Remembering Gregor Barnum (1952-2012)

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I haven’t been able to board a plane without thinking of my friend Gregor Barnum since his tragic death several weeks ago.

Among other things, Gregor was obsessed with an obscure device called the trimtab, the tiny piece of an aircraft’s rudder which plays a disproportionately large role in keeping a plane in the air. He’d bring up the trimtab not just as an excuse to channel one of his favorite mentors, Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky”), but also to give us hope that no matter how small and insignificant we may feel in our work, we all have the potential for outsized impact.

I had the pleasure of getting to know and work with Gregor over the course of several years, after our mutual friend Jeffrey Hollender connected us to conspire on launching Seventh Generation’s first blog (including Jeffrey’s), the Seventh Generation “Nation” program, among other interesting digital engagement projects. “Work at Seventh Generation creating design science consciousness” he wrote in his twitter bio. 

In all his madness and endless circus of exciting activity, like helping to found B Corp and help set the gold standard for corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, he always found time to ask how I was during our weekly calls and meetings. The question was never a formality, and it was sacrilege to get down to business without covering our personal state of affairs, not to mention the state of world affairs. Sometimes we never made it to the official agenda. 


These conversations were the highlight of my day. Gregor, like few others, could make you feel like the exchange you were having was the most enthralling and fascinating part of his day. Remarkable. “Love the many to find the one,” he’d say.

“When my son was diagnosed with autism i began to see the world of specialness in people,” he explains in this interview, talking about some of the defining moments of his life. Here’s a beautiful video Gregor made sharing some moments with his son, Sean, last summer. 


On one occasion, I made the mistake of replying to Gregor’s “how are you doing — no, no, how are you REALLY doing?” questions by admitting that I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed. 

 

“What’s this BS about everyone being so busy!?” he yelped (more out of intellectual exasperation than actual frustration). “People keep telling me about their plates being so damn full. Since when was all of our life supposed to fit on a plate? Our lives are like airports, man. You just gotta make it flow — some things coming, others going, all at once. There is no plate — you just gotta be air traffic control.”


Gregor was the only student and philosopher of the world I’ve every truly met — constantly suspending judgement and evaluating the large, complex systems we find ourselves negotiating every day. He was never so wrapped up in it all that he couldn’t observe and question it, but never so removed that he couldn’t feel its pulse or disguise himself as a mere mortal when necessary. 


Some people walk through a grocery store and see products, price tags, or dinner. Gregor saw a tangled mess of supply chains, ethics, morals, and the future of civilization. It’s this kind of questioning and thinking that helped Seventh Generation design some of the most rigorous supply chain management and sustainability standards (and reporting) in the corporate world.

Gregor battled the ordinary… in pursuit of greater truths, trying to cut through “the constructs that just don’t work” … illusions of authority … to help us all design a better world. 

He was a provocateur in every way — from thought to poetic delivery. He questioned just about everything, and pushed anyone in his orbit to see the world in some radically new and beautiful ways, despite the grave challenges facing us. 

He never gave in to accepting the world around us as it merely was. Inkslinger, co-conspirator on the Seventh Generation’s blog project, put it best in his tribute post:

He was a mad man, a wild man, a sweet man, a brilliant man, and a magnificently beautiful one, too. To be in a room with Gregor was to be joyfully carried away to a place of hope and possibility that prior to my knowing him, I’d dared not believe in. That’s something Gregor would have no part of, for among all those here who hope so deeply and believe so strongly, Gregor hoped and believed more than any.

I take some comfort in hearing Gregor’s inspiring, curious, brilliant voice in this recorded conversation with Duke Stump as they deconstruct the worlds of marketing and corporate responsibility as we know it. Find yourself a nice perch and give it a listen. 

 

Here’s my favorite riff in that interview from Gregor — 

Bucky used to say one of the least used resources on the planet is all of this human consciousness that’s getting wasted in these very confined… these boxes we keep creating… there is a Phoenix happening. you ain’t gonna find it in the media. You gotta go and walk these communities and look into their eyes

There’s so much potential and possibility in all the broken people frm the old economy that are getting lifted in this phoenix feeling

I’m wrestling with my own discomfort over his death … not necessarily sadness, because he was so clearly in sync with the universe that I can only imagine he ultimately left in clarity and peace. Primarily I’m frustrated that the world did not get nearly enough time to appreciate and benefit from everything he was offering us. 

Here are some thoughts Gregor recorded (while driving!?) about existence… beginnings and endings… life and death… which seem especially fitting now:

 

Thank you, Gregor, for everything you did to help me and so many others see our potential to redefine this challenging world and make it a place that can thrive and survive for the next seven generations. 

See these interviews to learn more about this incredible man:

AlternativeChannel (2008)

Treehugger (2006)

 

UPDATE: Also see Jeffrey Hollender’s tribute to Gregor here on his blog

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One thought on “Remembering Gregor Barnum (1952-2012)

  1. Thanks for this. I met Gregor only briefly, when he enabled me to spend a week inside 7G for dissertation research. My conversations with Gregor changed the path of my research, and also my personal perspective. Life (and the economic downturn) took me away from my project for a few years, and as I return to it, I was very much saddened to find Gregor is no longer among us. Since I am all the way out here in Arizona, and do not know anyone who also knows Gregor, these tributes are helping me grieve. Thanks for the bit of comfort.

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