Leadership and the Environment
256: Why Personal Action Matters
Why bother not flying if you're one person out of billions? Aren't you just missing out and suffering without meaningfully changing anything?
These questions flummoxed me for a while. The longer I act, the more I realize the answer.
Most people answer that little things add up or that it's like voting. I won't argue with those answers, but I think they're small effects. I've evolved since earlier episodes and my TEDx talk to find more important reasons.
This episode shares my bigger reasons for personal action: you learn to act environmentally the way you learn any activity: practicing the basics. Don't act and you don't learn. If you want to influence others and you don't do what you lead them to, you lose credibility. They'll follow your inaction more than your words.
Personal action doesn't guarantee they'll follow, but it gives you a chance. Without it, I don't see much chance at success. Would you take piano lessons from someone who can't play piano?
Here are some notes I used for today's episode:
Podcast: Do you ever go to the gym or some activity you've done enough to master, and someone new shows up and starts giving advice to people, beyond not knowing what they're talking about -- not even knowing they don't know what they're talking about?
If you don't act sustainably yourself, you don't know what you're talking about. I used to let slide comments that one person's actions don't matter. Then I learned to distinguish. Now I see personal action is essential. Would you take piano lessons from someone who can't play? You know the person at the gym or fitness activity giving advice who clearly doesn't know what he or she is talking about? That's most people talking about environmental action.
What it takes is not just an idea of what will lower emissions or produce less plastic. On the contrary, action leads to understand the issues. In particular, people's motivations, relevant emotions, world views. If people believe electric planes will solve airline emissions problems, no amount of data will influence them. We all have such blind spots. Our world is built on them.
Community motivates. If your community believes or practices one thing, changing it means facing community challenges. Experienced leaders know how to face and overcome those challenges, not engineers.
Creating a sustainability committee for my building and trying to get it to collect food scraps, a program New York City is bending over backward to help buildings do, the co-op board resisted for all sorts of reasons that experienced people could rebut with data. Still they resist. People laud me for taking over a year to fill a load of trash, but that personal change would be small compared to a building changing.
But community change requires knowing my results from my personal change or I'd give up. The challenge with the board isn't lack of facts. They aren't bad or backward people.
Because humans learn through experience and they lack experience, most people proposing solutions don't know what they're talking about. I met someone this morning who talked about how authentically and genuinely he, his company, and the company's famous founder-CEO committed to sustainability. Then, as we walked from the cafe where we met to his office, he ordered a coffee from a different cafe, which he got in a single-use disposable plastic cup, explaining to me that he skipped the straw, yet got a second plastic lid. This man has not experienced the personal change that leads to living authentically and genuinely. He's the guy at the gym who read a few books before going for the first time telling longtime regulars how to improve their form. A man telling a woman about pregnancy. A woman telling a man about being drafted.
Fitness, and sustainability, comes from practice, consistent refinement, and such. It is as much mental as physical and nothing substitutes for experience. Resilience, persistence, focus, empathy, compassion, and so on are the tools of the trade. Yes, you must start and end with science, systems thinking, and nature, but until you push yourself to where you find the joy, glory, simplicity, and value of acting sustainably yourself, you're talking gibberish.