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.
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.
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.
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: I 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.
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 occupywallst.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 occupywallst.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—
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.
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—
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.
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.
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 occupytogether.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?
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.
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.
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—
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—
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.
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 occupywallst.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—
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.
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.
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—
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?
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 findtheconversation.com
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.