There Is No Other Worthwhile Endeavor: Talking Resilience with Taj James

March 8, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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

Image Removed
Taj James is the Executive Director of the
Movement Strategy Center, based in Oakland, CA. MSC is a national intermediary that works with over 300 partner grassroots organizations, alliances, and networks which operate at local, regional, and national levels. MSC works across sectors, supporting local alliances that bring people in one place together across issues and constituencies, and supporting national alliances that unite groups working on common issues.  
Ken White, former Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, shared this conversation with him.
Ken:  Can you introduce your work?
Taj:  The Movement Strategy Center works with folks who are trying to do social change work around the country. We help them to really be clear about the change they’re trying to create, and build partnerships that allow folks to do things together that are bigger than what they can do by themselves. That’s really at the heart of what we do. We do it in lots of different ways, in different sectors, and across sectors. We do that through strategy and collaboration.
Ken:  It’s interesting you mentioned, “build something bigger than they can build alone.” That’s one of the reasons we’re focusing not just on resilience, but on community resilience, with “community” being a key modifier. Do you have a definition for community resilience in your work?
Taj:  We think about the question of resilience in relationship to the three essential questions of strategy: “Where are we going, where are we at, and how do we get there?”
Image Removed
Where are we going?,” for us, is really about a vision that is apparent that workers, community members, folks doing social change have for the lives we want for our loved ones, and people connected to us. What’s the kind of world we want to live in? What’s the kind of neighborhood we want to live in? What do we want our block to look like? What do we want our city to look like? What do we want our bioregion to look like? What do we want our nation to look like? What sense do we have of what we’re trying to move towards?
Then, from there, that is essentially our North Star. That is the thing we help people to identify, where they have a sense of common purpose, common direction, shared horizon. Because it’s a lot easier to align people around what they want, than around what they believe.
Ken:  Right.
Taj:  I can want the same things for my children that you want for your children, but you have a very different reason for wanting those things. In social change work, we tend to focus a lot on wanting people to believe the same things, as opposed to working towards the same set of outcomes. Some of the folks working with farmers on climate issues and the way that agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and doing that work well, I think—rightly—don’t really spend a lot of time trying to convince farmers about whether or not climate change is happening and whether or not it’s generated by human activity. They help the farmers understand how growing food in ways that produce less greenhouse gas emissions also preserves the quality of their soil and makes their farms more profitable over time. It’s really a behavior change that’s rooted in the sense of a shared purpose or destination.
Then, if we look at what we have now, how far are we from that? What’s the gap? What’s the disparity? Then the question becomes, “How do we get from where we are, to where we need to go?”
Within that framework, there are, with the folks we work with and support, some people who are focused on all three of those dimensions, and some who have different starting places. Some people are starting with the problem. Some people are starting with the shift or the transition and the nature of the shift and the transition. Some people are starting with the vision of where we’re trying to look out to.
For us, resilience is about describing the characteristics and qualities of relationships and people that folks are working towards. Whatever language a community uses when you ask them the question, “What do you want for your kids? What do you want for your grandkids?”
That’s resilience: “I want them to be healthy. I want them to be happy. I want them to be able to both deal with the adversity that they face and remove barriers, expand opportunity, and increase their likelihood of increasing their well-being, so that folks can really thrive and not just survive .”
Image Removed
Oceanway Middle School on Earth Day. Photo: JAZPORT Jacksonville Port Authority via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
That’s important because, as I think many of us are trying to sharply define and reclaim resilience as the framework and the term, it’s often used just as a way of legitimating the conditions that create harm for people in communities, and celebrating the fact that folks are able to thrive within harsh conditions. That’s why folks in the Gulf South are fairly resistant to the word, because it’s been used against them,… particularly in ways that are quite harmful. Saying what resilience is, is also about saying what it’s not, and then really pointing to the ways in which the term has been misused.
But what’s exciting right now is the way that y’all are trying to advance the understanding of resilience in—I would say—its broadest sense. Yes, climate resilience is a dimension of resilience. But resilience means being something that is broader than the climate dimension.
Then you’ve got what’s in the environmental community, the Pathways to Resilience framework which we helped to develop with a lot of leadership from Movement Generation: resiliency being the combination of adaptation and mitigation with deep democracy or equity or social cohesion. Really challenging the notion in the environmental dialogue that those things can be decoupled, that’s it’s too late to focus on mitigation because ”All is lost!”. Challenging the notion that adaptation and mitigation can be done without attending to social inequity, because in fact social inequity is essentially the primary driver of the climate impacts.
The organization of human systems is the root of the climate impacts that we’re measuring. So if you don’t rearrange the human relationships, you can’t impact the way that humans are impacting the environment.
That kind of definition, which I think is largely rooted in Movement Generation’s articulation of resilience, has been fairly durable and persuasive and nuanced. Then you’ve got the interesting work right now that Island Press has been doing through the academic context to look at the ways in which resilience has been defined within academic discourse. They’ve recently put out a framework aimed at that audience that tries to mostly elevate the social dimensions of resilience, the social cohesion aspects, the social equity aspects. These have been less well-attended to in academic discussions, where there is still a tendency to think about ecosystems in which humans are not present, or are not drivers of impact, either positively or negatively. There’s that tendency to just imagine…a world without human beings, in which other living things are thriving—which we may be on our way to if we’re not careful! But we can’t pretend human beings don’t exist, or have economies, and those economies have impacts, and all that kind of stuff.
Obviously, our kind of most recent significant contributions to this discussion have been the curation of the dialogues. In those papers and reports, we reflect on some of what we heard. We did a convening, actually. At the end of this convening, we did an activity where we asked folks to define resilience in one word. It created a one-word poem.
Ken:  Beautiful, we can share that.
Can I ask you kind of a challenging question? I think it’s so helpful and so important, the work you’re doing and others are doing, around…the social and economic and historical aspects of resilience, and how it affects our communities. How communities have responded to that term, and are responding to that term, and are affected by all the various systems and things that make up resilience. It’s so important, in terms of an input into the conversation.
I’m wondering about something you said, which is, “Are there boundaries on the conversation?” I don’t recall the exact phrase you used, but you said…
Taj:  Everything is everything.
Ken:  Everything is everything! Right, exactly, to quote Marvin Gaye.
Taj:  Right. I think you’re sort of naming the paradox and the challenge of systems thinking and systems analysis overall. Which is, ”If everything is interdependent and interconnected, how do you transform a system or ecosystem so that the quality and the nature of the relationships in that system improve for all of the entities within it?”
Ken:  Right.
Taj:  I think that our tendency is to say, at the one end of the spectrum, that’s too big and overwhelming. We try to take this one aspect of this larger, multi-systemic entity, and try to drive some change in this part of it. That’s one approach.
Alternatvely, in an ecosystem, in a system of systems, where are there key places of crisis and breakdown, where are there key levers, and how do you sequence a set of inputs to take something that’s out of balance and bring it into balance? It doesn’t mean you do everything at once, and it doesn’t mean that you try to fix everything at once. It means you try to understand the nature and the directionality of relationships and flows, and intervene at key points.
Here’s a few ways where I think that it’s quite clear what some of the primary and driving relationships are. Sustainable Economies Law Center recently put out an email, and I thought they did it quite nicely. They sort of said the three different dimensions of the systemic crisis that we’re dealing with. That the primary driver underneath all of it is our relationship to land. How we use land, how land is organized, how it is accessed, how it is zoned, how space is constructed.
The challenge is how to make resilience real. We have a climate action plan. In the climate action plan, we’re not just talking about sea level rise. We’re talking about the intersection of the food system, energy, water, waste, land use, all together. How do these systems impact each other?
And then, where do you start? The place to start is with land. Then where you go after land is to energy, because, again, not a huge original insight here, but the way we use energy, the way we generate energy, is the primary driver of much of the harm that we are all experiencing and generating….
Systems thinking doesn’t mean you do everything at once. There are things that are primary and secondary. On the land use question, notably, our society’s approach has been to say, “Those are really hard questions to answer, so let’s just kick the can down the road. We’re going to come back to that later, because we don’t quite know what the solutions are. What we think the solutions might be, seem too politically difficult or challenging to address. So let’s just take on the easy stuff.”
We’re suffering the collective consequences of not doing the hard and difficult stuff first. But now folks are recognizing that they can’t not deal with those questions.
Of course, there are still some people who are saying, “Can’t we just keep doing development the way that we used to do it? Why do we have to think about jobs in development?”
Well, because, from a bioregional perspective, it’s actually much better for all of us if there’s actually jobs, transportation, and housing in the East Bay. Not just housing and transportation to deliver people from their homes in the East Bay and the Central Valley to their jobs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. That is not good for any of us. That requires us to sort of rethink a lot of things, and not just say that the tidal wave of market forces, the tidal wave of Silicon Valley capital is just going to wash over us, and there’s nothing we can do about it, other than just ride the wave before the bubble bursts.
Ken:  I love that you’re focused on energy. So, a follow-on question, “If that’s a broad definition of resilience, are there any things that are out of bounds?”
Can I say, “Well, you know, the future I want for my kids is they would live in a world where there’s unlimited economic growth, and everybody is riding dirt bikes off into the sunset.”
Taj:  This is where I think Movement Generation is helpful, because you can define resilience through a set of principles. It is principles and characteristics that define health within a system. But we also have principles of ecology. We also have principles of permaculture. We also have other sets of principles, which help us to understand how systems are organized and how systems can be reorganized.
I think what is really useful about Movement Generation’s approach to resilience is that they’re layering into their understanding of resilience a basic understanding of ecology and systems limits. I think that it’s the combination of those principles, which allow us to really understand how the system is working, not the way we want it to work, but the way it’s actually working, what the relationships actually are, and what the limitations actually are of what we need to generate.
Just taking the concept of localization. For those of us who find these principles of systems organization really compelling, if we were in a position to use those principles for overall systems redesign, to build the next system of systems—and we were trying to do that 15 years ago—we would be in a much different position, because our sense of what we would have had to work with then would be much different.
As climate impacts accelerate, temperatures rise, and precipitation on the planet is moving to the places where we don’t want it to be, and moving away from the places where we do want it to be, and people in India are dying by the thousands because it’s too hot. Folks in Texas who don’t believe in climate change (and are not allowed to say it by their Governor) are underwater.
Meanwhile folks are trying to…transition in the Central Valley of California from industrial agriculture to sustainable agriculture.
There are a lot of principles that 15 years ago we might have said, “Oh, we think we can do that!” But now folks are saying, “I don’t even know where the water is going to come from, to do the thing that I thought 15 years ago was the right thing to do.”
We are now entering into a moment as hundreds and hundreds of people across the Global South try to get in boats heading north. Men, women, and children going out into the ocean and perishing in large numbers, because the climate-driven migration is accelerating at a pace that is quite apparent.
Then the latitude—to use a resilience term—the latitude that we may have thought we had for systems reorganization 15 years ago, some of that latitude is not apparent. It does not appear to be present in the system. As the scientists have been telling us for forever, “You have less time than you think. The last time I told you you had some time—you have less time than that. Hurry up. The longer you take to try to solve these set of problems, the more challenging, difficult, and complex they are to solve.”
These climate impacts are just the felt impacts of the way our economy is organized, and the way our economy uses energy and distributes value and harm. Those impacts are becoming inescapable. As those impacts accelerate, the depth and the frequency and the intensity of those impacts accelerate.
There’s already those who are just overwhelmed by despair, by all of the intensity of it.
But for those of us who are not overwhelmed, but trying to stay focused, the thing that I just keep coming back to is, that no matter how bad the problem looks, the solutions are all still the same. Meaning, the solutions are the application of a set of design principles to system reorganization. The solutions are the same, but with each passing day, are more challenging and more difficult to implement.
It doesn’t mean that all of a sudden, false solutions become real solutions. Because we waited so long to try to solve the problem, now we’re going to shoot some stuff up into the atmosphere, and we’re going to do some crazy geoengineering…because we procrastinated? Now we’re going to resort to those dramatic-looking endeavors that…we know may make some problems better, may make other problems much worse, and will have a bunch of unintended consequences that we’ll see for decades?
Image Removed
The thing that keeps me focused is, again, the longer we wait, the solutions remain the same, they just become more challenging and more difficult to implement. But, the positive side of that is there’s actually more political will, consciousness, and awareness to take bolder steps and to do system reorganization at more fundamental levels. Because the level of imbalance, the crazy weather, and the unbalanced economy are generating energy amongst human beings to take bolder action. That’s the hopeful side.
Ken:  I really appreciate the trying to balance those seeming opposites, and also trying to…set some boundary conditions for that. Is this something that you’re finding people are coming to of their own volition? Or is there a lot of work you have to do with people to help them begin to grok both the size and magnitude of the challenge, as well as what the limits might be, and where the opportunities might be?
Taj:  I think there are still a relatively small number of people—a growing number, but a small number of people—who sort of see the deep relationships and intersections between the democracy, the economy, the ecology. Those basic three dimensions, and how they are all interconnected, and the need to drive changes in all three to move towards where we need to go.
Our shorthand of that is if we want to deal with ecologic impacts, we need to make big shifts in how our economy is organized. To make big shifts in how our economy is organized, we need to radically increase democracy at every level in order to have more democratic management, and reorganization within the economy that will allow us to deal with the ecological impacts that are already in the pipeline, and the ones that we want to prevent. The primary driver is the democracy driver in relationship to that triad.
In a number of places we are working with folks squarely in one of those three domains, but they’re using that framework to talk about the relationship of those three things, and the inescapable way in which those three things are intertwined. They have sort of gone beyond the notion of if we just raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, that that’s going to solve a set of problems. Or, if we just reduce carbon, that that’s going to solve it. That’s really exciting. Folks are coming to it on their own, and they’re coming to it through a set of relationships and interactions just by paying attention to what’s going on. That’s quite heartening.
Then it just gets back to a little bit of where y’all are trying to not only set a boundary, but to focus. Your articulation of community resilience as sort of a domain of human activity. An ecosystem has boundaries, and within that, the community as a level of human organization within a broader system, I think, is a really critical way of moving towards relocalization that also creates an overall system that’s going to be more survivable.
That’s the concept of “translocal,” also the concept of…local, living, loving, linked economy. It’s, “How does resilience in one community, in a bioregion or global context, actually create more latitude and space for folks in other local communities to generate their own resilience? How do you…not generate your resilience at the expense of other communities generating their resilience?”
Ken:  Oh, absolutely.
Taj:  But all that to say that the place—neighborhoods, cities, communities—is the boundary and the domain where resilience becomes real, and it’s where the intersection of systems are most measurable and meaningful in daily life.
Increasingly, at the same time, we should talk about sectors of the economy: here’s the food system overall, and here’s how the global food companies are accessing land and water rights and buying up parts of the world in order to access the water that’s underneath those places, in order to then maintain control of global food production, etc.
Folks who are thinking about food systems in an international context, in a national context, in a regional context, in a local context, and trying to relocalize food production, distribution, and all that good stuff—it’s really important to have systems strategies, for energy systems and so on. It all intersects. I think that’s where the practice of resilience is.
There’s a lot that we know, but the process of advancing a systematic transition in multiple places over a relatively short period of time…that’s what the climate clock is insisting that we do. There’s still a lot to be done to accelerate the pace of localized transition towards resilient communities. Accelerating the pace of transition to catch up with the accelerating pace of climate impacts is the challenge that humanity faces.
Ken:  I appreciate you talking about community as the scale where this matters. We are intensely social. We are profoundly interdependent. There’s no way you could do resilience only at an individual level or household level. You can’t just load up on bullets and beans and go off and live in the woods somewhere. That’s just not a viable way to live. We’re evolved to live socially.
You talked a little bit about the relationship with democracy. Do you want to talk about the relationship with justice?
Taj:  There’s sort of different ways we talk about the three domains. Sometimes we call the first domain the domain of democracy and human rights, broadly, and then the domain of economy, and then the domain of ecology. The domain of democracy and human rights, for us, is really about how human beings and groups of human beings are defined, and how those definitions determine how those groups of human beings relate to each other.
What we understand is human beings, through culture and structure, have been divided into categories, by gender, by race, by a bunch of other stuff. Then power and privilege have been assigned to those subgroups based on those narratives. And then folks experience benefits or harm in relationship to how they fit into those categories, and how they navigate and negotiate those categories.
In the domain of democracy and human rights are the struggles for justice, equity, and equality, which are all pointing to all human beings having the rights that all human beings deserve. That domain is about that.
In the economy domain we think about as how human beings organize our relationships with each other and our relationships with resources. The ecology domain is the impact of our economy on the other systems, the biosphere, and all the other spheres.
Some people like to talk about equality. Some people like to talk about equity. Some people like to talk about justice. Some people like to talk about human rights. People have lots of different frameworks for defining some systematic inequity or systematic inequality or systematic harm or systematic benefit. They’re all useful at different moments in time.
We were looking at defining resilience. One strategy is to say, “Well, resilience has been understood in ways in which the equity dimensions have not been explicit.” We should call this just climate resilience, or just resilience, or whatever. We should reclaim the term by giving it specificity. Some folks are doing that, and that’s helpful.
Our assertion is, “No, this is just resilience.” Because the other people who were saying they want resilience, they’re not thinking about the social dimensions. They’re asserting something that’s basically a practical impossibility. You can’t actually have the mitigation and the adaptation without addressing the social dimensions, and dimensions of social inequality. It’s impossible—if you are looking at the whole system. If you are looking at the global system, the human system, it is possible to redistribute harm to create the appearance of something in one part of the system by just shifting it to another part of the system. But that’s just drawing the boundaries in imaginary ways to fit the definition that you like.
That’s why the atmospheric impacts are so humanizing, because it doesn’t matter who’s generating the carbon. It’s going into a shared atmosphere. The fallacy or the fiction that you can have some notion of resilience without dealing with the justice, equity, social dimensions is just a fantasy.
We just call it “resilience,” because the thing that people say they want, they can’t have. It’s impossible without attending to the social dimension. That was part of our intervention.
We took a slightly different approach when trying to redefine bioregionalism. Because, again, there are folks who think about regionalism and bioregionalism in which people are a part of bioregions, and there are those who don’t. We felt like, “What’s regionalism?” It’s actually helpful to just name the people in the bioregions, so we called it “people-centered bioregionalism.” I felt it was tactically more helpful to be explicit about that.
The good thing is, with whatever choice we make, someone else is making the opposite choice [chuckles]. You can just go to the salad bar, and you can pick out the language that you like. Someone has concocted it somewhere.
Image Removed
Photo credit: Heather Craig – Survival Media Agency via flickr.
Ken:  Speaking of language, I’d particularly like to get your thoughts on the relationship between community resilience and justice.
Taj:  What we think of as justice or as injustice, is that resilience is not possible without justice. Meaning the sources of our climate’s destruction are rooted initially in systemic social inequalities that are produced and reproduced. It’s rooted in the production of those social inequalities that have secondary environmental climate impact. It is the way that we treat other human beings, and the fact that we live in a society that allows for human beings to be treated in the ways that they are. That legitimates a form of economic activity that’s producing the climate impact that we see.
I think that if you’re going to reorganize the relationships in our society in ways they don’t produce climate impact, that produce climate vulnerability, then we have to start by addressing the accumulated historical social inequalities and social impacts that are at the root of our economic relationships. The notion that there could be resilience in the midst of deepening and ongoing social inequality is a lie and a myth, unless human beings are not part of the natural world.
The belief that humans are somehow separate from the web of life and the rest of the natural world is the cultural misconception that is driving the climate impact that we’re trying to reverse. If we’re going to undo those impacts, then we culturally and conceptually have to recognize and restore humans to the web of life, and reorganize the systems of daily life in ways that acknowledge that violent and dramatic inequality between different human communities, that result in relationships that bring harm to the rest of the natural world.
Community resilience is inherently just. You have to call it “just resilience” because…it’s not “just” resilience. It’s not just shifting one problem from one part of the system to another part of the system, and then hiding it. Pretending like there are no externalities. Pretending like there’s some kind of outside—which there isn’t. There’s no outside of the system. Everything’s in the system, and you can’t hide the impact under a rock. There is no resilience that’s not just resilience.
Ken:  We talk about “community resilience” because we don’t want to make this a conversation about, “I’ve got mine. I’m gonna ride out whatever comes. The rest of y’all may or may not be part of that, but I’ll be fine.” We want to avoid a context that’s purely individual or familial, drawing the circle really small.
Taj:  The individual or the family unit as the unit in which the social safety net functions, as a unit in which the economy operates, is part of that cultural belief in the sort of economic arrangements that are generating the climate impact.
You have to have society. We have to have community. We have to have social cohesion. Whether you want to take all of the Movement Generation articulation of resilience or not, the bare minimum is adaption, plus mitigation, plus social cohesion. To have social cohesion, you have to address the social inequity and produce new levels of social equality, and you have to build relationships with interdependence and mutuality far beyond the unit of the individual, the family, the small tribe. You actually need multiple interlocking safety nets at the individual level, at the family level, at the neighborhood level, at the municipal level, and at the level of national systems. We have to sort of re-weave webs of relationships, and mutuality, and reciprocity, at each of those levels of scale.
We’re often called to pay attention to things at the global level, too. Not only in the sense of what’s our relationship with someone on the other side of planet, and equity and justice as it relates to that, but also in the sense that we’re often called to think of ourselves as part of a world community. When you get to that level of abstraction it’s really hard to connect it to daily life and to actual lived experience of most of us.
Which is why that shock comes alive when you think about the migration refugees coming out of Africa and the Middle East into Southern Europe. It sort of raises the awareness that we’ve had migration refugee crisis globally for a while. Now it’s become visible in such a way that it’s essentially a shock.
What we at MSC did in the context of that shock, anticipating it, was to try to figure out how to tell a story and support a narrative that’s about our responsibility to our global human family. There’s no such thing as domestic policy and foreign policy. I wrote a blog post about this.
Image Removed
Photo credit: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
To have the Governor of California, Jerry Brown say, “Hey guys, guess what? What you see in Europe? That’s going to happen here.” The Union of Concerned Scientists’ estimates are a hundred million people in migration just based on sea level rise, so that’s not accounting for migration based on climate, drought, that’s feeding into war and conflict. People are being displaced because of lack of capacity to grow food, which then is moving populations together that have not previously been right on top of each other. This mass displacement is happening in the context of an economy in which a lot of military power is being used to ensure that raw materials can continue to be extracted to make lots of stuff that we don’t really need.
To have the Governor of California say, “It’s getting hotter and dryer everywhere. We’re going to see that level of migration from Central and South America north.” Which is why in Oregon they’re trying to figure out how to build a fence to keep out all the people from California….
Ken:  Are you kidding?
Taj:  I’m kidding about the fence, but there is actual policy in Oregon assumes mass migration from climate refugees from Californians who will head north when our water runs out. We’re really truly in a moment in which we’re going to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish together, all of us, as fools. What does it mean for me to live well in my neighborhood, in my city, in my bioregion, in a way that supports the rights and the capacities of other people who live very far away to live well?
The first thing to do is make sure that my government is not dropping bombs on them, so that their whole, basic stability and way of life is undermined. The first task is we have to rein in the military adventurism of our government. Because if we don’t, guess what happens? Those people end up trying to shove their infants through a barbed wire fence in Hungary in order to get to Germany. That’s one; don’t bomb people off their land.
Step two, don’t let NAFTA and TPP push people off of their land. Oops, we just messed that one up because TPP is going to end up pushing more people into migration when it does just what NAFTA did. This is a huge “FAIL” on our part.
Ken:  I want to go back to something you just said, “How can we live well here?” What do you mean by live well, or what might you mean if we change that to, “live well enough here”?
Taj:  I think it’s the question of, “What’s the purpose of the economy?” Are we organizing our daily life around what it means to be happy, or are we organizing our daily life around what it means to produce and accumulate things? An economy that’s organized for the accumulation of capital and profit in the hands of a few through domination and extraction. If we had an economy that was organized around the purpose of love, and care, and connection, and general well-being, and happiness, it would be a completely different kind of economy.
In the context of our localization and resilience-building efforts, the question is always, “What are the values that we are reorganizing daily life around? What are we actually trying to produce?”
We want local economies that produce happiness, connection, resilience, regeneration, well-being, meaning. Not an economy that produces disconnection, isolation, conflict, war, violence. We want flow. We want flow within organic interconnected natural systems. We want flows and exchanges that are reciprocal and mutually interesting between bioregionally organized human settlements.
If we’re going to not kill ourselves—if we’re going to survive as a species and not wait for the cockroaches to, perhaps, evolve into human forms over the course of a very long period time—then we have to challenge the lie of separation. Things are not separate. They’re interdependent and interconnected. We have to reorganize systems around that basic truth. We are not separate from the web of life. We are part of the web of life, and if we can’t figure that out, we won’t be here for very long.
Ken:  A small task! When you look around, who do you point to and say, “OK, here’s clearly some community or communities that are taking steps in the right direction, or some group that really has it together, and is actually making progress in that direction?”
Taj:  I sort of think of this as a watershed. There’s different kinds of streams and creeks and rivers. They’re all flowing towards the sea. When you move out and you look at them, you can see, “Oh, wow, there’s a lot of folks here that basically are starting to see the same thing at the same time. There’s a lot of folks who are basically coming to the same conclusions about the problems, and what those core solutions are.”
They have different language or different ways of articulating it, but there’s a growing consensus amongst those who are conscious and aware. Some of those groups are starting from an ecologic perspective. They’re climate justice, and environmental justice, and environmental communities who start with the ecological view and an ecological lens. The ecologists have the perceptual advantage because ecology is fundamentally a framework for this systems thinking. When you’re living in a culture that has perpetuated the lie that we are individual, Utilitarian balls, separate from system and relationship, ecologists…actually see the reality of our situation. A lot of the leadership is coming from there.
Other folks…are coming from the economy side. The piece that y’all did about the intersection between the resilience community and the new economy. It’s like two watersheds: One in the north and one in the south, where basically all the streams in that are flowing down towards the same valley that leads into the ocean. Right?
Ken:  Right.

“Whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic, there’s nothing really else to do right now….. Whether you think we will succeed or fail in that endeavor, there is no other worthwhile endeavor.”

Taj:  A lot of the little creeks are starting to converge into rivers, and the streams are converging into rivers, and it’s like we’re all seeing the same thing. What that means is that there’s a growing awareness of the fact that we see the same problem and we see the same solution set. It’s opening things. What are our roles in our division of labor, and enhancing the transition that’s necessary. How do we rapidly increase our capacity within our respective roles? Where are the big gaps in capacity, where none of us are very good at that, but someone needs to get really good at it really fast, and then teach everybody else how to get really good at it really fast? Who are the people who are best positioned to fill those gaps so that we can essentially accelerate our transition curve?
The climate impact disruptions in terms of their severity and frequency, and the fragility of the different systems that are required for life, the likelihood is that they’re going to move into some cascading catastrophic breakdown—that curve is rising rapidly. As self-conscious social change agents in this historical moment, how do have we have the transitions solution curve change its vector so that it catches up with the accelerating climate impact/system breakdown curve? That requires a level of social change coordination and quickening in the level of partnership, and alignment, and cognizant coordination, which is historically unprecedented.
The pace at which we need to do this is something that has never happened before, which is why you get the climate science system and the cognitive science system arguing about whether human beings have the evolutionary capacity to evolve culturally and cognitively fast enough to shift consciousness and culture before we kill ourselves. The cognitive scientists are like, “Nope. I don’t think we can do that.” There’s no precedent in the historical or evolutionary records.
It’s an interesting argument because whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic, there’s nothing really else to do right now. Whether you think we will succeed or fail in that endeavor, there is no other worthwhile endeavor. If you actually see the problem for what it is, it doesn’t matter whether you think we’re going to make it or not. If you have children, if you have any concern for human well-being, then we better get going here, and we better start moving a lot faster.
Depending on who you talk to, you might hear, “Oh, well we’ve got five years. We’ve got ten years. We’ve got…”
If you went to the Pentagon and you looked at their time horizon objective around systems breakdowns, I wonder what their latest projections are…. I have not heard any projections from anyone who seriously pays attention…that’s more than ten years.
I would be very surprised if we have more than ten years to fundamentally get things going on the right track, so that when systems start to break down more fundamentally that there are a set of muscles, and shared practices, and shared values that have been elevated and stimulated. They need to be embedded in culture that allows folks to turn toward each other in moments of breakdown and crisis….During Sandy, which residents on which block helped each other out when things went bad? Why did that happen?
We need to build a lot of social cohesion,…because what we were projecting out and anticipating with the response in Europe around the refugee crisis, was a call to citizens to do what their government would not do. The need to defy the state in order to provide refuge to our family, to the folks in our family who have been forced from their homes, entering into great peril in order to seek safety for their children.
Anyway, that’s my rosy five year, ten year, “We’ve got to pick up the pace here.”
Ken:  What does pick up the pace look like? I completely resonated with…this idea that there’s an incomplete ecosystem of responses. The need for efforts that are building the future in ways that respond to the kind of environment, and needs, and values that you’re talking about.
Global capitalism—it took four hundred years to build this thing that…now is causing us so many problems. You’re saying we’ve got a five- or ten-year time horizon to build an alternative to it that is more powerful in many ways, and that responds to a completely different set of imperatives, but that is also in opposition to so much of what is dominant these days. Where to begin with that?
Taj:  What gives me hope in the midst of that is people starting where they are, sector by sector…. It’s not like culture’s just now thinking about this. People have been at that for a while, and they’ve figured some stuff out. We’re building on the momentum of folks who have really put some attention into this for a while…. One of the things that gives me some hope is that this is in motion….
I see a growing consensus amongst the sort of self-conscious change agents. All of us are essentially working for pretty much the same stuff, so that gives me confidence that we’ll start to get a lot more creative about how we move forward more quickly.
We have some advantages in terms of this system we’re transitioning from to the system we’re transitioning to. In relationship to planning and action,…you have a clearer sense of your values. You have a clearer sense of your long-term horizon or where you’re trying to get to on a much longer cycle. That you behave much like a farmer, which is you notice the present conditions, and you respond to the needs and the opportunities.
What we actually have to build is relational and adaptive capacity, which will allow us potentially to unleash human creativity—individually and collectively. Our creativity has been deeply stifled in the system that we’ve been required to operate within.
What we need to build is fundamentally different than what is collapsing, and there are some advantages in that. Part of the fundamental shift is that we’re moving away…from a system that’s built around scarcity to one that’s built around abundance—which is different, because there’s a paradox in the old system. It’s both built around scarcity, and a belief that there are no limits, so how do you have those two ideas at the same time? That we have to fight and compete over a limited set of resources, but we can have anything in that old system that can grow without end, because there are no limits to this system. That is quite an interesting contradiction.
On our side,…two things are true at the same time: scarcity is a lie, abundance is the truth.
Ken:  Yet, there are limits.
Taj:  We live in a closed system in which there are limits. Both of those things are true. What we have to do is build a system that’s built around that paradox. The paradox of abundance within limits, as opposed to scarcity within no limits. It’s a completely different kind of economy, right?
Ken:  Yeah.
Taj:  Matter is energy. We’re all energy. We’ve got this great little source that is pumping energy into systems consistently. That’s essentially where the abundance comes from. We have abundance because we have a sun. So there’s the abundance.
We have to care for the living things in such a way that we relate to other living things regeneratively. We were like, “Oh, here’s an aquifer. Let me pump so much water out of it that it collapses like a lung, and the ground sinks two inches everyday because we can’t stop Nestle from pumping the water out, or Chevron from pumping the water out to frack something and then dump the water on the tomatoes so we can have fracked wastewater tomatoes to feed to your children.”
Ken:  Which aren’t even labeled.
Taj:  Yeah. The insanity!
Ken:  Where would you point people to look for good, interesting, thoughtful, helpful resources? Any good examples?

“We find ways to live well where we are, and ways to support others who are engaged in the same project, to live well where they are.”

Taj:  I would point them to you. I would point them to your website. I think y’all are playing a really important role in just doing this, having conversations with people who are in the middle of this stuff, and who are in relationship with you, and in partnership with you. Trying to elevate the solutions and curate a conversation, so I think y’all are a huge resource.
It’s kind of each person, start where you are. Where’s your sphere of influence? What is the thing that you care so much about that you’re willing to defend it to the end? Really connect to your sense of purpose. Like I really care about my kids, or I really care about the place that I grew up in, or I really care about this land, or I really care about this is what I really care about, and then go from there.
You look at the fact that New York has banned fracking and California has not. Why is that? Well, one of the reasons is there were people who were defending the places that lived really boldly and in a really courageous way….
If you had predicted, which would be the first governor to ban fracking: the governor of New York or the governor of California? You would not have bet on New York; you would have bet on California. Where California needs to be leading fast and raising the bar on a consistent basis, and we’re sort of like two steps forward and one step back….
Start where you are, and then based on what you love, you’ll find people who love what you love, and who are trying to defend what you’re trying to defend. Then you can stand together to try to defend it, whether it’s the soil, or your children, or your community. This is sort of the local link, reconnecting the place, figuring out how we reinvest in the place, but in a way that’s linked to other communities that are also doing the same thing, so that, again, we find ways to live well where we are, and ways to support others who are engaged in the same project, to live well where they are. What we do should make it easier for them and what they do should make it easier for us. As opposed to us going over there and through various means taking from them the things that they have, so that we can bring it here and make ourselves sick. Using it to make stuff that we don’t really need, and poisoning ourselves and our children.
A lot of the folks can be found on your website, so I won’t repeat it. Sector by sector, there are folks that play pretty pivotal roles, in the sovereignty and the justice sector, and energy, the multi-issue justice transition, and the next new economy. There’s no lack of resources. There’s no lack of leadership in some ways. We just need a lot more alignment and a lot better coordination. We just need the streams to converge more quickly.
Ken:  As the Movement Strategy Center, you’re pretty well-positioned to answer this question, I hope. What helps with that alignment? What helps with getting those folks to recognize that we’re all pouring into the same watershed?
Taj:  I really think that there’s a driver, which is: the more people are easily connected to their own sense of purpose, the faster things accelerate. I think that’s pretty key to the stuff that we need to move…. The question we ask people is, “If this is my purpose, and in order to serve my purpose it’s going to require a lot of courage, and a lot of connection, and a lot of creativity….who do I need to be in a relationship to support me in finding my courage and creativity? Who do I need to be in a relationship with, and what do I need to practice, in order to embody the qualities that are going to be necessary to play the individual role that I need to play, and play the collective role that we need to play? Who do I need to be? Who do we need to be in order to create what is needed?”
We are in a situation that we are going to have to embody fairly deeply what we’re trying to create if we’re going to bring it about. That has be to at the center of the new culture that we’re building.
Right now we’re sort of all swimming in a local culture that globalized the law of separation and then built a whole global economic system around that. We actually need to globalize a different shared understanding, which is the understanding of interdependent connection, and the importance of diverse ecosystems.
Ken:  It’s that outside-in and inside-out at the same time kind of thing.
Taj:  Yeah, that is actually the key. That is going to be the key.
Ken:  Let me go to that inside-out question and just sort of flip it. You talked a little bit about TPP, and you talked about other various policy issues. If you had to pick just one policy issue that would be most important for supporting your work, and for supporting the community resilience work, what would that be?
Taj:  It goes back to the little Venn diagram, which is, “Democracy, Economy, Ecology.” Three overlapping circles….
Image Removed
The economic crisis is a driver. The ecological questions stems from the economic question, so if we want to resolve the ecological questions you have to start with results in economic ones. That’s the first way to read it.
In order to solve the economic problem, you actually have to solve the democratic problem, because the only way to shift the basis upon which our economy is organized is through the dramatic and rapid increase of democracy, popular democracy, meaning people are actually guiding and directing the organization and reorganization of the economy.
The first imperative is financing and nurturing a dramatic unleashing of popular democracy, because if you don’t do that nothing else is going to happen. What does that look like from a policy standpoint? Well, it looks like a lot of things, but primarily it looks like investing in the institutions and networks that are essentially the muscle that allow popular democracy and democratic power to be organized. That’s the first imperative.
The second imperative is using that increased democratic power to reorganize our relationships to the land and land use. Because if we’re gonna build a new system, the basis of that system is land. As we’ve seen in sustainable agriculture, a lot of the most interesting things are happening because land was transferred into shared management for the purpose of creating a different system of agriculture.
You can look at Penn Loh’s analysis of the Boston food system stuff, and the basis of that was the fact that Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative was able to capture land and capture space in ways that allowed for that land and that space to be managed by the community. Accessing this landmass allowed them to start to build a whole other kind of food colony on the basis of that. To have that food colony exist in the middle of a dominant economy, and to thrive and to grow, in the midst of what we have, in a way that’s financially and ecologically more regenerative. The land question is the second question.
The third imperative is energy. If communities are going to capture the financial resources necessary to build what we need, then capturing control of the energy system in a way that the community can direct and manage the surplus value, and those surpluses then finance the changes that are needed across the other systems.
Yes, we have a whole bunch of people working on water, and a whole bunch of people working on agriculture, and a whole bunch of people working on other arenas and that is really important. I’m not saying that folks should stop what they’re doing and work on these other things. Everyone needs to keep moving their stuff down the field, but we have collective acknowledgment that we have to really infuse a lot more resources into the democratic capacity. That means in the context of the environmental sector, the frontline grassroots environmental justice organizations that are historically and criminally underfunded, all of them should have resources at the order of scale that are four to five times what they have now. That’s what would be needed to unleash democracy. We actually have to resource the organizations that make democracy work, that focus on bringing voice and power to the communities who are systematically denied and excluded from this power within the current system.
It’s their exclusion that allows the system to function and perpetuate itself in the ways that it does. If people are politically supported, empowered, and engaged, then in the three circles framework you instantly move the circle of democracy so that is overlaps more, and creates an intersection with real solutions to a larger degree.
I know you said one, but you can take the first one.
Ken:  Oh, no. You’re welcome to take three.
Taj:  I would say that those three crystallize, for me, what the Sustainable Economies Law Center is also saying. That seems right. I’m on the SELC bandwagon.
Ken:  Can you talk a little bit more about what this looks like when it lands on the ground? For example, if I were walking around a community, what signs would I see that it was resilient, or becoming more resilient?
Taj:  That’s a great question. It could look really different in different communities. That’s one of the core principles, that these solutions have to be place-specific, historically contextual, and rooted in that sort of core strength and aspiration of a particular people in a particular place. It looks really different if you’re with the Navajo Nation in the Southwest than if you’re living next to the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California.
Ken:  As I do.
Taj:  Yes, yes, yes—it will look different. I think the common thing for us, in terms of a process of transition—“How do we get from here to resilience?”—is that the key driver, the anchor in an ecosystem, is the capacity for sustained community-driven visioning, planning, and powerability.
That means, when we come into a community and talk with folks, they’d be able to say, “Yeah, this is our community. It belongs to us. We have a vision of what we’re trying to do. Let me tell you what it is. We started out by doing this gardening stuff, and then we set up a public bank, and we used it to take over our local utility. Then we occupied these…”
You get where I’m going. There would be a shared collective sense of understanding of where that community is trying to go, and a sense of ownership and agency, that collectively folks have the right and the capacity for self-determination in a way that is aligned with and supportive of other communities that are working towards their own self-determination, and understanding those sort of limits of the bioregion in which we are operating.
Ken:  What are the physical signs of that?
Taj:  Mmmm…yeah. Food that is growing on the sidewalks! Oakland Food Policy Council, they’ve got a whole edible greenways map that’s laid out. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. “Wow, I can walk down the street and eat an apple. There you go. That sounds like a good idea. The grocery store is underwater. Well, the apples are still on the tree.”
That’s keeping it simple….
Ken: Are there ways to use metrics to measure community resilience?
Taj:  I’ve heard from our team recently that we probably need to develop a compelling Vulnerability Index and a compelling Resilience Index that sort of has some broader categories, but it would be designed to be adapted to place. Folks can adjust the levels on the different indicators, and they could add other levels to account for the unique kind of ecological, historical, cultural, topographical threats, opportunities, conditions.
However you adjust the levels for any local place, you can compare across places. Like on the Vulnerability Index, these four blocks are a nine out of ten, and they’re a three out of ten on the Resilience Index. I think maybe john powell‘s working on something kind of like that. I’m curious to see if someone is doing it. I will say to the megaphone, if someone isn’t working on that, “Get on that!”
Because I think we really have to be systematic about what we need and how we measure it, and have a method that allows communities to define resilience in a community-specific way, and also in a way we can translate across communities.
When we started this conversation, we said what would be the key indicators of an Index. Here they are in order as far as I can see. They’re related to set of rights in some ways. The first right is the right to live. If you’re living in a place in which, statistically speaking, you are facing threats to your life because violence in one form or another is very prevalent, then you can’t experience resilience if you’re dead. So the first indicator has to do with basic safety. That’s number one, the right to live.
Number two, the right to stay. You cannot experience health or resilience if you are not in a position to stay in your home.
Number three, is about levels of community ownership and control. Here’s the parallel. I was just talking to Michelle from BALLE, and she reminded me of this. If you measure countries around the world, and you measure the health and well-being in those countries by an indicator, the biggest indicator of community unhealth is the level of financialization in that community. What financialization means is that someone else owns your community, not you.
Ken:  That means someone else owns your home too.
Taj:  Yeah, exactly. I don’t just mean the things that individual people and individual family’s homes, but also the commons. What is held in the commons? How many properties are in the land trust? I would say, after you go for the first indicators, the third biggest indicator of resilience in a community will probably be the level of community ownership versus the level of financialization. That would then probably predict the things that we would most likely think of, which is how resilient is this place to the kinds of climate impact, and extreme weather events, and etc. that are likely to impact the community? How prepared is this community for disaster preparedness and response and recovery?
Then you’ve got social cohesion indicators.
I think that in terms of making that index, what I’m saying is something that I’ve heard from lots of other people in lots of other ways. I don’t think I’m saying anything original. I’m just trying to reflect back what I’ve heard.
If someone generated an index then there would be a lot of people that would say, “Yeah, that kind of makes sense. That looks pretty close to how we think about it. Let’s use it and see what happens.”
I don’t know if that answered the question.
Ken:  It does answer the question. It doesn’t answer the question of a) who’s going to do it, and b) how are they going to put numbers to those things? That’s a challenge for whoever takes that on.
Taj:  I think that’s one of things that ideally will bounce around and someone will pick it up and run with it, or we will try to find someone and lend them that task. Like, “Hey, john powell. Will you lead this? Just go do this thing!”
Ken:  He is someone I want to be talking with next.
Taj:  When you talk to him just say, “Taj said you were doing this thing!”
Ken:  Will do. I really appreciate you taking so much time to talk with me.

Taj James

Taj James is the Executive Director of the Movement Strategy Center, based in Oakland, CA. MSC is a national intermediary that works with over 300 partner grassroots organizations, alliances, and networks which operate at local, regional, and national levels. MSC works across sectors, supporting local alliances that bring people in one place together across issues and constituencies, and supporting national alliances that unite groups working on common issues.   

Tags: talking resilience