Chuck Collins: Disturbing The Very Comfortable

The novelist David Foster Wallace once said, “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author Chuck Collins about his debut novel which centers on Big Oil and climate change. We talk about how he has channeled a life of privilege into a quest to raise awareness about wealth inequality, discuss what it was like to co-author with Bill Gates, Sr. a book advocating for taxing the rich, and explore the unique manner in which fiction reveals truth.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:31 Chuck Collins (CC) – You know, I do think we need images, we need visions of what it begins to look like to get our act together.

00:42 Narrator – The novelist David Foster Wallace once said, “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author Chuck Collins about his debut novel which centers on Big Oil and climate change. We talk about how he has channeled a life of privilege into a quest to raise awareness about wealth inequality, discuss what it was like to co-author with Bill Gates, Sr. a book advocating for taxing the rich, and explore the unique manner in which fiction reveals truth.

01:23 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Chuck Collins. Chuck is the director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he co-edits, and he’s also an author and his debut novel is entitled “Altar to an Erupting Sun.” Chuck, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:45 Chuck Collins (CC) – Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

01:48 Alex Wise (AW) – Why don’t you first tell us what motivated you to take a break from a lot of these more real-world issues? You’re a prolific writer in the non-fiction world and you cover a lot of inequality issues. What inspired you to dip your toe into the fiction waters here with “Altar to an Erupting Sun?”


02:12 Chuck Collins (CC) – I have written a number of other books and I look back on some of the earlier ones and I sort of feel bad about what I inflicted upon my readers because they’re they’re kind of boring and what I enjoy reading and what I often delve into his story, whether it’s good nonfiction, narrative or fiction I found fiction is kind of an entry point, a gateway into a topic, and so in this case I was interested in exploring sort of how is it we face this impossible news of sort of the ecological crisis we’re living through, and how does a community face it? And what’s a vision for how we might turn the corner toward survivability. And that that seemed to lend itself to fiction. So, and I just had this story and some characters kind of knocking on my inner door. So I felt a desire to write it as a as a fictional story which gave me a lot of freedom to envision the possibilities for the future.

03:14 Alex Wise (AW) – So you have an interesting back story and they always say that you’re supposed to write what you know, and this seems to have an autobiographical bent to it “Altar to an Erupting Sun.” Why don’t you give us a little bit of the back story of Chuck Collins?

03:31 CC – Well, you’re right. You can only really write what you know. And I have drawn on my life experiences. But there’s quite a bit I sort of had to research and develop that that I didn’t live through, but that the experience of my main character, Rae Kelleher, was one of being formed. By social movements that she was part of, she also grew up in the Midwest. I grew up in the West, she grew up working class. I grew up privileged, but that, that’s a difference. But she was very early on, involved in the clamshell lines, which was a movement to try to keep a nuclear power plant from being built in New England. She was involved in going to Central America in the 1980s, like a lot of thousands of people, did visiting and working in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala kind of learning about the impact of US foreign policy. And she got involved in learning about climate change and efforts to try to stop fossil fuel pipelines and those sort of things. So those I have some overlap there and I shared the some of the experiences that that my protagonist Rae goes through, but it’s in some ways it’s a story about how formation shapes us, not just mentors or people, but books and social movements that sort of had an impact on who we are and what it is we do.

05:02 AW – And the book starts in 2023 and it bops around a little bit in the 21st century, but it ends in 2030. You call this the critical decade and we’re 1/3 into it already. From a policy standpoint, what are some of the critical issues of our time beyond just buying an electric car?

05:25 CC – Right. I mean, I think the reason for the short future time horizon is we really do need to turn the corner. So this is the critical decade as my character, Rae Keller says, you know, we’re the first generation to fully understand the impact of humans on the climate and the disruption to the future, and we’re the last generation that can actually do anything to influence the trajectory. We need to do it, scientists say. You know to stay within the sort of 1.5 degree centigrade safety threshold we really need to rapidly transition away from the current levels of the mission. But I think the challenge is for any of us, we’re sitting here thinking, well, our political system looks entirely incapable of responding to this challenge to the ecological challenge, I mean, even as part of the debt ceiling debate that Congress just went through, they passed an agreement that included construction of a new gas pipeline in Virginia. So the fossil fuel industry has so much power to shape the political environment right now, it just seems almost impossible to imagine. How we’re going to pull this off, where we have some sense of agency. And you know my main character, Rae Kelleher, lifelong environmentalist, lifelong activist. Toward the end of her life, and this is not a spoiler alert, but she becomes. She learns she’s terminally ill she learns, you know, as Daniel Berrigan has said recently, that his checkout date is coming. Soon, and she decides to take her own life and the life of a CEO of a fossil fuel company who she blames for blocking our chances in terms of, you know, addressing climate change. And that’s comes out of that sense of powerlessness and a sense that there’s very little. We can do and that the game is rigged. But in fact, I think what the book is also trying to do is lift up. It’s not, it’s not making the case for violence. It’s actually making the case for bold thinking about where we’re at and what we should do, particularly in relation to the fossil fuel industry, with its tremendous power.

07:47 AW – Yes, it’s a morally ambiguous bargain that one who cares deeply about the environment faces every day. We make so many choices as consumers, as just citizens. But delve a little bit more into the conundrum you must have faced in creating a character that was radical and violent, but had values that aligned very much with yours.

08:14 CC – Yeah, I think the part of part of the you know the, the, the book starts with this action, it’s it’s at the very beginning, then it jumps forward seven years to you know, what’s the impact and what’s the considerable negative blowback as a result of raise action. And we see the criminalization of dissent and the suppression of legitimate. We also see kind of a more of a laser focus on the role of this fossil fuel industry. So there’s sort of a lot of downsides to our action and some possibilities. But I think that part of the what’s interesting I think for hopefully for your readers and listeners is race starts off like a lot of us with the sense of like, well, aren’t we all responsible for climate change? I mean, particularly people who live in the global north and who are have a middle class or affluent lifestyle, aren’t we all responsible? We’re just the we’re the users, not the dealers. But we’re helping drive this and that’s really how she sort of starts. And because of her life experience working and volunteering in Central America, she has this sort of global understanding like, well, these are the folks who burn the least amount of carbon in methane and yet are suffering the worst consequences of climate disruption and the rest of us need to step it up and be take responsibility. But as she grows older, she starts to really understand the power dynamics, the systemic nature, that it’s not about whether you, Alex, go out and get a green vehicle or, you know, ride your bike to the store instead of driving. You know, I mean, individual behavior matters a lot here. But in terms of the drivers of the of the situation we’re in, the climate that the fossil fuel industry has used its for 40-50 years, has used its power to fund science denial and delay. Any response and block alternatives and run out the clock. And so she as she grows older and she, she becomes a little more, she becomes deeply understanding this and kind of starts to believe that these a couple dozen corporations, their leaders are personally responsible, so she sort of gets into this into her this mindset.

11:03 (Music Break)

11:52 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author Chuck Collins. In addition to writing, Chuck is also the director of the Program on Inequality and the common good at the Institute for Policy Studies. So Chuck, quickly, why don’t you tell us what the Institute for Policy Studies is all about?

12:11 CC – Yeah, we are almost 60 year old research and advocacy policy think tank and action oriented group. We work with social movements, environmental justice, anti militarism, racial justice work. I focus on the work around the extreme inequality of income and wealth that’s emerged over the last couple of decades, and the intersection at times with climate disruption. So during the pandemic we we did a lot of research on how billionaire wealth was surging while the rest of us. We’re sequestering and we just did a report on the impact of private jets and how we as taxpayers subsidized the private jet travel of the super wealthy as well as the ecological impact of private jets. So we do a wide range of things. And then we have a weekly publication that comes out every Monday called newsletter. And so anyway, people should check out and see the the work we’re trying to do to address extreme wealth inequality.

13:16 AW – So Speaking of the private jet set, when I asked you about your journey and as a younger man,  you grew up, as you mentioned, privilege. Why don’t you explain the ethical dilemma that you faced as a young man and how you acted on it?

13:33 CC – Yeah, I mean, I I kind of think of myself as born on third base.

13:38 AW – Yes, you wrote a book called Born on Third base, right?

13:40 CC – I wrote a book called “Born On Third Base,” which is kind of about the experience of growing up and kind of winning the lottery at birth, inheriting wealth But at the age of 26, I decided to give away this inheritance I had so, but I it let me understand how multi-generational advantage works. Like what happened, you know, my grandparents, great grandparents, that the wealth and opportunities and advantages just kept flowing my way. So it the book board at third base is sort of about how privilege and advantage works on a personal basis and what to do about it but it gave me a kind of a front row intimate front row seat into the industry that helps wealthy people accumulate more money, avoid taxes, pass it on to their children. You know, that was a topic of another book I did called “The Wealth Hoarders: How billionaires paid millions to hide trillions,” but it was really about what I call the wealth defense industry. The accountants and tax attorneys who help the Super rich hide their money.

14:46 AW – Yes, you’ve been pretty proactive in trying to defend the inheritance tax in this country, right?

14:53 CC – Yes, we have a very weak inheritance tax that we call the East State tax and it’s almost voluntary. Now at this point for the ultra-wealthy because they are able to hire these tax attorneys to create trusts and shell companies and move money offshore in the in the whole bit so. You know that’s where the vast treasure has gone. We estimate some $40 trillion is hidden very in various mechanisms, you know, wealth that’s owned and controlled by the richest billionaires and sent to billion sent to millionaires in our society.

15:32 AW – And yet, the estate tax apparently, is a winning political topic for the Republican Party. If you watch a Republican debate at any level, you’ll hear people who are never going to be affected by the estate tax nodding their heads to repealing this very slim but what would be as you just mentioned, a super effective way to fill our country’s coffers is to tax the rich in the and to try to at least put in some kind of measures to collect for the common good from a multi generational wealth system.

16:13 CC – You’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s interesting, even taxing the wealthy is extremely popular right now. People understand that the super wealthy are not paying their fair share of taxes, but the estate tax is still a bugaboo. What they call the “death tax.“

16:28 AW – And that’s kind of framed in such a way that it sounds like, well, “why should I pay to die?”

16:33 CC – And they did a good job. They made a substantial investment in the 90s and, you know, in discrediting and making everybody confusing everybody and thinking that you and your mother are going to have to pay the estate tax when in fact, at this point. If you have less than $22 million, chances are you’re net never going to pay an estate tax. So for listeners who are concerned about the death tax you’re gonna get to keep your first 22 million before you even have to think about the tax. So anyway, it’s a distraction and a deflection. But you know, we try to make the argument that well, not only should we have an inheritance tax, we probably should have a wealth tax. We probably should tax income from wealth at the same rate or higher than income from work. Right now, we tax work at higher rates. So yeah, that’s a big part of my day job is is making those arguments and and working on campaigns at the state and local level to address wealth inequality as well.

17:33 AW – And you were probably getting to this, but I interrupted you, but you Co wrote a book with Bill Gates’s dad, Bill Gates senior on this topic called “Wealth and our Commonwealth.”  What was that like working with the father of one of the world’s wealthiest men on this topic, which must be first and foremost in this man’s brain from dawn till dusk?

17:57 CC – Bill Gates, Sr, he passed to the other side about a year and a half ago. He was a great guy, very active civic leader. He had a house near the University of Washington campus, which enabled his son Bill to go over and geek out, you know, while he was in high school and really learn about computers. So, but yeah, he was very supportive. He really believed that having a tax on inherited wealth was a good thing. It was good for the country to not have great concentrations of wealth and power, and yeah, he wrote, he wrote and called me one day and said, “I hear you’re working on a campaign to defend the estate tax. How can I help?” And I had to kind of keep my cool that moment and think, OK, the father of the he was the wealthiest man in the world at the time, like in the year 2000. He wants to join this cause, how do we how do we use this, his talents and skills so one of the things we did was we wrote a book together, we traveled, we went on the road promoting a book about why America should tax inherited wealth. And you know, I think it had an impact it kept Congress from actually abolishing the estate tax when they almost had the votes. To do it back in 2001.

19:18 (Music Break)

20:05 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Chuck Collins, his debut novel is entitled “Altar to an Erupting Son.” So Chuck, let’s get back to the book. There are references in the novel to change happening in in a wider sense in a societal sense, but a lot of things happen locally there in, in Vermont, and you’re based in Vermont. How did you decide to juxtapose the local action versus these larger sweeping societal issues?

20:37 CC – Well, I think part of it is we’re all trying to figure out where do we have some agency to address the very likely disrupted future. We’re going to live through. So yeah, these are larger system problems that have to do with powerful actors. What is it we can do? And one of the things that Rae Kelleher, the main character in the novel figures out is we need to build a new food system. We need to create local resilient culture. We need to practice mutual aid. We need to welcome climate refugees and people coming from other regions who are who have been displaced, who are going to come to our region, those are all things that are. We have agency and control over. We don’t have to wait for government to act. These are things we can start to do and so part of the novel is a vision of how one community faces a disrupted future, including things like how did they think about death and dying. One of the aspects of the story. Rae Kelleher is like a Hospice worker death doula, and she’s very interested in sort of conscious dying and not having death, being a wholly medicalized. You know, how do we want our lives to end when our time comes – hopefully a long time from now? So she’s really interested in creating a new culture around death and dying. And that’s where the altar of the altar to an erupting sun comes from altars are one of her kind of spiritual and community practices. How do you honor? And remember, people who’ve come before, and how do we think about how we want to pass to the other side? So, so yeah, it sort of shows the concrete things that people are doing to. Live more in harmony with the Earth and prepare for whatever comes our way. Whether it’s a disrupted food system or weird weather events or climate catastrophe in various forms, how do you want to live in a society going through that?

22:54 AW – Yes, you, without being explicitly religious, you do refer to this process as discipleship. I like that word. Explain what that means to you and how it plays into the novel.

23:09 CC – I mean in a traditional religious sense, discipleship is how do you align your life with your values or religious teachings? And Rae has been shaped by tradition, traditional religion. She grew up Roman Catholic and was exposed to kind of the best elements of the Catholic worker movement. And she’s very steep in this the theology of a guy named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a German pacifist and theologian who wrote a book called on Discipleship and in the End participated in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was executed in a German concentration camp for that. So Rae is sort of thinking about, huh, is this a Bonhoeffer moment? And what does discipleship look like? But the other thing she says in in her journals, in her writing, is the farm where they live, they live kind of in a rural community. It’s kind of an eco village. People have very simple homes. They grow a lot of their own food. They have a lot of livelihoods that are sort of drawn from the land and the businesses in the community they’ve created. She says this is what discipleship looks like in the current moment, including, you know, welcoming the stranger hospitality for those who’ve been forced to flee their homelands. And that’s real. You know, a lot of us live in places in the northern part of the US, where we may get a net increase in climate refugees and how do we prepare for that spiritually and practically. And that’s something that Rae thinks about.

24:54 AW – In speculative fiction generally, an author chooses to go pretty far into the future so that they don’t get egg on their face. You’re looking at 2030 as our end point where let’s say somebody’s reading your book in 2028 (very possible) – a lot of these things that you’re speculating on won’t come true. So why did you decide to do that? I see some of the reasons, but it’s a gamble though, isn’t it?

25:23 CC – I guess so I, although I have to say I have a little bit of urgency like anybody who’s sort of reading the science and reading you know the entire new region of New England was engulfed in Canadian forest fire smoke last year last week or early June.

25:43 AW – Yes, you got a taste of what we’ve been experiencing the last four or five years here in California.

25:48 CC – And we think we’re kind of New England is a little immune from this, we always look out, look out to you all out West and think oh tough times ahead, drought and fire and all that well you know that that that is something we’re all going to be experiencing more. You know, I do think we need images. We need visions of what it begins to look like to get our act together. I think more people engaging in kind of resilient living building mutual aid communities, I see these things happening all around me. A new culture of death and dying, certainly the new food systems and not importing food, you know, no offense to California, but we in Vermont should not be importing food from California, except maybe almonds that we can’t grow here. But we should be regionally developing and relocalizing our economies and so some of what I play out over the next seven years are things that are sort of already in motion, but I’m imagining them going to scale. And yeah, it may not happen, but I sure hope it happens and part of expectant fiction or setting a vision for the future is hopefully you can we can lean into that vision a bit. Same with the parts of the book that look at the fossil fuel industry I envisioned 7 years from now, the fossil fuel. Industry has lost its power. Its power is beginning to diminish because people are organizing and pushing back against their power, they’re moving capital, they’re creating tribunals to investigate. The role of the fossil fuel industry and blocking alternatives, they’re creating new energy alternatives. We’re moving away from gasoline power. We are banning private jets. These are all things that actually could very much happen in the next 7 to 10 years, and I’m rooting for it and I’m working toward it.

27:50 AW – Chuck Collins is the author of many nonfiction works on wealth and inequality and his debut novel is entitled “Altar to an Erupting Sun.” Chuck, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 CC – Thank you, Alex.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, George Harrison, and Tom Freund. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.