Slow Living Summit targets societal division

Keynote speaker: ‘We will not have a healthy climate without a healthy political, psychic, and spiritual one’

BRATTLEBORO — Charles Eisenstein can tell you about his environmentalist friend who insists the one and only solution to climate change - barring any thought or talk of all other suggestions - is a carbon tax.

“There's something in me,” he says, “that knows that can't be right.”

Eisenstein, author of four books on ecology and economics, doesn't doubt the science. But in a polarized world, he questions society's increasing tendency to stake out uncompromising positions.

“We will not have a healthy climate,” he says, “without a healthy political, psychic, and spiritual one.”

That's why Eisenstein, speaking May 31 to more than 100 people at downtown Brattleboro's Slow Living Summit, called for more open-mindedness and cooperation.

The eighth annual event - the educational precursor to the Strolling of the Heifers entertainment weekend - drew local and state experts on May 31 and June 1 addressing the theme “The Future of Farm and Food Entrepreneurship.”

As the great-grandson of meatpacker turned mogul Oscar Mayer, Chuck Collins said he had felt the privilege of the nation's rich.

“I grew up in the 1 percent,” the part-time Vermonter said. “My dad used to say 'bringing home the bacon' had a different meaning in our family.”

'Economic apartheid'

But as someone who has helped area mobile home residents buy their own park, the Guilford cabin owner said he also understood the problems of the country's poor.

“Real wages for half the population have been stagnant for 40 years, while most of the growth in income and wealth has gone to the top one-tenth of 1 percent,” Collins told summit attendees. “If we don't intervene to reverse these systemic inequalities, we are moving toward economic apartheid.”

Growing up in a leafy Detroit suburb with such schoolmates as Mitt Romney, Collins gave away his half-million-dollar trust fund at age 26 (it would be worth $7 million today) and now works at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank where he directs its Program on Inequality and the Common Good and co-edits the website

“I had this front row seat to wealth creating wealth, and then I got to have this front row seat on how inequality was affecting our neighbors,” he said. “I got to see how people were surviving - or not surviving.”

Collins recently published a book - “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good” from White River Junction's Chelsea Green Publishing - that calls for a ceasefire in the nation's class war.

“Younger people are feeling the brunt of this polarization, with deteriorating livelihoods, crushing debt, and stagnant wages,” he writes in it. “All these forces undermine excellence and opportunity - and the quality of life for everyone.”

The challenge, Collins says, is to convince those with money to care.

“We need to stand in solidarity against the rapacious rich,” he writes. “But to succeed, we need allies among the reachable wealthy. We must find ways to engage and invite the 1 percent home, back to the table, to be partners in transforming the future.”

Fixing a disconnect

Eisenstein, for his part, is aiming to unite people of all demographics. After President Donald Trump won election in 2016, Eisenstein appeared on Oprah Winfrey's “SuperSoul Sunday” program to push for less finger-pointing and more listening. He sees divisions everywhere.

“There's a disconnect between ecology and economy in our current system,” he told summit attendees. “A lot of people are wanting to bring those things into alignment.”

Yet Eisenstein is concerned many only want answers that come with statistical proof.

“The problem with basing policy on numbers,” he said, “is a lot of the things we need to do today are beyond the reach of our quantitative processes.”

Eisenstein, weary of one-size-fits-all solutions, urged attendees to seek individual answers, both in their heads and their hearts.

“The crisis is inviting us not to switch to another fuel source or find a more clever way to manipulate resources,” he said. “The call is a relationship with the planet that understands and sees the Earth as alive with worth and preciousness.”

Eisenstein, author of books including “The Ascent of Humanity” and “Sacred Economics,” points to disconnection as the reason for such problems as depression and addiction.

“We might be seeing an improvement in life in the ways we can measure, but in a qualitative way things are degenerating,” he said. “If we continue to degrade the planet, then even if we cut emissions to zero overnight, it will still die a death of a million cuts.”

“We are in the midst of a bigger revolution,” Eisenstein concluded. “We're not going to fix this planet with anything less than returning to world views in which we're not alone and the dominant power. We have to think in a different way: The well-being of all is part of my own well-being.”

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