Our host Vicki Robin takes a turn in the hot seat, asking herself “What Could Possibly Go Right?” After more than 50 episodes in the program, Vicki reflects on the emerging themes and shares thoughts as a cultural scout, including:
- The four acceptances she is making to find more serenity and avoid burnout in activism
- The benefits of returning to ritual, connection, and cultural liveliness
- That “we’re all working against an outdated, outmoded paradigm, that must fail to liberate the creative energies of humanity”
- That “the capacity for empathy and compassion for spaciousness and calm is the missing piece in this struggle with our climate, environmental and social circumstances”
- That intersectionality is now firmly anchored in movements for justice and positive change
Connect with Vicki Robin
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, to help us all see more clearly and act more courageously in times of great change. Every so often on this show, I put myself in the hot seat. I turn the microphone on myself, and I do my own talk about what I think could possibly go right. I was tempted to write this out, and I did write it out, scratch it out. But I’m going to just try to talk through this, because it’s been very, very hard for me to do this. And quite honestly, because I’ve gotten majorly pissed at the world, at people who theoretically agree with me and don’t agree with me, at the weeds in my garden, and it’s a miracle I have any friends anymore. It all started about five years ago, really, before the election of Trump when I discovered that the jet pilot training in the Naval Air Station was right over our best farmland. And I’d been working on issues of local food and I thought, no, you can’t have our farmland. So I worked for several years with a group of people, very smart and committed people, to stop that training over our farmland and, as it turned out, over the Olympic National Forest and the National Par. And even though we played by the rules, we lost the game. At least, we’ve lost it temporarily. So that was just exhausting and dispiriting. Then, of course, we had Trump’s election, and the literally killing of so many of the protections of what I love, which is people in nature. And then, we had the election, and Biden won, but we had January 6. We had Big Lie. We had a few months of respite, and now we have the rallies and the dawn of the Republicans asserting his control. So I mean, I’ve felt impotent. I’ve felt like everything is consequential, and I can’t do anything about it. So that just got me in this really pissed-off state. And so trying to get out of it because realizing it was really toxifying my whole being. It wasn’t sort of localized in a particular incident. It was just the way I was being. I wrote because I like to write and I like to write funny things. I wrote this and I’m going to read it to you.
It is: What is the female version of grumpy old man? I’m turning 76 and whatever it is, I think I’m getting there. Is it vain old woman? “Look at my ankles.” After 12 hours of elevation due to deflate the souffle that puffs up out of my shoes. “Thin as the day I was married.” Oh, and pointing to the bits of skeletons still angling out of the sags and bags “Well, look at those collarbones. Zsa Zsa Gabor, right? And those cheekbones,” sucking in my cheeks which is unnecessary so I’ve got two craters exposed as my tired face surrenders to gravity. Or is it the nasty old woman? “Well, when I was a girl, we never.” Well that’s it. Next stop, nasty old lady. Far enough into dementia to lose civilized filters about what comes out of her mouth. Well, this nasty old lady is tired of reading news bulletins about global sizzling and saying I told you that 30 years ago. I am tired of quoting myself. When yet one more millennial throws up a Wix website, branding herself as a minimalist and blogging about her latest insight about enoughness (TM moi), my hair is fizzled because it’s on fire. I’m tired of high paid consultants declaring that sustainability is out and regeneration is in, knowing that regeneration will soon be as greenwashed a buzzword as sustainability was in the 90s, no sooner grumbled and heard by the ever-listening Google, up pops an ad for an agro-chemical company with a picture of work hardened hands in loamy soil declaring their commitment to – wait for it – regeneration. Don’t get me started, I say, and then I start anyway. I remember back 30 years ago when I gathered a dozen authors of books – yes books, deary. No websites then – about simplicity, to turn it into a kick ass movement rather than a trend. I remember two years later, when Real Simple, the focus group manufactured glossy magazine with more ads than content, stole our two most potent words out from under us to sell perfume. Back in the day, I watched aghast this sentence hurtling for my mouth. Back when sustainability was new and radical, we dreamed of being an all decision makers lips. In fact, nasty old lady filters gone, does say that.
And then I launch into I was there when the Brundtland Commission report – oh, you’ve never heard of that? – landed in the United States. Of course you know about the Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth? No. I want to electrify my already dried out crown of grey hair and scream: You young people, we knew 50 f-bomb years ago that this day would come when we’d be 8 billion people on a depleted planet. And off goes granny, the grandkids inching way as she’s muttering, “Back in the day we didn’t have computers. We typed on typewriters. Oh back then, phones had cords and books had covers and we still f-bomb made a revolution.” I’m a regular nasty Jill in the box at the slightest provocation. Out pops the nasty old lady with another diatribe. Next thing you know, I’ll be saying “whippersnappers”, “wet behind the ears” and “you think you’re so all wired smart”.
I remember the first meeting of Clinton’s President’s Council on Sustainable Development that was in Seattle, when my Sustainable Seattle team knew and certain of imminent success, were there. The heads of environmental organizations and the heads of major corporations gathered around the same table politely puzzling through how some could keep profiting and some keep attracting donors, while all sounding like they’re rising to the sober equation of disaster on the horizon. Then a young aide brought up the R word, redistribution, sharing the wealth. Well, before she could say the M word, moderation, or the word, less, the corporate representatives reared up in their seats in perfect water ballet synchronization and said, “Well, if that’s what we’re talking about, we’re leaving.” Don’t get me started. Oh, you say I already got myself started? You say I’m building up to a rant again? Oh wait, did you say Ok Boomer and leave the room, while I put on my mean squint waggling my finger at you? Deflated I cry.
See, underneath every nasty old lady is a crestfallen idealist, grieving for how money dreams dribble into meagre rivulets, despairing as a new generation up against everything she tried to prevent climbs the same mountain, but has to drive an Uber on the side. And then having dropped past fury and down past grief, I arrive at amazement at how much smarter, more informed and more strategic the current crop of hair-on-fire youth of many colors are. A massive army of unstoppables going with their spears right to the heart of the zombie financial system, right to the guts of the grumpy old men running extractive industries. They are as intense as I was on killing the beast that is killing us. And so I take my bony fingers and I snap open my little leather change purse, and I send as much support as I can their way, leaving enough in there, of course, for a birthday present for me. Maybe purple hair, or a tattoo.
So that was how I let off some of the energy. But knowing I had to somehow find my way out of this endemic fury that was coursing through me, I remembered the Serenity Prayer and perhaps you all know it.
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
But I was more like Angela Davis, who’s credited with saying, I’m done accepting the things I cannot change. I’m into changing the things I cannot accept. And that’s been me and that’s led me down this path. But what I realized is even though I’m pretty sure I’m right, which of course, we all think, right? But if I keep this attitude, I’m going to burn up or burn out or burn through friends. So, in this process I’ve developed four acceptances. And it’s not been a mental process. It’s just that groping along the path, this is what showed up. The first one was, I can accept the unacceptable. Not because it’s acceptable, but because it’s what is. Don’t fight with reality, Vicki. Number one, the future I work for, the one I think is the right future, is not the future everybody wants. And honestly, it’s informed by my age, my race, my gender, my privilege, my generation, my moment in time. It’s not universal. So it’s not reality. It’s a piece of reality, a little piece, but it’s not reality. I feel like William Buckley who said, when he started his national review magazine, and for those you don’t know, he was an arch conservative and he was so smart, that you’d never want to argue with him. He said, The purpose of this magazine is to stand up toward history and yell, Stop. And fundamentally, that’s what I wanted to do. I want to stand before history and stop injustice, climate change, wealth gap, overconsumption. I mean, you name it, I have been standing there for history, trying to stop it.
And then the next acceptance was really humility. And that’s the question, what can I really change after all, and first of all, I can change myself, not necessarily the basic architecture of my personality, because that’s the sort of, they’re like my hair color and my skeleton, but I can change my attitudes, I can change my behavior, I can change my shallow but angry thinking, and I can think more critically, read more widely, gain more compassion. And I can actually, without the anger, I might be able to affect more than I can with it.
And then the third thing, and I used to say this to people who are really upset and up against it, I used to call it pouring in time. As angry as I was, and it’s “was” really, although there’s plenty there to go around. I am living in a sliver of time and the stakes seem really high because the time frame is so narrow. It’s like sort of a box canyon, if you will, or a shoot if you’re whitewater rafting. And the fact is that hundreds of civilizations have risen and fallen, and why should I think ours is any different? And the, the dinosaurs dominated the earth for about 170 million years and humans have been here 300,000 years, just a sliver in time for our whole species. Agriculture began 10,000 years ago. And the industrial revolution in which we sort of like, like leapt out of the bounds of what our physical energy or our work animals could do, is only 300 years old. We are a very, very, very, very young species. And we’re learning species with a long way to go to develop the moral capacity to channel the energies that we have captured from the sun.
And then the other thing I realized is that, I really don’t have agency over the future. I have agency over what I do in the moment, that will affect the future because everything affects everything else. But I don’t have the power to assure that the changes I want to I work for actually will get anchored in the future. And I think about my great grandmother who had to take her husband out to the territories, that’s Arizona, to heal his TB. And what would my world look like to my great grandmother? And so what is the world that our great great great grandchildren will be living in, and of course, right now, we feel tremendous amount of fear about that. Because we want to protect them, and we can’t. But in fact, this really has always been so people have always felt a concern about the unknown future. And a prediction that it will be, some are like positivity junkies, but many people that felt very nervous that it’s all going to hell in a handbasket. And so I realize that we talk as activists about the end of the world as we know it, crisis after crisis. I remember Y2K, that’s when I learned that term. It’s like the computer system that runs, everything is going to break down. And it didn’t. So I realized that, we use that term to frighten ourselves and to motivate ourselves. But in fact, every moment is the end of the world as we know it. Yeah, that the world I was born into is not the world I’m going to die out of. That’s just a fact. And so how much control do I really have? Spiritually, they say, trust the process. And I’ve lived long enough to see amazing, amazing changes in culture and politics, even given the current mess.
And my fourth realization has been, the only constant is change. Everything’s changing. Everything is changing in every moment. A lot of our eggs are animals, profound level, our fear of death, is the fear of change. The fear that we are out of control, of change. I love Octavia Butler, who embedded in her books, the power, the parable of the sower, in the parable of the talents, this spiritual book called them was called Earth Seed. And, and the primary The Prime Directive, if you will, is all that you touch you change. All that you change changes you, the only lasting truth is change. God does change. So I’m healing my mind. And I actually think that that’s like, sort of number one on what could possibly go right. In my interviews it has become clearer and clearer to me, that the people who can feel the world are the ones who are more accurate, most accurate, in their work to heal the world. And that very often, it’s the deepest crises of feeling of despair, that bring the greatest change. That bring the greatest clarity. I mean, that’s happened in my own life.
I’ve had many, many crises, but the one I would mention right now is that I had cancer and it really unravelled many of my presumptions, and showed me some of the very deepest motivations of my being and it really changed me. And so, if we can endure the feeling of confronting a world that is rapidly changing in our minds being fearful of the direction of that change, I think we can, our interventions, including mine, are going to be more accurate to what is actually needed. That the capacity for empathy and compassion for spaciousness and calm is the missing piece in this struggle with our climate, environmental and social circumstances. And I feel quite assured that this process of acceptance which is I think, going to take me the rest of my life is it will lead me to the kind of clarity that will lead me to investing my life energy, however much I have in interventions that actually produce positive change in the hearts and minds of others, without attachment and without trying to control results. So there you go. That’s my personal healing.
And I had to tell you that because I had to get to it, to do my response to the question, What could possibly go right? And I started, what could possibly go right to help direct change, I use the Milton Friedman quote, that all change happens in crisis. So and in crisis, the direction of change is influenced by the ideas that are lying around. So I thought, I’m going to interview people and get a whole bunch of really good ideas lying around. And I actually know, I mean, it’s been a contribution, at least, I know, 10s of 1000s of people have listened to our episodes. But I think I still was suffering from my assumption of driving change in the direction I wanted it to go. And by now, being despairing one more time, about the failure to have the results I wanted in the timeframe I wanted.
So here’s some things that I think are very promising, setting aside all the things that we know are going awry. And one thing is that I’ve learned, I have learned over my lifetime, this is like the positive, the ungrumpy old lady, that movements take at least 10 to 20, and sometimes more years, before politicians claim them as their own, like their own good idea. I’ve seen that happen in my work. And just one example, right now, I’ve been watching the struggle for businesses to get employees to return to work, and they’re having trouble. And now I’m reading that more and more companies are following the lead of Amazon for whatever reason they did that, but they’re following Amazon’s lead in their offering $15 an hour and beginning to attract workers back. And this has been the fight for 15 has been at least a decade or maybe longer. And when it started, it seemed like, exaggerated, like it was, Oh, well, 7.25, we can’t go right to 15 about 8.95. It’s like, we’re gonna have go step wise with it, and the pandemic just just revealed that people do not want to go back to minimum wage jobs that do not support a living, and do not support them in paying their rent and having food, they don’t want that. They don’t want to be peons anymore in this industrial, sort of what we used to call making a dying system. And, there’s been lots of theories about why not, and oh, well, they’re still getting checks. As soon as they don’t get their checks, they’re going to come back for a minimum wage.
But I’m not so sure about that. I think that childcare has been really influential. People can’t go back to work if they’re still educating their kids at home. And getting kids back to school is being difficult. It’s not an easy task. And so then I think a lot of people have used this time…my cat has arrived. So she now wants to be part of this. So here we go. Here’s Bella. Yeah, she’ll be here for a while, and then she’ll be bored, and she’ll go. Yeah, but I think that a lot of people took the time and the little income and retrained so they, they have trained themselves for better jobs. And so they’re not going to go back to the minimum wage jobs or the the soul destroying jobs, they’re just not going to do it. Or people have figured out how to how to take their work online. I mean, just monetizing Tik Tok and Medium, people are making a lot of money online and they don’t need to go to industrial workplace for an income or just that the pay is too little for the toll it takes on the body. So now their offering signing bonuses, of several thousand dollars and $15 an hour and it’s guaranteed that bosses, if you will, are not going to be able to take that away. Because once we had Social Security, that is like the third rail of politics, you cannot take that away and actually get elected again. So I think this $15 minimum wage is a positive byproduct of this year and a half pause from the old paradigm of work and spend and work and spend and work and spend and retire and go to your grave.
And then I also see that this year has been a surfacing, a sort of front and center of several rights movements that have been in the wings, and civil rights, of course, has been in that has been a battle almost for the history of our country. But I think Black Lives Matter has taken things beyond. Yeah, it’s taken things wider and broader. I don’t think it’s going to go back in the closet, the racial justice issues. And, Indigenous rights, so colonialism, racism, exploitation are really revealed. I mean, this seems like apocalyptic. Apocalypse means the great revealing, the revealing of the underbelly of the sins that have been under this civilized surface. And so the pushback is not just a failure, it’s evidence that these rights movements are gaining power.
And I think the other one that that’s really interesting now is trans rights, the right of people to transcend the social cultural definitions of what it means to be a man or woman, to be able to look within and sense their own truth, and live their truth and not be coerced into living a truth that comes out of a patriarchal society. And so I think that’s starting to really grab hold, and, and the number of people really having the surgeries to change their biological sexual equipment is much less than the people who are very committed to this right for self definition, around love. And so I think that’s not going to go away.
And I see that, like, intersectionality was like four or five years ago, or whenever, whenever I encountered it was sort of a confusing word. I’m a writer, and I sort of wanted people to change it to something that was more apprehendable. But I think it’s now really anchored in so many of the movements for justice, is the realization that even though the presenting cause whether it’s #MeToo, or BLM, or whatever these things are, what the presenting cause is, it is really, that we’re all working against an outdated, outmoded paradigm that must fail to liberate the creative energies of humanity. And that’s not said with any malice. It’s just sort of a necessity. It’s sort of part of the cycle, the creative cycle, which is creation and destruction that supports new creation. So I just think we understand where we are so much better.
And the other thing is, whether you love Zoom or hate Zoom or Zoomed out, which is a new word in our vocabulary, we are connected by a technology at a level that that was beyond our wildest dreams. I keep thinking about I lived when we only could write letters and then we had fax, and the upheaval in Russia that sort of ended the Soviet Union, a lot of it was enabled by fax machines, which were like modern tools. And so I think this capacity to feel the lives of people who are halfway around the world, so many people, I know it’s common that when they used to do a workshop, maybe 100 people could show up max, and now they’re doing workshops with 10,000 people from all over the world. And we’re being able, in these little squares on the screen, to see people in their facial expressions from all over the world, and hear what they’re talking about, about their own experience. Peter Russell years and years ago, posited that we are growing something that he called the Global Brain, that basically we’re all part of a nervous system of the planet, certainly of humanity, but of the planet we’re a nervous system that’s growing, and we will be able to be sufficiently connected and interconnected, and inter-intelligence and inter-being, to be able to think together, to be able to be the thinking, feeling element of Gaia herself, the planet herself. Back when I first heard that I was so idealistic, and I thought that is really beautiful. I hope we can get there. And I actually think that technology, which is very amoral, and we have a lot of work to do on, on making it beneficial for all, but it’s really taking us into a necessary step for becoming what some people call a planetary species rather than balkanized, and competing in warring tribal groups. We’ve been there before.
What’s missing, of course, is high touch locally, and the resurgence of the pandemic, makes it difficult again, but I can say that some of the rituals in my local community are returning, going to cafes, and I’m a part of a community that does ecstatic dance on Sundays. And it was like the the biggest love bomb of my week, and that’s back, we’re outside and dancing, but the experience is coming back. And I think that, what could possibly go right, what is possible, is whoever is creating ways for people to connect locally, and to increase the amount of social creativity and, and cultural liveliness, whether it’s theatre, or the arts, or festivals or, sailing regattas, or whatever it is, humans love to be together. And when we’re together, not being run by the people above us who want to channel us into war, when we’re together we have a good time, you know, maybe the future can be a picnic.
And so another one that I see is that climate change is squarely on the map. And, climate denial, one of the ways that movements work is that the old way isn’t suppressed. It’s just delegitimized. And I think that’s happening with climate denial. I mean, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. I mean, people have predictions about the future and they’re all pretty dire.
And then I think another one is that people are way more passionate politically, of course, we’re polarized. So that the passions are zeroing each other out and making, you know, our collective life feel very dangerous and frightening and we’re afraid of a tendency toward authoritarianism and sort of fascistic tendencies. But again, the jury’s out, the stakes are high. But the amount of pushback against democracy is evidence that we’re winning. You know, not we, as we and them, but that self governance, and we, the people, which was an ideal in this country started is, is being filled out now by people’s participation. We always wonder why are not people in the United States on the streets because egregious things are happening, but we are now it’s not only in the streets, but in the halls of power. I just read today apparently, there’s an election in Boston, I think it’s for mayor and there’s no white men running. Women, people of color that’s happening.
So, a final thought is that I can see things going right not as in results, but is in trends. as in movement. And I can add my energy to that. And that’s all we’ve ever said on what could possibly go right is there we’re saying, what are the things that are emerging that we can cooperate with, and not to bang on on history of the future and make our ideas the ideas that stick and stick forever, because that’s delusional, but that we can work with the trends and forces and energies that are emerging in our world and we can notice. We can see evidence of that, you know, in these movements for democracy and rights, etc. and we can align with it and go with the flow, not buck reality and stand athwart history yelling stop.
So finally, I just like to share some of the words of I. F. Stones which always inspired me. He said, The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday somebody who believes at you as you do wins. And then this is another one that inspired me for years. If you expect to see the final results of your work, you simply have not asked a big enough question.
And finally, I want to share with you a poem I wrote.This is our windup in case you’re wondering. This is a poem I wrote for a collection of essays that was published in the year 2000, asking a lot of people their visions for the future. And I ended up writing this poem.
Could we be happy? October 17 1999.
And we will all be noisy.
We will gather in the streets talking about recipes and politics and philosophy, and love.
We will show each other our bruises with the innocence of children.
Convinced of our safety, we will smile as though anyone can be a friend.
The malls will be commons of kindness, with shops for healing broken hearts and stands for conversation breaks.
The poor won’t be so poor, and will invite the rich to lunch, no one will feel left out.
The natural world will hum with life giving itself to life for the sake of life.
Just like in the old days, every species will have a human who like an older brother helps to cross the divide between death and deliverance.
We will hear the sounds of animals and trees and have the distinct impression that we understand.
We will see pawprints and want to follow.
We will walk in silence worshipping.
Oh, we will worship shamelessly everywhere.
As we get the morning paper we will kiss the ground and greet the sun.
We will chant morning prayers in a 1000 tongues right here on our door stoops.
We will say rosaries and make prayer ties on the bus in the morning, and do business as if we will live 1000 lifetimes with the outcomes of our actions.
We will admit that we are hopelessly in love with the divine divine.
Yes, we will be showered with blessings and drip with wet gratitude.
We will all have enough.
We will all have hope.
Even the poor poor who didn’t choose to be poor.
Our imaginations will be on fire with What if, as if no one had told us to Forget it and fail gracefully.
No life will be capped with despair.
No child unloved and crying naked and dirty.
Even the rich will want to live in such a world, will want to come into the street and sing and drink beer.
And the guards and the prisoners will tell stories of childhood until they become brothers.
And that tight place in our chest where our hearts are in hiding will soften and melt.
And we will finally be free.