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Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Micah Saul: Well, sir, it’s been a while.

Aengus Anderson: It has been a while. And in the inter­im, we’ve raised funds, got a new web site under con­struc­tion, cel­e­brat­ed thanks­giv­ing. I drove across the south. You drove across the coun­try. We’ve been busy.

Saul: Turns out we have. 

Anderson: And and that busi­ness has some­what slowed down the pro­duc­tion. But the flip side is that I have taped a whole bunch of con­ver­sa­tions that I will be edit­ing once I final­ly slow down in Tucson, which is going to be in less than two weeks now.

Saul: That’s insane. It’s been…it’s been a long, crazy ride.

a It will have been over sev­en and a half months of trav­el, and I’ve record­ed so much stuff that work that we’re going to still be doing this into next April for sure. So, we’re going to hit the one year mark.

Saul: That’s awe­some. Well, I think it’s awe­some. Hopefully our lis­ten­ers do.

Anderson: I’d say if they’ve made it this far, they—

Saul: Deserve a medal.

Anderson: Yeah. We’ll be send­ing out gold stars to every­one who emails us and says they’re still alive out there. We just wan­na ping you. But we also want to thank every­one who’s donat­ed. I’m not doing the design, but I have a sense of what it’s going to look like. It’s going to be real­ly fun. So, thank you every­one for lis­ten­ing and chip­ping in.

So, let’s move into this mas­sive­ly over­due episode. This is Chuck Collins, great grand­son of Oscar Mayer, which is just a fun foot­note. That’s not real­ly why we’re talk­ing to him. But it is par­tial­ly why we’re talk­ing to him. Because it means that he was born into the one percent. 

Saul: We’ve talked to a few peo­ple that are sort of hov­er­ing on the edges of the one per­cent, but this is the first time we’re firm­ly talk­ing to mon­ey. And, he’s also very inter­est­ing as a mem­ber of the one per­cent, because he’s all about lev­el­ing the pay­ing fiel— Because he’s all about lev­el­ing the play­ing field a bit between the one per­cent and the ninety-nine percent.

Anderson: I love the idea of slip­ping up and say­ing lev­el­ing the pay­ing field.” 

Saul: Yeah, I…

Anderson: That does sort of get us into the ques­tion of tax­es, does­n’t it?

Saul: It does. 

Anderson: So maybe he’s not into lev­el­ing the pay­ing field, he’s just into lev­el­ing the play­ing field. He wants a pro­gres­sive pay­ing field, as it were, where the upper class­es pay more mon­ey, where the inher­i­tance tax sticks around. And he’s orga­nized a net­work of multi-millionaires and bil­lion­aires to lob­by for what they call fair taxation. 

Saul: That group is called United for a Fair Economy and Wealth for Common Good.

Anderson: And while we’re list­ing his cre­den­tials let’s also say that he directs the Institute for Policy Studies’ pro­gram on Inequality and the Common Good.

Saul: Noticing a com­mon trend here.

Anderson: You won’t be sur­prised if we spend a lot of time talk­ing about class in this con­ver­sa­tion. And ear­li­er in the series, we whined a lot that we weren’t hav­ing enough con­ver­sa­tions about it. Then we got Cameron and Priscilla. But this one’s very dif­fer­ent than Cameron and Priscilla. We won’t get into that until the end more, but we want to sort of put that idea out there for you as you lis­ten to the episode.

Chuck Collins: I’m Chuck Collins. I grew up in the Midwest, in Michigan. I was born into a kind of…the one per­cent fam­i­ly. Oscar Mayer, my great grand­fa­ther’s the meat Packer Oscar Mayer. So I grew up in a priv­i­leged sub­urb of Detroit, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. I went to the same high school with Mitt Romney. He’s a lit­tle old­er than me, but I knew who he was. But I also, hav­ing grown up in the Detroit area, was very aware of sort of the polar­iza­tion of race and class. And to go to a base­ball game at Tiger Stadium meant real­ly cross­ing the race and class divide, as wide as it gets in America.

So, I think that lit­tle seed was plant­ed in me, the con­cerns about dis­par­i­ty of income and wealth and oppor­tu­ni­ty. And I moved to New England when I was very young. I left home when I was sev­en­teen and did a vari­ety of odd jobs, includ­ing was a orga­niz­er try­ing to keep the Seabrook Nuclear Power plant from being built.

But then I worked on issues around tax fair­ness here in Massachusetts, and helped start an orga­ni­za­tion called United for a Fair Economy, that’s still around. And the pur­pose of that orga­ni­za­tion was to draw atten­tion to the prob­lems of income and wealth dis­par­i­ty. And did a lot of research and more orga­niz­ing and book writ­ing and kind of pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion on those issues of why the gap mat­ters, and what we can do about it.

Since 2006, I’ve been at the Institute for Policy Studies and over­see three pieces of work. One is work on these issues of inequal­i­ty in class. And here in this build­ing, there’s a lit­tle sub­pro­ject called class action, a web­site called clas​sism​.org which does work on these issues of class and inequality.

Another part of my work is some­thing that I will call orga­niz­ing the one per­cent. So, there’s a net­work called Wealth for the Common Good that has hun­dreds of multi-millionaires and bil­lion­aires it it. And we orga­nize an effort to pre­serve the estate tax, the inher­i­tance tax, and lob­by for pro­gres­sive tax­es. But it’s sort of like engag­ing high net-worth indi­vid­u­als. So again, sort of bridg­ing class.

But the third area is this tran­si­tion to a new econ­o­my, and that’s where the work of David Korten and I can inter­sect is. All these things are inter­con­nect­ed. How do we pre­pare our­selves for an econ­o­my that’s based on both a whole dif­fer­ent ener­gy sit­u­a­tion as well as hope­ful­ly a soci­ety that’s more equi­table, that does­n’t have these kind of grotesque dis­par­i­ties of income and wealth?

Aengus Anderson: I want to book­mark that thought, because that’s going to be a huge thing. Let’s start with the class divide. So, if you grew up thinking—maybe not think­ing of yourself—just being part of the one per­cent, I’m curi­ous about sort of the move to think about these larg­er issues as prob­lems. Why are they problems?

Collins: Well, I think even then I saw that there was some­thing fun­da­men­tal­ly unfair about it. I did­n’t sort of inter­nal­ize those divides as, Oh, this is a reflec­tion of deserved­ness. There are some peo­ple who work hard­er and smarter, and there’s some peo­ple who for var­i­ous rea­sons don’t have access to the same lev­els of income and wealth.” 

So, I kin­da ear­ly on fig­ured out that it was sort of a rigged game, if you will. That the rules of the econ­o­my… The rules broad­ly defined as, you know, tax pol­i­cy, trade pol­i­cy. The rules were sort of tilt­ed in my favor. And at the same time, there was a whole sort of mythol­o­gy or a sto­ry about wealth and deserved­ness that I had been told.

So, I was sort of ques­tion­ing that. But what I’ve come to appre­ci­ate is that these wealth dis­par­i­ties, which real­ly start­ed in the late 70s to kind of pick up steam and real­ly have tak­en off, you know…1980…really over the last ten years. The gap has grown. The share of income going to the rich­est one per­cent, the share of wealth held by the one per­cent, the ero­sion of kind of a lad­der of opportunity.

So, these inequal­i­ties basi­cal­ly trash every­thing we care about. Too much inequal­i­ty encour­ages a mon­ey sys­tem that basi­cal­ly just destroys the Earth. Too much inequal­i­ty under­mines pub­lic health. Too much con­cen­trat­ed wealth is con­cen­trat­ed pow­er, so that under­mines the func­tion­ing of a demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem. Three days ago, the International Monetary Fund put out a report say­ing it’s bad for the econ­o­my and growth. Too much income inequal­i­ty under­cuts the healthy func­tion­ing of an economy.

Sports, cul­ture, mobil­i­ty, keep going down the list…art. And at the core that is when a soci­ety pulls apart too much, there is a break­down in sol­i­dar­i­ty, that sense that what hap­pens to you actu­al­ly does mat­ter to me. When peo­ple are too far apart, they’re not in a rela­tion­ship any­more. They’re not in the same com­mu­ni­ty. They’re oper­at­ing in par­al­lel uni­vers­es. And there­fore they start to cre­ate mytholo­gies and sto­ries and fear of each other. 

You know, the one per­cent fears the bot­tom twen­ty per­cent. The bot­tom twen­ty per­cent thinks that all the peo­ple in the one per­cent are demon­ic, you know. And so you start to not have authen­tic con­ver­sa­tion any­more. You’re just kind of… So, that dis­con­nect leads to a break­down of all kinds of things.

Anderson: That’s what I was going to ask, where that goes.

Collins: Yeah, basi­cal­ly it means that… So, pub­lic health. If your health is inter­twined with my health, if we’re in the same com­mu­ni­ty, in the same food sys­tem, in the same, health cen­ters, in the same buildings…then you have a stake in my health, and I have a stake in your health. 

So inequal­i­ty mat­ters. If we keep on the track that we’re going, if we keep polar­iz­ing, then our expe­ri­ence is more sim­i­lar to like, Brazil. There is a very small wealthy elite, they live behind walls, they dri­ve their bul­let­proof Mercedes Benz from their enclave res­i­den­tial area to their enclave shop­ping area and go out to lunch. The chil­dren have body­guards when they go to school. You know, it’s not a pret­ty pic­ture. And then you have this huge major­i­ty of peo­ple who live in the fave­las and live in desperation.

Anderson: And that’s a grim pic­ture. And yet it’s also a pic­ture that makes me think of well, so much of his­to­ry. That’s a world that has exist­ed, that’s a world that exists now, that’s a world that we can eas­i­ly go back to. Was the mid­dle class some sort of aber­ra­tion? And when I say aber­ra­tion I’m think­ing like a three hun­dred year, four hun­dred year, aber­ra­tion but…

Collins: More like a sixty-year aberration.

Anderson: [crosstalk] In the US, certainly.

Collins: In the United States, yeah.

Anderson: Yeah, that kind of mid-20th cen­tu­ry swell.

Collins: Yeah.

Anderson: Is that some­thing that we can keep, or are there big­ger struc­tur­al forces that are going to pull this apart? Is the game sort of fixed by the peo­ple in control?

Collins: Well, it’s not at all fixed. Let’s just look in the United States’ lit­tle bub­ble. We can come back to glob­al­ly, but what the exper­i­ment that we under­took real­ly after the first Gilded Age— So, if you think, you know, a hun­dred years ago we were liv­ing in a peri­od of grotesque inequal­i­ty, and we had World War I, and we had a Depression, and we had World War II. But along the way, we did a num­ber of things that sort of ensured that after World War II, we were not going to have these grotesque inequalities.

We may have inequal­i­ty. There is some­thing about free mar­ket economies and even, you know, with strong robust gov­ern­ments you can have a more Scandinavian-style soci­ety where you have floor the peo­ple can’t fall through. You don’t have peo­ple who are home­less. You have no peo­ple dying for lack of access to health­care. There are some basic human rights. But with­in that, you can have fair­ly wealthy peo­ple. They’re going to be pay­ing tax­es that help ensure that there’s a healthy soci­ety overall.

We don’t have to have these extreme inequal­i­ties. We can have mod­est inequal­i­ties and have a pret­ty good soci­ety. That’s total­ly attain­able. And the exper­i­ment after World War II was that we were mak­ing progress, real­ly over the thir­ty years, toward a more equal soci­ety. And one of the things I try to argue about the cur­rent moment is that these extreme polar­iza­tions of inequal­i­ty actu­al­ly are bad for every­body, includ­ing the rich. That they actu­al­ly backfire.

Anderson: Does that work? I mean, when you’re hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion with peo­ple in the one per­cent? Obviously I think of, you know, Buffet’s op-ed. It fell like this bomb­shell for so many peo­ple, where he was say­ing tax. Is that common?

Collins: You know, it’s actu­al­ly more com­mon than we think. So, I have had a lot of con­ver­sa­tion that I think have been good, and there are some that are like a brick wall. You know, if I were going to kin­da sim­plis­ti­cal­ly divide the uni­verse, or— You know, my expe­ri­ence of the one per­cent is there’s a seg­ment of the one per­cent, a very large seg­ment, that actu­al­ly under­stand that too much inequal­i­ty’s bad. That it’s not good to live in a soci­ety where the rules are rigged, whether it’s in your favor or against you. 

And there are peo­ple in the one per­cent who get up every morn­ing and try to cre­ate greater equal­i­ty and fair­ness, and they’re real­ly engaged in chil­dren’s issues, health­care, the envi­ron­ment, both phil­an­throp­i­cal­ly as well as sort of putting their whole body and soul into social change work.

Then there’s this seg­ment of the one per­cent, I call them the rule rig­gers, the game fix­ers. They use their con­sid­er­able wealth and pow­er to change the rules of the econ­o­my and soci­ety to ben­e­fit them­selves in a very nar­row way. And…you know, the Koch Brothers, or you know peo­ple who…they own an oil com­pa­ny and they use their pow­er to block changes in ener­gy pol­i­cy. And it’s very short term. They use their wealth and pow­er strate­gi­cal­ly to advance their interests.

Most of them actu­al­ly believe that what they’re advo­cat­ing for is in the larg­er com­mon good. They would say, Oh, this is actu­al­ly for the com­mon good.” There’s a few peo­ple who would just say the rest of the world be damned” and I don’t give a shit about poor peo­ple” and you know…

Anderson: There’s some­thing per­verse­ly respectable about that lev­el of self-awareness, isn’t there?

Collins: Yeah. That’s right.

Anderson: So, in those cas­es you can just say, This per­son embraces their greed.” But in most cas­es you have peo­ple who think they’re doing good, but are still stonewalling a lot of these measures—

Collins: Yeah, I mean they’re doing good because they have that Ayn Rand view of the world, which is, There’s the prime movers, of which I am one. And I’m the engine of the train, and then every­one else is just along for the ride. The best thing gov­ern­ment can do is either dereg­u­late or hand sub­si­dies over to me because I’m the engine of the train.” So they’ve cre­at­ed a self mythol­o­gy around their own worth and deserved­ness that is quite dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their actu­al contribution. 

But it’s val­i­dat­ed, you know. The busi­ness press goes out and, you know… Larry Ellison, what bril­liant thing did you do this week that has made the world bet­ter?” or what­ev­er. Well, let me tell you…” 

So you have a cer­tain rein­force­ment for that. But there’s a sto­ry I would tell you, which is when I worked on try­ing to pre­serve the inher­i­tance tax, we had a group of a cou­ple thou­sand multi-millionaires and bil­lion­aires say­ing, Keep the inher­i­tance tax. Tax wealth. It’s a good thing. It’s a fair thing.”

Well, that was kind of an unusu­al group, right? Wealthy peo­ple say­ing, Tax us.” And Bill Gates’ dad. I wrote a book with Bill Gates’ dad on why we should keep the estate tax, Wealth and our Commonwealth, and I orga­nized Warren Buffett and some of those peo­ple to be very out­spo­ken. And it was very very effec­tive. Part of it was because they sort of popped the myth of what I would call the great man the­o­ry of wealth cre­ation.” There’s a few prime movers out there rid­ing the rails that do all the wealth creation.

And when you talk to those folks, they will tell you a sto­ry about wealth cre­ation which is, Look, I live in a soci­ety. Yes, I work hard, and I’m cre­ative, and I get up every morn­ing and I do my part. But I’m oper­at­ing in a larg­er sys­tem. And I’m sow­ing seeds and ground that’s already fer­tile for wealth cre­ation, and that fer­til­i­ty comes from soci­etal invest­ments in oth­er peo­ple’s work, and the com­ments.” And these peo­ple see the web. 

Anderson: And that term has been expressed in dif­fer­ent ways in this project. But I won­der how you con­vince some­one who maybe even sees it intel­lec­tu­al­ly but does­n’t kind of feel being part of that web. Because that seems like such an inte­gral part to the argu­ment that you’re mak­ing to the one percent—

Collins: It is.

Anderson: You’ve got to real­ly feel that this will some­how come back to you. Yow do you feel the web?

Collins: I like this guy Charles Eisenstein you may have come across who wrote Sacred Economics. So we have these two big dis­con­nects, right. We have this dis­con­nect with nature, which is we are part of the nature sys­tem, We’re not sort of just sit­ting next to it.

So one of the doors into under­stand­ing the com­mons is just to sort of…“Oh, yeah. I’m part of the web here. The eco­log­i­cal web.” Then there’s the social web. We don’t see that we are part of a social web, that we’re inter­de­pen­dent. There’s all this fas­ci­nat­ing kin­da new brain sci­ence that shows that actu­al­ly we are hard­wired to be deeply inter­con­nect­ed. We are hard­wired to be mutu­al. That our brains light up when we’re engaged with oth­er humans in a com­mon endeav­or. It’s as fab­u­lous as choco­late and sex. It’s like…[makes explo­sion noise] That is our nature, actu­al­ly. When we are tak­en out of that com­mu­ni­ty web, we actu­al­ly hurt, and our brain reg­is­ters it as if we were just hit physically.

So again, talk­ing about the peo­ple in the one per­cent who I’ve talked to who say, Look I earned all this wealth myself. I did­n’t get any help along the way. And I real­ly don’t have any oblig­a­tion back to the soci­ety.” When I’ve kin­da dug in there and inter­viewed peo­ple, what I found is that there’s usu­al­ly… First, there’s a lot of truth in their sto­ry, which is they prob­a­bly made a huge and hero­ic sac­ri­fice to get to where they were. First gen­er­a­tion immi­grant who comes to this coun­try with noth­ing and real­ly makes huge sac­ri­fices to their health, by over­work­ing, or being exposed to some dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. They make emo­tion­al sac­ri­fice. They have to shut out parts of their own life and human­ness to make it. They miss their chil­dren’s child­hood. They miss their chil­dren’s sport­ing event or their school play, or they… They are mak­ing a hero­ic sac­ri­fice, often for the next generation.

And those folks know how impor­tant an indi­vid­ual is. They are like Ayn Rand’s hero­ic indi­vid­ual. And we don’t get any­where by den­i­grat­ing that. We cer­tain­ly don’t get any­where by not hon­or­ing that. But what I think that does is it cre­ates a wound. And it’s a wound that basi­cal­ly then makes it impos­si­ble to hear, or at least feel, expe­ri­ence, on a very gut lev­el the gifts of the com­mons. Or cer­tain­ly the soci­ety has a claim on me.”

You know, I’ve got­ten right to that point where it’s like, Well, yes you made those hero­ic sac­ri­fices. And yes, those should be hon­ored and reward­ed and cel­e­brat­ed. But if you were mak­ing those hero­ic sac­ri­fices in a dif­fer­ent soil, there are oth­er places in the world where you could toil very hard with noth­ing to show. And in fact, many peo­ple do toil very hard with very lit­tle to show. Isn’t there some­thing about the soci­ety that made this pos­si­ble? You’re not an island. You could not have accom­plished this with­out the web of oth­er people.”

Anderson: And that’s not even get­ting into the fact that race or sex or all of these oth­er things also play into that, too.

Collins: That’s right. Some peo­ple got on the wealth-building train, and oth­er peo­ple were kept barred at the sta­tion from get­ting on the train. There’s all kinds of… But it’s an attrac­tive world­view for some­body who’s at the top.

Anderson: You prob­a­bly have a bet­ter shot than most of real­ly chang­ing the ideas of these peo­ple. Do you think we have to get to a point where things go wrong enough where they real­ly feel it? Or is it some­thing we can sort of rea­son our way to?

Collins: That’s a good ques­tion. I mean, I think first of all we should­n’t be sit­ting around wait­ing for the one per­cent to recov­er their empa­thy. We just have to go out and try to orga­nize a world where as much of the com­mons is pro­tect­ed for every­one’s use. So we have to resist efforts to pri­va­tize water. Or resist efforts to destroy the Earth for short-term gain.

That said, I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in how do we enlist allies in the one per­cent. So, they’re already our allies. They need to be engaged and includ­ed in part of the social move­ments. And there’s more allies there to be won over. I do think that there will be bumps along the road, shock points, cat­a­stro­phes, what­ev­er, that will reveal that it is not real­ly in the self-interest of the one per­cent to allow things to dete­ri­o­rate fur­ther. Certainly in terms of the cli­mate, extreme weath­er, you know… The rich have a lot of coastal prop­er­ty, for instance. So they’re going to be affect­ed by sea lev­el rise disproportionately. 

In oth­er ways, they’re not going to have to live with the down­side of the col­laps­ing food sys­tems, or the spread of dis­ease in the same way. They’ll fortress them­selves off. But here’s one of the pieces that I did­n’t men­tion, which is I actu­al­ly think for peo­ple in the one per­cent it’s bad for our spir­its and our souls and our psy­cho­log­i­cal health to be dis­con­nect­ed, to be walled off. And so there­fore, it’s also in the self-interest of the one per­cent to rejoin humanity. 

Much of class and iso­la­tion and pulling away is this sort of illu­sion that some­how we can be apart from the suf­fer­ing that is in our midst. And that’s a myth. The social iso­la­tion that many peo­ple in the one per­cent expe­ri­ence is a wound.

Anderson: That’s get­ting into some­thing that I real­ly want­ed to talk about, which is sources of val­ue. In our con­ver­sa­tion thus far, we’ve talked a lot about… If you are, say, in the one per­cent, hear how things real­ly tan­gi­bly come back and affect you… This will make me sick, this will make me unhap­py.” But I think there’s some­thing… In our soci­ety we’re talk­ing about some big trends that sort of push us towards alienation.

Collins: Yeah.

Anderson: Now, do we think that get­ting into a bet­ter income brack­et gets us away from that? And what is sort of the val­ue sys­tem beneath that belief? Is it just the sim­ple we val­ue mate­r­i­al goods, we val­ue the pow­er that mon­ey gives us to do things as indi­vid­u­als” be it to trav­el, be it to edu­cate our­selves? And is there a dif­fer­ent type of val­ue that we’re total­ly over­look­ing here?

Collins: Well, yeah. I think there’s a lot going on there. I think that there is a mate­r­i­al basis to hap­pi­ness, obviously.

Anderson: So, that’s of the kind of the floor we were talk­ing earlier.

Collins: Yeah, there’s a point at which aspir­ing and attain­ing some mod­icum of secu­ri­ty, eco­nom­ic well-being, and com­mu­ni­ty well-being is nec­es­sary. I think we focus more on the indi­vid­ual eco­nom­ic well-being mod­el. That also required a huge amount of con­sump­tion of eco­log­i­cal resources. Misses the com­mu­ni­ty well-being, the tribe, our sense that actu­al­ly we are sup­posed to be part of extend­ed units that are trib­al, that are kin­ship, that are com­mu­ni­ty. That our chil­dren actu­al­ly don’t do that well when they’re just in these lit­tle units. That they need to be brought into cir­cles of aun­ties and uncles and neigh­bors who are also tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for their well-being. We’ve sort of left out a whole piece of what it means to sort of cre­ate well-being and happiness.

But then there’s sort of like, cre­at­ing dis­con­nec­tion from suf­fer­ing, which has gone way over­board. So, now we’re cre­at­ing lit­tle islands of our nuclear fam­i­lies that are try­ing to buffer our­selves from suf­fer­ing. Our whole cul­ture in a sense is like… But the one per­cent, it’s like…hyper-dis­con­nect­ed. It’s hyper-removed. But suf­fer­ing actu­al­ly, in a tribe or kin­ship net­work, there are always peo­ple who are being born, and there are always peo­ple dying, and there are peo­ple who are sick, and there are peo­ple who are healthy. And if our chil­dren don’t grow up in a kin­ship net­work, then we don’t under­stand that that is the nature of human life. We just kind of cre­ate com­fort as if that were in itself the goal of life. Physical comfort.

And labor. Disconnecting from the basic work that we need to do. So, chil­dren learn­ing how to grow food, and take care of ani­mals, and hav­ing mean­ing­ful jobs from a very young age. You know, so many young peo­ple have like…into their twen­ties have not made any mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion to the tribe or the kin­ship net­work. They’re just there to con­sume. And they go off to col­lege, and col­lege is like a big cruise ship, you know, an all-you-can-eat cruise ship experience. 

This ener­gy, at this stage of their life, could be deployed in a hun­dred ways that would be both mean­ing­ful to them and huge­ly help­ful to the soci­ety. Yeah, I think I think if we said look, there’s a pri­ma­ry val­ue here in human inter­con­nec­tion, face to face phys­i­cal. We are ani­mals. We’re fun­da­men­tal­ly ani­mals that are social ani­mals. That raise our young in herds, you know—

Anderson: That is intrigu­ing. I was think­ing of Lawrence Torcello who’s a philoso­pher I talked to. And a big part of our con­ver­sa­tion was edu­ca­tion. You know, how do you even begin to intro­duce the ideas of think­ing [of] our­selves as a unit. I mean, we can talk about empa­thy and brain sci­ence and see­ing sys­tems that are big enough where you can under­stand how things cir­cle back to you. But of course, there’s an edu­ca­tion­al foun­da­tion beneath that.

Collins: I mean, I would take off from that and say there’s edu­ca­tion for you know, what­ev­er, cit­i­zen­ship, plu­ral­ism… You know, the sort of clas­sic lib­er­al ide­al or the John Locke. And then there’s sort of like, edu­ca­tion for plan­e­tary inter­con­nec­tion. How did we school our­selves to real­ly think that we’re so dis­con­nect­ed as a species from the web of life and the plan­et and our own ani­mal natures, etc? You know, like, this gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren who have no con­cept of where their food comes from, or how the Earth works. 

My daughter…recovering city kid, you know. She’s try­ing to learn about where her food comes from. Has a very close friend, very smart, who just said to her one day, So, apple­sauce comes from apples?” Realize wow, there’s some dis­con­nect there, you know. So, I think that that’s true. There are some ways in which our edu­ca­tion sys­tem very ear­ly on rein­forces cer­tain dis­con­nects, prob­a­bly more implic­it­ly rather than explicitly.

I think we are in a deep shift. We are head­ing to an eco­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic tran­si­tion. The next ten years is not going to be like the last sev­en­ty years. There’s going to be a bunch of shock points that will sort of bring into relief the fail­ures of the old sys­tem, the fail­ures of the mon­ey sys­tem, the fail­ures of our sort of ways of think­ing. Things could go bad­ly. We could go toward that extreme inequal­i­ty fortress men­tal­i­ty, the com­pet­i­tive self­ish nature, fear-based response, which is hard­wired into us. So you get a Blade Runner, you know, Mad Max kinda…wherever your dystopian…

Anderson: Movie of choice.

Collins: Yeah. Your apoco-porn sce­nario. Or, we kin­da retool our­selves, both our con­cept of our self and soci­ety and the world an nature, and tap back into some insights that have been—you know, it’s not like they went away or anything—that helps build more durable, resilient econ­o­my, com­mu­ni­ties, rela­tion­ship to the Earth. We’ve already—

Anderson: So this is an impor­tant moment.

Collins: Totally, total­ly, yeah. I mean, you and I could be having—you could sched­ule this con­ver­sa­tion in a month and some­thing will hap­pen in the next month that kind of a 911, Hurricane Katrina sort of extreme weath­er event, or a 2008 eco­nom­ic melt­down, where our whole way of think­ing, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing, where we are would shift. You know, I’m not going to put a time­frame on it, but soon

Anderson: That’s possible.

Collins: Oh, it’s not— It’s going to ha— I mean, it’s more than possible.

Anderson: I’d actu­al­ly like to flesh this out a lit­tle more. Because this is some­thing where some peo­ple in this project cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly deny that there is any­thing… I mean, we are just, in the longer term, on a great upward pro­gres­sive climb to somewhere. 

Collins: Right.

Anderson: But it seems like in our con­ver­sa­tion there’s a sense that no, this isn’t like a sub­tle deal. The rosy future isn’t com­ing, nec­es­sar­i­ly. This is a moment, and also I mean that ties into the very idea of the project, you know. Is this amount where we need to be hav­ing the Conversation, if it even mat­ters at all?

Collins: Yeah, no. I think we’re in an inter­est— I mean, you know, every­body prob­a­bly thinks the moment they’re liv­ing in is inter­est­ing but. But I think sim­ply just ener­gy, fos­sil fuel, cli­mate change… You know, we’ve altered the cli­mate one degree Celsius. We’re on the track to alter it anoth­er degree. We know that when that hap­pens, there’ll be cer­tain feed­back loops. It’s not a lin­ear process, it’s a dynam­ic process that will have impacts on food sys­tems and what parts of the world get too much water and what parts don’t have enough water, and acid­i­fi­ca­tion of the ocean. So there’s sort of an eco­log­i­cal pic­ture that I think, as I read the sci­ence says we’re head­ing pell-mell into alter­ing our ecol­o­gy in a way that will then alter our day-to-day living.

It’ll show up eco­nom­i­cal­ly, prob­a­bly, for most peo­ple. It’ll be your food is going to cost more. You’re going to have to retro­fit your house because your roof blew off. We’re going to have to tax our­selves more and invest in infra­struc­ture, because the pumps in the sub­way sys­tem are blah blah blah, you know.

Anderson: Does that lead to some big, I mean, post-apocalyptic— We were just talk­ing about the movies. Does that lead to a real col­lapse, or does that lead to just sort of a…oh, we adapt and we kin­da move along?

Collins: I’m with this guy John Michael Greer. I think [record­ing skips] going to have a col­lapse like, boom to neo­prim­i­tivism or what­ev­er. I think that what hap­pens is there’s a sort of shift. And then there’s an adap­tion. And then there’s anoth­er shift. And then adap­tion. But it’s ulti­mate­ly slow motion. I don’t think of it as col­lapse, I think it’s just a transition.

We lived through a peri­od of the extrac­tion of cheap fos­sil fuels, and we built a whole soci­ety around that. And we built up a pop­u­la­tion based on a fos­sil fuel indus­tri­al food sys­tem. And depend­ing on how much nat­ur­al gas we think is there and da da da da da, we will kind of have this sort of bumpy descent from—it’ll be a long descent—from that sort of glo­ried fos­sil fuel nir­vana that we had cir­ca 1971 or some­thing like that, you know.

But we’ll cer­tain­ly be alter­ing our set­tle­ment pat­terns, and liv­ing space. And region­al­iza­tion will return as a source of secu­ri­ty. We’ll think of indi­vid­ual and com­mu­ni­ty resilience in dif­fer­ent ways. And that will draw out our com­mu­ni­tar­i­an impuls­es or it’ll draw our our fear-based, self­ish impulses. 

Anderson: So that’s real­ly what the Conversation is about. It’s sort of prepar­ing us to go in one of those direc­tions or another?

Collins: Yeah, I think it’s a toss-up. I think it’s about prepa­ra­tion for a tran­si­tion to a new econ­o­my. It does­n’t have to be scary and apoc­a­lyp­tic. I like think there are some oppor­tu­ni­ties here to trans­form our com­mu­ni­ties and our­selves to the next phase of the next chapter. 

A lot of the changes we need to make are being blocked by fear­ful or old ways of think­ing, or attach­ment to oudat­ed mod­els or just sim­ply denial, you know. The longer we stay in denial, the more unfor­tu­nate­ly upheaval-like that tran­si­tion will be. We could’ve thir­ty years ago made soci­etal choic­es to go down a dif­fer­ent path in terms of ener­gy sys­tems. We did­n’t. Oh, well. So, now we’re going to have to live with the con­se­quences of poor planning. 

But, peo­ple have to come togeth­er, you know, to fig­ure this out. I’m not like, inher­ent­ly opti­mistic about that. I mean, I think I read a whole bunch about the Dust Bowl. The take­away was a lot of peo­ple lived through the Dust Bowl and still did­n’t change their world­view about what was going on, whether it was, this was an act of God pun­ish­ing them, or they did not believe it was a human-created dis­as­ter. We could be ten years from now with our coast­lines look­ing quite dif­fer­ent, and you’re still going to have cli­mate deniers. The project real­ly isn’t about con­vinc­ing everybody. 

Anderson: What keeps you— We’ve talked about so much dark stuff. What keeps you from despair?

Collins: I do think the tran­si­tion move­ment… People who sort of have an analy­sis around both the eco­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic changes ahead and are kind of cre­at­ing, in the shell of the cur­rent econ­o­my, the new econ­o­my. So, the peo­ple who are sit­ting around say­ing what will the busi­ness­es of the future be? What will our ener­gy sys­tems be? How can we cre­ate more resilient food sys­tems? How do we pre­pare cities, adapt them, to the future? All that sort of prac­ti­cal con­struc­tive pro­gram. Some of that can be very un-ideological. It’s just pre­pared­ness. It’s just good old-fashioned American pre­pared­ness. People who are orga­niz­ing these resilient cir­cles, you know, which are like sup­port groups for… It’s like AA for fos­sil fuel addicts and peo­ple who are— Who see that the econ­o­my is not going to come back to some glo­ried day in the past. That’s a piece of the work. 

And then I think there’s some­thing that’s focused on how do we shift con­scious­ness. And that will I think be an inter­ac­tion between exter­nal events and the trip points, if you will, the flash points, the eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal wake-up moments. There will be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to have some of these con­ver­sa­tions and new ways of think­ing, and hope­ful­ly they’ll break through, you know. 

So, orga­niz­ing the seg­ment of the one per­cent… I’m all about that. Haven’t giv­en up. Consciousness-shifting. Offering up new mod­els for peo­ple to orga­nize to meet their basic needs. And resilience, orga­niz­ing, tran­si­tion prepa­ra­tion work among those who are read­ing the signs of the times and want to roll up their sleeves and get to work, and under­stand that whether it’s Obama or Romney, noth­ing fun­da­men­tal is going to shift on that front, and that you have to oper­ate where you have room to move. And where you have agency. 

I think peo­ple are wait­ing to be invit­ed to a grander endeav­or, a more mean­ing­ful endeav­or. We just haven’t sched­uled the par­ty yet. Yeah, and it’s a beau­ti­ful day. It’s an absolute­ly beau­ti­ful day. I try to notice in each and every moment the gifts that are there, which are huge. Huge. For me, it’s not real­ly about hope. It’s notic­ing what’s already here.

Aengus Anderson: So there we go. It’s a beau­ti­ful day.

Micah Saul: I got­ta admit, it was kind of humor­ous lis­ten­ing to that, and stand­ing in the rain wait­ing for the bus. It’s like, this is not a beau­ti­ful day. Especially as the crazy home­less man across the street was scream­ing at the top of his lungs that we weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly going to die at his hands, but we’d feel pain.

Anderson: You just…you ruin everything. 

Saul: I…it’s my soci­etal role.

Anderson: I’m jeal­ous of that. So where do we want to launch into this? There’s a lot of stuff in here. We kind of set things up to be a com­par­i­son between Cameron and Priscilla and Chuck. So, do you want to go there first?

Saul: I think that’s a great place to jump in. The first thing I thought when I was lis­ten­ing to this was, Priscilla talks in her con­ver­sa­tion with you about how she’s not real­ly inter­est­ed in work­ing with the one per­cent. She cri­tiques the mod­ern Left for being run by the same peo­ple that run the Right, which is the peo­ple with mon­ey. She com­plains about when she first became politi­cized, the orga­niz­ers she was work­ing with being, para­phrase, a bunch of trusta­far­i­ans. So of course, because of that, I see an imme­di­ate response from Grim to Collins, which is that while he may have the right ideas he’s still com­ing from mon­ey and the peo­ple he’s work­ing with are too invest­ed in the sys­tems to actu­al­ly seek mean­ing­ful change. 

Anderson: Right. What does rel­a­tive equal­i­ty mean? Chuck does­n’t give us specifics, and I don’t think any­one could when you’re talk­ing about some­thing like striv­ing towards greater rel­a­tive equal­i­ty. It’s a more abstract goal, and I won­der if that would be sub­stan­tial enough to get Priscilla inter­est­ed in this con­ver­sa­tion with the one per­cent. I mean, Chuck him­self says, Look, we can’t sit around and wait for the one per­cent to do this. There are a lot of peo­ple there who are already our allies. We should work with them. But we should also work from the ground up.” So I think Chuck is inter­est­ed in changes on both fronts, work­ing from the top down and work­ing from the bot­tom up.

Saul: The oth­er thing that I think Chuck does real­ly well is he human­izes the one per­cent. And he does a good job I think of dis­pelling the notion that the one per­cent is a uni­fied bloc that is just out to screw all of us over. 

Anderson: Right, and he does that not only through his descrip­tions of talk­ing to them, but also through who he is.

Saul: Exactly. These are people.

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: Many of them care. 

Anderson: You know, there’s anoth­er inter­est­ing con­nec­tion with Priscilla, and also with Cameron. When we talked about the envi­ron­ment, they were…con­cerned about it but it was­n’t a very high pri­or­i­ty. In both cas­es, they felt it can sup­port a lot more. It seemed like they were seek­ing a broad­en­ing of the mid­dle class, bring­ing a lot of peo­ple into the mid­dle class…maybe encour­ag­ing peo­ple to not con­sume as much, maybe not hav­ing quite the lev­el of phys­i­cal afflu­ence spread wide. But a real sense that you know what, the envi­ron­ment can han­dle that load.

Saul: Right. That we’re nowhere near any sort of resource lim­its at this point.

Anderson: Right. Which is obvi­ous­ly very dif­fer­ent than some of our more environmentally-focused thinkers have sug­gest­ed. But they’ve talked per­haps less about class. And so here’s Chuck, and he sort of brings these issues togeth­er in a new way, right.

Saul: Absolutely. The jump he made from the social and eco­nom­ic com­mons to the envi­ron­men­tal com­mons… I think that was huge, because he says that we can’t have…the social com­mons does­n’t exist with­out the envi­ron­men­tal com­mons, with­out the nat­ur­al commons.

Anderson: I’d nev­er heard any­thing like that before. And it’s an inter­est­ing argu­ment. When you think of your­self as embed­ded in this larg­er envi­ron­men­tal or nat­ur­al or what­ev­er you want to call it, eco­log­i­cal sys­tem… When you think of that, you see very direct­ly how things cir­cle back to you. The poi­son you dump in the well, well you drink that, you know. And then, kind of under­stand­ing that phys­i­cal­ly, you move into the social realm. 

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Oh. If I am suc­cess­ful in a way that leaves these peo­ple impov­er­ished, that will cir­cle back to me in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways that make our soci­ety tense or frag­ile or just less enjoy­able.

Saul: And that neg­a­tive­ly affects me.

Anderson: Yes.

Saul: There’s some­thing inter­est­ing there, because it…it per­son­al­izes the threat. In some ways that’s a very effec­tive argu­ment, espe­cial­ly when deal­ing with peo­ple with a lot more to lose. I think that’s a good tran­si­tion point to some­thing else he talks about, which is being a part of soci­ety, as well. How impor­tant it is to rec­og­nize the soci­ety you’re embed­ded in, and real­ly reach out and try and recon­nect with them.

Anderson: You know, we’ve just been talk­ing about a lot of the mate­r­i­al ways in which it helps you. At the same time, he would also argue that well, there are a lot of psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits to that social connection.

Saul: I think that’s where you start to see some of the def­i­n­i­tion of the good that comes up in this con­ver­sa­tion. He seems to be real­ly focused on the ben­e­fits of con­nect­ed­ness with soci­ety, col­lab­o­ra­tion with your neigh­bor. He talks about, you know, col­lab­o­ra­tion light­ing up your brain just as much as sex and choco­late. But he’s also very much focused on respect for the indi­vid­ual. So there’s a cool bal­ance there between the ben­e­fits you get men­tal­ly and social­ly from work­ing with oth­er peo­ple, and the ben­e­fits you get men­tal­ly and social­ly for work­ing for yourself.

Anderson: There’s this lit­tle con­nec­tion back to Colin Camerer here, the pow­er of the fMRI and what can you see. Because there’s a big assump­tion in that that we are learn­ing things about the mind that actu­al­ly give a sort of a sci­en­tif­ic basis for an under­stand­ing of human nature, and to some extent an under­stand­ing of what’s good.

Saul: We see through­out the project con­nec­tions between the good and technology.

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: But this one’s very dif­fer­ent. This is not the idea that tech­no­log­i­cal progress is good. This is the idea that tech­no­log­i­cal progress allows us to see the good, and allows us to maybe fig­ure out what the good is. And the good is some­thing that exists with­in us, or between us.

Anderson: And it’s inter­est­ing, too, because when I was talk­ing to Tim Cannon, he used a lot of sim­i­lar neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy and sci­ence as a micro­scope look­ing at the brain, and got a very dif­fer­ent idea of good out of that, which went far to the oth­er direc­tion towards us as indi­vid­u­al­is­tic, as fueled by a strong sur­vival dri­ve that was more com­pet­i­tive than collaborative.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: I think Chuck acknowl­edges that as well when we talk about, if we have some sort of eco­nom­ic cri­sis, are we going to pull togeth­er? Are we going to break apart? Is it going to be the col­lab­o­ra­tive? Is it going to be the com­pet­i­tive that wins? 

Saul: Right. So, maybe we’ll just have to leave that to our lis­ten­ers to think about for them­selves. And if they have any thoughts, hey we still have a web site. We still have com­ments on it. Send us a message.

Anderson: That was Chuck Collins, inter­viewed at the Institute for Policy Studies in Boston, Massachusetts on October 23rd2012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.

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