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Robert Theobald Obituary 

Visionary injected humanism into economics  Socio-economist, speaker, author. Born Madras, India, June 11, 1929.

Died Spokane, Washington State, November 27, Aged 70

The Australian Newspaper, 15/12/99

Robert Theobald was a visionary and a great humanitarian who was on the leading edge of social change for more than 40 years. He consistently argued that quality of life should take precedence over the accumulation of goods and wealth, particularly when that accumulation rested in the hands of a few, and where people were treated as objects for economic ends.

At the time of his death he was listed in the top 10 most influential living futurists in The Encyclopaedia of the Future, but this tall, rangy Englishman with a glorious wit and childlike sense of humour was uncomfortable with the term futurist and preferred describing himself as a defrocked economist.

He was educated at Cambridge and Harvard, worked with the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation in Paris for four years, then went to the US, where he lived for most of the rest of his life—always straying outside the square, spinning new vision, challenging existing ways of thinking.

He was still in his 20s when Arthur Goldberg, former US secretary of labour and a Supreme Court judge, poked his finger at him at a Washington dinner party, and declared in a loud voice, "There is nothing more dangerous than a man who’s too far ahead of his time."

>From the beginning Theobald saw the big picture. He sought causes as well as consequences and, as an economist, consistently believed that markets ought to operate within ecological realities and human constraints.

In his first book—The Rich and the Poor (1960)—he challenged industrially rich countries to share their knowledge and techniques with underdeveloped countries, respecting their cultural differences. One year later, in The Challenge of Abundance, he addressed the fact that an unbridled pursuit of economic growth did not necessarily foster quality of life.

In 1964_he attracted widespread public attention with The Triple Revolution, a collaborative report for president Lyndon Johnson on the social changes of cybernetics, weapons of mass destruction and human rights, in which he made the then radical proposal that every citizen should be granted the minimum means for a decent livelihood -- a guaranteed annual income.

Ideas came tumbling out in more than 25 books, lectures, meetings and media engagements across the US, Australia and Canada. "Talk, talk, talk!" he would insist. "If you don’t talk you won’t get anywhere." And talk he did—with a low-key, infectious charm—showing an extraordinary ability to touch and inspire people at all levels of society, from grassroots to corporate board rooms, perhaps, by finding a common humanity, perhaps by encouraging the best in people, not the worst.

He first came to Australia in November 1997, just after he had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and after divorce from his wife, Jeanne. He fell in love with Australia, responding to its physical beauty and to his sense that here was a country with the courage and openness to pioneer new ways of living in the next century, The Healing Century as he described it in a 1998 ABC broadcast series.

He felt societies were at the crossroads of a new world order, one that could lead to a host of technological wonders and a more equitable distribution of wealth worldwide, or one that could be torn asunder by devastating wars, and an increasing gulf between rich and poor. The choice was ours —either to perpetuate existing historical patterns or to accept the spiritual challenge of living by fairer, less greedy rules.

"It was not weapons that changed the course of history in eastern Europe in the 80s: it was the will of the people," he told Greg Callaghan in a recent interview in The Australian.

In Australia, he extended his work with communities through Reworking Tomorrow and Australia Connects—grassroot gatherings of thousands of people, inspired by his ideas, who met and talked across this country:

Many will carry affectionate memories of Robert leaving meetings in Australia, an Akubra hat on the back of head, his hands and his pockets overflowing with address cards given to him by people wanting to join with his ideas. In his personal life, he was a man with a great zest for life. His English background sometimes revealed itself in flashes of unexpected formality. Other times he became more like the Arizona cowboy who used to enjoy riding through the desert. He liked trash movies, walking, gardening, ‘poetry and being with friends.

When he became ill in November he cancelled all further Australian engagements and returned to Spokane, where I learned his cancer had returned. He died at home, 31/2 weeks later, surrounded by few close friends whom he thought of his extended family. Not long before he died, a friend asked what kind of memorial he would like. Robert pointed to a statue in the park covered in pigeon droppings, then he playfully put his hands around his friends neck. "How about a little compassion!" he said.

He is survived by his two sisters, Elizabeth Lockett and Anne MacNaughton.


Anne Deveson is a writer, film-maker and close friend of Robert Theobald.