Show Notes

John de Graaf is an author, award-winning documentary filmmaker, speaker, and activist “with a mission to help create a happy, healthy and sustainable quality of life for America.” He was the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time and co-founder of The Happiness Initiative. Since 1977, he has produced more than 40 documentaries, and dozens of shorter news stories and films. He is the author of books including international best-seller Affluenza, Running Out of Time and Hot Potatoes.

He addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • That beauty in nature and the built environment can be a uniter in our polarized communities.
  • That greening local neighborhoods can have broader positive implications, like reducing violence and having a healing influence.
  • That experiments in increasing vacation time or introducing four day workweeks can make workers healthier, happier and more productive.
  • That movements towards simplicity, sustainable living and getting outdoors has been boosted during the pandemic.

Connect with John de Graaf



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, asking them all our same question. In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what do you see could possibly go right? And my guest today is John de Graaf. He’s an author, a filmmaker, a speaker and an activist, with a mission to help create a happy, healthy and sustainable quality of life for America. He has three books. One called Affluenza, another one called Take Back Your Time, and a third called What’s The Economy For Anyway? He’s a documentary filmmaker with over 40 documentaries, many more shorter films to his name, and many awards for his films. His most popular film is the film Affluenza, and he has also done a film Running Out of Time, and many more. But I worked on Affluenza with him. He founded or took a leadership role in many movements, including The Happiness Movement, and the Take Back Your Time initiative and the Simplicity Forum. To quote myself from his website, I’ll follow John de Graaf anywhere and often have. He is a consummate activist and human; brilliant, kind, dedicated, fair and always working on cross cutting issues that are high minded, full hearted and canny politically. I invited him to be my guest on What Could Possibly Go Right? specifically for that, for his deep bench of experiences as an activist and his ability to find voices on all sides, political sides that support the cultural issues that he’s been singling out; the lack of enough time for family, friends and love, the lack of beauty, the lack of simplicity, the complexity of modern life. These are all cross cutting social issues that he’s found the full range of voices for so here’s my interview with John de Graaf.

Vicki Robin

Welcome, John, to What Could Possibly Go Right? You and I have worked together and in tandem for I think over three decades to move the world towards sustainability, simplicity and well being. Some of the projects we’ve worked on together are Affluenza, your wonderful film Affluenza, the Simplicity Forum, the organization that was going to take simplicity over the top as a core value in this country, the Center for New American Dream, and Take Back Your Time. You’ve always picked cultural issues and found people on the left and the right, secular, religious, who share a concern about it. So you are like the consummate activists that I know who seek higher ground and common ground on really important cultural issues. I’ve watched you do this recently with your beauty campaign. And at this time of great polarization, when people find it almost impossible to talk to the other side about anything, I want to hear your cultural scout observations. As you know, we’re not looking for analysis of the past or your prescriptions for the future, but rather your observations about what is emerging now, that people of goodwill can cooperate with. So here you go, John. With all that seems to be going in the wrong direction, away from the thriving and just future, what could possibly go right?

John de Graaf

Well, Vicki, it’s hard to be incredibly over the top optimistic these days, because we are so polarized and so many things are negative. And we seem to be in this tribal war back and forth. And so we don’t seem to spend, we seem to get distracted by issues where we obviously don’t see eye to eye and we don’t find ways to start working together on the things that we do. I’ll give you an example of that. I’ve been starting to do some writing for and a lot of talking to and trying to work with some folks who are on the conservative side of the spectrum, who are very religious folks  and who are rural Americans who publish a journal called the Front Porch Republic out of rural Michigan. And what I find is that we’ve got a lot of things that in common. We do have a few things that we just simply don’t agree on, abortion, I think being a key word, we’re just not finding common ground on that specific issue at this point.

But we’ve agreed that it’s best for us to start trying to look for the things we do agree on, and see how we can move forward on those things. And how we can get to know each other better, so that we understand each other better. And I think that’s an important thing. I think once you make these litmus tests of this issue, or that issue, or this and suddenly, anybody who’s disagrees with you on that particular issue becomes the enemy, or the opposite, then you’re, you’re in big trouble. Now, I have found that the subject of beauty can be a uniter, that it doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal, both conservatives and liberals ike their gardens, they like their national parks, they like to come out and see beautiful things.

And I’m talking here about natural beauty, I’m talking about built beauty, I’m not talking about cosmetics, and personal, physical beauty. But the same kinds of cities in the world, particularly the European cities, I think of, of Venice and Florence and Rome and Paris, those cities attract lots of people, for certain reasons, it’s because they people see them as beautiful, and they see them as harmonious and as life enhancing. One of the things I think we know about beauty is that it’s only barely true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is to a minor degree, of course, and we do have our differences. And in fact, there are some differences in terms of nature between Westerners and Asians and that Westerners tend to prefer wilder landscapes and Asians may prefer more manicured gardens and things of that sort. Those are pretty minor differences. Because if you only have to go to Zermatt in Switzerland, or to Yosemite National Park, or anywhere, you’re going to see at least as many Asian tourists these days, as you see Westerners, and Westerners love to go to Japanese gardens and things like that, too. I mean, we may have these slight differences.

But we do share a sense of beauty. And this is an evolutionary thing, I believe, that comes from how we appreciate landscapes and settings that are life enhancing, that increase the life instincts. We find ugly those kinds of things which seem to us, sometimes very subconsciously, but seem to us life threatening. For example, if we see an oil spill, or a garbage dump, or strip mine, though, those places actually, I think subconsciously feel to us almost like wounds on our own body. They are threatening in the sense that they are not life enhancing. And so when we see that we have this commonality around things, like beauty. Lyndon Johnson put it this way. He said, we may not always agree on what is most beautiful, but we all know what is ugly. And I think one of the issues now is that we have allowed an awful lot of ugly to enter our communities, our city. I mean, if you look at Seattle and places like that today, a lot of it is is a landscape that does not feel pleasant to live in, whether you’re poor or rich, whoever you are.

And so one of the interesting sides to this, and then I want to go back to your questions rather than keep talking. But there’s a great piece that just came out on October 8 in the New York Times. It’s called to combat gun violence, clean up the neighborhood, and it’s by an African American woman who’s a health expert. Her name is Eugenia South. She’s an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Faculty Director of the Urban Health Lab. And what she argues here is simply cleaning up vacant lots, getting rid of graffiti, getting rid of really ugly places with garbage in the streets, and trash and litter and stuff. And then greening those neighborhoods, turning them into even the smallest parks but parks with some grass and some green space and some trees. They have found in experiments in Philadelphia, that they’re able to reduce gun violence and homicides by about 1/3 simply by changing the look of the neighborhood, nobody wants those kind of neighborhoods that are ugly, people agree on that I think, and those are the kinds of things that we can work on together. We can support that. I see very little indication that people try to do that or think about the broader implications, that in fact, those kinds of changes are so important.

Vicki Robin

I don’t know, John, let’s flip over, though, because, because what I’m asking you really is, you say, you see very little indication, but I’m asking you, what indications do you see whether it’s on beauty or anything else, where you say that, just like this article, that’s something that we can work with, despite the fact that there’s so much divisiveness around, there’s things that we can work with? And what are you seeing emerging in this time, pandemic, all of this emerging that you’ve you really feel enthused about, that we could work with this?

John de Graaf

Well, that’s certainly one of them. I mean, I think that, boy, it’s tough, because I’m not this, hey, everything is great, and it’s hard to, so a lot of it is believing what really, I think can work based on the data, but I’m not seeing enough of it. But clearly things that like you were connected with, certainly the urban food movement of the local food movement, things like that. Lots of people are really involved in that sort of thing, like permaculture, there are many of these, these sort of things out there that attract people that do bring people together, across these poles. I think another is the preservation of an interest in more national parks and preserving more land and I see this in, the new restoration of Bears Ears National Monument, for example, that these are places that we share together. I don’t know that it’s always gonna work. Polarization is pretty serious, because now we’ve made things so that even when we both think an idea is good, we can’t stand the fact that the other person is supporting it. I mean, yeah, that’s a really difficult, difficult thing to look at.

Vicki Robin

I just want to tell you like a little story, because I’m, I’ve been working on a variety of issues for a long time, and three things that I’ve worked on, and sort of soldiered on, and, rightly encouraged people to make the changes, and very little at the scale that I’ve wanted to have happened has happened. But I live on this small island, that is it like, it’s definitely  a red state and a blue state. And there’s plenty of divisiveness going on.

But I’m working with a local food consortium, and I really see us making progress, because people are aware, I mean, it’s becomes a survival thing. It’s not just nice, not just farmers markets, it’s like, oh, I see supply chain issues, we have to get this handled and then there’s a Naval Air Station at the north end, they are looking as well, so I think it’s a demonstration of what you’re talking about that there are some things that are potentially unitive issues. I have the person who grows the best chickens on the planet, as far as I’m concerned, and sorry about the other people who also work chickens, but I’ve been going to him for years. And he’s on the north end of the island, and he’s got it. He’s a third generation farmer who’s convinced his family to use the Joel Salatin approach to regenerative farming, like rotational grazing, very specific, and he is following it to a tee and he loves doing it. And, but in the beginning of a pandemic, we discovered that we are totally on different sides of that issue, but it has not disturbed our relationship around chickens. And I don’t know, I don’t have a conviction that either of us is going to change our minds at all. He tried to change mine, and I was like, Are you kidding? I looked at his websites, like I have a feeling that if we have a bond around these baseline provisioning things, and the beauty is, we all live here and here is going down the tubes and we want here to kind of like start to restore. So where do you see like that restoration happening just bubbling up? Do you see that in our, our common spaces? Do you pick up signals on the news? What are you seeing?

John de Graaf

Well, I mean, yes, certainly there’s a lot more stuff out there about that. I think in academia, we’re seeing a lot more writing, we’re seeing a lot more discussion of everything from sustainable living, simplicity, all of those, those kinds of things. It’s percolating in the system and we’re, we’re seeing people who were somewhat polarising, I think, in the past, and this is a very positive sign for me. For example, there is David Brooks ,who think I was a pretty polarizing very conservative figure, who now I see as somebody who is working his butt off, frankly, to try to bring people together across these kinds of boundaries and to get us to think of the common good and our common society. I think that’s, that’s very positive.

I do think it is possible, if we can somehow get away from the idea that just because the person who suggested something disagrees with us on a bunch of other things, it’s a bad idea. And I, I see a lot of that it’s surprising to me, oh, he’s a Republican, he couldn’t possibly have a good idea, oh, he’s a Democrat. Oh, he’s a lib. So that idea must be some sort of conspiracy, and needs to be rejected out of hand. Let me give you one example, I am no fan as you might suspect of Rudy Giuliani. But I do believe that Rudy Giuliani in New York made a very important positive difference when he said, You got to start taking care of the small stuff, when the windows get cracked, fix them, when the graffiti is put on the trains, clean it up, when the garbage is around, clean it up, make things so that they are livable for people, and you will make a city that is more together and more harmonious. And there is no question that crime declined immensely during that period. Whatever else I currently think about Rudy Giuliani, I accept that those things happened. And I think it’s the same as Philadelphia. I think sometimes we look for the wrong things. It’s either we want more police, more cops with this, or we want to defund or abolish the police, when we’re thinking that may be the solution to a lot of these things, isn’t either more or less police. I mean, we may need more in certain cases and less than others. But there are experiences we wouldn’t even think about trying.

Let me give you another example of a real positive thing I see happening in our society today. It’s a thing called Parks are x. So we are learning now, again, how much access to major green space, open space means to people, to communities, and especially to low income people who have been deprived of this sort of thing. So there’s a great movement about getting young, young people, particularly minority and poor, young people out to parks, and then to available green space. The Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, for example, a big example of this is this Iranian born doctor there who started this whole movement that’s had an enormous effect in reducing stress for poor kids. And again, these kinds of things can reduce violence, they can reduce conflict, and so forth. So I think, I think that’s a real positive part, I think Parks are x is a great idea.

Again, I look to beauty. And I look to the healing values of nature. I’m excited about things, movements, like Outdoor Afro or Latino Outdoors, which are working to get children of color into out into the parks and into the natural world, so that they can enjoy it in the same way that the rest of us have for so long. I think that’s very exciting work. I interviewed Rue Mapp,  who founded Outdoor Afro, an  amazing woman, and what she’s doing is I think so important. And it’s the same reason we need to heal and these are some of the ways we can begin to heal. It’s not all just about getting the right counselor or have the right mental health program and spending a lot of money on mental health, although I think we need to spend more money on mental health.

But there are other things we don’t think of just in terms of changing our community. But one other example on that end, we don’t understand the importance of beauty. To a certain degree, I didn’t understand that either. In 2010 Laura Musikanski my dear friend and I started the Happiness Alliance. We have a survey that people can take that looks at various domains of life to see how satisfied they are in those domains and how they lead to overall life satisfaction. Beauty was never one of those domains we ever thought about. It didn’t come in because the country of Bhuta which started this didn’t have it in its list of domains. And there’s a good reason for that. But life is so beautiful in Bhutan, you’ve got a good time, you’re simply surrounded all the time, by nature, art, and, and everything in that regard. It’s kind of like you’re swimming in the sea. But here, it’s different.

So Gallup did a study. This is one of the most important studies I think, out there in 2014, called the soul of the community. And in that study, Gallup looked at 26 cities around the country that have Knight newspapers, it was the Knight Foundation that funded that. They range in size from Philadelphia, with 2 million people down to  San Jose with a million down to Aberdeen, South Dakota with about 20,000. and everything in between. They asked people their questions about 10 aspects of life, and what ended up being most important to them. And those included things like public safety, like schools, like economics, like transit, congestion, and so forth. What Gallup found, amazingly, was that in all 26 cities, there were three things that were at the top, in all 26. There was no variance. Schools were fourth, but they weren’t in the top three, the top three, and they did vary a little bit from community to community, but they were about exactly the same. Number one was affordable social and cultural events that could bring people together in a sense of community. So we know how important relations and connection is to mental health and to happiness. That was one. Number two, believe it or not, was whether people felt that their city was tolerant and open and diverse and open to other people, and also whether they felt like they had a chance to really participate in the life of their community, or whether there was an old power structure that handled everything and made all the decisions or whether they could really get in into that community and be active. And number three was aesthetics, that they felt that they live in a beautiful place, with good access to nature, parks, and green space. They’re all relatively the same, all three of these points. But they were huge for people’s sense of both life satisfaction, and the sense that they would want to stay living in that community. It didn’t get much play. But I think all of us need to think about precisely those things ass we think about policy change and as we think about other things that we want to do. The University of South Carolina study found that in seven cities, large cities around the world that it studied, the number one correlation to people’s sense of life satisfaction was whether they felt that they lived in an attractive or beautiful environment, the number one on top of everything else. So I think this is an issue that we don’t give enough attention to and that can really bring us together. I don’t find too many conservatives who like ugly.

Vicki Robin

It’s a really interesting point that you’re making. It’s that there’s some popular song I’m going to botch it about you don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it.

John de Graaf

Oh, yeah, yeah. Joni Mitchell.

Vicki Robin

Don’t worry about it till it’s gone. And in a way, there are background things that I think part of what’s like the nervousness in our society, there’s background certainties that you didn’t have to think about. I mean, you didn’t have to put your gas mask on to go out we don’t still don’t have to do that. But there’s background certainties that you weave your life on like the tree lined street. So it’s changes and it’s changes for the worse in these background, this absences, things that go away. And so we don’t, honestly, it’s like, beauty. He’s doing a campaign on beauty. Like, I don’t have a campaign on beauty. But I think you’re so right, that there’s a need for harmony. There’s I think that’s what these points are saying is that, I don’t know if we have something installed in our brains that are harmonizers. I think we’ve got mirror neurons. We’ve got a lot of stuff, embedded social biology, that cues us into our environment because we’re not isolated beings, we don’t survive in isolation, we survive through connection.

And I, I wonder if this polarization is exacerbated by this sense, this irritation that this whatever this is, let’s create a fourth part in the brain, like the brainstem and the amygdala and stuff like that there’s this other thing. Maybe it’s the hippocampus, or the pineal gland, that is the harmonizing one. And so we’re, we’re seekers of harmony. We really are. We’re seekers of harmony that are very disharmonious now. And I think you can see our polarization in a way as an upset at the lack of harmony, and of course, our actions, sort of like you punching in a movie screen because you don’t like the movie and then you make the movie worse, so just keying off of what you said, because I’m always looking for these clues about how we can both live our own lives and, and operate as change makers, or citizens where everyone say, so that we have this other toolkit, this sort of like bringing, bringing it together, the sort of the toolkit of the social healer, if you will. I think what you said too, about healing has to do with things that are disharmonious, they’re out of balance, they’re not right with one another. And we need to put them right with one another. And beauty is a clue. It’s an entry point, just like I was saying earlier about local foods, so go ahead.

John de Graaf

So here’s another one. And I’m seeing this developing now more and more partly as a result of COVID. There’s other good things that have come from COVID: a lot more people out in the natural world, in some ways, too many in some places. So we’re getting real crowded in our parks and things that we clearly now we’re going to need to create more parks and more open space. And I’m all for that. But that’s been driven by COVID. People have gotten out because outdoors was safer than being indoors collected with large numbers of people. So they’ve gotten out. If you go to North Cascades National Park, the numbers of people are much bigger. Mount Rainier, anywhere around here in the parks, the number of people who are enjoying those parks of all races is bigger by far than it used to be. And it’s a great thing. But it also can overload us if we don’t think about what else to do.

A second thing that has really come out as a result of COVID is that people who found that they don’t have to work 40 hours a week somewhere in an office, and that we now can really start thinking about leisure time, which I’ve been pushing for a long time in the wilderness in some ways. I mean, I’ve advocated for vacation time for America, a bill that a congressman introduced, it tried to give Americans vacation time and it went absolutely nowhere. I’ve worked on family leave, sick leave. Well, now suddenly, these things are all coming back. There’s a real push for a four day workweek from all kinds of organizations, there’s a new bill in Congress by Mark McDonald, Democratic Representative from Los Angeles, for four day work week. And it’s not seen as nuts anymore. Big companies are experimenting, many around the world and finding that actually, when people work four days, they’re healthier, they’re happier, there at least as productive, sometimes even more productive.

Vicki Robin

I’m glad you brought that up. I don’t know why I didn’t steer a conversation there. Because I find it fascinating and still somewhat inexplicable. This whole process that people are not willing to go back into the workplace in fill the bottom tier jobs that they were willing to fill before it’s almost like how are you going to keep them down in the bits and bytes farm after they’ve seen a stimulus check, or after they have seen not working for a while after that, and there’s lots of downsides to it. And people have been trying to deal with their kids, et cetera, et cetera. Huge stresses, but people have gotten a whiff of freedom, the story of, I am a good person, if I’m working 40 hours a week or 60 or 80. You know, that story has gotten disrupted. And you and I have worked on disrupting that story for a very long time. And here it is, and we’re seeing the result that people are going to need more compensation for surrendering their time and service to money. So do you have anything to say about that?

John de Graaf

Yeah, well, I think that’s true. All of these things can have their bad side, as well as their good side in that certain things are maybe not getting done that we enjoy or would like to experience and such. But, but overall, I think this is a very healthy thing. And the one thing when I talk to conservatives, which I try to do as much as I can try to find common ground, it is admittedly harder when people have become tribal, when they become hardcore when it’s not just conservatives but it’s Trump, the guy or something like this. It’s become like identity, rather than this is what I believe, I think and, and so it’s harder now.

But one of the things that I do find has always been a good thing is this time issue, that conservatives may not agree with me about the prescription in terms of government rules, or laws or things for leave, but they do agree that we’re working too much. It is unhealthy for our families and for our health and for our kids. I get very common agreement. And some of the best response to my ideas around things like with simplicity, which you’ve done such a great job on, and time and leisure, have actually come in the south, the time thing southerners have experienced in a much more shortened period, man, those of us in the industrial north, this sudden change in time shift in which you’re working harder and harder and faster and faster. So the sort of more leisurely life of the South, poor, but more friendly and more open and more neighborly and all that, that’s disappeared in places like Atlanta in a very short time. And so those folks understand it in a way that some of us in the north don’t.

Vicki Robin

This is confirming what I’m noticing here, in the last number of years, I’ve worked on affordable housing, local food and, and climate change and on all three areas that have been mired in, what do you call it, resistance. But you could also call it manipulated resistance from who knows where.  These things are moving now that weren’t moving. And I can see that what you’re talking about, about the nature and leisure and time, and simplicity and time for love, and family, all of these things that we’ve been working on for so long, somewhere in the wilderness, because they were background things that people thought, Oh, no, that’s not a problem, because we have that. And now that there’s a shorter supply of the things that we assumed will always be there. I think that these things we’ve been working on, there’s an openness, and I find that exciting, who knows how I think we have to participate with a great deal of forgiveness and humility for ourselves and other people, just and just bring forth. I just feel like there’s this moment when we’re bringing forth our best again.

John de Graaf

Well, I agree with you. Absolutely. And I think we need to be innovative in what we think how we approach certain things. For example, I think climate crisis is the greatest existential crisis we face. I think we understand that I think that’s becoming more and more clear with the floods and the fires and the storms and the horrible weather events and the warming. I mean, it was 109 in Seattle this summer. Who woulda thunk? I mean, incredible. 116 in Portland. So that’s going on, but people differ about it, how do we do this in a way that doesn’t, they’re worried about the economy, they’re worried about this? They’re worried about that. And so the solar, of course, is one answer and electric. And certainly, we’ve seen many more people going for electric cars for those kinds of things. That’s a positive thing. But it’s, it’s also maybe a little cold for some people. And it doesn’t necessarily help everybody. It’s concentrated also, more than welcome to the West Coast.

But let me give a different example. What if we were to go back to the old CCC with the civilian climate corps that Biden is talking about, I think is a splendid idea. And we said, let’s make it possible for the coal miners in West Virginia, who can’t keep mining coal. It’s not profitable for one thing, and number two, it’s terrible for the climate. We can’t just tell those people go to college, get a degree and move to the city. They have long time cultures and families and things and communities that they are tied to. Why don’t we focus instead on a restoration programme that says, let’s regenerate Appalachia, let’s plant, do what the CCC did, and plant a diverse canopy of trees and reclaim these stripped off mountain tops, and fill them in a good way. And plant, there’s so much work there that can be done. That will feel good to people. And people who were in the 30s, you hear the stories all the time that were in the CCC, that it was the great thing in their lives. It gave them a sense of building America and making a difference in the country. And it also gave them enormous companionship with people from different places that you had, these kids from Brooklyn suddenly, or with kids from Iowa and kids from, a ghetto somewhere, whatever, they’re all they’re thrown together in the CCC camps, they learn to understand each other. We really need more of this. And so I know it’s starting to happen, but I want to advocate for it.

Vicki Robin

Yes, I mean, definitely we need to put, I don’t want to say gas in the tank, we need to put wind in the sails. I mean, and that’s part of What could possibly go right is about is noticing where the waves and the wind and the horizon and noticing where, to attack next, because you can’t just make assumptions anymore. And so I think we should probably wind up because this is your time, but I really like the clues that have surfaced in our conversation about good thing, bad thing is going in the right direction in the wrong direction. Well, who knows, because in every circumstance, we can work with what’s what’s there, and bring out the best in it. And I don’t mean to be Pollyanna, but I just mean that it’s a way of thinking about, what’s possible inside this thing that might look like a boarded up building in a garbage filled, empty lot. So it’s, it’s that attitude, and I really appreciate this conversation. John, thank you so much for taking the time.

John de Graaf

Well, I appreciate it too, Vicki. Thank you. You’ve done wonderful things all for years and years. It’s exciting to be connected with you through all of these things. So keep up the good work.


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