Act: Inspiration

What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 60 Vicki Robin

November 9, 2021

Show Notes

In another solo episode, our host Vicki Robin shares her recent reflections on themes emerging from the “What Could Possibly Go Right?” inquiry, including:

  • The lessons from studying polarization in ourselves and in wider society
  • That “we need to soften the animosity and find cracks where the light comes in”, negotiating and learning so we can work together on the big problems we are facing
  • That “we are a nation of neighborhoods”, adapting to change as best we can in our communities
  • The fact that “life goes on, is what is always going right, no matter what”

Connect with Vicki Robin




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 everybody our one question: with all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right? And from time to time, I take the bait and do it myself. So here I am, with some scouting comments at the end of October in 2021.

Vicki Robin

When last we spoke, I was working hard to clear out ambient anger from my mind and heart, a five year buildup of piss-off, triggered by the realization that farmers on our best farmland could not be out in the field because fighter jet pilots from the airbase in Oak Harbor trained incessantly overhead. I realized that there is no cultural work-around, no parallel healthy world that we can create, that if the dominant system wanted something you have, even if it’s peace of mind, it got it. So I got mad, and I stayed that way throughout the entire Trump administration. From this determination to reclaim my peace of mind, I’ve been studying polarization in myself and in our society. Is it a bug or feature of capitalism? If I let go of my anger, do I let the conditions I find abhorrent persist? Does the anger itself motivate or blind me? Or both? Or all of the above? Well, our guestlist for What Could Possibly Go Right? now includes people with wisdom and smarts about mediation and negotiation and conflict transformation and cognitive traps. So I really wanted to bring this inquiry to our little clubhouse here, where we’re asking our cultural scouts to look out there over the horizon for us and tell us what they see. Because I feel like if the horizon is littered, sort of like it’s got bars and all these things spread out over the landscape that we’re trying to traverse in order to bring forth a healthy world.

So polarization is like a set of landmines on a landscape that we have to traverse. And how are we going to do it? So I attended a conference just this week got called Othering and Belonging. It’s an amazing conference exploring what does it take to belong, to include, to cease othering others, to even see beyond the others. Anyway, one of the speakers is somebody I had hoped to have on our podcast, but she’s podcasted out, who is Arlie Hochschild. I loved some of her insights. She had gone for five years to listen to the lament of the lives of a community in Louisiana. And one of the ways, in her explanations, she said: “I went there to listen and I was shocked because I was in a different world.” But one of the things she brought back for us is that these people feel like the economy left them behind, that they were playing by the rules, and they were able to have a decent income for their family, and then that stopped being the case. And feeling a loss, they asked, who did this to us? They went out to try to find someone to blame. There’s a sense that our way of life has been stolen from us. We didn’t just lose it. It wasn’t an accident. We weren’t at fault. So who was the thief? And then they started to think, “Oh, it’s the federal government with their regulations. They closed down our industries.” And so they started to distrust the federal government. And then they would think, “Oh, the liberals looked down on me.” So if you have shame and distrust enter into a system, and an enemy is identified, disaffected and dissed people will look for a new identity that provides what their old identity provided, which has safety, belonging, and identity.  So, enter Q Anon. I mean, she was able to reveal the pathway that leads people to flock to something that gives their life meaning. Arlie and the others of the conference said emphatically that if we lose trust in institutions and in one another, our ability to solve the problems we face together will evaporate, maybe has evaporated. With the level of civilizational threat right now, we need to soften the animosity and find cracks, where the light comes in. So bridging is like preventive social medicine.

I just want to share a couple of things she suggested. I’m no expert in this. But she talked about listening and listening and listening, with curiosity, not listening to pounce. Basically, one of our guests, William Ury, talked about the first stage in any negotiation is what he calls going to the balcony. You step outside of the situation, and above it, so you can scan the horizon, so you can scout. In our interview, he said, That’s actually something like 90% of the work, is to unhook from your reactive self, so that you can actually see what’s going on. So a lot of it was listen, listen, listen, listen, listen.

Then relationships first. I remember learning this years ago about how different negotiations are for business people in the United States and in Europe, because in Europe, it would all be relationship, and then someplace around dessert and coffee, there might be a mention of some business deals. America is, we just get down to business right away. So we really need if we’re going to be a people, be a “we that people” solving our problems together, we really need to be in relationship with one another. That takes a lot of listening.

And then she said, when we think about polarization – and I’ve done this too, you go for the most vivid representation of the person who’s the furthest away from you. Let’s say the QAnon shaman. So we try to think about how are you going to bridge to that person, but you don’t pick the toughest cookie. You find the persuadable people. There’s persuadable people, people of goodwill and people who are intelligent, but we just hold a different view. And they’re not represented by the extremes at all. They don’t even see themselves as represented by the extremes. Those are the people you can talk to and they’ll translate for you. Sort of sending a message down the line, hopefully not too much, what they used to call Russian telephone.

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Then she said, You do some simple stretching. You watch your jargon. The left is so full of jargon. You spend a while trying to understand what the word intersectionality means, and when you finally get it, you can use the word as if it has meaning to other people haven’t studied it. So you don’t stop using your jargon and you listen for what are the words that have meaning there and you just stretch the meaning. You just stretch it a bit; you don’t contradict it. Freedom from government intrusion in your way of life, could be freedom from toxic laden fish from your lake because it’s an unregulated dump for some toxic chemicals. That freedom can both mean regulation and the lifting of regulations. As one of the speakers said, and somebody I hope will be on our podcast, Amanda Ripley, said you complicate the narrative. Because if you have a binary, like it’s either A or B, then you’re stuck, then you are polarized. But if you have A, B, C, D, and maybe E, because all of them are relevant because E links to B which links to C and A, then you’re entering a different part of your mind. I find this stuff completely fascinating and really not just for academic reasons at all, but because I know that we have to be able to solve our problems together.

That’s another thing that Arlie said, is that you rebuild the connective tissue in a community through leaders of institutions, whether it’s the Republican Party in the Democratic Party, or whether it’s the Food Bank and the Chamber of Commerce. Just all of the institutions, or different churches, that as people who are in leadership in those institutions, build relationships then if when trouble comes, they can talk to one another. They may not agree about things, but they can certainly talk to one another.

Vicki Robin

So to me, this is a combination of my inner work and my outer observation of society. And those two are very linked for me because it’s sort of the context of my life, is that I’m here to help. And we have some big work ahead. So I think that my inner de-escalation of polarizing forces may be bearing some fruit, or maybe it’s just a shift in the wind. But for some reason, I find a greater openness locally to ideas I’ve tried to spread before, on climate resilience, local agriculture, affordable housing. Somehow or another, it seems like something is unblocking things and we’re making progress. Our local farmers and ranchers and food security groups have banded together, and are working with our state representative on legislation that will grow our capacity collectively to feed ourselves. The productivity and prosperity of our farmers. And food and farming I think is one place where you really can build a bridge, in agriculture. The guy who grows my annual supply of chickens, a la Joel Salatin, he sees the world through completely red colored glasses, but we meet over meat. We really have a lot of respect and appreciation for one another.

Then in another area of my small town, prompted by high school students inspired by Greta, passed a climate emergency resolution finally. I joined the committee that was constituted by our city council called the Climate Crisis Action Committee. I will admit to being excited about working with this group of people that is very committed to not just producing a framework or a report, but to actually cause to happen, bold, courageous actions, advocacy and adaptation to climate change.

Then on the other thing I’ve been working on for a long time in affordable housing, is a seaside village in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had an influx of wealthy second homebuyers or vacation rental buyers, who in so many other communities, has forced which we now call essential workers, our working class, out of their homes, out of their affordable rentals. We’re now working on some really innovative ideas. I’ve done some ideas with my own house, how to be able to share space with other people. Now some of my ideas are maybe going to be embedded in some projects, or some plans or processes that other people can follow. It’s not just my crazy idea. Maybe it’s the urgency of the heat dome, or the fires or the floods or the storms. I don’t know what it is. But since this summer, we seem to be sobered. I mean, some people could call it anxious. I don’t know what’s going on for other people under the surface, but there seems to be a greater will to create the kind of changes that are going to see us through. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve sort of given up my grumpy old lady for a while.

Vicki Robin

I’m thinking, maybe we are a nation of neighborhoods. National government, state governments, we have that infrastructure. But, when it comes down to it, the change happens in households and neighborhoods. The laws and legends and regulations all affect what people and businesses can do, but it lands in neighborhoods. So maybe we’re just a huge continent of neighborhoods, coping with the changes and very affected by decisions made, that they have no power over, but making the best life they can, with what we have. So this idea of we’re a nation of neighborhoods, we’re not just the Supreme Court and all that.

Vicki Robin

Another theme I’m working on is life goes on. Just this idea that, at the end of the day, people adapt, whatever is going on out there. One part of my de-escalating polarization project is looking for nuance in the messy muddly middle, in the COVID polarization. One day, trying to think it through, I started reading a fable about a village far away and long ago grappling with a new plague. They’re polarized as to how to address it; take the medicines from the city and take precautions like a facecloth or ward it off with holistic health practices or just party on. So two members of the always wise elder circle end up on opposite ends of the issues, and they cannot solve it, the elder circle can’t solve it. These two people, Bridget and Tom, bring their argument out in public in front of the village, to see if they can hash it out together and come to some higher order understanding. They fail to find a middle way. That’s the story, is that they cannot find the middle way. So the story kind of wrote itself, including this ending. After the elders leave, defeated, and also a young girl named Maisie leads some friends out of the village to live in the wild as their alternative. Here’s the little end of the story as it wrote itself. So it went. Some resistors started wearing the cloth because well, why not? Many cooperators adopted some of Tom’s habits because well, why not? Those who made small changes notice they didn’t get those sniffles that came and went every year. Some went to the city to speak to the makers of the medicines to find out the truth about them. They were quite surprised by what they learned and came back to the village to report. The women’s circles considered this new information. Some people still got sick and died, strong as well as weak, young as well as old. Over time, fewer sickened, and those who sickened, didn’t die. Babies were born. New lovers were tossed in the blanket that’s a ritual of engagement, and married. Friendships renewed. News of Bridget’s death arrived. One day her heart simply stopped. Some resistors wanted to make something of that, but it fell on deaf ears. The people were simply sad. Some of the cooperators whispered that her heart was simply broken. Tom, it seemed, had gone elsewhere. And the council, it was rumored, enjoyed their garden and made face cloths which they sold in the city to buy some sweets. Maisie’s team came back once, brown and strong, and then left for their huts in the woods again, never to return. Some children left to join Maisie’s camp and their leaving put a hole in the villagers hearts. The holes healed and so it was.

I realized that the town actually represents my point of view, that civilizations rise and fall. Wars are fought and won or lost and fought again, devastations roll through, floods, fires, great depressions. They just come and recede and the grass of community grows again. Like Mount St. Helens where I live in Washington State, a wasteland after the volcano blew and now covered in life again. Inside of “life goes on” is a will to live and live on. A will to live. Is this what is being activated by our existential threats? Perhaps the impetus in my stories of unexpected progress on issues that once were stalled, is this sort of rising up with a vital force from within life itself. When life is threatened, life moves, life adapts. Precious species and communities may not survive. But in the wake of devastation, new life forms emerge, new forests and settlements. It’s a mess while it’s happening, and I think this defines our time, that we have much to endure as the consequences of the fossil fuel era roll over us. But the river of life will find a way. Bezos and Musk may go off and terraform other planets, but we who are left behind will muddle on. Now I think that life goes on is how life operates. It’s relational, adaptive, committed with everything else to its own survival. Willing to fight if it must, but preferring cooperation, conserving energy. I’ve watched people rapidly adapt to circumstances. One moment it’s tragedy. The next is just the way it is. A boulder falls in the stream and the water finds its way around. Life goes on is what is always going right no matter what.

Vicki Robin

As I finish this up, I realized it reminded me of a song that I first heard from a singer called Enya. I’m not gonna sing it. Just gonna read a few of the stanzas because I’m sure many of you know it. My life goes on in endless song, above Earth’s limitations. I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear its music ringing. It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing? While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth it liveth. And though the darkness round me close songs in the night, it giveth. So, what could possibly go right? Life itself. Thanks.


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Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in... Read more.

Tags: building resilient communities, community conversations, depolarization