Transcript: Creating Complex Solutions
Interview with Asher Miller, available to everyone
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Transcript of episode with Asher Miller.
[00:02:15] Rachel Donald: Asher, thank you very much for joining me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.
[00:02:19] Asher Miller: Yeah. Nice. Nice to see you virtually.
[00:02:21] Rachel Donald: Virtually, yeah. I feel like I kind of know you in some way, because I've been essentially going through your roster of fellows at the Institute interviewing everyone.
[00:02:30] Asher Miller: Yeah. I've noticed that too. Yeah, we, um, we're part of a, a small, but growing tribe, I guess you could say.
[00:02:37] Rachel Donald: I think that's it exactly. Before we get into the Institute and the background, can you give a bit of background about yourself and how you got into this? Because it's quite interesting.
[00:02:48] Asher Miller: Well, I don't know. Let's I guess we'll let the audience be the judge if it's interesting. Um, so I, I fell into this work, I would say sort of backwards. You know, we're typically known as an environmental or sustainability think tank. We could talk about that because I think we're actually much broader than that, but that's sort of been the shorthand and I did not, you know, cut my teeth as a professional environmentalist, you know, and in fact it was my Sierra club club card, carrying friends who kind of annoyed me for a long time with their they're focused on environmental issues. I was always much more concerned about social issues, human rights issues, technology.
I got the last degree you think would apply to this work and that was a degree in creative writing. I thought I was going to be a novelist. Um, I ended up doing nonprofit work, uh, because I wanted to write the story of Holocaust survivors, who were a couple, who were in some ways my surrogate grandparents, when I was growing up, I wanted to tell their story.
So I ended up getting a job, working at a place called the Shoah foundation, which was something Steven Spielberg started right after he, he finished Schindler's List and it came out and, um, he had been approached by a bunch of Holocaust survivors, I think actually when he was filming that, and they were trying to tell him their story.
And then he was contacted by people after the film came out and he just started telling people, you know, record your story and send it to me. And of course, you know, they set up, their child would set up a camera and the camera would be pointing over here and they'd be sitting over there. You know, it's like the quality was terrible, so he was like, we need to do this ourselves.
So he set up a foundation to record these interviews. So I got a job working there for a while. And I just have to give that organization lots of props cause we wound up interviewing about well over 50,000 people in just a few years, um, before digital video was really common. So we, we actually had to hire professional videographers with beta cameras to get digital quality.
And the organization actually did a lot of, you know, pioneering work. This is like mid to late nineties on keyword searching and you could actually keyword search their database and go right to a section of an interview. And it was a really interesting way of telling history because you could search for something and you can have 20 or 50 people talk about it from their first person perspective versus reading about it in a book.
Um, but anyways, long story short that got me doing non-profit work. And it was after my, uh, I was running a, uh, leadership program, volunteer program for high school students. Um, when my first son was born and 'An Inconvenient Truth', Al Gore's film, had just come out and I took that group to see the film and it was a wake up call for me.
And like I said, my son was just a couple of months old and both my wife and I felt like we have to do this work. Um, and I was fortunate to sort of get a crash course in climate and environmental issues. And in looking back on it, now, I talk about it as like swimming in the shallow end of the pool. I was very focused, like a lot of people were at that time, on sort of like lifestyle changes and the more I kind of dug into it, the more I realized that, you know, climate was a symptom of, of a systemic problem. And that, you know, there are a lot of issues around energy vulnerability and our food system, and you just start, it's like an onion, you start unraveling, you know, peeling it and you realize like there's all these layers to this, this problem.
And that led me to Post Carbon Institute. And I was really drawn, the organization at the time had, and this is in 2007, 2008, the organization at the time had a program called the relocalization network and it was really pushing, relocalizing, you know, economic systems and energy and food. And I was really drawn to that because I saw that as a, as a response to the climate crisis, but also could be really appealing to people that didn't care about climate at all, because you might just say, Hey, our town has been decimated by big box stores, you know, um, let's support our local economy for that reason. I joined the organization for that and then uh, for good or bad, just, you know, within a year we actually shut that program down.
[00:07:08] Rachel Donald: Why? Because it sounds great.
[00:07:10] Asher Miller: Because we found the transition movement. So I don't know how familiar you are with transition towns, but at the time, um, it actually started in, in the UK, and uh, the first sort of official transition town was in Totness, in Devonshire, and was starting to take off. And we had a lot of people that were part of our network were telling us about this great thing. You know, um, Rob Hopkins, who started it, published a book called the transition handbook, and I think the appeal to it was, it was very focused on the same things, but it had a much more positive outlook, you know, in terms of like, Hey, these are all the benefits we can have from transitioning away from fossil fuels. I think PCI had much more of a dour, you know, kind of take about what we were facing.
And I think that really appealed to people, and so did the idea of having sort of like a, you know, I think people thought it is like a 12 step program. It turned out to not to be that, but it was, I think for people who were struggling to try to figure out what to do, it felt like, oh, I just need to follow this handbook and I can transition my community. You know, it didn't turn out to be that easy, but it was very appealing in, and, and frankly, we thought that they were doing a better job of that than we were. So we shut down our program. We gave them seed funding to start the transition network in the United States, and had very close relationship. Still going, transition has spread all over the world, and it definitely still going in the United States. It's gone through its own journeys as well. So and the organization just made a big, a big shift, you know, around that time, which happy to talk about as well, but, um, it's been an interesting journey. That's, I guess, 14 years ago and the world feels like it's in very different place than it was 14 years ago.
[00:08:55] Rachel Donald: mean, it is. Let's talk about the goals of Post Carbon Institute and what you guys research and what you fund, and then go backwards and discuss the evolution.
[00:09:05] Asher Miller: Sure. Well, I mean, for us, the goal is to help people primarily recognize the systemic nature of the crisis we face. Right? So we start by saying that we face a predicament, not a problem. Uh, predicament is something you're always going to have to grapple with you can't just solve it. Right. Um, so we focus on responses. This is not unique to us, you know, um, that, that language, but it is a good framing for us to think about when you do an honest grappling of the issues we face and you think systemically about what we're facing, um, it really changes the picture of what's possible and what's required. And so that's where we start is to try to help people understand the systemic nature of the energy, environmental, uh, economic and equity issues that we face as societies.
It's obviously very different for different people, depending on the circumstances where they are in the world. You know, our audience is primarily, I would say, uh, English speaking and people who have the capacity, the privilege and the capacity to sort of dig deeper, you know? So we start there, uh, and we really focus in terms of like the, the response side of the ledger is really around trying to build community resilience in particular. And that gets back to what we were just talking about with re localization. We focus on community resilience for a number of reasons. You know, one of them is the fact that it's, it does feel like in the ecosystem of things of the work that's being done, it's not wholly neglected, but not as emphasized in sustainability circles, climate circles, what have you, and so really needs, I think, championing. The other reason is because, as I said before, it is a response to a lot of the issues that we're dealing with, you know. And if you just look, for example, at what we've learned from the pandemic, you know what we're seeing now with inflation and in supply chain shocks, you know, being less vulnerable to a globalized supply chain, you know, that really focuses on efficiency and efficiency from a monetary perspective, not energy or any, anything else leaves us vulnerable, right.
And community also, because I think that when you actually study human history and human evolution and human psychology, being connected to community, being connected to nature, but also being connected to community is, feels like the right scale. It's very much a centering thing. I think part of our, the craziness that we exhibit in the world is because we are so disconnected, you know, and by we, I mean, um, you know, to be clear, we're talking about industrialized nations, um, where we've transactionalised relationships versus, you know, made them about reciprocity, you know, and connection.
[00:12:08] Rachel Donald: Do you mean disconnected from our own communities and from each other?
[00:12:12] Asher Miller: Yeah, I mean, the, the internet has provided opportunity for like you and I to have a conversation, you know, it can create broader communities, but, but there's been a cost, I think. More from, I would say, the kind of economy that we've, we've established than the internet, but they, those things I think coming together leaves people feeling again, in a certain context, I'll just speak about the United States, feeling quite low and disconnected. And we have replaced sense of purpose and meaning and connection with, uh, with a striving for things and material, you know, quote unquote wealth in that. And I think that that's unnatural.
[00:12:53] Rachel Donald: It's the endless commodification of our own existence. I think even when we spend time online, on the social networks that are meant to be there so that we can hang out with our friends or get updated, it's like, no, actually we are the product and it's our data that's being sold. And I think even when that wasn't inherently discussed at the beginning of like Facebook and all that kind of thing, I genuinely believe we all had, we all understood that on some instinctual level.
[00:13:20] Asher Miller: we decided, and maybe this is not fair because that we ever got together and had a, a group talk in a decision, but we participated in a decision and said that that's Okay cause then we don't have to pay for this stuff. You know what I mean? I was, I was listening to something about the, the metaverse the other day, and somebody talking about the fact that now, you know, we're, we're video conferencing right now, but you could actually, you know, all put on your Oculus whatevers and have a virtual meeting together where you're literally sitting next to somebody. And I'm thinking, do you realize that like, that's Facebook basically saying now we can be in your conversation and we can collect all this data about you so we can further monetize, you know, uh, every living aspect of, of your existence, you know?
[00:14:12] Rachel Donald: To me, I don't understand- I understand that everybody has different passions and different interests, and I also get that an awareness of the climate crisis, to use the short hand version, shorthand term, demands a certain level of privilege and access to information, that you prefaced at the beginning, that, right. Zuckerberg, all the rest, and these people that have access to the information and know exactly what's going on and yet are still hell bent on their very strange particular vision of impacting human society or history. I just, I would love to know what's going wrong in their brains.
[00:14:53] Asher Miller: If you want to see the most remarkable, like 10 or 15 minutes ever recorded, this is my, my opinion. Watch Jeff Bezos' uh, talk when he launches the blue origin, you know, his space company. I've talked about this ad nauseum. I tell, I tell this to everybody who I feel like I can, I can speak in shorthand with about these issues because it is just, it is remarkable. He prefaces his talk like he is channeling, you had Nate Hagens on.
[00:15:26] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:15:27] Asher Miller: He's like channeling Nate or, you know, anybody that's sort of in like the, the Post Carbon Institute orbit, you know, talking about energy as this primary driver of society, all our progress having income from energy, how much we consume now. He actually talks about limits of efficiency, doesn't talk about Jevons paradox specifically, but he talks about the limits of efficiency of that. And he talks about, you know, sort of growth of consumption and gets to this place where he's, I mean, he's really talking about the energy story, right? Which so few people understand. And he takes it to this place where he's like, well, we have a problem. You know, we have a problem where we basically have hit these limits with these things, you know, in a means that we might have to actually, God forbid, ration. You know, that is unacceptable. So instead, what we're going to do is we're going to go harvest the moon and we're going to have a trillion people floating in space in geodesic orbit around, living in these, I'm not making this up, this is his vision, right? Like the turn, right. He sees the same information and says, I reject that. All of that. Right. And instead, I'm going to come up with this, the most absurd vision for the future you can possibly imagine. And that is incredible because that shows you that if not the biggest barrier to us being able to literally really wrap our heads around what we're facing is the human mind.
[00:17:05] Rachel Donald: Explicate that a little bit more, like the limits of our imagination?
[00:17:11] Asher Miller: We're so irrational, know, I mean, this, this is a man who has invested his entire life and being in a vision for something and achieving something. And to let that go is impossible. So it's more possible to imagine something that is physically impossible then to imagine that, do you know what I mean?
[00:17:36] Rachel Donald: Yes.
[00:17:37] Asher Miller: For somebody who's very educated, has access to more information than you and I do, you know, you could call up anybody, uh, to try to understand these things, and still you, you walk up to the precipice, you look down and you're like, fuck that, you know, excuse my language. You know what I mean? And it's not unique to him. I mean, I do think that there might be a certain pathology to people who are so driven and, you know, are successful in a certain way and maybe in an extreme case. But I think we, we all individually have aspects of that, these blinders, the cognitive dissonance, you know, um, all that, but collectively, boy, do we do that together.
[00:18:17] Rachel Donald: But I think, I think there's something to be learned from these, these men, Musk included.
[00:18:22] Asher Miller: Yeah.
[00:18:23] Rachel Donald: That is, we love a vision. We love a story. And to me, what the environmental movement is missing right now is a good alternative story. And you know, when you were talking about transition town, that was what I picked up on. You said it was more positive.
[00:18:38] Asher Miller: Yeah,
[00:18:38] Rachel Donald: than the relocalization program, and it had more hope. People need that. People need, they need a narrative. They need an idea. If I put in all this energy, then I'm going to get something good at this at the end, like a better quality of life.
[00:18:51] Asher Miller: Yeah.
[00:18:52] Rachel Donald: To me, this is why I'm becoming increasingly fascinated in, uh, or by, is this idea of how do you market a crisis people to do what is necessary to respond to it?
And I think we have a lot to learn from these men.
[00:19:08] Asher Miller: Yeah. Well, it's true. We don't have much of an alternative narrative to one that has been reduced down to the selfish gene in a sentence, right? Like with all of these, we've set up an economic system that really knows how to reward certain things. Right. It rewards dopamine, rewards, you know, a relative status of rewards. You know, all these things that I think are, you know, biologically kind of part of our evolution. I think the challenge is.. No, I think the environmental movement is not going to die. And I would say, you know, Post Carbon Institute, that has not been our role so much, like I think we've, and this, you could easily look at this as a criticism, but we've sort of said, nobody's telling the truth. Nobody's being honest about what we're facing. So we need to do that work because, like, sometimes I, I sort of describe our work as like closing all the exits, you know.
[00:20:05] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:20:05] Asher Miller: So that people have to sit there with the reality, what we're facing, you know, they want to go through this exit, which says we could, we could just green our lifestyle, you know, and that works, you know. We're dealing right now with a lot of people trying to walk through the exit of saying, we just, you know, we just could, you know, transition our energy system from fossil fuels to renewables and we're going to be fine.
Everyone's rushing to that exit, you know? And part of our job has been like, sorry, it's, it's a shitty job on some level, because you know, like you're not the fun one at the party, but it's like trying to help people stick to sort of face what we're really dealing with. And I think that that's part of why we've emphasized less sort of like what, you know, what do you do? What is that positive narrative? And hoped others would do that.
I think the thing, part of the other challenge is that it's just not as simple, you know what I mean? Like, to me, there's a huge appeal, there's the appeal of meaning and purpose in life. There's appeal of connection. I think that we've seen again and again people who feel like, and I'm going to sound like a, like a religious nut here, but people who feel like blinders have been taken off and now they see the world in a certain way that it's sorta like fuzzy and out of focus. And now suddenly it like lines up because things didn't feel like they really made sense, what everyone was saying, you know, didn't totally make sense. And there is something do think that is fulfilling about that.
[00:21:40] Rachel Donald: That's empowering.
[00:21:41] Asher Miller: Yeah, exactly. But it's just not as simple. And there are people that are trying to work on alternative narratives. I think there's a lot of people working on sort of post-capitalist visions of things, you know?
[00:21:54] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:21:54] Asher Miller: But people have different versions of it, you know? And, uh, I don't know if you're familiar with John Michael Greer. He, he wrote a great, fantastic piece that we actually republished at one point, basically talking about the dominant stories that we have about the future, you know. There's, there's a utopian one and a dystopian one, there's apocalypse, you know, an apocalypse takes a certain form for, for people at least in I ,would say, Western culture, which is like acute: you know, zombie attack, a nuclear Holocaust, although that seems increasingly like something we need to worry about. But it's a very, like, you know, sudden catastrophic event. That's their kind of, you know, apocalyptic version, you know, the future.
And then the utopian might look a little different for, for different people. For some people it's, you know, shining cities, you know, with people buzzing around in, you know, space cars or whatever, you know. And others it's back to the land, you know, living like, you know, hunter gatherers or something like that. You know, it's just hard to paint a picture of the future that sort of appeals to people that is right with what we know and appeals to people for where they are now, because we are so far from that.
[00:23:12] Rachel Donald: What you said earlier kind of paints that picture, you know, people having more time, people having more connection, people having more choice or autonomy over the things that they do, or they spend their time on. Having more access to each other or art or whatever. You know, doesn't have to be the set up or a picture of exactly what our city, what the framework will look like, but rather the potentiality or the possibility for each individual within that to express however they need.
[00:23:46] Asher Miller: You know, people have been promoting that vision for a long time, you know, some of it really beautifully, and I think very meaningfully, uh, but I'm not sure it, it has taken off. Do you know what I mean? There's become a grand narrative, a grand vision for a lot of people. I think part of it is that we're in the maw of this machine right now, right. And for many people that's a luxury they don't have, you know, they're, they're trying.
And that I think is, is one of the struggles that, there are a lot of struggles to get from here to there. Some of it is just the built environment. You know, it's hard to imagine living- people don't live on the land, you know, we've urbanized so much, especially, you know, in, uh, Well, I guess there are pockets in, on the British Isles that are different, there're pockets here that are different, but we've, we've gone so much in the opposite direction with urbanization that, that people don't have that access and that connection, they don't even know what they're sort of missing.
It's hard to imagine being there without it being a sort of simplistic thing. And it's, frankly, it's hard, it's hard work. A lot of this stuff is hard work, you know, and we had this in, in the seventies of back to land movement. I think a lot of people had a similar vision, but they didn't know what the hell they were doing. They went on a farm. They, they figured out like, oh, it's actually really hard to be in community together. We don't know how to do this.
You know? And growing food, that's hard work. So I'm not trying to be like negative about it. I just think it's, it's, it's a challenge. I would say actually, here's another criticism maybe of the movement, and that is a self criticism. And that is that we, I think we actually, something that we could offer more, but I'm deeply uncomfortable with it, is this the structure that religions offer, you know. There is something about a ritual that you perform a being part of a community that frankly keeps you honest, you know.
What is it that motivates people that, that status, like, we are very concerned about being ostracized from the community right? So, that has often worked against people's best selves. You know, you think about if you were, you're born gay in a community that doesn't support that, that is a miserable existence.
Um, so I'm not trying to paint it as this rosy beautiful thing, but there's something about creating that community and that ritual, we're getting together with people, you know, regularly, and that's keeping you sort of honest and focused, and you're working on a shared project together. And you have a story that's maybe, maybe a deeper one, you know, like there's a reason why cultures all over the world have created a version of a spiritual origin story or whatever it is.
We don't do that. We offer the data, you know, we're at this parts per million today, you know, whatever it is. And again, I'm, I'm not, I would be the last one to join one of those things. So I'm not gonna be the one to proselytize it.
[00:26:53] Rachel Donald: But I think what you're getting at is that the solutions offered, or the things that need to happen to combat the climate crisis and to protect biodiversity and to protect the human species, et cetera, et cetera, it needs to be a systemized approach. And I think this is another thing that I vaguely think is missing: the understanding that the role that one organization fulfils is different to the role of another, but it's that tandem relationship that is actually fundamentally key.
We need to be better at understanding that it's the, it's how the moving parts fit together that will lead us towards, I was about to say salvation.
[00:27:35] Asher Miller: Yeah, yeah, and I actually, I think it's a good point that you bring that up because I think it's, it's another one of the elements of this that makes it challenging to sort of get liftoff quickly. And that is that, that the responses are conditional, you know. They're relative to people's circumstances and what's right for a particular person or particular community or an organization in this ecosystem.
There isn't a one size fits all, we should all do this thing. What we need is a diversity approaches. Even if we are all pointing all in the same direction, because we frankly don't know how to get from here to there. You know, the world that we have built that now we are reckoning with, you know, was not a preordained, planned, whatever people think of some grand conspiracy of a cabal.
[00:28:36] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:28:36] Asher Miller: It didn't happen this way. You know, it was a lot of things coming together over time. We are unfortunately faced with a lot less time available to us, to, to figure out how to get out of this mess or grapple with the mess that we're in. But, you know, there is... I don't have like a solution to offer to people to say, we just did this and this and this.
I mean, there are people who develop these things, fantastic plans have been developed. Those are all predicated on so-so social political systems that were rational. And, and they're not those things, you know, and the worst things get, the less rational they're probably going to be. So there're great plans out there, they should be picked up but I think a diversity of approaches is probably the safest place, you know, to be.
And that means, for listeners, you know, figuring out for you what is right. You know, even when you have a systemic orientation, it doesn't mean that you're spending all of your time. Like today, I'm going to work on food system transition, tomorrow, I'm gonna work on energy system transition. The next day, I'm going to work on a just economic transition. Like you can't do all of those things. But we do need all those things being worked on and the ideal would be for them to see each other, you know, as part of an ecosystem, to have that feedback loop thing happening, you know, to even be strategic.
Just as a, like a little example of this within the climate movement, recognizing and grappling with the fact that we're probably going to be seeing, whether we like it or not, more incidences of climate sabotage, you know, of, of violence at least against property happening. I mean, hopefully not against people.
How does the climate movement that has been very non-violent, you know, in terms of its organizing, you know, grapple with that, you know, and anticipate that, even if it doesn't take that on as part of their approach to recognize that it is part of the ecosystem is important.
[00:30:46] Rachel Donald: Sorry, I'm just thinking about that because obviously extinction rebellion have started breaking windows in the UK, bank banking windows. Um, so they're kind of, I, hadn't thought about it as, as violence, I thought about it as protest, but do you think that incidents like that will increase, uh, because of the urgency of the situation? As, as activists get increasingly frustrated?
[00:31:09] Asher Miller: I've been surprised it hasn't happened. I mean, that's actually been much more of, of a mental kind of exercise for me is just wondering about why there hasn't been? Because even within the movement, and I'm not sitting here like advocating for any specific sort of thing, but just even in the movement to say on the one hand we keep using language like if the Keystone pipeline is built, that's, you know, this carbon, "carbon bomb", "game over", you know. Or we have eight years now, you know, to halve emissions, you know, or else we're screwed. You know, we use this, this rhetoric, and the science backs up a lot of the more dire rhetoric, but the disconnect between that and what the movement has been willing to do or has done, is growing to me.
And it's been surprising that that hasn't happened more. And I don't know, I'm not, I'm not a climate activist. I'm not in those circles of like people talking about, you know, activist strategy. So maybe there's a lot of discussion happening there. But it has been interesting to see, like, I think, you know, recently in the UK people letting out tires of SUV's, you know, that's something that, that Andreas Malm talked about in his book that they had done a dozen years ago.
Do you know what I mean? Now you're going to resurface that, like at what point does this stuff get ratcheted up so that we're actually, I don't know if it's deflating the tires of like billionaires' jets, but can we, you know, can we talk about people doing things at maybe higher level, you know, than that? I think we will see it ,inevitably. I do think.
[00:32:49] Rachel Donald: That's really interesting. I hadn't thought about that before. And I think prior to attempting to take a systems perspective on the climate crisis, prior to this podcast, my immediate sort of political reaction to something like that would have been, well you cannot use the system that you reject in order to create a new one. Fundamentally, violence is part of extractive capitalism.
[00:33:10] Asher Miller: Yeah.
[00:33:11] Rachel Donald: But, better understanding systems now and like the, the growth stage, the birth stage, and then stasis and decay-
[00:33:18] Asher Miller: Yeah.
[00:33:19] Rachel Donald: there's an evolution, and how, we were talking about multiple things need to happen at the same time, essentially. Maybe that is something that would actually be- am I going to advocate violence publicly? Would that be helpful?
[00:33:31] Asher Miller: I don't even know that it's about advocating. It's about recognizing when we think about system dynamics, this idea of control is, it's a fallacy, right? So I think that there's going to be a lot, lot of things happening. They are already happening. I mean, I'll be honest. A pandemic was a blind spot in, in my analysis in and Post Carbon Institute analysis. No excuse for why. You know, I mean, if we had sat down and brainstormed a list of crises that we might face, it would have been probably on there, but it was not, you know, high on the list. You know, now what we're seeing with the risk of, of nuclear conflict, um, we don't know what is going to happen in terms of either, you know, crises that pop up, specific ones in terms of their specific nature. We also don't know what's going to take off.
You know, when, when Greta sat down and, you know, with her little sign to protest, you know, she wasn't doing that thinking that there's going to be this huge Fridays for the future sort of movement, you know, and she was going to be on time magazine's cover, whatever it was. We just don't know. And I think our job is to, I think the question that you raised around... my friend, Sherri Mitchell talks about this as like, you don't tear down the master's house with the master's tools.
[00:34:56] Rachel Donald: Hm.
[00:34:57] Asher Miller: What you were describing, which is, do you tear down the system with the tools of the system, you know, violence being one.
[00:35:04] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:35:04] Asher Miller: I think that that is a really interesting question that we should be grappling with, but I also suspect that will happen. Do you know what I mean? I think both of those things are true.
[00:35:13] Rachel Donald: I think if we had the luxury of time, um, you definitely would choose not to do that because you're fundamentally, I mean, you're kind of creating an, a vacuum. And I think we've seen it in the past, whenever there's been a sort of left-wing revolution, there's always the years of terror follow, the white terror, the red terror with, uh, people getting murdered left, right and center and horrific, horrific violence. And then what always comes out of those revolutions is essentially the shadow, the political system of what reined beforehand. And I've always wondered if that's because they tore down the master's house with the master's tools. So you cannot actually, ontologically, you cannot create anything different.
[00:35:52] Asher Miller: Yeah, it is a really interesting question. We did in event called, uh, the grid unraveling with a question mark. And that term comes from Joanna Macy's work. We had, uh, a panel on of, of people, sort of, different perspectives because back to this idea of trying to understand the system, I do think there's a lot of value in bringing, trying to bring together. This is where using the tools of the system, you know, are, can be useful. Do we say no, we're not going to videoconference or use internet technology to connect with people across the world in order to get their perspective? I would say, no, we should use those tools. So we were able to bring together a really interesting group.
One of them was Larry Wilkerson who was, you know, very, a Colonel, big part of the military, worked for, you know, the, the Bush administration. And then we have, you know, Pablo Salone, who's, uh, you know, an indigenous rights activist and, um, you know, was part of the Bolivian delegation to the climate talks for the UN. And Sherri Mitchell, I just talked about her. She's an indigenous leader from north America. Then Carola Rackete who became well-known as a captain who was trying to rescue refugees in the meditteranean. Really different perspectives on things. And part of that conversation was, know, Sherri talking about violence and how violence is not, you know, the, the answer and Pablo saying, well, what do we do in the Amazon when we're trying to protect the forest? And there are people literally shooting us?
You know, that is a conversation I think that we have to have honestly, you know, with blinders off, not just about what we'd like to see, you know, what we're comfortable with, but what is going to be likely the reality that we're going to have to grapple with.
[00:37:46] Rachel Donald: Exactly. What is the reality? What are we going to have to do? And then also, how can we understand the series of events, or the system, that that will create? And then essentially what you're wanting is to avoid, um, that system being co-opted by the current paradigm, I think. Which is a lot of big nonsense words.
[00:38:08] Asher Miller: Well, no, I, but that's back to the diversity of approaches. It makes it harder to co-opt, you know. And it's a really tricky one because, you know, you want to coalesce power, you know, to go against power. Right. But at the same time, that makes it much easier to, to co-opt, for power to become all consuming in a sense, to become the purpose. You know what I mean? Rather than the means. And, and it's a tricky, it's a tricky one.
Maybe this is intellectually lazy, but I actually just, I think that it starts with on some level letting go of expectation. It's being this weird place of, of saying, Hey, I have agency, I'm going to try to figure out where I have agency. And to answer that question, I think, really is a very personal one. It's circumstantial. It has to be true for ourselves. And we're, we are motivated by different things. Our, our capacities are different. Our circumstances are different. But yes, I have agency and at the same time, I cannot stop this from happening. I cannot anticipate.
The more I think about this stuff, if I understand with, you know, my system systems thinking mind, I understand how all of these things are gonna play out in such a way that I can anticipate the future and know where I need to intervene. It's sort of living in that, that difficult space with both of those realities being true, and contradictory. And that's tough. And this is why I think for me, this is why there are very few of us, I'm not trying to sound like we're like patting ourselves on the back, but I think that's why there are very few of us who're able to sort of stay in the place, they're just grappling with this constantly.
Because for many people, they just want a simple answer. That tension is really hard to live with, you know, and, and let's be honest, the vast majority of people, day to day pressures are such that it's a moot point.
[00:40:14] Rachel Donald: And also, I mean, you know, when I like to think about the kind of vision of society for the future, I thank God not everybody is thinking about these questions. Can you imagine a world full of people obsessed with systems thinking? We'd probably miss all the important- yeah, we'd miss all the important stuff that needs to happen as well.
[00:40:31] Asher Miller: That's right.
[00:40:32] Rachel Donald: How to help people live, lead good lives. Like this is troubleshooting of the highest order.
[00:40:37] Asher Miller: Yeah.
[00:40:37] Rachel Donald: And there can only be a certain group of people that do it. And that's also right, you know.
[00:40:42] Asher Miller: Yeah.
[00:40:42] Rachel Donald: Holding two things, or, God, holding two contradictory things in one's mind and understanding them to be true at the same time. I mean, that is fundamentally like part of human existence, our failure to grasp at that.
[00:40:55] Asher Miller: It's my biggest frustration with whatever movement we're a part of is that inability. When I, when I see these false binaries that are constantly thrown up between population and consumption, for example, you know, between, you know, the energy transition is easy and we could completely substitute, it's fine, or the energy transition is a joke, renewables can't solve anything, we're screwed. False binary, you know, like I just see so many of them, you know, everywhere. And it's, again, I think people want, they want to land someplace, you know, they don't want to be in this sort of like place of uncertainty grappling with these paradoxes, but, but that's what we're dealing with, you know?
[00:41:45] Rachel Donald: Course that's what we're dealing with, but we also have to understand why people don't want to.
[00:41:48] Asher Miller: Sure.
[00:41:49] Rachel Donald: It totally triggers your parasympathetic nervous system to be in a state of stress like that.
[00:41:53] Asher Miller: Right.
[00:41:53] Rachel Donald: And for most people in the world, they cannot live in with that stress and that knowledge and at the same time deal with the stress of their lives, you know? Paying bills and putting food on the table and making sure their kids are well.
[00:42:05] Asher Miller: I, yeah, it's, it's more where I get crotchety is thinking about others in, in the ecosystem of people who are trying to transition what we have now to something else.
[00:42:22] Rachel Donald: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:42:24] Asher Miller: Who are fortunate enough to be able to do that quote unquote for a living, you know, advocating of false binaries or taking, uh, you know, uh, simplistic on things. That's where I get more frustrated.
[00:42:38] Rachel Donald: Completely completely. I mean, I was gobsmacked and furious during cop26 with how journalists were posing questions to the politicians, and then also how activists were out on the street and online directing the conversation. It was like, stop fossil fuels tomorrow. I was like, okay. And watch half the world's population disappear. And for those that don't die of starvation, uh, how are they going to feed their families? How are they going to earn income? Like what you, you simply cannot do that. And by directing the conversation that way you're detracting in a state of urgency, um, all of our brain power from being able to actually find and, um, deal with the complex solutions needs to be put in place.
[00:43:21] Asher Miller: Yeah. So, um, I I'll say some things that probably won't make friends, but like, um, within the climate movement, I, I have been frustrated by what feels like an over simplified villainization of the fossil fuel industry, you know? You know, pulling out stats saying, you know, this handful of, of companies or oil, whether it's state owned or private are responsible for X percentage of our emissions.
I think that there's a, a strategy there that is around trying to recognize that having, having simplified villains could be a useful tool. And I can sort of get that. Do you know what I mean? I'm not buddy buddy with those guys and I'm not fans of them. Do you know what I mean? And I do think that there's absolutely, abhorrent actions, you know, taking place and have taken place.
But to narrow it down to say, our problem is this industry, you know what I mean? Our problem is this. It's not seeing the system. It's not recognizing that these people are functioning in some ways, very rationally within the system that they're, that they are a product of.
[00:44:36] Rachel Donald: Massively.
[00:44:37] Asher Miller: And, and so we have to say, well, what motivates people to act in a way where they're basically feeding their children and grandchildren and possibly themselves, you know, to an absolutely miserable future. And trying to like, understand that, and in some ways even have empathy for it. Or saying we actually need fossil fuels. We talk about it as like winning the energy lottery. Do you know what I mean? And we just went crazy and we spent all this money cause we didn't know what the hell we were doing, you know? And now we're, we're running up a huge debt that's going to have to get paid.
But it's understandable that we did that on some level, you know, and we should be doing is, maybe this is more like thinking about martial arts that it's about using your opponent's energy and redirecting in a certain way, than straight combat. You know, it's like, how do we actually use these resources in a way, you know, if we're getting co-opted, can we, can we not co-opt elements of the system ourselves? And trying to be strategic about that. But it's hard to do that when you sort of paint them as this, this great evil, you know?
[00:45:45] Rachel Donald: other danger about painting them as a great evil is the self victimization narrative that comes with it it is inherently disempowering and it is inherently false. 'cause I agree that in, you know, even in modern democracies, we don't have a lot of political power say as citizens, we have a lot of power as consumers. If consumers tomorrow were to collectively stop buying petrol cars or stop this or stop that, watch the industry respond within a year because they need to make, make their profits.
It drives me mad when I see this, especially in Western industrial nations, where we have so much autonomy in comparison to the 60% of the world living in poverty, who are at the frontline of climate change and who are, only that, but ex experience, the firsthand, how violent these industries are, whether it's, you know, deforestation or mining and all this sort of stuff. And to see people like point fingers and blame as if we're not part of the problem ourselves, I just, it drives me mad because it is the one thing that we could do and, and we're not doing it.
[00:46:57] Asher Miller: That would take solidarity. Right. And I think that that's where the system that we have created has really eaten us up, in a sense. I think within the climate movement, you have seen a, a push against the, the responsibility of the consumer or the, uh, the role of consumer to advocate for recognizing the system. Which like, I agree with half of that, do you know what I mean? Um, but the, but the other half of it is to say that's actually where our power is as well, but it does require us doing in solidarity with one another.
It's really, it is interesting to look at, and again, you know, with a lot of caveats around, what information are we actually given access to? But when you look at things that are happening on the ground in Ukraine, the, the sharing, you know, of, of diminishing resources. When you're actually faced with, with hunger and deprivation and, uh, loss of safety, all the essentials, and you're still sharing.
[00:48:02] Rachel Donald: If I may interrupt though, I think that's different. And I think it's different because they're, um, fighting a common
[00:48:11] Asher Miller: Right.
[00:48:11] Rachel Donald: I think in nations where our backs are up against the wall because we couldn't grow food anymore, because of climate crisis because, of a political, you know, collapse, essentially. I think we would have a very different response.
[00:48:27] Asher Miller: Yeah, but that's what I mean about solidarity. We don't have it. We don't have it in a, in a proactive moment. Right? Like, that to me is like this question that is, I, in some ways feels like the hardest and the most important question in all of this stuff, which is it's about the rate of change.
So the one area that I do have hope about humanity is, is our capacity to adapt pretty quick, particularly from a cultural belief system perspective, you know. And it, it can happen incredibly fast. Uh, you don't always know how it happens, but there are mind shifts that happen. You know, you could just look here in the United States, the shift that went from, you know, seeing gay marriage as this, you know, awful thing that politicians couldn't possibly support to now being, in some ways, normalized, although our Supreme court may have something to say about that.
We're talking about in the span of years is, is pretty remarkable. So I have a lot of hope in our adaptive capacity in certain ways, but will the rate of change outs of the biophysical system outstrip our ability to adapt? You know, it's true for all species in this situation, and I think true for our capacity to, to act proactively, you know what I mean?
And I don't know the answer to that. I think time will tell, right. Hopefully there will be enough of us in complex enough societies later to be able to write this up, you know, and, and say, here's what the story was, you know? But, uh, I just, I think that that's really the key question is can we, and we talk a lot about like Marvin Harris's work, uh, you know, cultural materialism, which is basically boils down to this idea that our belief systems and our political systems that we have are actually follow our physical infrastructure. Our relationship with the world is what actually dictates, you know, how we organize ourselves and how we believe things. So the, the classic example of that is the shift from hunter gatherer to, you know, to sedentary agriculture, right? We've gone from an animistic, you know, spiritual belief system to one where we're because now we're dependent upon rain and sun to feed us versus, you know, this relationship with this ecosystem.
And it's that, that change in the infrastructure, how we get energy and food is what changed kind of our, how we organize our societies. We created hierarchies, we created power structures and we changed, you know, our, our view of the spiritual origins and, and, and all that. We're now faced with a situation where we have to, in some ways, do the opposite. Our infrastructure, our physical reality, is undergoing a profound shift right now. It's going to accelerate. I think to have a lot of hope would be to say that somehow we can get ahead of it in terms of our belief systems, because what we need to do is actually reorient our values, our beliefs in order to, to change our behaviors. So that that infrastructure, that physics, those physical systems, don't collapse to the point that, that they're unsurvivable. And I don't know if we'll do that.
[00:52:01] Rachel Donald: What does your data say a Post Carbon Institute?
[00:52:05] Asher Miller: I mean, we're clearly on the wrong track, right? I mean, I think what's, so we're going through a shift organizationally. It sounds, sounds kind of shallow or simplistic, but you know, we've been around for quite a while, and a lot of our work has been around again for a certain population of people, uh, warning people about things that are impending, to now helping people grapple with things that are happening.
[00:52:35] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:52:35] Asher Miller: And, um, so I think that, not that we necessarily thought, oh my God, you know, collective society of 7 billion people or whatever are going to suddenly become rational, and act, you know, collectively in the right direction. But are, what tools do we have to work with? How much time we have, you know, all those things are much less than we had before and they're going to get to be much less.
You were referencing, I think, the adaptive cycle, and if we're now in the wherever, the beginning, the middle, whatever of the collapse phase, the release phase, there is a lot still of agency and figuring out where that energy, how that energy gets released.
And that's where I think that we are, right. So it's not about stopping collapse or the breakdown of systems from happening. It's about navigating this on an ongoing basis. I'm constantly, constantly calibrating, shifting what our expectations are, you know?? And I guess call it a soft landing. Or actually the ideal would be to direct that energy in a way where we can actually, this sounds, it sounds almost naive, but we can actually create alternatives that are more fulfilling and better and in balance. We will eventually get there. I just don't know how many of us are going to, how long it will take, who will be there, how many of us there will be and where they will be and how many other species will be with us. You know what I mean?
[00:54:15] Rachel Donald: Yeah, I do.
[00:54:15] Asher Miller: But I think that that is inevitable, you know, and if we see these, if we see things as systems on relationship with one another, and if we see things as cycles, there is something in that to me that is reassuring on some level, you know, rather than saying, this is a linear journey of progress and, or we're about to hit a wall and it's game over. Neither of those things to me are true.
[00:54:41] Rachel Donald: I agree and I equally find it empowering. Asher, thank you so much for coming on the show. We covered so much ground. It was fantastic. And my final question to you then is who would you like to platform?
[00:54:53] Asher Miller: That's a great question. I, I would love for you to talk to Sherri Mitchell, who I talked about.
[00:54:58] Rachel Donald: Yeah, I would love to speak to Sherri Mitchell too.
[00:55:00] Asher Miller: Yeah, I'll be happy to make an introduction.
[00:55:02] Rachel Donald: Brilliant. Thank you so much for your time.
[00:55:05] Asher Miller: You're welcome. Nice to speak with you.
There is this joke I liked its: What's worse? Starting a garden or standing in line for your free bowl of bug soup?
Most people would rather take the free soup!