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Jim: This is another in our extra series of COVID-19 special short podcasts. As usual, the audio quality won’t be quite up to our good standard, but I hope the ideas will more than make up for it. Today’s guest is Bonnitta Roy, one of the most interesting and innovative thinkers, writers, talkers, and doers on the planet today. She’s been on our show before. She’s been a long-time collaborator of mine. We don’t always agree, but that’s okay. I have tremendous respect for where she’s coming from.
Jim: The reason I invited her on the show is more than anybody else I know she has been focusing on the possibilities on the other side of this crisis and I just loved a tremendous amount of what she’s written. One thing she wrote I think yesterday, the day before, really struck me and I think sets the tone for how I’d like our little brief discussion to go. Let me read this. This is from Bonnitta, “Crises push people in one direction or the other. So we need to help each other move from contraction, cognitive shutdown, and moral dread to expansion, collective insight, and moral courage by staying together in deeper communion. In parliament with the trouble. We can disclose this moment as screaming with possibilities.” I just love that. So Bonnitta, what are the possibilities?
Bonnitta: Oh wow. So from my vantage point, screaming with possibilities, there’s just so many in terms of a wider breadth of quantity and the depths of them. Let me just step back and talk about what I was feeling when I wrote that. This notion of staying together in parliament with the trouble, what I’m referring to is that there are many different interpretations of what’s going on. There’s many people are even updating their interpretations as we go along. There’s lots of conversations displayed in many different ways. What I want to suggest is that, yes, at one level we have those conversations. But at the other level, to expand our perspective and see that all of these conversations are part of the same movement.
Bonnitta: I wrote once whether you believe in coronavirus or not, whether you believe it from a biological or epidemiological standpoint or whether you think it’s … I mean they’re radical conspiracy theories out there. What we can do is stay with what is actually happening, the difference between your interpretation of what is happening and what is actually happening. There’s a lot going on. That’s what I mean by staying with the trouble, staying with how things are changing for you, staying with how today was different than three weeks ago, staying with the choices that you’re making today, staying with kind of this overwhelm of information.
Bonnitta: We really don’t know. We don’t have an exact grasp on the statistics or the direction of what’s happening. Can we stay in this open space of possibility and see it for the possibilities that are arising? So this notion of staying with the trouble means is first invitation to let go of your single interpretation and just kind of keep advocating for that and get back to the human condition of, okay, what’s our new human condition? Many of us are at home. Some of us are rejecting the at homeness and actually having deviant behavior. So whatever behaviors that you’ve adopted, to see that they are part of the same particular situation in this time, right?
Bonnitta: So trying to just expand ourselves out to that viewpoint, I think is a very valuable first step. And then in terms of the possibilities, just really be perceptive and aware and observant and sensitive to how things change and what difference it makes. I was talking to high school students in Washington, DC yesterday about this. It was very, very fascinating, their comments. If you’re not going to work every day, this habits we get in, we get our coffee. We get on the bus or the subway. We go to work. We do the same things, the whole 9:00 to 5:00. If you’re not doing that, then pay attention to how your life has changed.
Bonnitta: Pay attention to maybe you may be bored or anxious or looking at why have I been mindlessly going to work? You may find yourself looking across the table at your children playing in the corner or fighting with each other and ask yourself, “What do they actually do all day when I’m not here or when they’re in school? What are the sweet moments and what are not the sweet moments?” We’ve been forcefully removed from our habits. So we have an opportunity to look at things from this new vantage point. They may seem strange. It’s strange that people live in … One of the things the students were saying, “It’s strange being in a house because I’m in my room. We separate ourselves. Everyone stays in their own room.”
Bonnitta: They thought, “Well, that’s kind of strange. Why do we lock ourselves into our own room?” These kind of noticings can really start to generate curiosity and inquiry into your own human condition, not only in terms of you as an individual, but you in your community and in larger social systems, like the economic and the supply chain and all of this. So the first invitation is to not just get bored or not just be anxious or not just be argumentative about what is happening, but take advantage of the fact that you have a new vantage point. Can you be sensitive to and observe from this new place and see something for the first time?
Bonnitta: It reminds me of when I went to college and I was very parochial. I never even had a sleepover with a friend when I was a kid, and then I went away to college. When I came back for Thanksgiving, I had a new vantage point to look at my family dynamics. I was like, “Wow, that’s how we are.” This by itself opens a space of possibility. So that’s what I mean by staying in parliament with the trouble. Traditionally, the origins of the word is a parliament is called on a temporary basis so people can get together and reflect and review on the situation that they face.
Jim: Yeah. I like that very much. I mean to my perspective, my interpretation of where you’re coming from is that if we hang with our experiences and take our experiences at this time seriously, it’s going to give us a quite different perspective than the every day where, for so many Americans, they’re sort of numbed with routine activity. Get up at 6:00 in the morning. Do your morning cleanings and beautifying and rush off to work. Stop and pick up some premade gloppy food from the grocery store on the way home. Have a dinner. Help the kids with their homework. Watch TV. Fall into bed at 10:30. This is a very different rhythm. We’ll see and we’ll feel emotion ourselves. If we open ourselves up to that experience, we’ll have parallax on the life we used to live, which we very seldom have.
Bonnitta: Exactly. Yeah. I think pointing that out, like I said, supporting people in that they can move toward this more expansive, curious perspective. I think we have to help each other with that because it’s not always obvious. Because it is a big change and we do get sucked into the social media and the updates and stuff like that. So yeah, helping each other to have collective insight and moral courage. Moral courage I think is important because when we’re shaken from our habits, this really disrupts the organism, the psyche. People can be surprised that that happens. It’s surprising to some people how much the disruption of their routine makes a difference, even if you’re sitting at home and you look around and your children are safe and your family members are safe. You go to the store and, yeah, you don’t have all the choice maybe that you used to, but you have food.
Bonnitta: So if you think of the facts of the matter, then they seem to be really okay. You might laugh at the fact of how spoiled you were that there’s not so many varieties of this certain pasta that you like or something. But when you notice that you’re surprised or if you notice, wow, there’s only these two types of pasta. You notice what the feeling you get from that. This is an important thing because you haven’t noticed maybe the abundance or the overabundance or the marketing or … When people come from other countries to the US a lot of times they’re just surprised at what our grocery stores look like. But we can’t actually see it anymore. We can’t actually see what is the case because it’s always the same.
Bonnitta: So give ourselves an opportunity to use the difference to be able to reflect on what was before and ask yourself, “Why should it be like before? Is there some advantage point in turning the tide in some respects?” One of the things that people have trouble with just in general is spaciousness. They’re bored at home. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Other people have started to really take up things that they’ve always wanted to do and maybe they were just simple things. I read an article the other day, and I’m doing the same thing. A lot of people are making bread and sewing, these kinds of ancient archaic ways of hearth and home.
Bonnitta: They emerge in our being because this is fundamentally what we are as humans before we stepped into the rat race and all these manufactured systems. We can attune to our … or pay attention to how these more fundamental hearth and home kind of instincts arise. This is happening for a lot of people and not to trivialize it, not to just say, “I’m making bread,” or something like that, but to notice how it feels and how that experience arises innately. What I would say, if you start noticing them, it’s like the world is screaming with new possibilities and where are the potentials in that.
Jim: I love it. That’s great. Interesting. You mentioned bread. [inaudible 00:12:55] usually makes some nice homemade bread once every couple of weeks. Her and my daughter who are altogether, our family and her husband, we’ve been making bread continuously, rustic loaf, pita bread, finer white bread occasionally. It’s been quite interesting. In fact, we joke, “This is the best catered apocalypse ever.” Because we spend a lot of time now taking care of each other, taking care of our food, our ceremonial conviviality, and all that in a way that’s richer then when we’re all dashing about our separate overloaded days.
Jim: It’s interesting. You also mentioned the store shelves, this has been one of my pet peeves since 1994 when I saw the light and kind of converted from a pure Game A player to something else is I one-time went into our local CVS pharmacy and counted 200 varieties of shampoo. Does the world really need 200 varieties of shampoo? I don’t think so. Another time at our local Martin’s Grocery Store, I counted 77 varieties of barbecue sauce. What the hell? I wonder if this enforced simplification of our lives will open the minds of at least some people to say, “There’s something nutty and out of control about the hyper abundance that the money on money return machine drives ourselves to.”
Jim: Every niche, subdivided and subdivided and subdivided again until the last nickel is extracted from the pockets of the consumer. Maybe, just maybe, one of the possibilities on the other side is experiencing something different for an extended period of time, four, six, eight, 12 weeks, whatever it turns out to be. People maybe start to be less programmed to the consumerist money on money machine thing. At least that’s one of my hopes.
Bonnitta: Yeah. I mean we are hooked on the trivial desires and the trivial pursuits in life and disconnected from being resourceful and the true meaning-making practices of human community and family. I’ve been writing this essay for, it’s going to come out in Emerge. The question I have, I had to ask myself a question. But why is it, for example, that why is it that we will tend to just go back to the rat race? This was very interesting to me. I was on some calls with people, and people like you and me and other people I know who are resourceful, have pantries filled with natural health care and know how to take care of … I mean I have animals, so we do a lot of basically small-level surgery and injections on the farm. There’s a certain resourcefulness. People like us are not as affected by the situation than people who are in the system, in the global economy, let’s say.
Bonnitta: The question is, why is it that going back to the rat race is so tempting> why is it that people just without encouragement or without some of these podcasts like you’re doing, why isn’t it just obvious to them that they should turn the tide? One of the things that I realized, and it was from reading an article by Simo Mira, it was in an online magazine called The Conversation, is that for most people, for many people, there’s not the option between the rat race and this home and hearth kind of thing we’re talking about. But it’s between the rat race and a dog eat dog world. This has to do with, you brought up this notion of the extractive economy. What it is is in this article it made me realize, Simo Mira calls it barbarism, but that if you have a centralized economy, you end up inviting people to the rat race, right, so this kind of like a extractive economy.
Bonnitta: But if that same economy becomes distributed, you have a dog eat dog world because the economy’s not set up to serve people. It’s set up to extract value from exchange. So this is actually a smart choice that people are making because they intuitively sense that their options are between the rat race and the dog eat dog world. So it’s not just about expanding our imagination from a centralized to a distributed economy. We have to change the function of the economy to serve the needs and protection of life and people. I thought this was a big insight that I had and because I’m always kind of skeptical of thinking that people are not making the correct choices. They seem like they’re making the wrong choices. But I really truly believe now that this is kind of the pickle that most people are in.
Bonnitta: It’s between going back to the rat race or what they see is if all of a sudden the economy as we know it gets distributed, it will be a dog eat dog world because it’s primarily rivalrous. We understand economies and currencies as rivalrous. We see them as extractive and of value. So we need to reimagine the economy as servicing the needs of people. In my article I’m writing about, for example, if the food supply chain breaks down. Let’s say that people don’t have enough money to buy food. The truckers don’t get paid to truck it. The migrant workers all go home. Well, it’s not like the earth stopped producing food. It’s not like the sun stopped growing the food. It’s not like the son started defying the laws of physics. None of that has changed.
Bonnitta: It’s just that the mechanism of extractive value exchange is broken down. So what prevents us from planting the seeds and harvesting the food and getting in our trucks and distributing? What prevents us from just continuing? It’s not a real far distance between doing it the way we do now and just continuing. In fact, you see the government is going to try to inject money into the system, so it’ll continue to do that. But why do we need that step? Why can’t we design, for example, essential goods and services to work on a currency system that is designed to protect the flow of essential goods and services to people, including healthcare? And then once you do that, if you take that currency off of the market, then you can distribute it. Then people will move toward it because now it’s no longer being a local kind of community inside an extractive currency.
Bonnitta: Now you can truly move from the rat race to the community. So this I thought was a big knowing or something that really made a big difference in the way that I understood why it is that people go back to the rat race. So yeah. So that’s one thing. Another thing that was a big insight for me, just kind of modeling what you can learn if you pay attention, is that a lot of people are saying, “This crisis is showing us how interconnected we are.” But I think I’d like to caution people. I think it’s very important that you’re not experiencing interconnectedness because the system is breaking down. All you’re experiencing is that you depend upon the system. There’s a big difference there. In fact, the reason why the food supply is fragile is because you’re connected to your food supply by the system.
Bonnitta: So this is not an example of deep interconnection. It’s an example of unilateral dependency on a system that has asynchronous power to you. So if we were really interested in deeper connection, and I think people when they get a hit of that, they really yearn for that. Then for example, we would be able to feed our neighbors and go to the store and have this kind of more generosity, this flow of goods, essential goods and services from person to person without it having to be controlled, centralized, and have the value extracted by the system. We see this everywhere. I mean why my mother has compromised lungs every year. She gets pneumonia. We wanted to buy at-home oxygen, a respirator. We asked. You can’t have one without a prescription. We asked her doctor that she’s known for years to write her a prescription and he can’t unless he has a medical record that she has pneumonia.
Bonnitta: This is the way the system creates a false asynchronous power relationship. People can learn how to do many of this stuff at home. And then you’ll truly be interconnected because you have resources that you can share with your neighbors and you can receive from your neighbors also. We probably, given the complexity of our lives, need some kind of currency for that. But that can be certainly off the Wall Street, off the financial instruments and be not part of a debt economy and an extractive value exchange. So I think we’re really close to these things. I’m writing this article. It’s like a countdown to what I call regenesis, has 10 interrelated principles that many of us have already worked out. I’m not a financial expert, but I know that these things are understood by people today, people like yourselves, people in our community.
Bonnitta: All these 10 areas are well-researched and can be handled by a community, people who’ve been working on them in a long time, and they support each other. So number two helps number three and number three helps number five get done. So what I’m hoping is this notion of screaming with possibility is that this is a moment in time where people that are leading these kinds of changes can be up-regulated as leaders in our society, that they can convene larger communities of practices, and that people can see that it’s a safe bet to move toward a world that is better for all of us. I really feel the possibility in that. I’m trying as best as I can to contribute to making that happen.
Jim: Well, that sounds great. Yeah. Well, I very much look forward … You’re going to publish that in Emerge, did you just say?
Jim: Look forward to reading it. Let me give me a couple responses, reactions there. I like the distinction, actually very useful. It’s opening my mind a little bit because we do … Our money economy is extraordinarily interwoven at very long distances and driven by, again, the economics of money on money returning. The example I give is, and if it turns out that Walmart can get a T-shirt for five cents less that’s made in Bangladesh by semi-slave labor than made in a good wage-paying job in South Carolina, the money on money return signal says, “Do it,” even though it devastates the town in South Carolina and empowers capitalist exploiters in Bangladesh. Why should cotton go from Texas to Bangladesh and back again, burning fossil fuels all the while? The reason is the drivers are money on money return.
Jim: Anyway, the economy is this unbelievably complicated network of very long distance exchanges aimed at financial optimization. In fact, I sometimes say people say the Internet was the greatest invention of the 20th century. Maybe it was the shipping container that cut the cost of long distance, transcontinental, Intercontinental commerce by a factor of five cheaper than it used to be. But then so we put that in one bag, this monster string network beast optimized of huge complexity in optimized and money terms, but not optimized in terms of what’s good for communities and for the world. On the other side, as you point out, this is something I had not thought of quite in these ways before, our relationship with that beast is a peculiar one. It’s not a rich relationship. It’s not a strong link really. Do we have any emotional affinity to the shit we buy at Walmart? I don’t.
Jim: We just take it as a given. There’s no humanness to it. There’s no deep reciprocity. I don’t expect Walmart to help me out when I’m out of work. On the other hand, if I’m trading locally with people I know and I’m out of work, frankly, it’s very reasonable for them to continue to front me eggs and milk for a few months, right?
Jim: I’ll help them by chopping their firewood this winter. I do think this is the biggest possibility. Unfortunately, the alternative really isn’t ready. I wish it was. I wish we were further along and building what we sometimes call the Game B world where things are much more local, more modular, more peer-to-peer, more self-organizing, more network-centric. But we’re not. We’re building some of the ideas and a very few of the tools. But I do think that this possibility has opened a bunch of eyes. For the first time in a long time people are having to make consequential decisions for themselves.
Jim: Maybe 10 times as many people are now ready to hear the message and start getting to work to build out this alternative world that you alluded to with a financial signaling mechanism that builds community not optimized for economic short-term return. I’m really hoping that the number of ears that hear has grown by a factor of 10 at least due to this process, so that we could start the real work of being ready for the next one. Because I think those of us who follow this stuff closely know this is not the last big shock to the status quo, far from it. In fact, as apocalypses go, this one’s pretty benign as far as I can tell. We should not expect basic infrastructure to stop working like electricity and water and sewage and probably not food.
Jim: We may get a further simplification in our food chain, but at least in the United States, I see no reason that the grocery stores won’t stay open. But the next one could be a lot worse. I think the message I’d like to get out to the world, it’s really time to get serious about building this alternative, building this Game B so that when the next one occurs, there really will be a place to go to away from the rat race and to build this closer to the earth, closer to our neighbors, strong links, reciprocity-based civilization that isn’t driven by, can I squeeze the last nickel out of every dollar?
Bonnitta: Yep. Yeah. I mean I think that from two different perspectives, one is I think we’re a long way from the whole kit and caboodle to change. But I think that if we change our design approach, I see that this is much more doable if we move to parallel systems. So if we take essential goods and services off of domain currency, I don’t see that as being a big deal. Actually, I mean we don’t want to get into the details here because I actually also disagree that the only thing that’s driving these incredibly complex supply chains are efficiencies. I think the efficiencies are manufactured. The drive to efficiencies are manufactured by the structure of the financial system itself. So, yes, if you’re running a company, you’re forced to enter this game of efficiency. But that’s because the subsidies in the larger financial system make these long supply chains more efficient than short supply chains.
Bonnitta: It’s a manufactured imperative for efficiency at the corporate level. This is another big thing that I think insight that people need to know. The reason why that is that the financial system is structured that way is because if you’re growing chickens in the US and you’re shipping them to China and then they’re coming back, what happens is the financial global financial system, GDP in the US is something like 30% of just finance on finance now. It’s because the more transactions that happen, the longer and more complex the supply chain, the more points at which you can extract value. So the system needs these long, convoluted, complex supply chains in order to extract value, so they subsidize.
Bonnitta: The system subsidizes movements in such a way so there are more changes of hand to get the chicken back to your plate. And then those subsidies make it look like it’s more efficient to do that. But that’s because it’s a structured inefficiency. This is what I truly believe. I think that it’s a big part of how we get from here to there faster. I think that the illusion that long supply chains are more efficient, that we actually pull that off, is a big illusion that has got us stuck. I’d love to talk to you about that someday.
Jim: Yep. That’s a great distinction because it is efficient in the measure of money on money return.
Jim: But only in that dimension. And as this whole thing is showing us, it’s efficiency that’s traded off against resiliency and robustness. There’s nothing in the money on money return that says we should have had a 20 billion face mask supply for the inevitable pandemic. The efficient supply chains of Johnson & Johnson do not send that signal. Somebody else, some social system has to send that signal. That’s where we’re broken. Well, Bonnitta, I think let’s leave it at that. That’s probably the number one takeaway.
Bonnitta: We did a lot.
Jim: We did a lot. This has been wonderful. This was every bit as good as I thought, and I had high expectations as I always do when I interact with Bonnitta, one of the smartest, savviest, biggest-hearted people I know. So thank you for being on the show.
Bonnitta: One day we’ll meet, Jim, and we’ll give each other a good post-coronavirus hug.
Jim: Well, very good. Thank you again.
Bonnitta: Thank you so much.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.