Leadership and the Environment


256: Why Personal Action Matters

Ep. 256

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.

More Episodes


350: Jonathan Herzog, part 1: A candidate acts with genuineness and authenticity

Ep. 350
I haven't taken political stance because I am working to removing wedge-ness from environmental policy. I'm working for people to see laws about how people affect others through the environment as we view traffic laws. We don't see red lights as red tape or bureaucrats telling us what to do. They make our world safer even if they slow us down sometimes. One day we'll see keeping mercury out of fish and other pollution similarly.I met Jonathan in person practicing democracy---gathering signatures in my neighborhood. I learned of him after meeting Andrew Yang, whose candidacy I valued.Last year I heard Andrew Yang speak and liked his message enough to read his book, The War on Normal People, and learn more about universal basic income. I listened to Andrew on several podcasts until I felt I understood what he was campaigning for and why. UBI, for example, has had centuries of support across the political spectrum. Who knew?I talked to Yang's campaign people about helping with their environmental platform. (I'll talk to any politician about their environmental platform, since they could all use help). One of the outcomes was meeting Jonathan, gathering signatures a block from home. I like people acting in my world with passion, genuineness, and authenticity. Read Yang's book to learn the platform and what's driving it.In a tradition of successful people, Jonathan had left Harvard before finishing to support Yang's campaign, then to run himself in New York City's 10th district, where I live. He cares. He also acts personally on the environment, as you'll hear in this episode.