Robert Gilman CoVida Conversation

Sustainability Pioneer, Creator: Bright Future Now

Robert Gilman and I met in 1984. We’ve worked together and in parallel and always in mutual respect ever since, and delightfully ended up living 2 blocks apart on an island in the Pacific Northwest. I turned to him in April as the Pandemic hit to see through his eyes this major societal turning point. This is one of the featured interviews in the CoVida Conversations series.

Robert Gilman distinguishes between “the environment”, including climate change, and culture, the set of shared beliefs, rituals, customs, institutions, and lifestyles of a society.  “There are no environmental problems there are only environmental symptoms of human problems and those human problems are rooted deeply in our culture. So my focus really has been on how do we help change the culture?”

Likewise, Coronavirus, he says, isn’t just a disease, it is a cultural intervention with three faces:  Corona the Destroyer, Corona the Illuminator and Corona the Accelerator. The destroyer kills people but also disrupts patterns of culture. It is a worldwide intervention, illuminating the now inadequate project of modernity: a heavy focus on intellect, analysis, separation, description and control. In Modernity you lose context, process and creativity.

In reality, life is much more like an ecosystem in which you have all these different players interacting with each other.

The enlightenment valued progress and growth, but anything that increases year over year ends grows imperceptibly until it reaches exponential growth. The impact of industrialization was imperceptible until the last decade. Climate impacts have been too invisible for most people to care about, but the virus is teaching us what exponential growth looks like and how human choices are all that will keep us from an exponential death rate until we get an effective universal vaccine.

One of the challenges of getting people to really take climate change seriously, is that it’s too slow. This one isn’t too slow. And so the whole culture is going to have this now this memory of what exponential growth is like.

So really the virus is illuminating the deficiencies in our immune systems. And I don’t mean just our biological immune systems, but also our social immune systems.

Robert sees us in a transition from the age of Empire to a Planetary Civilization, and Covid in all her three faces is helping us along – however challenging it might be.

When asked if he could boil it all down to a slogan, Robert said, “Context matters.” We can call Corona “The bright virus.”

Transcript: (+ 31 secs to time stamps)

Vicki Robin  0:01 

Hey, here we are, Robert. Yay. How’s the weather down there?

Robert Gilman  0:06 

Ah, it looks like it’s a little cloudy at the moment.

Vicki Robin  0:09 

Yeah, me too. Oh, amazing, amazing. Today I’m talking to Robert Gilman, who is my friend of 30 years, maybe? 1984 we met. I think that’s more than 30 years. Always an inspiring big picture thinker. And here we are living in the same little town, like a block apart. So lucky me. I’m going to ask you, Robert, for starters, just to introduce yourself. I’m going to do a little bit of a “here’s the context”, as it were. Then, have you introduce yourself, reflect and we’re aiming for 15 or 20 minutes. Something that’s a tolerable length of time that somebody casually can listen to this. So it’s someplace more than an interview, less than a podcast. That sweet spot.

So the context of these conversations, and I’m having about a dozen of them, is connecting with my colleagues. You really could call this the elders of the sustainability movement. I know we’re talking about resilience and not sustainability anymore, but, when we were radical young people, that’s what we talked about. And to reflect on the possibilities that we see in this moment of time, that the dominant infrastructure, the internal logic of society has been very hostile to and resistant to, and suddenly things are fluid and there’s a possibility and also a social solidarity. I think we are experiencing what it’s like to have the world that we’ve always seen as possible. So I would like to ask you what sparks of possibility you see laying around. And I just want to say to folks that Robert has been a visionary and futurist ever since I’ve known him. He’s been looking at the large patterns way into the future. So, I know this is a common topic for you. But I would like to ask, What new possibilities right now are you seeing for your work going forward? So anyway, take it away, Robert.

Robert Gilman  2:41 

Okay. Thank you. Just a little bit of background around me. 40 years ago, my late wife, Diane, and I founded something called the North Olympic Living Lightly Association, which was a sort of community networking association and that evolved into Context Institute and published a journal called In Context, a quarterly of humane sustainable culture that Vicki and friends contributed a number of things to. Then I should also throw in that further back, my background is that I have a PhD in astrophysics and taught and did research in that for a while, but then in the mid 70s decided the stars could wait but the planet couldn’t. Then really have been focused on sustainability issues and sustainable culture.

An important part of my focus has been that sustainability isn’t particularly an environmental idea. The environment may be one of the places where our lack of sustainability shows up. But I like to say there are no environmental problems; there are only environmental symptoms of human problems and those human problems are rooted deeply in our culture. So, my focus really has been on how do we help change the culture? What is the momentum of cultural change that’s going on, etc, etc. That sort of thing. So I wasn’t expecting, I can’t claim, “Oh, well, I was expecting this virus.” It wasn’t particularly on my horizon, but things like this certainly are.

I’m currently somewhat jokingly describing the virus is having three sub-personalities. You can think of it as three faces. There’s Corona, the destroyer; Corona, the illuminator; and Corona, the accelerator. I see all those things going on. Obviously, Corona, the destroyer. One of the aspects of that is that people who are dying and every Death has a real impact on the people who are left, as well as obviously the person who dies but there’s a lot more that’s being destroyed too. There are patterns that we’ve seen and thought just were there and couldn’t change and now we’re getting a whole new experience of that. That’s part of the illumination also of things, but there’s also the illumination of the way in which people have come together. All of this wonderful upwelling of, “What can I do?” Also, people sewing masks and working on all that PPE stuff. Plus, a lot of the really creative stuff that I’m seeing isn’t coming from the government. Certainly not the federal government. We, the two of us, are in Washington State and this was one of the first places where the virus kind of took off. I don’t feel as though the state government has done badly given that it was at the beginning of all of this. But still, whether it’s the University of Washington biology group jumping right into develop tests, and that from just much more grassroots kinds of things. I think a lot of the creativity that’s happening right now is really emerging out of the whole, and not from the obvious centers of power. I think one of the things that’s being illuminated for me, this is – how do I say this? – This is a crisis of modernity.

We live in an age of enlightenment culture. All of our institutions basically, and the philosophy behind them, all go back to the Age of Enlightenment, which was a huge improvement over what was there before. But it has its real blind spots. We’re in this place now where I think some of those blind spots are being illuminated. One of those blind spots is a heavy focus on categorical thinking. Age of Enlightenment was enthralled with the idea of finding universal, context free, timeless truth, which throws away context, throws away and is arrogant in all kinds of different ways; the presumption that if we just have the right language-based conversation, we can discover truth, whereas the best word can really do with language is to get a rough map in a crude shorthand, because the situation that it’s trying to describe is so much more incredibly rich. So I think that’s part of what we’re discovering too, and this will help in terms of ideas that have been lying around.

The Age of Enlightenment sees the world through a mechanistic lens and so we want to be able to design good manageable systems where it’s just a big machine and you just need to put the parts in the right place, etc. Society actually isn’t that way.

Society is much more like an ecosystem in which you have all these different players interacting with each other, adjusting to each other; adjusting here, then adjusting there, and it’s much more dynamic and I think we’re getting a chance to see that on fast-forward right now in a way that we don’t usually get to see that. Some of the other things that we’re getting to see: a really important thing is all the interconnectedness. Another Age of Enlightenment, and I’m beating up on the Age of Enlightenment because I’m enjoying doing that. But the Age of Enlightenment had this idea of objectivity and separation and some beneficial things around individualism, but taken to an extreme, that lost connection, lost context. At the moment, we are rediscovering how interconnected we are. Humanity is one body, from the point of view of the virus.

Another piece here is that we’re having an experience of exponential growth in short term. You and I both know that exponential growth can creep up on you, and then it’s taken over, it’s gone too far. One of the challenges of getting people to really take climate change seriously, is that it’s too slow. This one isn’t too slow. So the whole culture is going to have now this memory of what exponential growth is like. I’m on a roll. Is this good?

Vicki Robin  10:47 

It’s great. I don’t care where you go.

Robert Gilman  10:53 

All right. Yeah, there’s another thing here that we focus on the virus as the problem. But one of the learnings out of organic gardening, going way back, was that whenever you have something that looks like a pest, it’s a message that your environment isn’t as healthy as it could be. Really, the virus is illuminating the deficiencies in our immune systems. I don’t mean just our biological immune systems, but also our social immune systems. Everything that I can tell… The first thing that people noticed was that it’s older people who tend to die out of all this. But I think as there’s been more and more research, it’s really the immunocompromised in one way or another, people who have underlying issues, and it just happens that older people tend to have more underlying issues. So at that biological level, it’s showing that. But we kind of weren’t ready for this, even though we had months when we could have, but we were in denial. And I was too! I’m not going to claim, “Oh I saw it”. It took a while for me to kind of grok that, “Oh, this is actually gonna affect me as well”. Yeah, let’s see. I think I’m gonna pause there, throw it back to you.

Vicki Robin  12:42 

Okay, yeah. Oh my god, this is so rich. Yeah, okay. We’re talking about cultural systems versus the state. What the state can do and what culture can do.

I think part of the roadblock for work that you and I have done is that you can influence a subculture, but the state… You get to a certain level where you can really change things, like with “Your Money or Your Life”. Because we weren’t dangerous to the power system, because we were working at the level of the individual, we got pretty damn far into the social body. I mean, I think there was a year where the word gazingus pin almost was in the dictionary.

 So there is a way in which the governance system – which is captured now by the financial system, which is associated with a monetary system, which is associated with the owners of wealth, and you know, the offshore banking in the mafias – so there is this structure that has captured much of the life energy of the planet in terms of resources and possibilities. This is why I have migrated more in recent years to politics, to “Okay, fine. Let’s address this”, and discovered how dense It really is.

So, I’d like to riff on when you said the state. Number one, I think that the states have been functioning better by and large than the national government. So we have an opportunity to be creative at a state level. The states rights used to be code word “slavery”, but states rights can also be ecology. It can be ecotopia. We have an opportunity where the state is more fluid than, our state of Washington is more fluid than the national government; more or less captured by that sort of invisible mafia.

What the state does is sort of traffic lights. A culture it creates, but it creates within a structure of prohibitions, permissions, policies and purse strings. Do you see ways in this moment, that now that the Enlightenment is showing its tattered robes… Do you see a way of intervening there to have a more ecologically enlightened governance system; a governance system that is more governed, increasingly governed by ecology and decreasingly governed by money. So permissions, prohibitions, purse strings, policies.

Robert Gilman  16:19 

I think it’s useful to think about three components.

One of them is what I’m going to call dominance, and it’s power in some way or another, and that’s the oldest and it’s the crudest. Anyway, I won’t go off too much on that. A second is policies. And a third is cultural innovations. And I think it’s helpful to have that whole buffet table out in front of you, and be opportunistic and have a sense of where you want to go. The way that I articulate where – I would argue actually, the momentum of cultural evolution is carrying us but it’s also where I want to go – is a culture that, as I like to put it, embodies the harmony within, the harmony with others, and the harmony with nature, all simultaneously. So those three harmonies are kind of my way of describing where I’d like to head. And turns out there are an awful lot of people who would like to live in a culture that really embody, institutions and as people, really embody those things.

So it’s important to have some sense of direction and also some kind of toolkit and patterns about how you could… In order to respond opportunistically, you can’t just depend upon having to invent everything every moment. It’s really helpful, as you and I know, there have been all these small-scale initiatives that haven’t taken off yet. But that have built up some track record, have worked kinks out. It’s important to know about those and to have a kind of box of patterns as it were, because as we move into…

Right now, we’re in this time, that’s all this ferment going on. But it’s going to be hard to make real plans, and that also applies in a certain sense to some of the policy-level things. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work on policies and offer policies, but it’s going to be a moving target. But in any case, we can’t do anything with policies unless we have some power. So definitely worth it to see what can be done in that realm, but I think for me one of the fallacies if you will, again, I’ll say modernist Age of Enlightenment, politics is the idea that if you can just get power and put certain policies in place, then the machine will create the result. But if the culture isn’t there to mesh with it, it doesn’t stick.

So, you have to be able to move on the cultural side as well as any kind of policy side. I spent seven years in local city government and have a sense for the way that governments are almost inherently a lagging indicator in the culture. I think part of the frustration on the part of a lot of progressive people is that they want the government to fix them. There’s a certain amount that can be done, but it hasn’t been a great success.

So anyway, there’s another thing that I want to throw in, too. And that is that up till now, we’ve had, those of us in Washington state, have had a month of this. It wasn’t like it all immediately changed at the beginning of March. It was a slow progression of closing the schools and then encouraging people to shelter in place, etc. Some parts of that have only been a week. So we’ve still been kind of adjusting to it, in a way you can do when there’s an immediate shock and you can say, “Okay, well I’ll hunker down”. We’re just beginning. We have at least months of this.

One of the good things about that is that we’re now moving into a time that won’t be moving at the pace of thought, but will be moving at the pace of biology. The pace of biology, where you’re building new neural pathways, is slower but more enduring. And so, new habits will be built. People are going to figure out how do you function now, in this world of… one of my friends described it, said “Let’s call this physical distancing”, because here we are being social. But as we adjust to that, I think that we will build a lot of new habits. And I don’t really have a clue. I’m curious. I may have some clue. But I’m curious about how all that is going to manifest.

Vicki Robin  22:21 

Wow. So, what I’m going to take away, because I’m going to – I could sit here and listen to you forever, and I’m guessing there’s at least half the people who are watching this feel the same way – but maybe the others really just want to get on with their day. So we’re gonna put a pause here for our interview, but maybe come back in a month and see what we see then. That’d be cool. So a couple things that I’m taking away. There’s so much; I mean, I have a page full of notes. Yeah, I think – you’re gonna think it’s strange, this is what I picked up ..

Literacy in exponential growth could be really powerful. If we wanted to talk about flattening the climate curve and I don’t know if I just thought that up or somebody, 16,000 people already said it, but I would love to develop some language around, some ideas around. (My cat’s tossing my papers off my desk. Yeah, here she comes. You want to join in the party here?) Yeah, so just play with that.

The other one is this idea of social solidarity; it’s all interconnected, basically from the point of view of the virus, there’s only one body, right? That’s really interesting. The virus has revealed to us that we are one humanity.

So your language about – oh my god, it was so beautiful – the Corona, the destroyer; Corona, the illuminator; and Corona the accelerator. These interviews have been like, “Okay, what’s getting accelerated? And do we have any agency there?” And of course, the dominant, the upper levels of the mafia are already putting in levers of police states and stuff.

But we do have agency in culture. And part of culture – and I’m going to ask you for one final thing. Part of culture is memes. Part of culture is floating stubs of language that wormed their way in to the mind. And, it’s like, “Things go better with Coke”, right? Which they don’t! You know, sometimes some things do go better with Coke and some with milk. But one of the ones I thought of when I was listening to you was, we’re all in this together forever. You add that “forever” and say, we’ve just found out that we’re all in this together and we’re not going to forget that. So if you had a motto or a something, a little sort of blade hook that you could throw up the wall of culture, what would you throw up?

Robert Gilman  25:27 

Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, that’s a great question. There’s nothing that’s really… Of course, I could say context matters.

Vicki Robin  25:47 

Right? Yeah. And that may stick. It may not. Anyway, you think about that. If we have a talk again in a month, your quiz is, What’s the sticky meme? It’s sort of like it’s a burr. What’s the burr that you can put on somebody’s legs so that the whole opening to your teaching, which is amazing, is available? Sort of the good virus; the white virus, not white as in race, but like you know the Red Queen. Anyway, you know, the blue virus or whatever so…

Robert Gilman  26:27 

The bright virus.

Vicki Robin  26:28 

The bright virus, the beautiful virus. Well yeah, we have to think about that because suddenly I’m talking in territory I don’t want to be in. Rrrr rrr, back out! Okay, so thanks, Robert, for so much for this. I think it’s awesome. I’ll have it up on YouTube in a few days. So you have access to it and you can do whatever you want with it. And I’m going to do a big “I recommend this” on this video because there’s so many cool ideas. Great. Okay, so thanks. Yeah.

Robert Gilman  27:01 

You bet.

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See all the CoVida Conversations from April 2020 here.