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. 

Anderson: Yeah.

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—

Solnit: Yeah.

Anderson: —indi­vid­u­al­ist mind­set, do you just have to get rid of the structure?

Solnit: You mean the struc­ture that’s capitalism?

Anderson: Yeah.

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—

Solnit: Yeah.

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 19th2013.

Further Reference

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