James Kaelan in Lone Pine.
Photo by Blessing Yen

Meet the L.A. Man Building an Escape Pod from Capitalism

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Local creative James Kaelan has plotted a potential solution to leave behind our current economic system. It starts with storytelling.

Unemployment nationwide has reached an all-time high. The timeline for when many of us will go back to work remains a giant question mark. Meanwhile, headlines projecting Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as a soon-to-be trillionaire have recently surfaced (once again) in publications like CNBC and Forbes. Is it any wonder that as the COVID-19 pandemic exposes more and more cracks in society, doubts about our current economic system sharpen? And as employment prospects disappear and the economy becomes increasingly dire — it’s difficult not to wonder what life would look like if we didn’t have to depend on a job to maintain our livelihoods.

James Kaelan has been thinking deeply about topics like this for the past several years. The El Sereno resident is currently at work on a project dubbed “Escape Pod: Eject from Capitalism >> Survive the Landing.” Escape Pod is a hybrid newsletter and Medium account leading toward an eventual book that, according to Kaelan, will explore sweeping questions like: What is capitalism? Did capitalism have to suck? And finally, how would we live if we didn’t have to “work for a living”?

Once we can agree on the problem, we can start working on the solution. Or rather, thousands of different solutions.

James Kaelan

The project is rooted in storytelling and insights filled with academic rigor, but it’s also an action plan. At the heart of Escape Pod is an eventual pilot community project. Kaelan is not one to sit around and simply mull over a project — he jumps into action.

The California native has worn the hat of producer, filmmaker, novelist and journalist. He’s the co-founder of the L.A.-based Seed&Spark, a platform for crowdfunding and distributing films, which helps hundreds of independent filmmakers make movies every year. His films, performances and virtual reality projects have been showcased at the likes of Sundance, Cannes, Tribeca and the AFI Fest — and helped make him a bonafide L.A. “it guy.” His first novel, “We’re Getting On,” published in 2010, was featured on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine.

“To promote the book, I had this idea to make it regenerative and to actually print the first edition on a seed paper cover that, literally, if you planted it into the ground, it would grow into a tree,” he says. “And I decided I would go on a bicycle book tour, and I rode my bike from Los Angeles up to Seattle to promote it.”

His book touches on many questions that lead to Escape Pod. “It’s about people deciding to deliberately regress backward through human evolution,” Kaelan says. “They wanted to remove themselves from the technological march and get back to some sort of blank slate to build back up from. It’s an idealistic premise that becomes an ill-fated misanthropic disaster. But it also was me scratching at the same stuff that I’m scratching at now, only I have a much clearer and much more positive vision of a potential future despite the fact that, currently, things are so much darker.”

Curious to consider some actual solutions for getting out of today’s societal and economic despair, I sat down with Kaelan. Our conversation centered on his vision for what dumping capitalism might look like — and whether the utopian ideals of reinvention that Los Angeles thrives on have been completely squashed altogether.

Tell me about the Escape Pod tagline, “Eject from Capitalism >> Survive the Landing.”

What I’m aiming for with that tag is just because capitalism is awful, don’t fetishize its antithesis. Soviet communism? Also terrible. The Politburo in Moscow not only brutally suppressed dissent, it also favored industrial-powered economic growth that polluted the planet. So whatever “escape pod” we build to “eject from capitalism,” we also need to make sure that all our passengers survive.

James Kaelan in Lone Pine
James Kaelan, the creator of Escape Pod, camping in Lone Pine, California. Photo courtesy of his wife and co-collaborator Blessing Yen.

So what set you on this path?

Up until about five years ago, I’m embarrassed to say, I was a run-of-the-mill “liberal.” Definitely way left of centrist, but still solidly in the things-aren’t-perfect-but-they’re-getting-better Obama camp. But around the fall of 2015, as the presidential primary race was heating up, I read two books back-to-back that pulled the rug from under my feet ideologically. The first was “Superintelligence,” in which Nick Bostrom makes a very convincing case that capitalism plus artificial intelligence equals a horror show. The second was Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.” Their thesis is pretty blunt: “Neoliberalism has failed, social democracy is impossible and only an alternative vision can bring about universal prosperity and emancipation.”

At the time, I was making films and working at Seed&Spark (whose mission I still deeply believe in). But “Superintelligence” and “Inventing the Future” — and later, Ellen Meiksins Wood’s “The Origin of Capitalism,” Roy Scranton’s “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Paul Mason’s “PostCapitalism” and Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” — opened a portal for me. And suddenly, everywhere I looked, I saw the incorrigible injustices of our infinite-growth-driven economic system.

But also, the more I read these primarily diagnostic texts —”This is why the world is fucked … ” — the more I wanted solution-minded storytelling. Once we can agree on the problem, we can start working on the solution. Or rather, thousands of different solutions. But most of the authors I was encountering — besides Ursula K. Le Guin — weren’t describing viable future societies. So that’s why I started Escape Pod. It’s my attempt at a solution. First, it’s a distillation of the research that brought me to my worldview. Second, it’s the blueprint for how we might be able to live well, without jobs, in harmony with the planet.

If we’re tempted to leave our cities to seek nature — and I know I am — we need to focus on converting our cities back into natural spaces. But that’s actually what Griffith Park already is. That’s what Ernest E. Debs Regional Park is. That’s what La Tuna Canyon is. Little windows into un-paved Los Angeles.

James Kaelan

How has being an Angeleno influenced your thinking for Escape Pod? Is L.A. a window into a utopian or dystopian future?

I think it’s both! L.A. right now is utterly unsustainable. We import all our water, which makes us especially vulnerable to drought. Even though our air has been better during quarantine, we’re plagued by pollution — in no small part because we still lack adequate public transportation and our streets remain mostly hostile to cyclists. Also, we have more unhoused people in our county than Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Japan and South Korea combined.

Los Angeles should and could be a laboratory for truly radical solutions. In CA-34, the congressional district that stretches from Skid Row up to Eagle Rock, you’ve got David Kim running for Congress on a platform of universal basic income, “Medicare for All” and a Green New Deal. Meanwhile, in L.A. City Council District 4, Nithya Raman is running to end homelessness and stop the climate crisis.

It’s thrilling to see mega-progressive candidates advancing past the primaries to the general election. We have enormous problems to tackle, but we also have the wealth — and are gaining the public will — to solve them. It’s an exciting time because the opportunities are enormous. If we’re successful, we can export our learning around the globe and maybe save humanity. But it’s also a terrifying time for the same reasons. The price of failure is enormous.

What do you think L.A. might look like if it did, indeed, eject from capitalism?

I’m actually not sure I’m ready to answer that. And part of the reason is Escape Pod isn’t about passing new legislation to address the innumerable brutalities of capitalism. That’s what David Kim and Nithya Raman are for. Escape Pod is quite a bit more radical.

My answer to the “What does the sustainable future look like?” question is: A node — a fully self-sustaining micro-community of fewer than 150 people — that can then be linked with a bunch of other nodes to make a durable network. Escape Pod is, to borrow André Gorz’s term, a “non-reformist reform.” It rejects the hegemony of existing limitations — political gridlock, market-based economics — in order to seek a solution that makes people happier without destroying the earth.

A durable network of self-sustaining nodes — can you expand on that?

For sure!

To over-simplify, Escape Pod seeks to remove the means of subsistence — food, shelter, clothing, medicine and essential tools — from the market and replace wage labor with other meaning-generating activities. Every node, every Escape Pod, must eventually be able to grow its own food and manufacture its own clothing and durable goods. And if that sounds extremely inefficient, you’re right. Or, you’re right if the goal is to perpetuate our utterly unsustainable consumption habits.

But the planet won’t support 7 billion people buying and discarding shit at the rate Americans currently consume. So, part of Escape Pod is looking at how to locally generate and recycle the means of subsistence — think 3D-printing with reusable resin or even metal alloys and indoor vertical farming, among other technologies.

And the other side of the coin is cultural. We’ve been conditioned to want a lot. So you can’t just ask people to want less. You have to give them a framework in which wanting less actually makes people happier. That’s a bigger hurdle than democratizing the tech, in my opinion. But at the same time, it’s easier! Changing people’s minds just requires telling a different story in a really compelling way.

You mention in your essay “The Thrill of Endless Progress” that “our behavior is our responsibility.” Can you expand on that?

In that essay, my goal was to acknowledge my own culpability in hypercapitalism, in climate change. Pointing the finger at someone else lets me off the hook. It’s easy to blame Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and JPMorgan Chase billionaire Jamie Dimon for ruining the planet. They have a lot more influence on the economy than I do. But we make them powerful.

As I say in the essay, “So long as we’re doing the labor, buying the products, and electing the representatives who make the laws, our behavior could have a monumental, positive influence on the health of the planet.” The reason we continue to speed out of control is because we’ve “constricted the definition of ‘happiness’ down to: go to a good college, get a good job, buy a nice house, have some kids who aren’t too addicted to their screens, and get them into good colleges so they can get good jobs.”

“Amazon Board Meeting,” a film by James Kaelan questions Jeff Bezos’ post-capitalism.

If that’s our paradigm, we’re going to continue making terrible choices. Yet to actually change the paradigm, we have to dig way down to the root of what truly makes our lives meaningful. Do our jobs make our lives worth living? Or have we confused the paychecks we earn, or used to earn before we all got laid off, with the food, the medicine and the shelter they allow us to purchase on the market?

Well, what if the means of subsistence — food, water, clean air, shelter, medicine — were guaranteed rights, rather than privileges you had to earn? At least in this country, we already have enough calories, enough cloth, enough square footage of roof, to support everyone. What if we could redevelop a cultural narrative of gratitude for that abundance? Our “economy” might constrict. But maybe that’s actually the goal.

I know quarantine has forced a lot of us to look closely at our day-to-day lives, maybe for the first time ever. Are we really going to tolerate traffic when lockdown ends? Has COVID made you want to move out of L.A.? Somewhere with more nature?

There’s more nature in L.A. than we give it credit for! Especially as you go north. The Santa Monica Mountains are wild. The San Gabriels are wild. From my house in El Sereno, you can get out of cell range up Highway 2 in half an hour.

Also, nature reasserts itself in every patch of dirt in the city if you let it. My wife, Blessing, has been gardening since we moved in three years ago. But in the last six months or so, she’s been reintroducing native plants to our yard. And we stopped trimming our elm. The birds are coming back. The soil is starting to regenerate. It actually takes an enormous amount of work to keep L.A. inert. It might be desert, but it wants to grow things.

Also, to the question of leaving, I think one of the biggest parts of the sustainable future is recycling what we’ve already built rather than abandoning it to build something new. If we’re tempted to leave our cities to seek nature — and I know I am — we need to focus on converting our cities back into natural spaces. But that’s actually what Griffith Park already is. That’s what Ernest E. Debs Regional Park is. That’s what La Tuna Canyon is. Little windows into unpaved Los Angeles.

So many of us are just in survival mode. We can’t even think about a new way of living right now, especially in the middle of trying to adjust to this “new normal” of COVID-19. Do you have any suggestions for small ways to start “ejecting” from capitalism?

I feel like I’m still so enmeshed in the system that most days I can’t really imagine escaping. Which is why I’m working toward a small-scale-but-holistic hypothesis with Escape Pod.

But I’m all about even temporary reorientation. And you know what really helps you get in touch with a slower, more contented, less injurious way of living? Camping — or even spending a day trip in nature.

Blessing and I went up last weekend to Lone Pine and pitched a tent by a stream right in the shadow of Mt. Whitney. Did we grow all the food we ate? No. Did we burn a lot of gas driving up to Inyo County? Yes. But we cooked over a fire fueled by dead wood we collected. We didn’t watch any shows on Netflix or listen to any music on Spotify. We hiked. We scrambled over boulders. We watched the bats hunting insects at dusk. And the world was, quite literally, simpler. Were we self-sustaining? Not in the least. But we got a little glimpse of how little you actually need to be happy.

And that’s how the revolution starts.

Los Angeleno