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.

Aengus Anderson: So, here we are again, after a hurricane.

Micah Saul: Indeed.

Anderson: Which you got to expe­ri­ence and I got to miss.

Saul: Yeah. I was very lucky. I lost Internet for thir­ty min­utes and had to stop play­ing video games online, and just had to play some sin­gle player.

Anderson: Boy, the 21st cen­tu­ry is dif­fi­cult, isn’t it?

Saul: It real­ly is.

Anderson: It makes you think that all of the prob­lems in this con­ver­sa­tion are so far away.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: As long as you don’t look out­side the win­dow and see sort of like, giant wave com­ing over the shore in Red Hook or some­where else in Brooklyn.

Saul: Yeah. It sort of made me feel, you know, safe up in a lit­tle ivory tower.

Anderson: Oh, fun­ny you men­tion that, isn’t it? I mean, okay so here we are. Today we’re going to talk about Occupy Wall Street, peo­ple who are going to be bang­ing on the gates of the ivory tow­er. Unless they came out of the ivory tow­er, and they’re being on the gates of the cor­po­rate ivory tower.

Saul: Right. 

Anderson: And that’s actu­al­ly a good thing to talk about. So, we’ve talked to Cameron Whitten before about Occupy, and he had a good cri­tique of the ivory tow­er back­ground of a lot of par­tic­i­pants in this project. That’s some­thing that we aren’t going to get into as much in this con­ver­sa­tion with Priscilla Grim. But we talk about class a lot, even though we don’t specif­i­cal­ly talk about the ivory tow­er too much.

Saul: Yeah. This is cool, because we are going to talk about class in a very dif­fer­ent way than we had with Taylor.

Anderson: Mm hm.

Saul: We’re going to talk about class in a dif­fer­ent way than we did with Cameron. 

Anderson: Yup.

Saul: And we’re real­ly going to start to see some of the ten­sions between class and oth­er sacred cows of the Left.

Anderson: Ooh. You mean the environment.

Saul:do mean the environment.

Anderson: Which of course, I nev­er like to see the ten­sion between these things, and it’s not pretty.

Saul: It’s real­ly not.

Anderson: So much of our envi­ron­men­tal qual­i­ty we take for grant­ed because a lot of peo­ple don’t have access to things. And that’s some­thing that Priscilla Grim is going to bring in front and center.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: So let’s give peo­ple a lit­tle more back­ground on her. She is the cofounder of the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr blog. It involved peo­ple from all over the coun­try send­ing in pic­tures of them­selves, gen­er­al­ly hold­ing up a sheet of paper telling their sto­ry about their eco­nom­ic hard­ships and their back­ground. She also does media out­reach for occu​py​wallst​.org, and she’s the coed­i­tor of The Occupied Wall Street Journal.

Priscilla Grim: Well, I mean there’s a cou­ple dif­fer­ent ways I got involved in Occupy. The first is I’ve been an activist in one way or anoth­er since I was a teenag­er. Which is many many many years at this point. I had not been an activist for sev­er­al years before Occupy because I have a daugh­ter and she’s nine. And hav­ing a child and work­ing and going to school full-time does not lend a lot of extra time to do activist work.

I was on Facebook and look­ing at a video that’d just come out. It was this band called Manu Chao, and they had brought orga­niz­ers in to their con­cert and talk about this action that they were going to do called Occupy Wall Street. And the minute I heard it my brain explod­ed. I was like, This is gonna work.” At that time, I’d lived in New York over ten years, and the finan­cial dis­trict, if you’re ever there dur­ing the day­time, it’s so but­toned up, and so ster­ile, and so with­out own organ­ic life. To even think about the idea of activists in that space, it did­n’t mat­ter if it was fif­teen of them. It was going to make the papers, it was going to make the news, peo­ple were going to pay atten­tion to it.

So I found this great web­site called occu​py​wallst​.org, and they had a lot of infor­ma­tion to basi­cal­ly make this hap­pen out of nowhere. The clos­est thing to activism that I’d done pri­or to this, like the most recent, was I worked with this orga­ni­za­tion called the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. And we had worked on a nation­al action, that I had actu­al­ly designed, to help fight back against media con­cen­tra­tion. And one of the tools in my belt was uti­liz­ing the Indymedia net­work online. This is a net­work of web­sites which any­body can post to. And so what I did was I sat down and post­ed on six­ty dif­fer­ent sites in one night, Occupy Wall Street is going to hap­pen. You bet­ter come out. It’s going to be the biggest thing. You’re gonna want tell your kids about this.” And it worked. 

Aengus Anderson: So you just did it.

Grim: I just did it. And because I was like, Well, here’s the infor­ma­tion. I know how to dis­sem­i­nate it. I’ll do it.” And so, the next week I wound up going to an orga­niz­ing meet­ing at Tompkins Square Park. And I met up with some­body who was like, Oh, so have you been involved, or any­thing?” I told about the Indymedia thing, and he was like, Okay. Come with me. This is the out­reach group. Just sit here, lis­ten, con­tribute, and I’m putting you on the orga­niz­er list right now.”

Anderson: So, it seems like you’re kin­da going about your life—

Grim: Yeah.

Anderson: And it’s like this thing just blows up, and next thing you know you’re in it.

Grim: Yeah. Well, I was unem­ployed, too, at the time. And I had stu­dent loans. I was going to school. So I was in a real­ly kind of priv­i­leged moment. So, there was a lot of things, a lot of sup­port base that I had so that I could ded­i­cate time to it. I real­ly kind of feel that every­thing I did pri­or to that was so that I could per­form as I did then.

Anderson: What made that an impor­tant moment, and what was the state­ment that you want­ed to make?

Grim: Well, you know, I grew up in a small town in Tennessee. You know, I’m 38, okay, so I’m almost 40. I was born in the 70s. I watched the small town move from this area where it was like mom and pop shops, where my par­ents would get loans from the bank by just talk­ing to some­one, where we had a guy that we would go to fix our car. It was­n’t like, ide­al you know. At the same time my mom is Puerto Rican. She was asked to leave a city coun­cil meet­ing because she was Spanish and from New York. Yeah. And that was like in the 80s.

But I watched this area of the coun­try move from this place where you could make a liv­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, on your own, small busi­nessper­son, to a land­scape that is cov­ered with fran­chis­es, and big-box stores, and these huge cor­po­ra­tions that have no lenien­cy for the com­mu­ni­ties around them. That don’t treat their work­ers well. You know, try­ing to find jobs in that area of the coun­try that were beyond like, a McJob, was close to impos­si­ble. And I basi­cal­ly kept mov­ing north because it seemed like there was more oppor­tu­ni­ty of just places to get hired.

I went from wait­ing tables in Tennessee where I was get­ting like sev­en dol­lars an hour or some­thing, to mov­ing to Columbus, Ohio. I was mak­ing two hun­dred fifty dol­lars a night. I had­n’t seen some­one make that much mon­ey in cash in a night that was­n’t a drug deal­er like, in my life. And all of a sud­den I was like, Oh my God.” And this was the locally-owned restau­rant, you know. Fine din­ing, what­ev­er. But that did­n’t exist. And if it did exist down South, you could­n’t work there unless you were white. And in New York, peo­ple think I’m white, but in the South I’m dark enough for peo­ple to ask me, Where are you from?” 

And wound up work­ing for NGOs here, and then I found out this real­ly weird kind of career called prospect research. And what this job entails, it’s online research through data­bas­es that are usu­al­ly used by attor­neys, for big non­prof­its. I worked for the New York Public Library, and I worked for the Bronx Zoo. At the New York Public Library, for an entire year, I was in a room sur­round­ed by file cab­i­nets on the one per­cent. They had been keep­ing finan­cial records on every fam­i­ly of wealth in the United States since the library was found­ed by the Astor fam­i­ly. And it was my job to find out how much mon­ey peo­ple still had, or what was liq­uid, so that we can then ask for an appro­pri­ate amount [from] them. So I was actu­al­ly on the team that got a hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars from this financier called Steve Schwarzman, this hedge fun­der. He’s like the king hedge funder. 

And in this research, I pro­filed fam­i­lies, I pro­filed indi­vid­u­als, and all of a sud­den I’m see­ing the titans of busi­ness in this coun­try. None of them came from noth­ing. And you know, you look at these fam­i­lies and they have gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple who don’t work. And you know, from my activist back­ground all of a sud­den I’m see­ing names of chil­dren and grand­chil­dren that I’d seen in activist cir­cles. And I’m like, Oh. Well, what do you know? How did they have mon­ey to not work for years and cause all this trou­ble that had no results? Awesome.” 

All of the biggest, loud­est activists on the Left are chil­dren of priv­i­lege? Who none of this affects them direct­ly? And that’s why it all fails. And that’s what’s wrong with the Left. And this is what I had just got­ten at. And it made sense to me. I was tasked with the priv­i­lege of putting togeth­er names for par­ties in which the net worth of the room was over forty bil­lion dol­lars. That was my job.

Anderson: That’s kind of incon­ceiv­able to me.

Grim: Yeah, like, the New York Public Library is the heart of wealth in the United States, you know. And it sucks because it’s real­ly amaz­ing what they’re doing. But again, a lot of these very wealthy peo­ple put their mon­ey into it because it’s like a soft way to look phil­an­thropic with­out actu­al­ly affect­ing any real change. 

I sat in a fundrais­ing meet­ing one day where this woman told her fundrais­ing offi­cer, I’m giv­ing you twen­ty five thou­sand dol­lars, and you bet­ter make these ESL class­es hap­pen on Monday nights because that’s when Rosita gets off her shift.” Her maid. So her maid could learn English.

Anderson: It’s like, you real­ly pulled back the cur­tain and looked into a world that most peo­ple nev­er get to see.

Grim: No…

Anderson: How do you artic­u­late that? So, we’ve got this point of pover­ty, you’ve got this weird moment of where you’re see­ing the work­ings of the upper class­es of our soci­ety. And then all of a sud­den you’re going along in your life and Occupy blows up. What’s the biggest cri­sis it needs to address?

Grim: Corporate power.

Anderson: What is the state of cor­po­rate pow­er in America today?

Grim: We don’t have a gov­ern­ment any­more. We have a man­age­ment com­pa­ny that is run by cor­po­rate inter­ests, mean­ing they give lots of mon­ey to elect can­di­dates. I’ll just be very gen­er­ous and say they’re not promis­ing any­thing. But what they are promis­ing is access. Access that you or I can­not have. It’s a dif­fer­ent phone call when I call up Mayor Bloomberg and say, Barclays calls Mayor Bloomberg.

Barclays just built a huge sta­di­um in the mid­dle of Brooklyn. Paid a lot of mon­ey to make that hap­pen, to the City of New York. Mayor Bloomberg is going to answer the Barclay CEO phone call before me. Even though I’ve lived here for twelve years, I’m invest­ed in the com­mu­ni­ty, my daugh­ter goes to a school here. But that makes no dif­fer­ence. But the Barclays CEO who’s from London? He gets access. Because he built a stadium.

Anderson: What’s wrong with that?

Grim: What’s…not wrong with that? [laughs] I mean, you’re putting busi­ness inter­ests ahead of your com­mu­ni­ty. Instead of busi­ness­es hav­ing to give an appro­pri­ate amount in tax mon­ey to the gov­ern­ment that can then sup­port social ser­vices, NGOs in this coun­try have to go and beg cor­po­ra­tions for mon­ey. And what winds up hap­pen­ing is that these insti­tu­tions that fund the NGOs will give just enough to keep it going, but not enough to actu­al­ly solve the problem. 

Anderson: So there’s sort of a an insti­tu­tion­al­ized facade of change and reform—

Grim: Right.

Anderson: —which is just enough to be a steam valve so there’s no real change and reform.

Grim: Exactly. Exactly. And the prob­lem is that we can’t progress as a soci­ety. We’re lim­it­ed. Our abil­i­ties to evolve are lim­it­ed, because of this. Because we’re not able to dream fur­ther than the next pay­check. And when your world­view is that small, your abil­i­ty to dream big, and bright, and pos­i­tive­ly, is squashed. That’s every­thing that’s wrong with the corporately-run environment.

I mean, The Guardian came out with this thing this sum­mer that there’s over twenty-one tril­lion dol­lars in off­shore bank accounts held by about nine­ty thou­sand indi­vid­u­als world­wide. Like, we would be look­ing at such a dif­fer­ent Southeast Asia. We would be look­ing at such a dif­fer­ent African con­ti­nent. We would be look­ing at such a dif­fer­ent soci­ety if those resources were put into world­wide health­care. If they were put into world­wide pub­lic trans­porta­tion that peo­ple could depend on. Things that help make us sustainable.

Anderson: So, if we fol­low kind of our sta­tus quo, where does this get us?

Grim: Well, I mean I think we’re start­ing to see where it’s going to get us. There was a big New York Times front page sto­ry, I guess it was last month, talk­ing about how debt col­lec­tion com­pa­nies are now part­ner­ing up with local attor­ney gen­er­als to be able to use their let­ter­head in their col­lec­tion let­ters. So even though you’re not going to actu­al­ly go to jail because debtors’ pris­ons are ille­gal, they give the idea, the impres­sion, that you could. Then for debtors’ pris­ons to be renewed, it’s not that far a jump. Because already you’re start­ing to social­ize peo­ple into think­ing that hav­ing debt is crim­i­nal, and bad, and it’s your fault. It’s hor­ri­ble enough for the Attorney General to come after you.

So, because you have this three bil­lion dol­lar prison sys­tem, that is only going to go so far. You know, with the new Jim Crow they have effec­tive­ly silenced Black and Latin men in this coun­try, because they’re in jail. Away. In a box. Somewhere. So we have that. An [increas­ing­ly] anes­thetized soci­ety where every­body is on some kind of drug or anoth­er because you’re ill in some way or anoth­er and you need to take a pill for that. So, you know, the drug com­pa­nies have com­plete­ly over­med­icat­ed us.

Then in our envi­ron­ment, I mean, we’re start­ing to see it now, how between the ice caps melt­ing— I mean I’m not a dooms­day per­son where it’s like, Oh, we have six years to live.” I hate those peo­ple. I want to hit them. But our cli­mate is going to get a lot a lot worse, and we’re to con­tin­ue to see big nat­ur­al disasters. 

Anderson: So you’ve got this mas­sive class inequal­i­ty that develops.

Grim: Right.

Anderson: You’ve got concurrent—

Grim: Oh, but the one per­cent! This is the thing, though. But the one per­cent is not going to be affect­ed by any of this. They go to their own schools. They have their own social gath­er­ings. They have their own gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties. They have their own trans­porta­tion sys­tems. They’re com­plete­ly divorced from this soci­ety. However, they’re going to still need peo­ple to work for them. And they’re going to wind up hav­ing peo­ple serv­ing them food who don’t have health insur­ance. And all of a sud­den they’re going to be exposed to the same mal­adies that we’re exposed to, just because they’re in the same room.

Anderson: And it seems like there’s also an issue in that—

Grim: And it’s going to be their own undo­ing. And soci­ety fails. It’ll be awe­some. [laughs]

Anderson: Well it seems like they’re also wired into this big econ­o­my, where if you lose the mid­dle class or you lose you know the low­er class and they’re not buy­ing on cred­it any­more, it seems like the one per­cent have a real cri­sis of wealth because they are ulti­mate­ly wired into this larg­er eco­nom­ic sys­tem and they aren’t the ones doing all of the buying.

Grim: Yeah. They’ve nev­er been the ones doing all the buy­ing. I mean, we’ve done enough buy­ing for them. We buy clothes that wear out in six months because we can’t afford actu­al clothes that are made well. So we’re in this con­sumer wheel that we have to keep going in.

Anderson: Right.

Grim: You talk to the more rad­i­cal lifestyle kind of anar­chist peo­ple… Like, I was at a par­ty one time where I was talk­ing to some guy who had been pro­filed by Adbusters because he was a big cli­mate change guy. And he basi­cal­ly told me all this stuff. That I need­ed to be mak­ing my own food, I need­ed to be mak­ing my own clothes, I needed…you know.

So you’re telling me that as a work­ing moth­er going to school full-time, along with those respon­si­bil­i­ties in which I am at home study­ing most the time, I should be mak­ing my daugh­ter’s clothes. I should be whip­ping up meals from scratch. Um…no.

And the thing is we don’t need like…dras­tic changes. We just need to remix a lit­tle bit, you know. Just to skew it just enough that it’ll start to top­ple the whole thing. But you have to bring peo­ple on to help make that shift hap­pen, and I was just like, And this is why you peo­ple fail.” I’m sorry.

Anderson: There’s a clas­sism with­in environmentalism.

Grim: It’s total clas­sism, in every sin­gle way, and it’s insult­ing.

Anderson: Is there a dif­fer­ence between envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse and a social col­lapse? I mean are these things so tied togeth­er that—

Grim: It’s all tied togeth­er. It’s all tied togeth­er. I mean, it’s just like the Occupy say­ing about all of our griev­ances are con­nect­ed. It’s all tied togeth­er. None of this exists in a silo.

I actu­al­ly am more con­scious of envi­ron­men­tal­ism than my friends who live out­side of New York City. You can’t be obses­sive about it, but it is a piece to the entire pie that we need to pay atten­tion to. And if we did, and you know this lob­by­ing of cor­po­ra­tions and this access that they have, I can guar­an­tee you that we would have so many gains in envi­ron­men­tal issues that we can’t even start dream­ing of them, because you know when you get down to like, prob­lems of pol­lu­tion it all comes down to a com­pa­ny that’s doing that.

Anderson: And an econ­o­my, and a mode of indus­try… Other peo­ple I’ve spo­ken to, say, a peak oil ana­lyst who I met pret­ty ear­ly in the project, Jan Lundberg, he was talk­ing about sort of, Look, the issue is a per­pet­u­al growth sys­tem.” And this has come up with oth­er thinkers, as well. But peo­ple who’ve talked about…the sys­tem is essen­tial­ly kind of an envi­ron­men­tal pyra­mid scheme built on lim­it­less growth, whether of pop­u­la­tion or or con­sumer goods in a finite sys­tem. They say, Look. Even if the sys­tem was total­ly equi­table and fair, it will burn out and col­lapse, because it’s just burn­ing too much stuff up.”

Grim: I mean, the thing is a lot of those peo­ple haven’t real­ly spent real time in the mid­dle of nowhere. Which is like, a lot of the world. I mean, any­body knows…these peo­ple were like, People from out­side the United States should­n’t move here, because we don’t have more room or resources or any­thing.” It’s like, real­ly? Have you flown over Montana late­ly? [laughs] Have you been through Alabama? There’s so much land, and it is gor­geous and pris­tine, and you know just… I mean, we have so much… So many resources. It’s just not where peo­ple want to live. 

I think we’re so far away from total utter cli­mate col­lapse. I went to Nebraska to work with Ella from occu​py​to​geth​er​.org on her web­site, and we’re dri­ving through just fields and fields and fields, and she was like, Yeah, there was this report that just came out a cou­ple weeks ago that if we lever­aged all of the wind pow­er in Nebraska, we could have elec­tric­i­ty for all of Middle America.” And if Puerto Rico put down solar pan­els every­where, and wind tur­bines, what do they need oil for? 

Anderson: Yeah. I mean, I’ve spo­ken to a lot of peo­ple who are sort of ener­gy sys­tems thinkers, and they talk about how if you look at the embod­ied ener­gy of some­thing like a wind tur­bine or a solar pan­el, it stems back to all of these mines that are oper­at­ed by gas-powered machines and there’s real­ly like… You get into this whole pro­duc­tion chain that spi­der­webs out from the wind­mill. So the wind­mill actu­al­ly becomes real­ly expen­sive and nev­er even pays back for itself. It taps into this big infra­struc­ture of oil, which is just real­ly cheap still, or coal, which is real­ly cheap.

And so I think for them they would agree that land would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly be the issue. But I think they often see (specif­i­cal­ly think­ing Wes Jackson here) talk­ing about ener­gy and the embod­ied ener­gy of things. And for the thinkers who’ve talked about that sort of resource lim­it, a lot of them have said like, Hey, we need to think about a soci­ety that has a much… Well, one, prob­a­bly a low­er pop­u­la­tion. And two, dif­fer­ent mate­r­i­al expectations.

Grim: Right. Absolutely agree—

Anderson: And is that part of it?

Grim: Hopefully. 

Anderson: Because I mean, that con­nects back in an odd way to that sort of irri­tat­ing anar­chist who is talk­ing to your, right? Because like, it seems like we’re in a bind here where it’s like, you kin­da can’t can’t opt out, right? We live in the real world. Like, you sort of have to play by a lot of its rules.

Grim: Yeah.

Anderson: At the same time, how do we recal­i­brate to a sim­pler world? Like, I would­n’t know how to make clothes, you know. It’s like, I’m not going to become a scrimshaw artist in like—

Grim: Right. Well like, I mean, in my per­son­al life I try to buy used clothes as much as pos­si­ble. Craigslist is my friend. We have to start look­ing at that, because you know, the West uses what is it? 70% of the resources of the world? And that’s insane. 

Anderson: Do we have the matu­ri­ty as a peo­ple to say, we dial it back? Or do we hit a point like that and have a tantrum, because we’re reach­ing the end of a cer­tain lev­el of wealth? That’s assum­ing that point ever arrives, right? 

Grim: Yeah. I have no idea. I have no idea. I mean, one of the things that gives me a lot of hope is that I work on a lot of the social media stuff for Occupy. And I actu­al­ly spend way too many hours read­ing com­ments, and talk­ing to peo­ple who are out­side the move­ment who are, you know, their first expo­sure is like a Facebook page or a tweet or some­thing. People are start­ing to get it, you know.

Anderson: So you think you’re see­ing a rise in aware­ness of—

Grim: Totally. And I’m start­ing to see an aware­ness of con­sumerism and access and all of this. And peo­ple who prob­a­bly did­n’t give it a thought six months ago.

Anderson: What’s the ide­al future look like?

Grim: Okay, if I were king—

Anderson: Yes! Yes! That’s the sce­nario I want. What’s the If I were king” scenario?

Grim: If I were king, I would be tax­ing cor­po­ra­tions at 80% of their prof­its. We would put all the mon­ey into an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that would fol­low grad­u­ates through post-grad. It would be high­ly com­pet­i­tive. But you would get the best out of peo­ple. If I were king, this mon­ey would be used for every­body to have health­care. If I were king, there would be pub­lic trans­porta­tion every­where that it was need­ed. If I were king, we would have sus­tain­able ener­gy that was avail­able to everybody.

The thing is that if we just give peo­ple what they need to sur­vive and to thrive, we’re all going to be able to move for­ward. You know, maybe there would be like a five to ten-year peri­od in which peo­ple were just sloth­ful­ly awful, but after get­ting every­thing that they need­ed, then it would change and it would be like, okay what are you going to do now? What do you do with the rest of your life? You don’t have to wor­ry about any of this any­more. And I think that we would see the best come out of our society.

Anderson: And so, in a world where you’re not king but we can work towards a bet­ter future [both laugh] we’ve got this huge plu­ral­i­ty of ideas about what makes the world good, right. And there are some inter­est­ing assump­tions about human nature that I think are implic­it in what you were just saying.

Grim: Right.

Anderson: And there are oth­er peo­ple that have very dif­fer­ent assump­tions about human nature. That if you give peo­ple a cod­dled exis­tence (and I’m sure they would use words like cod­dled”) you can’t expect any­thing from them. [crosstalk] You know, that peo­ple need to be chal­lenged or—

Grim: But I live in New York City, where you know, we actu­al­ly get more cod­dled than any­where in the coun­try. Like, my daugh­ter has had health insur­ance since she was born. Not because I could afford it, but because the state paid for it. The state paid for a lot of my day care. Instead of that cod­dling me into becom­ing some kind of wel­fare moth­er who does noth­ing but smoke cig­a­rettes and have inap­pro­pri­ate rela­tion­ships, I went to school. I was work­ing full-time. I tripled my income in three years. I mean, it was kind of like, once that piece of it was tak­en care of for me, I could do the rest.

I’ve nev­er worked hard­er in my life than when I came here, but I had the biggest safe­ty net of any place I’ve ever lived. So I mean, just, you know—

Anderson: But they’d prob­a­bly say, Are you an excep­tion?” [crosstalk] You know, some­body who’s par­tic­u­lar­ly self-motivated.

Grim: Somebody would say I’m an excep­tion, sure. But I think there’s a lot of peo­ple in this town that have the same expe­ri­ence. There’s always going to be peo­ple who take advan­tage of things, and there’s always going to be peo­ple who are lazy, and there’s always going to be peo­ple who are abu­sive. But I think that’s not every­one. That’s a minor­i­ty. The num­ber of peo­ple who would ben­e­fit out­weigh that minority.

Anderson: In a lot of con­ver­sa­tions I have, I always hear this sort of bal­ance between peo­ple who are think­ing indi­vid­u­al­ly, peo­ple are think­ing more collectively—

Grim: Right.

Anderson: —and it seems like here there’s a big sense that okay, we need to think col­lec­tive­ly. We need to ensure a cer­tain min­i­mum. But there’s also a sense that by doing that, you enable kind of an indi­vid­u­al­i­ty in which peo­ple can push for­ward on their own. So, that’s inter­est­ing, and I don’t think I’ve seen any­one who bal­anced it quite like that. But I want to go a lit­tle fur­ther in this sort of direc­tion about, how are we get­ting this idea of good? Beneath every con­ver­sa­tion I’ve had, it does­n’t mat­ter how sec­u­lar or how sacred, there’s an ara­tional sense of the good, and I think that’s been—

Grim: Because every­body’s good at heart, like Anne Frank said. [crosstalk] Everybody’s good.

Anderson: But every­one has a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of good—

Grim: Yeah

Anderson: —that seems ara­tional, and that’s where I won­der, can a con­ver­sa­tion about this even hap­pen, you know? If we frame some­thing like—

Grim: It is happening.

Anderson: Um…where?

Grim: Everywhere. I mean, if you’re just walk­ing around the city, just lis­ten and you’ll hear it. I live in New York City, I’m all over the place, in every sin­gle neigh­bor­hood dis­trict. And I was sit­ting in a Starbucks near NYU, which is very famous­ly filled with clue­less under­grad­u­ates who are very rich and just say ridicu­lous things. And I heard three dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions with­in fif­teen min­utes of peo­ple talk­ing about resource inequal­i­ty. And these were not activists.

If those con­ver­sa­tions can be hap­pen­ing there—and at the same time I’m also hear­ing in my neigh­bor­hood, which is not very upward­ly mobile, it’s a lot of peo­ple who have come from oth­er countries—they’re get­ting it. Like, you know, the con­ver­sa­tions are hap­pen­ing. They’re slow­ly spread­ing out. But we’ve also, um…John Steinbeck talks about it, that—and this is in like the 30s and the 40s. He’s like, yeah, Americans like to think of them­selves as tem­porar­i­ly embar­rassed mil­lion­aires. And we’re final­ly crack­ing through that? And peo­ple are under­stand­ing that it’s not their fault that they’re not multi-millionaires. That it’s just the way the sys­tem works. And once we have a quo­rum on that in soci­ety, there’s no stop­ping us as far as demand­ing what we need to live, and to just be happy.

We have this phone num­ber at occu​py​wallst​.org, we’re still get­ting phone calls every day from peo­ple across the coun­try say­ing, Please keep doing what you’re doing. The media says that you’re dead. We know that you’re not. Whatever you can do, do it. Keep it in the news. Keep going. All of us are depend­ing on you. We don’t have the time of the brain space to engage with this, but we know that you do, so keep it up. 

Anderson: I mean, is there a point at which it would feel like things weren’t chang­ing, in which you would say that’s it? Or is this some­thing that you’ll just always do?

Grim: Oh, God. I real­ly don’t know. I mean, I’m real­ly at that place right now, think­ing about that, you know. Because I just went back to full-time work last week. And you know, these are ques­tions that I kind of ask myself every day as I’m doing my job. But you know, I’m work­ing as a temp. I have no ben­e­fits. I have no sick days. My kid is in between health insur­ance right now because I did­n’t renew her Medicaid. Nothing’s changed.

The con­ver­sa­tion has changed, but fun­da­men­tal­ly noth­ing has changed. And I think until some­thing actu­al­ly changes, I’m going to find room in my life to work on it. And maybe I’ll be the last crazy per­son in Tompkins Square Park say­ing, You kids! The cor­po­ra­tions are ruin­ing you!” But you know, maybe that’s just my thing. That’s what I’m sup­posed to do. Maybe that’s my trajectory.

But I real­ly feel hope, because I mean, I’ve seen the response to every­body and what we’re doing, and the sup­port, and I just know if we can just get enough peo­ple in the streets and we become enough of a threat and enough of a nui­sance, things will shift. I just have to hope that.

I mean, after giv­ing up so much of my life to this… You know, it’s kind of like when vets come back from war. And the anti­war pro­test­ers are like, What are you doing?” You know, they’re scream­ing at some man who’s just had guns shot in his face, and telling him every­thing that you went through for two years is absolute­ly wrong, and why did you do that? And his answer is, I don’t know, I just need­ed a job.” We need to do this. I think a lot of oth­er peo­ple know that we need to do this. And hope­ful­ly there’ll be some­thing that changes. 

Micah Saul: So, there’s an obvi­ous direc­tion to go here in our outro. 

Aengus Anderson: We could be talk­ing about Occupy, the suc­cess or the fail­ure of a movement.” 

Saul: And you know what? I don’t real­ly care. I mean that’s not entire­ly true. But that’s less inter­est­ing to me than some of the oth­er things in this con­ver­sa­tion. And I think you prob­a­bly agree with me.

Anderson: It’s been dis­cussed a lot. 

Saul: Exactly. And I’m more inter­est­ed in talk­ing about some­thing that we were talk­ing about before this con­ver­sa­tion even start­ed, the clash between egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and environmentalism.

Anderson: Yeah. And it was this awful real­iza­tion that oh my god, if you real­ly want to do any­thing envi­ron­men­tal, you cre­ate hav­oc for the poor. You deny them a lot of opportunities. 

Saul: And if you real­ly want to bring [crosstalk] the poor onto—

Anderson: And if you want to bring them onboard—

Saul: Onto—

Anderson: Middle-class lifestyle—

Saul: Then that yields a just cat­a­clysmic envi­ron­men­tal disaster.

Anderson: Right. And Priscilla’s the first per­son to real­ly talk about this sort of ten­sion. We’ve talked to a lot of envi­ron­men­tal thinkers, we talked to a lot of class thinkers. Often they’re inter­est­ed and sym­pa­thet­ic in each oth­er’s ideas. Often they hold ideas about both of those things. But she’s the first one who’s real­ly said, Look, class first. The envi­ron­men­tal stuff…it’s seri­ous but it’s overblown.” I mean, she says that she wants to hit the envi­ron­men­tal doom­say­ers in the head.

Saul: Right. [both laugh]

Anderson: This is oth­er part, that her con­ver­sa­tion real­ly was just a lot of fun to have. And I think that prob­a­bly comes across. She knows how to turn a phrase real­ly well.

Saul: Let’s just jump right into that, shall we?

Anderson: Yeah. Hit the doom­say­ers in the head.

Saul: Alright. 

Anderson: Okay. So, envi­ron­men­tal­ism. She thinks that we have a lot of avail­able land, that we have a lot of avail­able resources. The prob­lem is in dis­tri­b­u­tion. And most of her back­ground is in look­ing at the one per­cent and their mas­sive wealth and inequal­i­ty. It was so much fun to go through that sec­tion, the if I were king” sec­tion. I kin­da want to ask every­one that now, but I don’t think most peo­ple would play along. But she was hav­ing a great time with it. But what she talks about is real­ly inter­est­ing. Because what she’s out­lin­ing, the best-case sce­nario here, is like of…well, Sweden. It’s like this very com­fort­able, edu­cat­ed, middle-class, heavily-taxed, [crosstalk] social state.

Saul: Social state.

Anderson: Yeah. Who’s going to com­plain about that? Probably not the Swedes.

Saul: No. Polar bears.

Anderson: Polar bears might. Ohhhhh… And Sweden does have a lot of heavy industry. 

Saul: So, this is final­ly where we can talk about this. It turns out if you look at Sweden… My God, it seems like a fan­tas­tic place to live. But if you start look­ing at those big sys­tems again that we got from from Jackson, you real­ly start to see these appar­ent social­ist Edens be just as cul­pa­ble for the envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse as a coun­try like the United States.

Anderson: Can we scale up pros­per­i­ty glob­al­ly, can even do it nation­al­ly, with­out stim­u­lat­ing an enor­mous amount of con­sumerism? And that’s some­thing that Priscilla touch­es on a lit­tle bit, but not too much, you know. How do we rein in our expec­ta­tions, mate­ri­al­ly, and then what’s the envi­ron­men­tal foot­print of that?

Saul: Right. Very few peo­ple in this project have been will­ing to say, We can’t have everything.”

Anderson: That’s true, and that was some­thing when we talked about Korten’s con­ver­sa­tion, he talks about scal­ing down, he talks about get­ting rid of waste. But there’s a real reluc­tance to say, Well no, you’re prob­a­bly going to have to do with­out some technology.”

Saul: This is where Jackson comes back in, talk­ing about in a hun­dred years we’ll be back to animal-power farming.

Anderson: Right. And Jackson’s no anti-technologist at all. But he’s a real prag­ma­tist in terms of, if you want to live in a healthy ecos­phere, to use his term, you just can’t have it all. That means let­ting go of some things that are real­ly cen­tral to sort of, our vision of a good life and a pro­gres­sive future. You know, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly progressive. 

Saul: The car is one of those indi­ca­tors of hav­ing arrived in the mid­dle class, right? You are you’re. You are able to get to work and back with­out depend­ing on the whims of pub­lic trans­porta­tion or walking.

Anderson: Right. 

Saul: That sud­den­ly opens up the amount— You know, you can buy more food because you don’t have to car­ry it. You can go far­ther afield for a bet­ter job. This is a won­der­ful won­der­ful thing. This brings you up into the mid­dle class. The Tata is this two thou­sand dol­lar car that they’ve devel­oped in India. Well, what hap­pens if sud­den­ly all of India is able to have a car? 

Anderson: What does the sky look like? And I think what Priscilla would ask us in response would be, Well, why do you have to have some­thing as dirty as a car? Why not have wind­mills for all those peo­ple? Why not have mass tran­sit that’s green?” She gives us the exam­ple of Nebraska. If you just cov­ered Nebraska with wind tur­bines, could you pow­er the Midwest? Now, whether or not that’s fea­si­ble… I men­tioned Jackson’s exam­ple of embod­ied energy—

Saul: Right.

Anderson: —and the fact that every one of those is built on a dif­fer­ent ener­gy infrastructure. 

Saul: What are the met­als that go into the wind­mill? Where do those come from? Mines. How are the mines pow­ered? Probably not wind­mill ener­gy. How do we store the win­dow ener­gy for when it’s not…windy? Well, we store those in mas­sive batteries. 

Anderson: What does putting the wind­mills on top of Nebraska do to Nebraska’s wildlife? What birds are fly­ing through Nebraska? Nebraska’s not emp­ty. What does it do to the prop­er­ty of the peo­ple there? 

Saul: It’s a very anthro­pocen­tric view, for sure. But it’s also a very…isolated view. We can put up a bunch of wind­mills in Nebraska and that will pow­er the entire Midwest,” is look­ing only at the wind­mills and the Midwest. Just try­ing to play the wind­mill sit­u­a­tion out, one ply deep, becomes…well, it becomes too much for the human mind to hold. 

Anderson: It does, because imme­di­ate­ly you’re think­ing well, how do we get ener­gy from the wind­mills to the oth­er things? Do we have cars that are electrically-powered? Do we have to build a new auto infra­struc­ture based on elec­tric pow­er? The foot­print is big for any sort of change like that. And we can lose track of some of that stuff. Especially in the post-industrial US. When we have this con­ver­sa­tion about, what would we like in terms of an egal­i­tar­i­an United States, what does that mean for pro­duc­tion in China?

Saul: And some­thing I think we’ve brought up before, even on top of that… Never mind the envi­ron­men­tal issues. Is it even pos­si­ble to bring every­body up to the same level?

Anderson: Right.

Saul: Everything is made some­where. Everything is made from things that are mined or har­vest­ed somewhere

Anderson: And that’s the Zerzan cri­tique. And I sup­pose the response to that is, Well, you can have all of those jobs be well-paid.”

Saul: Which comes down to some fun­da­men­tal cri­tique of the econ­o­my. Is that even pos­si­ble, to have every­thing be well-paid, or is the eco­nom­ic sys­tem that we’re based on, does it fun­da­men­tal­ly require some peo­ple to be…screwed?

Anderson: And part of the eco­nom­ics con­ver­sa­tion is always a psy­cho­log­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. Is there always going to be some­one who under­cuts you regard­less of what the eco­nom­ics sys­tem is? All of these things get very deep, and at some point it seems like by say­ing, I would real­ly like every­one to be well-paid to work in all the jobs that cur­rent­ly exist, and then to have a middle-class life in an environmentally-sound world,” is say­ing, I want Utopia.” 

We just talked to Claire Evans. Utopia’s a hard thing to get into. Anything that’s total­iz­ing like that, right? It’s dif­fi­cult to think about how do you do that and still have a plu­ral­i­ty. And it makes you won­der— I mean, that ties back into Torcello. Can you have a plu­ral­i­ty in which some­one isn’t always doing bet­ter than some­one else? Is hier­ar­chy just inevitable with plu­ral­i­ty? What a mess!

Saul: Dear lis­ten­ers, that was the Conversation. That’s why we’re doing this. I don’t think we’re going to find any answers here. But just to be think­ing about these things, and to jump from occu­py­ing Wall Street to a con­ver­sa­tion that broad about that many dif­fer­ent things is what makes this projects— It’s why I’m still work­ing on this thing. The fact that we’re able to— We have to be hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion we just had—

Anderson: On a fair­ly reg­u­lar basis. But usu­al­ly more edited.

That was Priscilla Grim record­ed October 10, 2012 at her apart­ment in Brooklyn, New York.

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.