Aengus Anderson: This is The Conversation. We are returning. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Micah Saul: I’m still Micah Saul.
Neil Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast. And this next interview is Rebecca Solnit. I’m particularly excited about Rebecca Solnit’s interview because she has been an author for me that has really opened my eyes. She’s been writing for a very long time. One of her earlier books, Savage Dreams, actually got me interested in my field of study of Western environmental history. Some of her more recent books are Men Explain Things To Me, which has been a part of national conversation. She also contributes to Harper’s, Nation, and other magazines. I’m very excited about this interview.
Rebecca Solnit: You know, there’s a lot of wonderful things about this moment. And as a woman, as somebody who’s half Jewish, as somebody who’s very interested in all kinds of human rights and stuff I can see the way that a lot of things have gotten profoundly better. Ideas of democracy and equality are broad and deep in a way they never were before. And you look at the world of a hundred years ago, and who thought that all human beings were truly created equal? You know, white men certainly didn’t. And most men didn’t. And most women might not have loved their situation but they might not have questioned it and thought they should be equal.
So there’s a lot of beautiful things. And I think if there’s one thing I’m most deeply disquiet about it’s…power. Why are we doing almost nothing about climate change? It’s because despite the fact that most people on Earth and many government on Earth do, the oil corporations and the governments most closely allied to the oil corporations, notably ours, don’t want to do anything. So the fate of the physical Earth, the survival of the oceans, whether the Mekong Delta and Sub-Saharan Africa will become largely uninhabitable, etc., is being decided by people who are not interested in those things but they’re interested in the status quo of maintaining maximum profit for a minority of people who are so damn rich that they utterly don’t need that profit.
I think that corporations fifty years ago were run by people who wanted them to be in good shapes in a generation so they reinvested in all kinds of things. We saw this in the 1980s in California’s redwood forests. These locally-based logging companies were practicing relatively sustainable logging. And then some of those corporations were bought in leverage buyouts by people who weren’t even in California. And they just wanted maximum profit now and they clear-cut this land which has been making profit while doing the good things that forests do while keeping communities alive with logging jobs. We’re going to just lay waste to it, you know. It was like a war against those places.
And you see a new kind of short-term-ness where it’s always about the next quarter’s earnings rather than like, where where will this corporation be in ten years, in a generation? You know, it’s like it’s become a virus consuming its host, in so many ways.
And it’s also become how politicians talk, that they accept that timeframe and that level of value. And it’s interesting how seldom we talk about that. You know, you look at the world in 1945. The oceans were basically…there’d been certain things that were a little overfished and there was pollution and we were polluting some things wholesale. You know, factories were dumping effluent into rivers and were a lot less sensitive to lead contamination and stuff. But, the world was fairly pristine. There was still a lot of forest, the oceans were in good shape. There was a lot more wilderness, etc. And it’s astonishing to me what percentage of the damage to the Earth has been done in one human lifetime. And what will the future think of this mad moment that will seem like an explosion, that human beings expanded and expanded and impacted the Earth more and more. But suddenly in this one short period we supernova’d and just destroyed so much so profoundly.
The thing I worry about most is climate change. But the very texture of our lives is… Something has gone very very weird with it. And I’ve just been trying to write an essay about going back to that late Victorian moment that was 1996 or 1994, and the last moment before cell phones and before the Internet for most of us and before email, when you know, our communications were not that different than they were in 1880. There was radio and television. But the telephone wasn’t invented in the 1870s. Newspapers date back more than a century before that. Your information came in just those few flavors and things happened in very kind of calm and structured ways, you know. The newspaper arrived on your doorstep in the morning. The postman delivered your mail at 2:00. You know, letters took three days to arrive. When you talked on the telephone, you were not driving or shopping or… And people were not harried. There’s a quality of harriedness.
So I think the very texture of our lives has changed. But even more scary than that loss that we didn’t really sign up for but most of us have undergone is that now, look at Google, which controls the search engine that everybody on Earth uses now. And it controls the priorities in which information appears. It decides what we’re going to look at and what’s most valuable and important. And like the government right now they’re as devoted to their own secrecy as they are to our absolute lack of right to privacy. And that’s terrifying, and that’s all arisen in the last fifteen years with nobody really saying, “Wait a minute. How do we sign up for this? How do we legislate it?”
The funny thing when I think back to that ancient, bygone Victorian era of 1994 is, I wasn’t like anybody’s walking around saying, “I feel like I don’t have access to information. I feel like I can’t do research. I feel like I can’t communicate with people.” And did we actually need email? Did we actually need these things? There are some definite benefits and I’ve seen the wonderful ways insurrections from the fax revolution of Tiananmen Square to the Facebook revolution of the Arab Spring. You know, there are very positive things about them. But did we actually need them? And did our lives get better? I think that there’s ways they’re useful, but that’s only to say there are gains as well as losses.
True solitude in which you’re really alone with your thoughts in a meaningful way no longer exists and neither, to the extent it used to is true communion. You see how buffered people are, so they’re never really alone. But they’re often not really together. Communication itself is deteriorating. And people often seem very nervous about face-to-face time together. Like, well what’s it for? There are all these barriers you have to sort of cross. It takes a long time to set it up. It’s not spontaneous. And I really feel like the quality of life for most people was much better in 1996. We had a hell of a lot more privacy from our government and there was just a quality of time we had that was really beautiful and gracious and stately, which we didn’t notice till it was gone and that I think a lot of people haven’t noticed.
One thing that’s been so interesting in all my work about hope and change and working as a historian is, most people don’t have a strong sense of how the world around them is changing, and how radically it’s changing—
Aengus Anderson: Do you think that’s different than the Gilded Age, or…[crosstalk]maybe the question’s how is it different?
Solnit: I that it’s breadth and depth.
Solnit: A lot of times people think technological change really hit us in the 20th century, but the 19th century… You know, in 1830 people lived very much the way the Romans lived. They built slightly better horse-drawn vehicles and they created canals to move slightly better by water. But we still moved at the speed of wind and muscle and etc. And then the railroad quickly started moving at many times the speed of anything that had ever existed before. And it required us literally to change time itself. We had to create standardized time so we could organize train schedules so trains wouldn’t run into each other. And then the telegraph arrives fourteen years later, and that so transformed the nature of time. And—
Anderson: Do you think that was as big of a change, you know, in that context in terms of speeding up a world?
Solnit: You know, it was so much more shocking to them because nothing had really changed. It was like they lived in a lake that suddenly became a river. Everything that was calm and pellucid and tranquil suddenly was kind of bubbling and gurgling. And they knew it, they really knew it. We already lived in that river. You know, maybe the river became a waterfall. But it just feels like we don’t have the clarity they did that this changes everything.
The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. And the the railroad ran California like a private fiefdom. The Southern Pacific Corporation controlled California and picked its governors and senators. And I might add that the decision that created corporate personhood is Southern Pacific versus the County of Santa Clara in the 1880s. So you can see that the groundwork is being laid and it’s one continuous annexation and expansion of power.
And then Leland Stanford did this very interesting thing, which is he founded Stanford University, that you know, has some beautiful populism to it and is still a great research university with wonderful people in the humanities and the sciences and etc. and a research hospital. But it’s a union between scientific research and practical applications that gives rise in a very direct way to Silicon Valley. So when you look at the present situation, it’s a continuity with the past, and very few people really recognize that.
Anderson: So that’s an interesting connection. On one hand we’ve got the historical lineage, but on the other hand we have technology that does allow for unprecedented new things. I mean, we’ve had different types of centralization before, but the ability to have so much information at the hands of so few people…that seems different.
Solnit: Yeah. Yeah, or the control over it it’s so few people. You look at— You know, I understated the scope of Google. They unsuccessfully tried to control all the books ever published. They control almost all the Internet searches. They control a huge amount of email traffic. They’re seeking a monopoly in mapping. You know, what does that create, that so much information is amassed in the hands of a few unaccountable people whose values when they are demonstrated are absolutely not my values and I think not the values of the majority of people on Earth.
Anderson: And, where does [crosstalk] this go?
Solnit: If they’re even values—
Anderson: Right, if they are, or that they may be so flexible that they’re not identifiable as a value.
Solnit: But you know, I think there’s self-interest. And I took a little dig at Mark Zuckerberg. Let me just say what that’s about. So, he founded a political action group, a PAC, with some of his cohorts in Silicon Valley. They’ve decided that like the oil corporations, like the Koch brothers, etc., they’re going to try and influence policy directly. But they don’t have any great ideological vision. They decided that the first issue they were going to pursue is making it easier for the kind of people they employ to get visas. So they went after immigration issues for the highly skilled.
And they decided they would pursue it with a kind of quid pro quo that they would try and further the interests of politicians, with the idea that politicians would then further their interests as a kind of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Which suggests that not only are they only pursuing self-interest but everybody’s just pursuing self-interest.
So what they immediately did is they took out ads supporting drilling in Alaska to try and win the favor of an Alaskan politician. And the tar sands pipeline, to win the favor of a Republican politician. The tar sands pipeline, as James Hansen the great climate scientist said, if we open that it’s game over for the climate.
So they said, “You know, we’re not even thinking about whether this is destruction of the planet. And we don’t even care. We’re not even weighing what it means to drill in Alaska and open the tar sands pipeline. We’re advocating for gigantic climate change measures that will destroy things on an unprecedented scale to make it slightly easier for us to get workers in our corporations, so we can make even more profits even though our profits are so insanely gargantuan we don’t even know what to do with the money.”
Anderson: There’s something really interesting happening there, right? Because—
Solnit: That’s one way to put it.
Anderson: [laughs] I think what I’m thinking about is that they’re advocating for something that actually does affect them, but they can’t even see it.
Solnit: It comes from a sense of self-interest that’s based on a very…grim version of the self, which is that “I am separate from the environment. I am separate from posterity. I am separate from all these people who’ll be adversely affected by this. I am a CEO and I want what’s best for— That my vision of the world is limited to what benefits my bottom-lined,” you know, not only in its spiritually bereft but I think ecologically and socially bereft sense of self.
Another way to look at Facebook is it’s a way of mapping the ways we’re all connected to each other and allowing us to be more connected. You know, there’s a way in which all these connections could I think in other hands, with other people kind of defining what they mean, could be almost mystical in affirming the interconnectedness of all things. And the sad thing is that engineers are now kind of running the world. And I’ve spent my twenties around an engineering family. They were really nice people. But the question engineers always ask is “how,” not why. And the question people like me who are writers ask, and philosophers ask, I think is “why?” What does it mean? What are the underlying values?
And so these people are saying how can we do this? How can we get more of this? And never saying, “Why do we want more? Why should we do this? What does it mean?”
Anderson: Do you think part of the crisis that we’re facing now is a sense that we’re not asking “why” questions?
Solnit: Exactly. I think that deep within a lot of people there’s a desire for those conversations and an anxiety about what it means. But there’s not even a high profile ongoing conversation they can even check into that would provide that. You know, it’s as though you feel you’re sick but nobody’s even attempting a diagnosis, because they’re not diagnosing they’re just distracting and figuring out ways maybe to make you more sick.
And I think that there’s a lot of resistance to it. When I talked about everything speeding up, one of the things that I find really interesting, so many younger people are turning to gardening, to knitting, to canning and making pickles and raising chickens and things.
And it’s sometimes articulated in a very hipster way. It can be very trendy. Or it’s seen in explicitly environmental terms. But I think what they’re reaching for is an experience of time and a relationship to the world that’s unbroken. Rather than buy an alienated product whose maker you know nothing about and who’s conditions of making might be despicable and exploitative and toxic, you’re going through the beauty of making something from scratch, you know, and doing it wholeheartedly and single-mindedly, you know. You’re cooking. You’re starting with basic ingredients maybe that you raised or bought at the farmer’s market. You’re cooking from scratch. And that results in something pleasurable that you can share with people immediately. It’s not like posting a funny YouTube video on Facebook that’s sort of alienated in a way. It’s like now I’ve made a stew, and now people I love are going to sit down and eat it.
And I think the underlying common denominator of all these things is an attempt to have an unbroken and whole experience of the here and now. An experience of being a producer and not just a consumer. An experience of a relationship to the physical and social and natural world that’s not corrupt or broken or alienated.
You know, we’re not going to overthrow the present system through knitting, I’m pretty confident. And yet knitting articulates this deep desire for something—you know, first for a kind of self-soothing but also for a world of unalienated relationships to time, to materials, to production, to an economy that’s more generous. So I see something… I see a deep dissatisfaction and a deep desire for things to be different in those kinds of little things that do exist all around us.
Anderson: Maybe part of what makes it powerful is that it’s advancing a vision of the good, right. It’s attempting to answer the question “what is all this, [crosstalk] this civilization, for?
Solnit: Well, what’s interesting is that people do it every day. You know, the businessman who goes in and does his stock exchange things for profit, before he does that he makes his daughter’s lunch and calls up his mother to see how she’s doing. When the airplanes flew into the Twin Towers, they were full of businesspeople who thought their values were capitalism. But nobody competed with each other to escape the towers. I’ve read hundreds of accounts. I’ve talked to dozens of people. Nobody was shoved or pushed or trampled. Nobody, you know…
Anderson: You didn’t see the emergence of the Hobbesian.
Solnit: No. No. I saw the opposite. And these people who thought their values were capitalism were anti-capitalists in that moment and for the days afterwards. A quadriplegic accountant was carried down sixty-nine flights of stairs by his coworkers who were clearly not doing the profit and loss accounting. What the fuck is that about about? It’s about a solidarity so deep that it’s instinctual but were those people all the time and it’s extraordinary.
And that’s what some of my work has been about, is to really try and just map out that enormous network of solidarity, of generosity, of altruism. Some of which is very intentional like spiritual practice, like founding a nonprofit to for example deal with prisoners rights. But some of which is just like…in those moments of urgency it’s so instinctual it suggests that that’s who we really are. In a sense, I think capitalism has always been a failure.
Anderson: If that structure exists and that structure is predicated on a certain type of—
Anderson: —individualist mindset, do you just have to get rid of the structure?
Solnit: You mean the structure that’s capitalism?
Solnit: Well, I think that…
Anderson: Because that’s really big and that’s difficult to imagine, right?
Solnit: Yeah. There’s a whole Marxist idea that you revolt and everything’s suddenly different forever and ever happily ever after and that it needs to be absolute and total. There’s a more anarchic sense that you can create these small and temporary utopias. Like in this very moment we’re egalitarian, our conversation is great, and our motives aren’t particularly financial. You know, it’s saying like, are our our efforts commensurate to what we’re facing? I’m not sure they are but I don’t— I always try not to talk like leftists who think the good has yet to arise. Instead I see, if we can name and recognize and value all these remarkable things; this remarkable human generosity; these spaces of liberation and democracy and justice; these places in which everybody has value and everyone has a voice, the more we can recognize that they already exist. You know, it’s as though we think we live in a wasteland but we find these little gardens. The more we can map and cherish and water and reseed those gardens and the bigger we can make them, my vision is to make them bigger and bigger and see the other things become smaller and less powerful.
Anderson: Is that part of the disquiet, then? Is that—
Anderson: —one of the things that makes this moment unique in some way, is the total rupture between what you’re outlining here which seems like it’s a biological, visceral sense of what is good, and a society that structured to not encourage that?
Solnit: Yeah. Well, what I think what this society often tells us is that good isn’t possible because our evil, selfish, venal, competitive and often sort of brutish natures… And you know, my research has suggested something completely different. I would say that the objective issue I care most about is climate change but I feel that the deepest way of addressing that is by looking at the stories we tell. The way that we need to change to address climate change is anti-capitalist. To be anti-capitalist, first of all we have to believe that a very different world is possible. And to believe that we have to believe that a very different sense of self, and a very different sense of worth and value is possible.
And so we need to change the stories, you know. That’s one of the fundamental underlying things. People often think that responding to climate change will impoverish us. And what I find very beautiful, for example, about Bill McKibben’s vision of what our lives would be like if we truly responded to climate change and led the lives that will allow us to go back to 350 parts of carbon per million in the atmosphere, is that in many ways our lives would become richer. Because we’re always being told we’re rich because we have 72″ flat-screen TVs and you know, 170 horsepower engines, and 8,000 disposable pieces of clothing, whatever. But our lives are so impoverished by lack of time, lack of security, lack of confidence about the future, lack of deep connection to ourselves and the people around us. And the lives that we really need to respond to climate change. And this I think could be almost more a conservative vision (minus the repression of women, maybe) is that in a world where we need to produce less and consume less, we would be rich in time, we would be rich in relationship to place, we’d be rich in the sense that we are doing the best we can for the future and we can be more confident about that future we’re so disquiet about now. We would be rich in our relationship to the material world because food and energy would be largely localized. It comes out of you know, kind of corporate advertising and that capitalist mindset to suggest that what’s required to take care of the environment is all about deprivation and restriction and unhappiness. Because you know, if that’s true then we really should just keep buying lots of plastic, disposable crap and being online more and more. But, I think it’s the other way around that our happiness lies in other things and that pursuing these greater goods actually makes us happy.
What’s most challenging is being audible enough to offer counternarratives about where our happiness lies, what we’re capable of, what human nature is. But the work is being done.
Anderson: As there is all of this cause for hope, and as there’s a lot of progress, you still have to ask like, is that enough?
Solnit: You know, it’s not yet. I have to say the American climate movement, with the leadership of 350 and to a significant extent the Sierra Club, and all these grassroots groups, the groups against fracking, the groups against the tar sands pipeline. The people pushing solar initiatives and divestment campaigns. You know, that the climate movement in this country is absolutely extraordinary. If it continues to grow at the rate that it’s growing it might really do something, but that’s a scary thing. It’s not like I want anyone to suffer, but human rights, or the end of dictatorships or something, you know…it could happen in another generation if it doesn’t happen this. Whereas with the climate it’s so damn urgent.
And I referred to my whole project as snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.
Anderson: [laughing] God, that’s a great description.
Solnit: Well, you know, they helped. You know so many people who think if we don’t win everything we lose everything. But, we’re never going to win everything. And in a way, the climate is the dealbreaker, though, because it is all or nothing. There’s only one climate, you know. You can liberate Zimbabwe without liberating South Africa. You can have same-sex marriage become legal in Delaware without it being legal in West Virginia. But there’s only one climate. At any point in history we can continue to do things that will impact it one way or another. But we’re facing massive destruction. A lot of it’s inevitable at this point but I still think that there’s a lot that could be done. That if we made the radical changes that we can make that a country like Germany has already made, that so many people are ready to make, we could really do it. I would like to see the oil corporations cease to exist. We need to go back to you know, the breaking up of Standard Oil 100 years ago. You know, no corporation should be that powerful, particularly over things that are the wealth of the Earth that should not be private. I think that things like Facebook and Google should be public commons managed for the public good and not serving private interest. The same way that we used to consider things like the telephone system, a kind of commons. I think that one of things that’s been really interesting looking at the absolute lack of respect for our privacy by these corporations is looking at how hard librarians battled to refuse to hand over our library records to the Bush administration not that many years ago. And you see, there’s a whole other group of people managing our information with an absolutely beautiful, idealistic set of values that’s existed for a very long time. We need people like that in charge of these systems, who believe in the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment, believe in the public good, and believe that they’re public servants and do an extraordinary good job of it. Maybe I want librarians to run the world.
Aengus Anderson: Librarians should rule the world. I should say that in the…three years since I’ve recorded this interview, I have taken a job at a library system.
Neil Prendergast: Have you gotten any power yet?
Anderson: I have gotten…no power. But I’m hoping that by ending it on this note, maybe I will get some power when the librarians hear this.
Prendergast: Well let me begin the discussion with some that I really liked about the conversation that the two of you had. That’s that it’s so clear that she views her project as creating a narrative context for thinking. I probably wasn’t the only person who was taken aback a little bit to learn that the Victorian age ended in about the mid-1990s.
Anderson: She lived a long time.
Prendergast: Old, old Queen Victoria. But no, I think that’s an indication of what she’s up to. For me listening, I know a lot about the environmental movement. And the thing that I caught on right away was that so many people view the environment as more of a problem, sort of pre- the Clean Air Act, pre- Clean Water Act, pre- Earth Day, thinking that that’s when we didn’t have any rules in place and things were bad but now we’re cleaning it up and it’s better. And gosh, her writing on the environment is all about how no, more recently things have gotten a lot worse. So, she reframes history.
Anderson: As you mentioned with 1994, the way she frames it as the end of this era is really interesting. And like a lot of what she does I feel it’s provocative and it makes you think about that moment, which seems in so many ways like this mundane moment just as the collapse of the 19th century was—I mean at the time seems so mundane. And yet, when you look at it in retrospect it’s absolutely not. And I liked that. I mean, that moment sort of jumped out at me. It’s a moment that we all lived through, that we remember pretty well. But at the time it certainly didn’t seem like a moment of any import at all.
Prendergast: And, even if she does make that big demarcation there, she’s also arguing for a little bit of continuity. It seems that the critique she has of Google and Facebook are quite similar to the Southern Pacific Railroad. In both instances you know, we have these large monopolies that really have a lot of power in American culture.
Anderson: You know something that we do have to really think about is, she mentions the technological break that happens with the railroad, with the telegraph. That’s a huge break in patterns of life. In one way, like, thinking about 1994 as this end of an era of earlier communications technologies and moving into this like, multitasking frenetic world, I don’t know if I really buy it? Was there a stately grace to the era of the telegraph? I’m sure people who lived through the era of pre-telegraph and post-telegraphy really felt that like, the stately grace of occasionally having your mail show up via Pony Express, that was like the stately grace, you know, and I’m sure they felt that was lost.
So it’s interesting because I feel like she argues for two different things. And both are kind of compelling.
Prendergast: I think she’d agree with you that it’s hard to notice the moment. I think she has this phrase in there actually where she says it’s not clear to most people that this changes everything. And of course that’s the title of Naomi Klein’s new book about the threat of climate change to capitalism. And you need a book of that name to alert us to that change.
Saul: As you were talking just now about her discussion of both 1994 as the end of an era but also there being these other big moments of change previously that one could…maybe also argue as the end of an era, it got me thinking about the initial thesis of this project, which is that we are living in a moment of great change, or even that there are these inflection points in history. And I’m wondering if, as we’ve gone further along in the project if that thesis even makes that much sense to me anymore?
So, since we’re winding it down I kind of wanted to just throw that out. How do we feel about that thesis now? Because we feel two different ways about what she’s saying about one of these inflection points. Do we believe that those inflection points even exist anymore?
Anderson: God, that’s hard. That’s like, what is the sum total of these almost seventy interviews? And I do feel so strongly both ways. You know, it does feel like…well, some points are clearly pivot points. But then you do get into studying narratives more and the way we tell the stories. And as we look in Solnit’s conversation like, these narratives are constructed and they have flaws and sometimes they’re contradictory. Even as they are both persuasive, and maybe they are both in some ways real even as they are contradictory. Instinctually? They’re kind of are moments where things change…and I think those are moments of the historians create.
Prendergast: As the historian in the group let me say this, then. We can’t afford, though, to look away if in fact there is something changing. And I think that’s why we need all these people in the conversation. To alert us that hey, something’s going on here.
Anderson: So, basically like, if we held the mindset that while things are always changing, which is in one sense true, it is in another sense really stupid to hold that point of view because then you do lose the texture, right?
Prendergast: You throw your hands up, you’re not a part of how that change is going to happen. That doesn’t strike me as very wise.
Anderson: This is The Conversation, and that was Rebecca Solnit, interviewed in San Francisco, California on June 19th, 2013.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.