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.
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 classism.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.
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.
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 9⁄11, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 23rd, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.