Chellis Glendinning is writer and a psychologist specializing in recovery from post-traumatic stress. She is the author of Waking Up in the Nuclear Age (1987); When Technology Wounds (1990); My Name Is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (1994); Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy (1999, 2002); and Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade (2005). Off the Map won the National Federation of Press Women 2000 Book Award. I interviewed her by telephone in January, 2005.
Aric McBay: Can you tell us about the community where you are living now?
Chellis Glendinning: I live in the village of Chimayó, New Mexico. It is one of a number of villages, a village system, that was established in the 1700's and the 1800's. It was Spanish culture meeting an indigenous situation. But the people themselves were only partly Spanish. A lot of them were Mexican natives, and a number of Moors and Jews. Also there was intermarrying with Native people here in the Rio Grande Valley. And then there were also various people who were fleeing Europe, so there were Greeks, Irish, and other kinds of folk. What we call the result is Chicano, but it's a in fact a big mixture.
Each village has its own common lands that usually extend out from the village into the forest. So the setup is fairly archetypal the world around, and it's a setup of sustainable living with hunting, fishing, and small agriculture. I've been living here for more than twelve years.
AM: Can you tell us a little bit about the changes that have been happening recently in your village in terms of encroachments by the dominant culture?
CG: There's been a huge change. Such that the place is unrecognizable in a way because, in I'd say the last four years, around the turn of the millennium, the changes really started. And they all happened at once so it's hard to point to one thing. Before this, the old way was very much being lived and assumed. The old philosophy was part and parcel of every breath.
Then all of a sudden, we get the big freeway coming up from Sante Fe, we get the WalMart, we get the cell phones, we get the satellite dish. For the longest time it seemed like just one person in the village had a computer, and all of a sudden, computers became common. Right now we're just getting the Home Improvement, so when that thing opens it is going to be the end of traditional adobe architecture.
And also a lot of money that came in. So that there was new clothes, new cars, and everything changed.
AM: How are people psychologically reacting to some of the changes that you are seeing now?
CG: Well, it's very new, so that's hard to say. I think that that's something we can maybe talk about in ten years. I think that a lot of people are excited about the changes right now.
AM: Is mostly the young people who are excited about it, or is that something that spans across different ages?
CG: I think a lot of people are excited about it. For many young people, it's all they've ever known.
AM: What has the relationship of the people in your community been to the civilized people who have been increasingly encroaching over the last few decades?
CG: Well, one of the reasons why I really like living here - and I felt at home immediately - is because of the gut level mistrust of things that come in from outside.
An example is when some poor, unsuspecting bank - who did not realize that they were dealing with what we call El Norte - put an ATM machine in Chimayó.
It was out in a place that used to be a barn that had a kind of overhang. I can't think of the world in English but in Navajo it's cha-ah-o. It's got poles with a roof, cha-ah-o. A "carport"-type thing, I guess is the word. Only it wasn't made out of carport materials, it was made out of wood and brush from the forest. This was a place to where the horses from around in that area would always escape and meet with each other to hang out under the cha-ah-o. Well, this is the building where the bank decided to put the ATM machine. [Laughter]
They made that cha-ah-o thing the pull-up, so you could be protected from the rain or whatever. Not very much time went by before the guys in the village took their hunting rifles and shot the ATM to shreds. Just shot it to shreds! There was nothing left of it.
The bank just fled.
Another story is when the state come up here from the capital, Sante Fe, to put a dam in. And so they decided they were going to hire the local people from the village of Chimayó and also other villages nearby: Truchas, Córdova.
The people from the state said it was going to take about six months to do the project. Every day the guys would go up there, and this was just great, they had a job, they got money.
And they built things and whatnot, and at the end of the day they'd come back to the village and have dinner. Then in the dark of the night they'd go up there and burn down whatever it was that they'd built that day!
CG: There was a real distaste for anything coming in from the outside world. Which I'm very sorry to say has been seduced out of the people.
One of the first things that happened was that they brought in these cell phones, and they started putting towers up. It's not a tower that we have, a cell phone tower that spews microwave radiation out in 360 degrees. It's more like a relay, that's channeling radiation to the next tower.
It was put up right in our village. It's very obvious, and the act of putting it up was very obvious. But nobody did anything. I was the only one who seemed to be appalled at this thing. I had a lot of information on the health effects of microwave radiation. I can't fully explain what happened to that can-do attitude that was so prevalent before.
AM: So did you have television at this point? When the tower came in?
CG: Having technology was spotty in the beginning of my time here. Not everybody had a telephone. Very often if you called somebody you were calling the phone next door, and you would have to wait fifteen minutes while someone would go over and get them. Not everybody had a television. Not everybody had running water. Not everybody had a toilet. Certainly not everybody had a car.
I grew up in a time when the telephone numbers were things like "Fairmount one, oh-nine-hundred," "Yellowstone two, nine-five-seven-four," things like that. And then at a certain point, and I think it was in the seventies, they changed to all numbers.
I'm not bragging that this was a major Luddite act, maybe it was more an act of nostalgia on my part. But I thought, "Well, why don't we in our village," - because each village has its own unique telephone exchange - "why don't we go back to what '351' was before it got changed to all numbers?" I got these blank stares. All we really would have had to do was change the zeitgeist of three thousand people. But I got blank stares. It turned out that we didn't get phones in the village of Chimayó until the rest of the country had already changed to all numbers!
AM: I'm curious about some of the differences that you've observed from when you were - were you living in San Francisco before you moved there, or...
CG: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and went briefly to college on the East Coast. Then I went to Berkeley and lived in the Bay Area for twenty years. Then I moved here. I moved to another village first. So I was living in another village for about seven years.
AM: I'm curious about some of the differences that you've observed between people living in the Big Cities and people living in the communities where you are. And, in general what do you think makes the dominant society, civilization, so distinct from sustainable and indigenous communities?
CG: That is an incredible topic. I don't even know if I can bring words to it. Every time I go somewhere, like the Bay area, I cannot believe it.
Somebody picks me up at the airport, let's say, who maybe I've known for a long time. They look at me, and the basic difference is that I'm wearing jeans and cowboy boots, but who cares? They look at me and I look like I'm the same person I was before. And so they start talking to me the way that they talk to each other. And I have absolutely no idea what are talking about.
I have to negotiate a massive cultural shift. Now often these are radical people with whom I agree on a lot of things, people who eat health foods and are against the war in Iraq, and are feminists and all that. But there's this bottom line difference in their set of assumptions and experiences. After two or three days I can figure out what's going on. And then I can participate in their world. But they can't know where I'm coming from.
It's been a really interesting education for me in terms of how Native people have to interface with people from the dominant society. Clearly Native people feel like they're not being understood. Where they come from - what they know - is a separate reality.
I've taken living here very seriously. I've taken it as seriously as anything I've ever done in my life. In many ways I've been assimilated into this world.
AM: I lived under a tarp in a forest defense campaign out in the woods for about six weeks at one point, and I and the other people who lived there noticed that whenever we went back into the city it was a completely different - and really very unpleasant - experience to be in that environment. And that everyone behaved in a completely manner than we did in our little autonomous collective. And I can only imagine the changes that would occur after decades of living outside of that.
CG: I can make a stab at explaining what some of these things are.
AM: Please do!
CG: One thing is that life here is face-to-face. You know everybody. And if you don't know everybody, you probably know their family. This is not mass society.
Your experience is your guide. It doesn't matter that people here don't read books, so much, that many people have not been "educated" in the way that the dominant society defines what education is.
People know about things based on experience, or based on what the culture has given them. Let's take something like "psychology." People's understanding of what the human psyche is capable of and how to deal with is is highly honed. But the understanding is not abstracted, or in the same language that you learn at psychology school.
When people talk about basic human knowledge, it's often explained in terms of stories. And that's the lifeblood of village life - the stories.
There are workshops and classes and conferences on story-telling in the dominant society, but still, in a way, it's a thing outside of ourselves. But when you are living in a culture where story-telling is the way information is passed around, it becomes second nature. It is how people know things.
There's something very human-scale about this, because that's the way that were created to understand life. There's something very handleable about it. And also there are things that emerge from that.
For instance, when story-telling forms the basis for how people know and think, there's a lot of room for people to be themselves. Out in the dominant society there are rules; you're allowed to have a tear, but you can't burst out crying. Or you can't get angry.
In this world you can be however you're going to be. Life is viewed as a process. So if one day someone's out there shouting and screaming and tearing down the fence, the next day it's back to normal. It's no big deal.
If such a thing happened in suburbia, it would be all shameful, and perhaps the family would be tainted for generations to come.
In the village life where everything hangs out and life is viewed as a process, there's no disaster if somebody has some kind of an outburst.
AM: That's great!
CG: And also, in the dominant society, there's an emphasis on achievement. Individual achievement. We might surmise that - with the loss of the connectedness to other people, to the tribe, to the natural world and to sustainable life in the natural world, with the loss of all that, and with an arising economic system emphasizing the survival of the individual or the nuclear family unit - then individual achievement becomes the meaning of life. I was dating a guy who was a local farmer, and I asked him, "What do you want for the rest of your life?"
And he said, "I hope that nothing happens."
I was dumbfounded!
I was thinking, "Well I'd like to write a whole bunch more books and have an impact, you know."
But that was his goal: he hoped that nothing would happen, that the seasons would pass and he would go hunting and grow corn and take care of his horses. But that nothing really major would happen.
AM: That certainly indicates how people in the dominant culture seem to be driven by a deep dissatisfaction about their own lives. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about in terms of the difference between the dominant society and indigenous societies?
CG: By the way, I would call the world of northern New Mexico "land-based". There are Native people who preceded these folks and still live here. Even though the Chicanos share a lot of survival practices, there is a difference in terms of length of time of being here.
I could go on and on. What it means to raise a pig and kill it, what it means to go hunting, what it means to grow corn and use every single part of the plant...
There is something here that's a problem, though, and the problem is called envidia, envy. Surely it exists out in the dominant society, but people there don't identify it as a problem. And I always think "Well, these folks here are so close to a survival that was communal." It's relatively recent that some people here got more than other people. And the dominant society came and dangled things - and so some people do have more than others: more acreage, more cars, a bigger TV, nicer cowboy boots, more cows.
In envidia, if one person rises above the others, then everybody gets upset about it. And this phenomenon is viewed as a problem. But I see it as an outgrowth of the fact that somebody could get a bunch of new stuff or could become more famous than the others - and that's a result of the brush with the dominant society. Envidia is a symptom, really.
AM: I'd like to ask about some of the psychology of people in the dominant society. We know that people have a lot of psychological defense mechanisms that prevent them from recognizing the severity of our situation and the damage that civilization is causing to the planet and to communities. And that society at large has it's own mechanisms to encourage this ignorance. You write about both of these in your book When Technology Wounds. So my question is what does it take to break down these barriers so that people can honestly perceive and recognize what is happening? Or, in other words, what will it take for the majority of people in the world to recognize the destructiveness of the dominant culture?
CG: That's the question, isn't it?
AM: [Pause] OK.
CG: [Laughter] One thing I've learned by living here is how I just responded to that question.
AM: Yes,.well, that's fair!
CG: Yeah, I'm sure I could spout off but I don't feel any reason to. We've been grappling with that problem for a long time.
AM: So, on slightly more practical note, I think that we'd agree that people in the dominant culture operate on premises that are both false and absurd. Premises like "Human beings are separate from or superior to the rest of nature," or that "Progress, capitalism and technology are both good and inevitable." And I hope that as industrial collapse progresses people will increasingly question these assumptions. So, on a more pragmatic note, how can we help people to reorient themselves away from these harmful assumptions and towards the assumptions of healthy, ecologically sane communities?
CG: One of my assumptions is that the dominant society is dysfunctional at every level and within every one of its structures. It doesn't serve people. It doesn't serve life. It doesn't enhance connectedness or beauty or spiritual meaning. It's not even sustainable. Which doesn't mean that the healing spirit doesn't find a way to express beauty or connectedness, or aid in a million ways. It does, that's what is so miraculous. But the basic morals that we're living in, the social structures, the architectural structures, the way the road is, the way the transportation is, the way you get money - anything that you could bring up is dysfunctional.
Good people have been trying on so many levels for the longest time. When I was younger I thought "Oh, well, here's the answer. Oh, here's the answer." I had that kind of an attitude about the things that I engaged in. Not to say that they weren't really good things, I always picked really good ideas and projects - but whatever it was it always remained as a small thing in the world of the dominant society. It always remained as an "alternative."
I still believe that - whether you are offering workshops to people on racism, or you're a masseuse, or you're demanding the return of land that was stolen, or you're doing natural childbirth, or you're growing your own food, or protesting the war, or you're dismantling the microwave relay stations - no matter what, it's all crucial.
Maybe I could divide the important effects into categories.
In one category would be challenging the dysfunction, saying "No," attempting to reveal it or bring it down.
On the other side would all the ways in which to say "Yes." All the ways to reconnect. All the ways to love. All the ways to enhance healing. All the ways to reach out to others, and support others in their struggles.
AM: You know that I'm writing about "collapse," and so I think a lot about people's context within the dominant society - and about how that's going to be lost for an increasing number of people. I'm trying to think about things that we can do for them if that's something that we want to do, or if that's an option that's open to us.
CG: I think we all had a chance to think about collapse in the year 2000. It was acceptable to think about it. Which is interesting. Because before that you would really be viewed as a wacko if you talked about such a thing.
"What if you don't have any electricity? And you don't have any gas in your car? And neither does anybody else?" That's really about all you have to think about to imagine it. And then you have to think about what you're going to do about that. Each one of us has a different situation.
My well is electric, so one of the things that I had to explore as 2000 was arriving was if I could get a handpump for my well. And it turned out it would have been a really stupid thing to do because it's seventy feet down. The other thing was the river was about an eighth of a mile away. And so I was thinking, how was I going to haul water from the river? Or go to the river to use the water?
But somebody who lives in an urban apartment has another challenge. And so collapse is going to be different in different places.
AM: Some of my friends find the idea of collapse really terrifying, and that's certainly understandable. I suspect that they might emotionally feel that prospect of collapse more deeply than I sometimes do. Do you have any thoughts or advice for people who find collapse really frightening, on how they can deal with those those feelings of fear, and then think about what they might have to do?
CG: I think that the act of thinking about what you need to do could help. Get practical about it. Put thought into creating a system for yourself. And that system might have to do with the other people in your apartment building. Or it might have to do with wheelbarrows. Or it might have to do with walking somewhere and meeting people. Or it might have to do with fish in the bay. Think it through. Where are you going to be? What are you going to do? Be practical. My sense is that people can prepare, but that a lot of the rest is going to be invented on the spot.
The system, as dysfunctional as it is, is keeping us alive, you know? It is what we know. The human psyche is, I believe, built to mirror the environment. We were built to mirror the sky, and the wind, and the seasons, and then to relate to them in their language.
As a psychologist, my practice is with post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of mirroring the tribe and the human touch and the feeling of the wind and the animals, the psyche actually mirrors back the trauma, and becomes structured according to the trauma. Living in a society as we do - mass society, dysfunctional civilization - it's what we know, it's what we expect, it's how we believe that reality is. And so we have to inject ourselves with a different vision.
To begin with: how to get water. How to get food. How to deal with waste.
The puppy doesn't poop on the bed, you know. The teeniest little puppy knows that.
Back in the seventies and eighties, I was involved in the creation of a psychological process whose purpose was to get us out of denial and numbing about the nuclear arms race. It was called Despair and Empowerment, and it was a process for coming to terms with feelings so that people could face death. And therefore become active to stop the arms race. Maybe that same process could be applied to the current situation. But I'm feeling much more down-to-earth and practical about it. Today's challenge doesn't feel like a big psychological process. It feels like re-thinking how you are going to deal with water, food, and waste. And how your relationships are going to be arranged around those tasks.
AM: You talked about our minds mirroring back the world that's around us. I hope that as a lot of the industrial infrastructure and institutions are removed or become inactive, that people's minds will begin to mirror the localized communities they are creating, and begin to see the nature and living creatures and land wherever they are. How long does something like that take to happen? How long does it take for people to start to shift away from that institutionalized framework?
CG: [Pause] I don't think there's a single answer. People are going to go to what they know. For instance, I bet that a lot of people would end up hanging with the people in their churches, or their synagogues or their mosques or their sanghas. Other people might end up being in their apartment buildings. For some people it will just be completely, utterly chaotic. Some people may be caught in the subway. They may be far from home. They may have to deal with it where they are. What if you are an American soldier in Iraq, and for some reason the electricity stops working? Well, that's a different situation than me being in Chimayó. Some people will be in dangerous situations in terms of human contact. Some people will be in dangerous situations in terms of technology. They may be in danger because of something like in the BART system under the San Francisco Bay. And they are in a tunnel underneath water. You know?
CG: In the early days of the bioregional movement in the Bay Area, we were challenged to think about where we were. To think about "Where does the water come from?" Of course, people thought the water came out of the tap. "Where does it really come from? It comes from the Sierra Mountains." And to think about matters of sustainability, how the various Native peoples sustained themselves in the East Bay, in San Francisco, in Marin County. What were their ways? What kind of resources are there? In other words, basic questions of place. These are all good things to do.
When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1989 and Cuba was no longer getting aid they had to figure out how to survive. And now every single apartment in Havana has a garden.
During World War II, when all resources were being pinched inside the United States, there was a thing called the Victory Garden. It was viewed as patriotic for every single home to have a vegetable garden.
And then after the War, of course, the food corporations, and the unsustainable economy rose up again to make profit. And so then they pooh-poohed gardening and made going to the supermarket the new thing.
The other thing that you might want to have is medicine. I've always thought that the most valuable things that I have are my homeopathic medicines. Get your medicines together.
Speaking as a psychologist I'd say preparation will help people deal with feelings of fear.
AM: Ok, great.
CG: I'm sorry I can't give you more. I mean, we're just people! [Laughter] And we're dependent on this monstrous system. Most people are not in a good situation with this.
AM: Well, I think it's good for me actually, because it's helped to confirm some of the direction that I've already been taking, and the work that I've been doing on so far. I was worried, "Oh, I'm going to have to do all this elaborate research into psychology," to understand how people might respond in that situation.
CG: Crisis brings out the worst and the best. But nobody knows who's going to be which way, you know? Clearly there will be marauding people. Hungry, marauding people. Maybe with weapons. That will happen in some places. And in some places people will pull together.
Did you see the issue that Adbusters put out?
AM: I saw some content on their website, I haven't read the physical one. What did you think of it? You've read it?
CG: I actually have a piece in there under another name. It's smaller than I wrote it originally. I pretended that I was from suburbia. This exercise in imagination gave me an opportunity to think about what you would do if you were in that situation. I found myself thinking about systems that people could use. I had this idea of turning the football field into a massive community garden. And hauling water in different things that were made for other activities, like shopping carts and garbage bags and children's wagons. I imagined that the cheerleaders from the high school had gotten together and put what they knew about communicating in groups - which is an area of expertise for teenage girls - and they came up with a ritual that bonded everybody together.
But I also got a chance to think about the psychological stuff. There's a wonderful book written in the fifties by a psychiatrist named Martha Wolfenstein. It's called Disaster. There's an awful lot being written about post-traumatic stress in today's world because trauma is so prevalent in our lives at this point. But this was written earlier.
She'd done studies of communities that had gone through things like floods or fires, and she came up with an overview of what happens to a community when there is a disaster.
Even if it's non-violent, a disaster is a break with people's assumptions about reality - and where help comes from. Collapse of social and technological systems is clearly a case where we won't be sitting around waiting for the Red Cross to show up. The job of helping is going to fall upon us. To be the Red Cross, to be the police, to be the ministers, to be the mothers, to be the fathers, to be the ceremonialists, to be the farmers, everything.
If I can think of things that already exist, I would have to say that co-counseling would have a role to play.It was founded in the sixties, as a radical approach to psychotherapy. The idea was that you don't have to go to a therapist and you don't have to pay money. Co-counseling is a way for people to do it themselves. It's not "real" psychotherapy in the sense that you pay a psychotherapist is because a psychotherapist knows something about how psyches are structured; there is an expertise.
But there's an incredible wisdom to co-counseling in that it's two people talking to each other. Each one takes the agreed upon period of time to talk and express feelings, and the other one listens. And then you turn it the other way around.
Another thing is to create ceremonies to bind people together and give them strength. For some people it might be the ceremonies they've always used. For other people, it may be a process that emerges that's egalitarian and reflective of the new predicament.
AM: I also think of Augusto Boal's "Theatre of the Oppressed" - I don't know if you've heard or read much about that?
AM: It seems like some sort of theatre or drama or public performance can also be really useful for binding people together, and also for exploring feelings and relationships in a community.
CG: Yes. Great.
AM: Are there any other books or resources that you wanted to recommend or suggest?
CG: Well, my first book is called Waking up in the Nuclear Age, and that is a description of the psychological process that we developed in the 1980s. Another book with actual exercises in it is a book by one of my colleagues named Joanna Macy, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age. She collected various practices that many different people had come up with.
Again, I don't feel very highfalutin about this. I mean, in contrast to other times in my life when I felt like, "This will really work." We're talking about the breaking apart of mass society. By its nature it's got to be human-scale process. It comes down to who you are with and what you are going to do. So it's hard to be highfalutin about it because it just comes down to everybody's ingenuity and strength - wherever they find themselves.