from the delicacies of the natural world; and always, she views humanity’s problems from perches slightly askew from those the rest of us conjure up to use.”

In 1996 Stephanie was named by Utne Reader as one of the world’s leading visionaries. She has a long time association with Community Solutions as a regular conference speaker and supporter, and wrote about Arthur Morgan in her biography about Bob Swann.  She is the second Arthur Morgan Award recipient. The Arthur Morgan Award is designed to recognize individuals who possess the traits that Morgan wrote about: character, vision, entrepreneurship, and love of community. She received the award because of the breadth of her interests, and because she is living her life in consonance with her beliefs.