Talking Resilience with Vicki Robin: We Have Enough Together
August 5, 2015
Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience.
Vicki Robin is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence. Her most recent book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; what eating closer to home can teach us about food, community and our place on earth tells how her experiment in 10-mile eating not only changed how she ate, but also renewed her hope and rooted her in her community. The New York Times called her the “prophet of consumption downsizers.” Throughout this conversation, she refers to efforts in her community, many of them through the Whidbey Island Institute and Transition Whidbey.
Ken White is the Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute.
Vicki: Those are great interviews. I don’t know if I can add anything to the conversation…my word.
Ken: Well, thanks for having a peek at them. Yeah, we’ve been talking with some great people.
Vicki: [Doria Robinson is] talking about just what I’m talking about, that limits aren’t bad. Limits are creative. That she can talk about that from the point of view of a person of color is really helpful, because for a white, privileged lady,..it sounds different from me, so I really appreciated reading hers.
Ken: I’d like to hear your perspective on that, if you don’t mind sharing?
Vicki: I think there’s a conversation we need to have in the United States, and probably every society that’s influenced by the American mind, about the value of limits, and the limits of freedom. It’s a conversation that is an anathema to the American mind, because we have developed what I consider a fairly degraded sense of freedom, which is entitlement, “I can do whatever I want whenever I want and you can’t stop me.”
It’s a product of hyper-individualism. Individualism was a really good innovation back with the Greeks. It liberated a lot of energy for creativity, for civilization creation. No aspect of the human psyche or the human experiment is bad in and of itself. It just gets out of control if it loses its counterpart.
The idea of the autonomous individual, the self-aware individual who can create—that’s in all of us. And that’s the beauty of, I think, the American Experiment…. For all the downside of colonialism, it’s been this process of the unleashing of human minds and innovation.
But it’s come to a point where we have forgotten. We’ve been inducted into a sense that limits are just something you just break. You break through your limits (kind of like the Tony Robbins thing), or you break down the wall, or you break up with your boyfriend. It’s this idea that we create freedom by breaking the containers that hold us back, what we perceive as in the way.
In doing that breaking maybe we have this sort of temporary experience of exhilaration when the wall comes down. We all know how that feels. You fall in love, and the walls of your personal prison fall down, and, “Oh my God I’m free!”
Then you have a relationship, and you think, “Oh God, this is terrible! I can’t stand it anymore.” And then you break up, and then you go, “Oh my God, I’m free!”
There is a feeling of exhilaration at that moment, but it is not creating anything of real value. It’s just creating exhilaration through breaking something.
Anyway, we’ve gotten into this habit of mind that’s so deep in us, that it’s almost unquestionable.
I realized this when I was doing the work with Your Money or Your Life, and trying to teach people the value of “enough.” Somebody hears “enough,” and they go, “I’m not going to be able to have my ice cream. I’m not going to be able to get my new car.”
“Enough” sounds like deprivation when your mind is soaked in this notion of entitlement. It’s really a tough nut to crack in the American psyche.
Years ago, I tried to develop some sort of language for limits, to have Americans fall in love with limits the way we’ve fallen in love with freedom. Sort of like one of those like Homer Simpson moments, “D’oh! Why did I think I was just going to throw away limits? That was stupid, because limits are cool!”
A set of limits creates a container, a structure within which things happen. There is no freedom without limits. Number one, because they’re a pair. They’re a duality. If you think about a universe without limits, it’s sort of something that comes into being and goes out of being in a nanosecond. It is the constraining forces that create everything, whether it’s creating a house, or creating a relationship. It’s the rules. It’s the agreements. It’s the discernment. It’s all of these things. That’s what allows us to express freedom. A set of limits is a design through which freedom flows.
Limits are not in the way. They are the way. They’re the shaping tools of freedom. If you want to experience freedom, you need to be able to be a master of this kind of design.
That’s the essence I’m trying in some way express through all of the content of my work, whether it’s [about] money, or time, or stuff, or food. All of my content has that quality to it.
We’re a multiplying species on a finite planet, trying to enact freedom – spiritual freedom, which is limitlessness – in a material form, like a new car. We’re trying to get a feeling that is a longing in our hearts to go beyond, but that longing is best expressed through love, and through our spiritual self-expressions. That’s where we have limitless freedom, and that’s what we [shouldn’t] pay attention when we think freedom is a car, or a house, or a boat, or a vacation, or a whatever.
That’s my sense of what limits offer us.
Limits are also values, “This, I will. This, I won’t. This, I will let in my life.”
It’s a question of some sort of conscious boundaries…. It’s not like breaking through boundaries as if they’re not there. It’s like a consciousness of the intelligence of a boundary. The term “ecotone” captures this. An ecotone is the boundary territory between two ecosystems, where the majority of speciation happens…. [I]t’s that contact with novelties [while] preserving your identity, [that] creates speciation. It’s now like we are trying to create a new species of human consciousness.
How can we evolve? Like, “I be free, and you be free, and they be free, and we be free.” How can all that happen? There’s just no way that that happens out of hyper-individualism. That happens when we evolve into a new point of view. That’s the opportunity at a level of the psyche, and…I’m hoping if people develop an experience for—and an appetite for—that kind of design creativity, they’re going to feel like they got out ahead of the curve of what’s facing us.
All of the problems that are facing us are problems of misunderstanding of freedom and limits, whether it’s ecological death, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s economic meltdowns, whether it’s injustice and privilege. All of these are where we have gone beyond the bounds of the appropriate, and we’ve got winners and losers, and the winners won’t let go, because they think winning is staying outside of the community of life.
Ken: So, your work is designed to give people an experiential sense of this, and what it’s like to actually experience limits. Not in a heavy-handed, deprivation way, but in a fun, challenging, “Let’s do this!” kind of way.
Vicki: Exactly. Games are created out of limits. It’s a set of rules. You have a simple set of rules that make an interesting game, like on a football field. Then you can have what James Carse calls (in his book, Finite and Infinite Games), “infinite play.” Playing to play, not to win, and you just keep the game going. For me, sustainability is like a game. Yes, I know it’s serious, but it’s like a game.
For example, “Your Money or Your Life” was a nine-step program. Here’s the game: You track your money. You devoutly weigh your spending according to what you think life is about. Am I spending my life energy in a way that serves my purpose in life, [that] serves life itself? If not, no shame, no blame. Let’s see what’s going on there. No guilt, just course correction. Do I really need this new pair of shoes if what I really say I’m about is resilience?
That was the “Your Money or Your Life” game, and it was a liberating game, because…you set up rules in which “winning” is sufficiency [in] an infinite game. [Unlike] Monopoly, where winning is owning everything, [and then] stopping the game.
Then the Conversation Cafés was another project I did about public dialogue…. The conversations that we have with one another are part of what shapes our capacity to make intelligent decisions. Some friends and I asked, “What’s the minimal structure that will allow friends, neighbors, and strangers in public places like cafés to shift from small talk to big talk?”
The Conversation Café process and agreements is that minimal structure…if we could have taken away one more element, we would have. That little technology for group conversation spread around the country, now around the world, and now it’s accepted by the dialogue and deliberation community as a doorway in—the simplest method that communities can use in emergency responses, etc.
And now I’m on to food. In 2010 I asked myself, “Could I for 30 days eat within a 10-mile radius of my home?” Allowing myself four exotics, foods from afar that I couldn’t live without, foods that would have made the game not a game. I’m not going to live without coffee! I gave myself the minimum amount of exotics, and I didn’t wiggle it at all. If you set a constraint like that, you learn your buns off, because you clearly see when you have this entitled consciousness. When I did that, I discovered a lot about myself, my own habits, my own demands. Definitely. I joke that, when asked my favorite position, I say, “After 9 o’clock, in a darkened kitchen, with a spoon in my hand, and the refrigerator door open.”
Ken: Looking for one of those exotics, right?
Vicki: Yeah, really. I eat for sport. I eat for emotions. When I’m happy, I eat. When I’m sad, I eat. I celebrate, I eat. I’m bored, I eat. When I’m tired, I eat. It’s just insane. So I could see that I’m a massive food abuser, and frankly a lot of people are. We just don’t recognize it because food is easy to eat, and we don’t have to do anything other then have some money to get it.
Because of the game constraints, that month was one discovery after another…I discovered herbs. With only salt as an exotic, I thought, “Oh, that weed in my yard is an herb. Those are leaves, and every leaf has a different flavor, and it’s part of the plant’s ability to attract what it needs, and repel what it doesn’t want, a boundary. And those flowers, like the herbs that we use for cooking, are actually…medicinal. These plants are allies.”
I realized, “Oh my God, I am designed to fit in this world!”
I discovered that the only local food in my grocery store at that time was honey. So, 10,000 items, and nothing from where I live. I discovered that some locally produced food is illegal to sell. For example, I got milk from a neighbor’s cow, and I can’t tell you where, because raw milk is illegal. Now why is that illegal? I asked, and dove into health issues, and the history of food. I mean, I couldn’t look anywhere and not see how central food is to our whole sustainability narrative. It was almost like blinders came off. I discovered I couldn’t buy cuts of meat from my neighbor’s freezer. That was illegal. I could see that the effort to eat local food was…going to be marginal unless we get political.
The game took me all the way from my emotional addiction up to national politics and global politics. Now I can see why the TPP is a danger to local food systems. I can understand…how the “touch-and-go” test flights in my region are crashing the willingness of farmers to farm on the best land because of all the flyovers. Suddenly, you see it all.
Anyway that’s my experience. People wanted to know how they can do it. I invented this thing called the 10-Day Local Food Challenge, which is giving people a game to play that’s like my game, if a little easier. For 10 days (not 30 days), you eat only food grown within 100 miles of your home (not 10 miles), and you give yourself 10 exotics (not 4). October, (the) 10th month, 1st through 10th.
You do it as a process of self-discovery, a process of discovery of your community. I could bundle everything that I just said in terms of what I call “relational eating.”
I discovered that eating is…part of the hyper-individualistic mentality. [Many people in the US] think of eating as an act of consumption. “Food is in the store. We get food and we don’t even have to do anything other than pay for it…. Food is so easy and actually so cheap.”[W]e don’t have any relationship with the hands and lands that feed us. But when you focus on local food, you realize that your destiny is tied to your place on Earth and to the competency of the people.
You care in a way that is so much more profound, and you know that your environment, it isn’t just a nice place to live…. No, I live in a community that can feed me. That is ultimate, and that’s around relocalization and resilience and resourcefulness.[R]elational eating, what the 10-Day Local Food Challenge is offering people, is an opportunity to experience for themselves, to stop being armchair travelers in the domain of sustainability, and take on something that will really put them through a transformative process, where their actions come not out of their heads, but out of their hearts and their guts. Once you’ve engaged your heart, once your identity is not just your philosophy of local eating or relocalization or resilience, but it’s in your identity. It’s soaked through the structure of yourself. Then, everything you do will reflect that, and honestly, that’s what happened to me.
Last year, when I offered this challenge, this free-for-nothing, to see what would happen, I had a Facebook group where people reported [they] went through the same awakening.
This year, I got together with some friends and we have designed for a 10-fold increase of participants. We prepared a social collaboration and sharing site that is like Facebook where…10% of the people see your post. There’s a lot that’s wrong with Facebook, and we all know it. This [new site] is a place where people can come and they can develop learning circle, and we have a forum and places to post media. We created it so we can be a learning community…. I’m trying now to set up a collaborative game, “Hey, here’s a goal; let’s see what would happen if we headed in that direction.”
Because it will be a process of discovery…. It is going to be, “We the eaters, we the people, we the little people who are alive today. We are going to learn our way through this.”
I don’t see another way to do it, and that’s going to take a huge amount of humility but also a huge sense of fun and adventure. We have to get through that little pinhole called, “I’m right. I know what to do, and I want to be at the end of the day, I want to be on the winning team…’I’ am going to win.”
Ken: Well, we’re looking forward to playing—my wife and I are in on this one, although we may have it a little easier because we live in the Bay Area. We’re anticipating playing along and having fun.
So, this applies to the community in at least two ways. One is community in the sense of how you’re going to have to have a different kind of relationship with the people who are producing food, including yourself if you can. Second, it implies a different kind of relationship with the people who are in your life more deeply: your friends, your neighbors, your family.
Vicki: Unless you’re a survivalist, or you…put on the loincloth and are going back to total foraging by yourself. We humans are a communal species. We live in community. Agriculture is a community. It’s a community of people, animals, earth, fire, water, and air. It’s a community of soil….
We’re getting back to the hyper-individualistic thing. To think that we are lone eaters is to be completely delusional. We live in this community. We’ve used the word “community” like an online community, or my bowling league. That’s not bad, but a community of place is a different animal.
Ken: How so?
Vicki: It sets a boundary. I live on an island, so it’s way easier for people [here] to even conceive of…how a boundary allows quality to increase. We know here on this island that [if there are] earthquakes and the bridge 45 miles north goes down, [or] the ferries don’t run, we’re in this together.
Bucky Fuller talked about the Spaceship Earth. You live on an island, and you get that way better. It’s a sense of shared destiny. It sort of teaches you. If you had a fairly decent family system, [that] teaches you that you have to be a cooperator. You have to make your bed, and you have to set the table, or whatever it is. You are a household that cooperates in order to create well-being for everybody.
You take that out to your community of place, and you start to understand that [you can’t just] build the fence, and grow the hedge, and maybe we don’t have to see [the neighbors]…. I don’t know the level of capacity and interest and life experience of these people…because we’re all behind closed doors. A real community is when you start to discover the yummy inside of the people. At some level, the beginning is just shared experience.
Here where I live, we have an annual round of events that we participate in. There’s the street dance, and there’s the fair, and then there’s the county fair. [I]t doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative or libertarian or overweight or underweight or undereducated or overeducated or whatever. We all go to the fair. You are showing up in community. We all go to the market, we find each other in the market. We go to church, and find each other in church. Our kids go to summer camp, and so there is a sense that we belong to one another. We may not agree with one another in another context, we vote differently, but there is a sense of shared destiny.
I love it, but what we’re learning here [on Whidbey Island] is what anybody could learn. Over time, spontaneously, we have created…the community has created things like a local lending network. People who have money who would like to lend it to local businesses to increase the local economy, and increase the capacity of young people to raise their families here. We have almost $900,000 dollars in two years that has been loaned into our community to create businesses.
Vicki: Yeah. Many, many small one-to one-deals really, and I’ve been part of it. There’s things that are happening in my community,…that we didn’t have before…. It’s so satisfying. The people who borrow, borrow at a way lower rate than the bank would charge. It’s all determined by the agreement between lender and borrower. They borrow at a lower rate [than] they could get from the bank [which they often can’t], and I get a higher rate of return than I would ever get by putting my money in a financial institution. We’ve created that.
We have something called Hearts and Hammers, which is an annual workday to help rebuild a rotting porch, or tame the blackberry bushes, or re-roof the house, so that people who used to be able to do this for themselves and have gotten old…can stay in their homes.
Right now, we’re trying to figure out community systems for aging in place. In other words, “How do we organize ourselves as a community to create a network where people don’t have to resort to the warehouse system?” It’s sort of like Meals on Wheels on steroids. One thing that a friend of mine and I are looking to get is sort of an intergenerational care system, where you help with a “time dollar” element.
It’s natural to a community of place, people who have a shared destiny, to start taking a look at all of the needs from birth to death, and how do we solve it as a community, because it’s shared risk, shared reward. There’s something that I have that I can put into the pot,…and that enriches the set of possibilities for me as I go through life. It’s all basic sort of Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten sort of stuff. These are basic, basic thoughts of fairness and sharing and mutual aid and reciprocity. That’s what I think of when I think of a community.
You look around here, and of course, we think we’re exceptional, but I live in a village of 1,000 people, and maybe 3,000 people orient to our little grocery store and Post Office. We have five theaters here. It’s so creative. Somebody in the community just thought, “I’m going to start a Shakespeare festival, why not?” So now we have this incredible Shakespeare festival every year, it’s just jammed to the gills, and it started out a little stage in the forest, and now it’s a big open field and a huge circus tent. We did that. Somebody was thinking, “Oh, the Main Stage Theater doesn’t allow for the kind of plays I want to do,” and now we have a black box theater.
Also, in terms of food, it’s just wonderful to have started in 2010 when there were just a couple of farmers markets, and watch…the increase in the number of farmers…. We’ve developed a farm school. We’ve developed a community garden that feeds the food bank.[B]y identifying at the level of community, you can actually have this wonderful feeling that I’m dropping my pennies in the pot and I get to participate in the joy of the creativity of the entire place. Also, there are people who spend 20 years here go away, have adventures, [and] when they get ill, they come back, and they die here because the community takes care of people. There’s always fundraisers for the kid who has leukemia; you could spend every night of the week going to a fundraiser. We just had one last night for Nepal. [I]t’s not like quid pro quo, but, ”I’ll pay into this pot; I’m part of this place. I weave my life in, and I’m not constrained. I’m freer because so much fear goes away. I’m not afraid of growing old here. I’m not afraid of dying here. I’m not afraid of disability here. It’s like the end of isolation is really the beginning of freedom, whereas [most of us in this country] have it wired the opposite.”
Ken: When you make a commitment like that there’s something really liberating about it. I don’t remember exactly what it’s called—the tyranny of too many choices?—but when you have unlimited choices, you can get overwhelmed, and it’s very difficult to make [and then enjoy] a decision. But there’s a wonderful clarity, and as you said, a sense of security almost, that comes with saying, ”I’m going to put myself in this community, and I’m going to commit to being in this community. That’s going to bring limitations, but it’s also going to bring a lot of freedom. I don’t have to worry about if I should live in 8,000 other places or hang around with 8,000,000 other people. I’m right here, right now.”
Vicki: Bingo. Yeah, then you start thinking about community resilience…we call it bouncing back, but I think it’s bouncing forward. You bounce forward: you restore the system to health in a new circumstance, so it’s sort of an adaptive immune system…. Community resilience is this capacity to bounce forward together, and then also just the resourcefulness of it.
When you have a private system, you think, “It is my job to meet all my needs by myself. I can’t trust other people. They don’t care about me. I need enough money so that I can pay people to do things for me that I can’t do myself.”
It’s sort of like oppressive disability, like I am completely dependent on technologies and people that I don’t understand, and that would abandon me if I didn’t have enough money.
The reverse of that is resourcefulness. You are a resource. The more you connect with other people the more their resources are in your problem-solving process. We have enough. We have enough together, but nobody has enough by themselves.[C]ommunity and resilience are words that orient us in the direction we really want to go. [I]t doesn’t matter whether you’re anti- or pro-GMO. I mean, it does matter to some of us, but the argument that’s being made by people who are pro-GMO is not about increased yield anymore because that’s leveled out. It’s about resilience. It’s about, “We can’t suppress these tools, because we may need them in the changing future.” [Someone] could even be a climate denier, and still be into resilience, “I don’t know if it’s human caused, but I notice that we have a drought so we need resilient tools.” [Community resilience] is one of those things that I don’t think anybody would argue with.
Ken: It is…inclusive, as opposed to being that kind of, “We’ve got the right answer, trust us” thing.
Vicki: Exactly…. I’m just taking a hard-nosed look at reality, and there’s something in the human that understands this basically. If you take any two-year-old, they understand fairness.
Ken: That’s because we’re inherently social, and we happen to want to be in relationships with each other….
Vicki: I think it’s even deeper than that…. It’s like what we’re learning with ecology. It’s like, “Oh well, we don’t need that tree. It’s a garbage tree.” We keep taking elements out of an ecosystem, assuming they’re not necessary. It’s sort of like taking organs out of the body thinking, “Well that’s not necessary, we can hook things up in a different way.”
There is an integrity to the system. There is a wholeness to the system; you take too many pieces out of it, it can’t function anymore. It’s an act of faith, but it’s an observation of ecology that I can’t eliminate anybody from this resilient community, because we don’t know where the next good idea will come from. We don’t know where it resides.
It’s sort of a radical openness to letting go of my judgments of myself and other people, because sure as shooting this is part of the three-legged stool of sustainability. [It does] include justice or people in there, because [if] you get to too extreme a degree of unfairness, the people who are being kicked are going to try to get back at the people who are taking it all…. My belief is short term you can try to shore up your castle, but long term if you have food and other people don’t, people will come for your food. That’s it. The smart money really is on the community.
Ken: Marissa Mommaerts, in one of the interviews we’ve done already, said something like, “Look, if your community is resilient, but the neighboring community is not resilient, then your community is not resilient. It doesn’t really matter if you create a splendid little isolated paradise; it’s got to be bigger than that.”[T]hat leads me to ask, how would you know if your community was resilient or not? What would be the physical signs of it, or would you even be able to recognize it?
Vicki: One thing I would see is definitely the capacity of young families to move here and live here. We are a graying community, and that’s not resilient at all. I think an economy that can provide a livelihood for families. Just the number of families with kids probably is a great indicator….[A]nother thing is the capacity to have enough fairness in governance that people have a sense that their voice matters. [F]or me, the fundamental resilience is, “Can we feed ourselves, and provide food, shelter and wate?”
As we move towards greater self-provisioning in my region, in my state, in my county, as we bring our eating closer to home, we become more resilient. The amount of acreage in production using organic or permaculture, or agro-ecological, the amount of [food] in production that stays in the region, I think, probably would be a good indicator. And I’m not saying all of it, but 50%….
The fertility of the soil is a big indicator. That’s why you need agriculture that isn’t exploitive of the land,…[and] exhausts the fertility of the soil.
And parties and plays and things. The number of people filling all the seats in the theaters!
Another is a prosperous “Main Street.” We have one community, sort of the gateway community on our island, in decline. A lot of empty storefronts and…because there’s so many empty storefronts, people are reluctant to move their businesses to that area of the island…. So it’s in an un-resilient state. If I saw that community right at the ferry, and all the storefronts were filled with flower baskets out front, if I saw that coming alive again, that would be an indicator for me [of resilience]….[W]e’re not Vermont, we don’t have these wonderful populist policies. Washington State is…somewhat of a beacon, but on the Locavore Index, we’re halfway down. We have a really great culture of citizen participation, but we’ve got a lot that is going in the other directions.
I think we sort of muddle towards resilience because we stay connected. We stay in…the conversation about the future and endur[e] the discomfort of that. The person who runs one of our major agricultural institutions, her idea of leadership is staying in the conversation. No matter what happens, we’re stuck with each other. You know, you could decide that you’re never going to see So-and-So again, but So-and-So will show up the next day at the grocery store, so you don’t have that option….
There’s the famous story about the difference between Heaven and Hell. You see a group of people around a banquet table and everybody has these really long-handled spoons, and there’s piles of food…. [I]f you’re trying to only feed yourself, you can’t, you’ll starve, because you can’t get that spoon in your mouth. But if you’re feeding one another, everybody flourishes.
I think you guys—us guys—are really onto something here, and everything I do now…is about collaborative play. It’s keeping the ball in play. It’s cooperative structures within which creative competition can happen. [W]hat makes the game fun is other players.
Vicki: If we can continue to increase the quality of the game, I think we have some sort of regionally appropriate intelligence…. [T]his proposition, by the way, flies totally in the face of corporate control, totally in the face of excessive property rights. It says those sorts of things stall the game. We have to keep the game going. You can see that people with enough permission in their systems to be able to create health in their places know how to do that. For me, holding that image in my mind, I just start to see our Earth start to flourish again.
There are deserts that have been healed. There are degraded environments that can be healed, but they’re healed in this way of observing the system and having the capacity to recreate the boundaries so that energy flows through the system and increases the health of the system….
Ken: I have to say that it’s difficult to imagine that for people here in California who are dealing with this historic drought. We’ve got a good percentage of our state dependent on water from outside of the state. Los Angeles is getting its water from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and here in the Bay Area we’re getting [much of] our water from 150 miles away in the Sierras. Maybe within the local food challenge distance, but….
Vicki: Here’s the deal. Where is the food being grown in that area going? There are I don’t know how many millions of gallons of water that are being exported from California to China in the form of alfalfa.
Ken: And almonds and other things.
Vicki: Yeah, so that’s why it’s such a radical thought, if you said, “OK, we’re going to do this 500-mile thing, and we’re going to give our government the charge to recreate laws so that we can do this.”
Let’s just imagine we could do that, which we can. Then you would start to track water expenses: “OK, where is our water going?” And it’s not just lawns. Lawns are a minuscule part of it. Our water is going to China. Do we want that? Do we think that maybe the Chinese could take responsibility for their 500 miles and figure that one out for themselves?
We have trade. We have sharing, but it’s sort of like that old, “You put your mask on first, and then you go help others.”
Having the freedom, the political and social freedom to be able to access resource flows in your area, well, this is all relocalization…. You’ve just got to say, “OK, what’s going through our community, and is it just flowing in and out, is it degrading our system?”
There’s so many communities that are in incredibly unjust situations, where all of their soil is being exported, their water is being exported, their people are being exported. This is a major project on the planet, but I think…it’s a game worth playing, and it’s a contest worth holding, because it generates conversations for possibility in a situation where we can get pretty hopeless. Like what you’re saying, “Well, how are we going to do this in California, we have a drought?”
That was completely predictable by the way.
Ken: My comment, or the drought?
Vicki: No, the drought. If we had intelligent systems, we would have adapted sooner, but we didn’t.
There is always inherent in any system the capacity to return to health. That’s what we want to do. That’s what our bodies want to do. That’s what ecosystems want to do. In the book, The World Without Us, [Alan Weisman] narrates how systems return themselves to health. How do we cooperate with that natural tendency to return to health? How do we stop doing the things that are destructive, and start doing the things that are supportive and productive? What are those things? Good questions!
We are so stuck in the wrong conversations….
You’re absolutely right [to raise questions about the drought], and some of it is going to have to be resettlement. When you allow the limits to express themselves as they might in L.A., you actually want to do it in a just way, so it’s not just the bottom 20% who suffer the greatest amount. So we’ll need good governance. People [will] start to say this is not a really good place to live, and so we start to figure out another way. I’m not going to work through this whole thing because I haven’t, and I don’t know how to. But together, we know. It’s really worthwhile to feed our imaginations with possibility, not in some “la-la” way, but, ”There’s a way. There’s probably 50 ways….”
What do we need to do in order to get to the 50 ways? Well, we can say, “Yeah we’ve measured it, and we’re in a drought.” [But] we don’t just stop the conversation [there].
It’s a little abstract, I think, but we question our solutions. We ask why you say there’s no alternative, like this question about, “Do we need industrial scale agriculture and GMOs to feed the world?”
That’s an interesting frame, because it assumes so many things that aren’t useful. It really does.[We should ask instead,] “If we stop stealing people’s water and food, could the world feed itself? Could people in places and community restore the capacity of their communities to live?”
Andy Lipkis, for example, has been working on Tree People for years, and now is working on water systems in LA. I don’t think his [work] has to do with watering the lawn. I mean, one thing is the evaporation off those canals that bring water in. There’s so many things you see, once you stop [thinking] this whole thing is impossible, the only thing I can do is take a 3-minute shower instead of a 5-minute shower. [It’s] all important, but that’s offloading onto the individual what is a systemic problem… Andy is saying, “Look at the whole system.”
Ken: [I]n California, where 80% of the water goes to agricultural uses,…and somehow my 3-minute shower is the most important thing I can do. Yes, it’s important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important.
Vicki: Personal change is…necessary, but not sufficient. “You guys stop exporting our water to China in the form of alfalfa, and I’ll take a shorter shower.”[Taking personal action] puts you in alignment with the problem-solvers. It puts you in integrity. You are not living your life out of integrity, ignoring limits. I’m going to do 3-minute shower; I’m going to see how it goes. Then you start to have a different relationship with limits, and then you’re willing to have conversations about limits in the social and political sphere.
It returns you to some sort of mettle…. It sort of restores your character and your humility and understanding. [As in,] “That’s really hard. I don’t want to do that. If I had to do that, I’d have to cut my hair, because I can’t take a 3-minute shower and have hair down to my butt, you know?”
That’s what I’m hoping for, is that I’m part of the species that will realize its capacity to get smarter together.
Ken: I want to go back to something you were talking about just a minute ago, which is the relationship between community and resilience and justice.
Vicki: The way the dominant paradigm—of which I am part—thinks about that is that you want to sort of titrate, adjust by degrees. You want to not go beyond some sort of boundary of injustice, because it’s going to have blowback….[Instead, it’s about our] relationship with the increasing wealth gap, and being connected with people who are really at the bottom end and don’t have two dimes to rub together to create some magic. If we have a just society, we are creating the ability of everybody. We are basically creating ground rules that allow everybody to develop their genius in service to the whole. That would be a just society.
A just society isn’t affirmative action. Affirmative action is a strategy to try to get us to this point where we recognize that [all] people [are] part of our common wealth. That’s not just a problem to solve. It takes an act of recognition that we’re all in this together. Currently, we have a lot of work to do on this issue, and…the first element of it, for myself, has been to recognize that I am through-and-through soaked in the ideologies of my culture no matter how conscientious I am. I enjoy White privilege and I don’t know I’m even enjoying it. I don’t even see it. So I think the first thing is to see the inherent injustice of how the system is tilted toward you succeeding, and somebody else not.
Vicki: #BlackLivesMatter [helped produce] the emergence into our shared consciousness of these horrible murders, forcing the conversation…. [W]e put the Indians on reservations, thinking we’re giving them the garbage land. Well, it turns out they have something underneath that land that we want, but we gave them sovereign nation status so that they would leave our nation. Now the First Nations in Canada and the Native Americans, their worldview is coming to the fore because it’s a worldview of wholeness. That is a store of intelligence for the collective that was pushed to the margin.
It’s so brilliant in terms of organizing strategies, because now that they’re sovereign nations, and the pipelines and such want to cross over their nations, they are being the wisdom holders and the line drawers for all of us.
There’s this humility that says not only should we do affirmative action, not only should we just tolerate you,…but we recognize that the missing piece for the puzzle that we’re trying to create exists in the part of the board that we have excluded.
It is really necessary to welcome back “The Other.” Idle No More [and] these movements that are coming out of the indigenous peoples are so important. And also the Rights of Nature. Using a rights-based argument, which is American—you know, “We have rights!” Using a rights-based argument starts to include people in the community. It’s not affirmative action…. It’s bigger than that. It’s like recognizing the distortion, and part of it is facing oneself.
Ken: I’m reminded of the fact that some folks talk about the “New Economy,” and other folks say, “Actually that’s kind of like the old economy, the economy our forebears practiced, [which] was taken away as a possible form of economic engagement with each other.”
I know you read the interview with Doria [Robinson], where she talks about how her grandparents came and resettled with others as part of a community, and did shared home-building, and shared economics. This idea that we don’t necessarily have invent something new, in many cases, for how to live together in a community. Perhaps the task is to figure out how to adapt “old economies” to changing circumstances, rather than to think we have to invent something new.
Vicki: Bingo, you just said it. That’s it. Exactly. I was just watching a film about a Blackfoot college for teaching their worldviews…. In their stories…humans are the little brothers and sisters of the trees and of the badger. [The stories teach] that there…was an incredible web of life that was here before us. “Oh I see, I’m not the pinnacle. I’m a learner here, and I’m sort of young, and I’m sort of making trouble like a two-year-old, or a teenager.”
That’s a real reversal of the arrogance. It’s not just as if it’s something that’s bestowed by the power holders on the people who’ve been powerless. It’s not a bestowal. It’s a recognition that we’re incomplete without you.
When you come from that…when you come from relational eating or you’ve taken the 10-Day Local Food Challenge, playing a new game, and seeing what it’s like…you are a different person, and it’s the different person who does different things. It’s not just adaptive strategies, it’s transforming the consciousness.
Ken: We just came full circle, back to where we started this conversation. I’m just wondering if you’d like to comment on resources that you find particularly helpful?
Vicki: Oh, lots of them. Well, of course Resilience.org.
Ken: Thank you.
Vicki: I like starting there. I think I get my information from a lot of sources on the web…. I love Food Tank. I love what Danielle Nierenberg does for us on that. I love Grist. And I love Civil Eats, and Local Harvest, and Grace Communications.
By the way, if people join the 10-Day Local Food Challenge I am posting my favorite resources there. We’re going to have a bookstore that has my and our 50 favorite books that people can read. We’re—at least in terms of food—we’re going to collect those, so that’s a shortcut.
I think the there’s some larger ideas, like the Precautionary Principle, that [are] really helpful, simple…. These simple things that focus your attention are not simple at all. Like the Precautionary Principle is not a cookie-cutter recipe. It is a context, a lens through which to look.
I think for all of Michael Pollan’s incredible work, his food rules has been one of the tools that has most focused people:
“Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”
“No more than five ingredients.”
They’re literally handles that people can hold onto.
There’s a bunch of apps now…for finding local food. [A]pps for finding out ingredients in canned and packaged food in the grocery store, and for finding out about justice conditions [behind those foods]. Your smartphone is an incredible tool, because we’re living in a globalized situation, where we can’t have a relational sense of what’s good and bad, just because it says, “Natural” on the package. We don’t know what’s happening. Basically this little phone thing gives us this lens into justice, and I really appreciate everybody who is developing…the apps. I love Food & Water Watch. I love Food Revolution. There’s so many.
There was a wonderful TEDx series, TEDxManhattan, about changing the way we eat. I love what Tom Colicchio is doing now with food politics. He has a website he’s developed with Mark Bittman, who I also love, [called] Food Democracy Action, which is rating everybody in Congress by their votes that are pertinent to food.
I love MOOCS, massive online open classrooms. I love what MIT did, and University of California has done, where I can go to school and I can earn by watching videos.
For all the problems of the TED series—some sense that they’re controlling some of the information that can come out—I have learned so much. I can discover writers like Carolyn Steel (Hungry Cities: How Food Shapes Our Lives) I started to see the process of, “Oh, I see what happened with our food system. I see the relationships of cities and the countryside.”
I love the Transition strategy, and I love the Transition Movement, because people are working to apply sustainability. I like that when that happens. It’s like everywhere you look…individuals and organizations and movements are protecting the integrity of life…. I’m an activist, so I’m looking at movements; I’m not looking at the commissions. You know the Food and Agricultural Organization; FAO is doing great work.
I love Slow Food. I love Slow Food. It’s just what I stand for. It’s the deliciousness and sensuality of food, and the politics of food, and it’s the quality of food, that it’s good, clean, and fair. It’s just so exciting to live in these times.
But I think—as I said in the beginning [of this conversation]—the pinhole that takes you through the hopelessness, and being just generally somebody who’s been programmed by the dominant stories, is personal practice. A personal experience. The practice could be the 10-Day Local Food Challenge. It could be whatever. It could be spiritual practice. It could be…that you take on a practice that has a certain structure that allows you a lens, and then once you have that lens,…that’s how you pull back the curtain. That’s how you see the wizard at work… Because [for] Dorothy, the cool thing about those slippers…is she had them on her feet the whole time. She just didn’t know it.
Thank you for asking the question, I could go on and on about it. Five, ten years ago, I was hopeless. I had worked on “Your Money or Your Life” for a decade. I thought we were going to reduce consumerism. It hasn’t happened. The Pope put out an encyclical recently about, “Oh duh, we have a consumer society. We have to stop doing that.”
Hello? We’ve known that for 30 years, and I worked for a decade on that and nothing really budged. So I was completely in despair by the year 2000. By the year 2004, I was diagnosed with cancer, and I stopped…trying. I just [couldn’t] see a way.
Then I got onto relocalization. I got onto the Transition movement and then I got onto food, and I realized that you side with Nature, and Nature wants to be healthy and whole. That’s the way it is. You side with the living world and you’re on another journey. You don’t know how it turns out, but you’ve got an ally, which is called the basic resilience of life itself. Just have a few seeds, and you can replant.
I’m so excited now. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I don’t know if we have any control. I don’t know if you guys in California are not going to have any water, and you’re all going to come to Washington! I don’t know how that’s going to turn out, but I think we’re on a roll now, and I’m excited.
Ken: I’m all excited, and I’m excited that you were able to spend some time with us! Thank you.
Vicki: Oh, you’re so welcome. I love this…I am really thinking about this now. I’m going to fish out that narrative about freedom and limits. I’m going to be writing about it. It’s wonderful to be keeping really good company.
Ken: It’s one of the cool things about being part of this particular movement and moment is that there’s a lot of great people, and all bring such different perspectives.
Vicki: Yeah, but there’s some core to it.
One other thing, I will say just thinking about when you said all these good people, and I noticed that you had interviewed Helena [Norberg-Hodge]. One important thing that she gave me that I’m not sure I pinpointed in this conversation, is that we have to work on resilience, which is building up the health of the system, and [also] resistance, stopping the things that are creating ill health. I was always on the “Let’s build up the resilience!” part of it, but not paying attention to the leakage, the ongoing insult.
I think that’s a really valuable idea, of resilience and resistance as the two feet we need to walk on.
Ken: Thank you.
Vicki: Awesome. Thank you.