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Talking Resilience with Chuck Collins: Welcome to the Future

July 10, 2015

Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience.

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Chuck Collins is a board member at Post Carbon Institute, and senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Chuck is co-founder of the Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition in Boston, MA and co-chair of Divest-Invest Individual. His present work examines how to build community resilience and make a healthy transition to the new sustainable economy. He recently turned himself in for arrest after creatively protesting a gas pipeline in his neighborhood.

Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute and a former Bostonian, shared the following conversation with him.

Ken: How do you define community resilience?

Chuck: I think of it as the qualities that allow a community to respond to change, and to transition. Seems like we’re in a period of permanent transition, both economic and ecological, so how is it that we can live? How will we be able to live in the future, assuming a certain amount of ecological and economic change?

And in the case of community resilience, it’s not just how do we prepare ourselves individually, psychologically, but how as a community do we get ourselves in shape for the transition?

Ken: Sounds like physical fitness for communities.

Chuck: I think so, yeah. It’s like [there’s] an atrophying of mutual aid muscles and relationships and institutions. We have religious congregations, but they tend to not be places where people come together and talk about their economic lives. We have neighborhood organizations that are engaged around the development of issues in the neighborhood. We have neighborhood associations and blocks, but…[most] people don’t know their neighbors. People don’t know who’s vulnerable, and who’s got capacity and resources. So some of it is just taking stock of what we already have. And most people are just kind of living [day-to-day], and so don’t have a lot of slack to think about the present and the future.

Ken: You mentioned different future and transition, so transition to what?

Chuck: Well, I think of it as a transition to a new economy that lives within ecological limits, that is equitable, meaning that we don’t have these grotesque inequalities based on distortions in the economy. So: a healthy, more equal, ecologically viable existence.

Ken: I know you’re doing some great work here in Jamaica Plain and throughout New England, what does it look like on the ground, to see community resilience?

Chuck: Well, we’ve just lived through a pretty extraordinary winter. To put that in context: starting in the middle of January, we had four snowstorms where a total of over 80-90 inches of snow fell. So if you think about weird weather, strained infrastructure, fights over austerity and the role of government, neighbors helping neighbors but also a certain amount of stress and anger and scapegoating that also happened, well,…welcome to the future.

I mean, this is where we are heading. We are heading to weird weather incidents. We are heading towards strained infrastructure. [During the snowstorms,] our transit system literally shut down.

So people had this experience of things grinding to almost a halt, and our community and government being incapable of response, so people began to ask system questions about preparedness and readiness.

When we think about in practice, [question arise like]: How much are people in relationship? How much are people able to know their neighbors and help them? How much preparedness have we done? What is the civic infrastructure there? How do we support one another and keep our spirits up?

There was a huge number of people who couldn’t get to work. People with salaries got a paycheck whether they got to work or not, but a huge number of people—if they didn’t show up at their job, they weren’t paid. People estimate several billion dollars of lost wages, lost business revenue. So that’s going to ripple through the economy in the coming months. People behind in rent, behind in mortgages, defaulting on loans etc. How do we help one another in that situation?

We were lucky in some respects because we had light snow without a lot of freezing rain, but there was one weekend where, the forecast was for 5 inches of freezing rain, and if that had come to pass, we could have started to see the electric grid go down. We would have started to see roofs and buildings collapse, so we would have gone from very inconvenient to very dangerous in a very short time. I for one was extremely aware of how ill-prepared we were. If this was the emergency resilience test, we’re not ready.

So, we can now build on this event, this regional event, to have conversations with people about just that. You would enjoy this: We were having a community forum, an educational events about cooperative business. Well, it got snowed out, the speakers couldn’t get there, etc. But we decided to go ahead and have an event in the back room of Doyle’s Pub, we called it “Burning Snow Man,” and it was a meetup for anybody who could get there to come together and share stories of how we were faring: How are you managing in this storm? We put it out as a little “story slam”: Come with your one- to two-minute story on the good, the bad, the ugly about this storm.

Fifty people came out on one day’s notice. They had to walk there because the roads weren’t plowed and trains weren’t running. People came, they loved being together, the restaurant loved that we were there because it was empty. Fifteen people got up and told fabulous one- to two-minute stories about neighbors helping neighbors, neighbors mad at their neighbors—just how people were faring, and it was a morale boost. And it was a reminder that in times like that, we need to come together. We had this idea that if this [weather] keeps going, we’re going to do this at local neighborhood restaurants. Call for these meetups, little Burning Snow Man meetups at neighborhood restaurants, and encourage people.

[More] programmatically, Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition is looking at the regional food system. We helped start a farmers’ market, we have a food forest project, and…community gardening [projects]. We are interested in community energy, partnering with Co-op Power, and groups like that. We are interested in the bartering and gift economy, and strengthening that because it has the positive effect of strengthening the neighborhood. So we’ve created our own Local Time Exchange. We’ve experimented with alternative currencies. We have monthly potlucks for participants just to make it face-to-face and more robust. We’re interested in emergency preparedness, and we’ve been doing these kind of block parties—we call them “Preparedness Pie Parties”—where people get together and have a pizza pie or an apple pie, just to look at how prepared are we as a neighborhood, and how do we map that. So those are just a couple of examples, maybe just half the examples, of the work we are doing in this space.

Ken: Is there any video of Burning Snow Man online?

Chuck: No. Turns out though that on March 20th, the last day of winter, is when in some communities, people actually do burn snowmen. I only found that out by Googling it, looking for graphic images.

Ken: [Laughing] Is there a connection between the work you’ve been doing so far, and how people responded to this recent weird weather?

Chuck: I think we tried to do that in a couple ways. We actually had a remarkable event with Toby Hemenway doing a talk about permaculture and agriculture, and we had 120 people come out…it just happened to be a night that there wasn’t a blizzard, so people could come. They took their sleds and sled dogs and skied over to the meeting place, and it was a great gathering. I think we tried to connect the dots as much as possible that these are weird weather events that are testing us, that this is what the future will look like, and these are the reasons why we want to do regional and permaculture agriculture, and kind of really look at our food systems.

The other interesting thing is Boston is a finalist [to host] the 2024 Olympics. There’s a big debate about the Olympics and a lot of people are [saying], the Olympics could be helpful in marketing the city and building the city. And a lot of people are opposed to it, thinking it is a misplacement of priorities. I think it would be an interesting exercise to say, “Let’s develop a regional and city plan for equitable and resilient development. What would be the investments we’d like to make over the next 15 years to make our city prepared for rising sea levels, prepared for increased precipitation which is New England’s future forecast, prepare our aging infrastructure, prepare for economic disruptions and how we live in those situations?”

Let’s put that plan together and then let’s look at: “Is there any way that the resources that would come to the community around the Olympics could actually support that plan?” And there are some ways it could support it. There’s a lot of ways it could undermine [the plan], so that to me would be the criteria if we’re going to go through the spectacle of hosting a global Olympics. Let’s make sure it adds to the transition process.

Ken: You’ve talked a lot about different elements that go into your work. Is there a framework that you’re using, is there an overarching, “Here’s how this all fits together”?

Chuck: Well, I would say the framework in part comes from the work of the Post Carbon Institute and others, who help us to understand the potential disruption that may come as we transition from a fossil fuel economy to a post carbon economy. So that’s one framework.

The other framework I would [say] is class and racial equity. How do we reduce inequality in a steady state economy? It’s a very different playbook than say, after World War II, when we reduced inequality through expanding a middle class, expanding middle class consumption, driving the economic engine to expand essentially the white middle class. So we are trying to think about what does it mean if you don’t have the same playbook, if you don’t have the same toolbox to grow the economy. We believe we are in a transition to a post-carbon, low-growth economy.

[Another] framework [I’d add] is to really think about what matters. [Traditional] economics isn’t really helping us in that discussion. What really matters in terms of the quality of life in community, what is real wealth? Real wealth being the health of the ecological commons and the vibrancy of the social commons, not this sort of financial paper wealth that’s being advertised as the Holy Grail of human existence. There’s other measures, so let’s create our own index for the quality of life and the vibrancy of our communities and meaningful livelihoods, and measure ourselves against those.

Ken: You’ve got an interesting metric that you’ve used here in JP, an aspirational goal that you’re putting out.

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Chuck: Well, we actually tried to do some resilience indicator work. You know, you can kind of go down the list and say: What percentage of calories are produced within our neighborhood, and within our region? What/how many people draw their livelihoods not from commuting downtown to work in the paper wealth economy, but are actually tied into the real economy of goods and services? How robust are the exchange networks? But there’s a lot of people trying to think about that, as well as other new indicators, and we want to learn from that too.

Ken: You’ve talked about making JP cancer free by 2030 as one way of measuring progress. Do you want to speak about that?

Chuck: It was really the people from the public health community that said to us, well, wouldn’t a transition to a new economy also include a transition away from the toxic and carcinogenic byproducts? How can we become healthier? Jamaica Plain has a higher than statewide incidence of certain kinds of cancer. We also have higher exposure to certain toxic chemicals, and unfortunately some of those chemicals are in use in neighborhood businesses that we want to thrive and stay around. So they are in beauty parlors and beauty salons, cleaning and dry cleaning and automotive shops, and in cleaning substances that restaurants and businesses use. They are all using things that make their employees sick, that make customers sick, so how do we help them make that transition without going out of business?

So one of our projects has been to help those businesses figure out how to use safe alternatives, and how to drive more customers to support those businesses. We had a dry cleaner that, like most of them, used to use perchloroethylene, a known carcinogen. This is an immigrant-owned dry cleaner, so we worked with them to both get grants from the state, and also crowd source capital from the neighborhood—from 150 individuals who contributed to the financing of their transition to becoming the area’s first wet cleaner, [using a] completely green, nontoxic alternative.

We’re inspired by California, which has banned Perc by 2023. We want to do a similar thing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, sort of phase out and ban Perc, but we don’t want to just drive these [people] out of business. We want them to make the transition to the new economy and flourish. Now we’re working with automotive and auto body shops, beauty salons and dry cleaners, artists in the community…. There’s a lot of artists, a lot of home studios that use unhealthy toxic chemicals, and we want our artists to be healthy. So all of those are points of intervention that we think are part of this transition.

Ken: And do you find that helps broaden the conversation—both in terms of getting beyond just talking about financing small business to what kind of small business, and why, and what kind of economy—as well as making the transition to talking about issues of class and race and public health and all the other things that go into [your work]?

Chuck: Yeah, I’m excited by the way it does just as you described. There are these fundraising walks for various cancer research efforts, and actually the walkers come through our neighborhood [Jamaica Plain has lovely pedestrian/bike paths that circle the pond, go through the parks, and connect up with paths in other neighborhoods]. People are walking, raising money for the cure, and [we’re asking]: “You know what, we don’t want to be walking for the cure, we want to march to deal with the cause of the cancer. Let’s look upstream at the cause of the cancer.”

That engages a lot of people, because people have really been touched by cancer, they’ve been touched by environmental illness, and it’s a place where you can have a wider conversation. Don’t we want an economy that makes us healthy? Certainly our economy shouldn’t be making us sick. So it’s a way to…you know, what’s more personal than your physical health?

And I think there is a certain recognition, “Oh yeah, we can raise millions of dollars,” [and we also] have the very, very, best of treatment in the world [here in Boston], and yet we have these known carcinogen chemicals in our environment. Shouldn’t our hospitals be involved in this? Why are they using these toxic cleaning products and cleaning substances? Why don’t they bring their business to our neighborhood wet cleaner? So we’re engaging the hospitals to go outside their walls and ask, “How do you support community health? Support our local food system? Support our local producers? Support our farmers’ markets? If you want people to be healthy, make sure they have access to healthy food.” So I think it’s a way to enlarge that conversation.

Ken: You mentioned about sourcing locally, you and I were talking earlier about the importance of having commitment to local sourcing from place-based institutions.

Chuck: Yeah, we are surrounded by hospitals and universities. Boston has a couple of hundred institutions of higher learning. We know one college—Hampshire College in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts—made a commitment over the next five years to source as much food as possible, I think 100% of their food (not including seafood and coffee or something like that) from within 50-100 miles in the Pioneer Valley. So all of a sudden, you have a demand. You’ve created a huge demand and that gives local producers the ability to enter into long-term contracts with the institution to provide eggs and vegetables and milk and whatever. This allows them to grow and increase their capacity and add jobs in the local economy.

We have some examples of that in Boston. We have a local bakery that is now the source of chocolate chip cookies for two of the major education institutions. Turns out college students eat an incredible number of chocolate chip cookies, usually between the hours of midnight and 2AM! [Editor: Who knew?] The Haley House Bakery & Kitchen, which trains people coming out of [homelessness and] the criminal justice system how to be bakers and business leaders, is the source now.

So why couldn’t we replicate that with other food products, with other institutions? These institutions derive a tremendous benefit from being based in our community, and often don’t pay any property taxes. The least we can do is ask them to direct some of their supply chain to the neighborhoods, to the new economy enterprises.

Ken: I want to wrap back to something you were talking about earlier, the relationship between community resilience and justice.

Chuck: It’s illusory to think that we can have resilience without equity, with high levels of extreme inequality. The more we pull apart, the more unequal we become as a society, the more unstable it is, and the more suffering and pain and fear and disconnection there is. And community resilience is a function of connection. People being in a relationship with one another, being able to attend to each other’s needs, to not build walls and fences and gated communities, whether they are with actual gates, or whether they’re just using the police power of the state to enforce divisions. The housing market divides people.

It’s really not in anybody’s long-term interest to kind of move in this direction. We can ask people, “Do you want to become Rio de Janeiro, or do you want to be Stockholm?” Because we are heading towards Rio de Janeiro; we’re heading towards extreme, grotesque inequality, that’s the autopilot of this economic engine—to move us further apart. Or we can intervene in that, and become a sustainable Stockholm.

Ken: Just pushing on that a little bit, how do you incorporate equity into community resilience building?

Chuck: Well, I think it is partly in the tables that we’re building. We do a big event every year called the “State of the Neighborhood Forum,” which is our big gathering. 300-400 neighbors come together we have our elected officials there, we have very specific working groups that have been thinking about public policy demands. This year, we focused on housing as an issue because…we’re just seeing extraordinary escalating housing costs.

So, attending to the fundamentals of cost of housing, cost of food, cost of access to transportation, the ability of people to start rooted businesses and earn a livelihood and a decent living wage—all those are pretty core to community resilience. It’s really, essentially part of our definition of resilience.

[We] particularly pay attention to younger people, who are really feeling the brunt of these inequalities. People over 35 really don’t understand it’s a whole new ball game for younger people in terms of many of them are carrying huge amounts of personal debt, credit card debt, and college loans (if they went to college), or other forms of indebtedness. They don’t have the earnings to pay those debts. So we see that play out very, very concretely.

Some of our Jamaica Plain New Economy Fellows—young people who are trying to learn to participate in this economy—are doubled up and tripled up in apartments with curtains down the middle of the living room so that they can have half a room of privacy. It’s not your parents’ economy.

And then even low-wage workers are victims of this “Just In Time” scheduling regime, where you go to work at a restaurant and after four hours they let you off for two hours and tell you to come back [later]. They punch you out, off the clock [for a couple of hours], and then you work three more hours. You were hoping to earn enough money from a nine-hour shift, and you’ve been paying childcare for nine hours, but you’re only getting paid for six or seven hours. This is a new development in a lot of economic sectors, where we’re shifting all the risk onto workers and [off] the businesses.

So there’s a couple of examples.

Ken: Could you say a little bit more about the difference [you observe] between the viewpoint and the experience of people over 35, and those under 35?

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Chuck: I think that people, say over 40—middle class, upper middle class, white professionals, the Boomers—are thinking that the economy is very similar to the economy they grew up in. That you grow up, graduate from high school, some people go to college, you learn skills, you graduate, you get a job in the area of your study, you have retirement security, you have access to healthcare, you are able to afford housing based on that salary, you might not be able to own a house, but you’re able to rent in the economy.

What we are actually seeing as part of the growing inequality is that it cuts generationally very hard. Unemployment rates are high and wages are low for graduates of high school, graduates of college, people are holding debt. And that debt is not like your parents’ school loan, where people laughed about student debt, to the extent they had it in the 70s and 80s, “Yeah, I have my student loan; I’ll pay that someday.”

Now they can garnish your wages, they can take away your professional certificate, they’re exempted from bankruptcy laws. They might as well create debtor farms for young people.

The inequalities are just growing out. There’s a segment of young people who, thanks to family wealth, are sort of propelled fast, and so they have accumulating advantages. And then there’s a larger segment of people who I would characterize as having accumulating, or compounding, disadvantages: growing debt, low wages,…just essentially being trapped. So all the indicators show that these inequalities are really are substantially different for people under 35.

Ken: One question we like to ask people is: What’s one form of support—other than money—that would most help your efforts around community resilience building?

Chuck: I think that it’s helpful to know what other communities are doing; it’s helpful to have a sense of imagination and best practices. In New England, we’ve built a regional network, the New England New Economy Network, and we have gatherings and meetings and ways of sharing information. Money would be helpful in the sense that some of these projects could use a little bit of light staffing, but we also have these underemployed and unemployed people, who might be able to barter time and talent. So we are trying to figure out, outside the monetary economy, how do we tap into that energy, and ways to do that would be helpful.

Good storytelling, across communities, I think would be helpful, and having a sense that we are part of something bigger, and even something global, to help us learn across national boundaries as well. We’ve learned a lot from what people are doing in the UK, and now more and more from the Global South.

Having roving troubadours come through our town with stories and lessons and songs from other regions is part of that sense of a movement that we would like to be part of and would benefit from.

Ken: This is an incredibly unfair question to ask someone who works at the Institute for Policy Studies, but if you had to pick one policy or social/political change, what would it be?

Chuck: Well, I’m going to answer that probably a little bit differently…I think because we are in a period of unprecedented concentrated wealth and we have an ecological crises, I would make the case for a wealth tax/carbon tax.

So, taxing concentrated wealth, estate tax, inheritance taxes, and taxing carbon consumption—I guess that’s two policies—but dedicating the revenue to something that expands opportunity and community resilience. Whether it’s debt-free access to education, early childhood education, or just puts income in people’s pockets. We have to do something to slow the concentration of wealth at the top, and I would argue that it probably really should be a tax policy, and that that revenue should be dedicated to something that expands opportunity. Or creates green infrastructure. Drives some of the public investments we need to make to have a green transition.

If I could put one little intervention in place, it would be put a price on carbon and break up concentrations of wealth, and dedicate that revenue to things that address infrastructure and inequality of opportunity.

Ken: In your work, what resources have been particularly helpful, whether it’s ideas or books or information or videos or examples…what do you recommend for people?

Chuck: Even before we started Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition we sort of had a film and lecture series that we benefited from films, documentaries, speakers Richard Heinberg and David Korten, Annie Leonard talking about “The Story of Stuff,” and Francis Moore Lappe, Van Jones, and Rob Hopkins from England. All these people have come through and sort of given us stories, and helped educate our wider community. I told you we had Toby Hemenway, who wrote Gaia’s Garden permaculture book.

We’ve had six-seven years of community conversations about these issues, and that’s led to a really good base of a couple of thousand people who’ve been touched in some way by those educational programs. And that’s really the base for the work that we’ve done. [And we] keep it coming.

We had Marjorie Kelly come and talk about owning the future, the difference between extractive capitalism and generative capitalism. We had Gar Alperovitz come and talk about “America Beyond Capitalism,” what would that look like? Francis Moore Lappe talking about “Eco Mind,” how to we change how we think about these things. So, all those have been gifts to our own ability to imagine the future differently, and actually be very, very, practical and concrete in terms of what are some things we could do.

Ken: You mentioned community conversations, can we end with that?

Chuck: That’s where we have the Jamaica Plain Forum, we probably do three or four events a month. Tomorrow night we are actually having a forum on gentrification with an attorney who worked in San Francisco in the Mission around the polarization in that neighborhood. We have some experience of that—we don’t have Google moving in next-door—but we have other forces that are driving up costs in our community. So she’s coming to talk about the San Francisco experience. We have a fracked gas pipeline proposed to come through our region, so we’re having a big “teach-in” about the pipelines. We design those to be both provocative and informative, but also as a place where neighbors can meet one another. We encourage people to pair up and talk to one another, and get to know your neighbors as well as get some new ideas.

Ken: And do you find that you preach beyond the proverbial choir?

Chuck: You know, it depends on the topic and the framing. Some events tend to pull in older people, some pull in younger people. Having done it for a while, we’ve learned something about how to connect and market them. So yeah, we’ve definitely reached beyond the choir.

Ken: Any other recommendations on books, film, speakers, resources, websites?

Chuck: We have a good partnership with Yes! magazine, we’ve put a lot of Yes! magazines into peoples hands. One project people may not have heard of is an organization called Class Action, that has a website called classism.org. They do a lot of training on thinking about social class, and how class is the missing link in a lot of movements.

Obviously we’ve been talking a lot about race and #BlackLivesMatter, looking at the interaction between race and class and how that affects community and how we think about it.

I think people should definitely check out the Labor Network for Sustainability, because they are talking about both the ecological crisis and the concerns of workers — and bridging the labor and environmental gap, and the work of Joe Uehlein and the Labor Network for Sustainability is absolutely key to moving us forward. So those are a few resources.

Ken: Thanks so much, Chuck, and thanks for all your good work.