cover art for 475: We Can Dance Around Environmental Problems All We Want. We Eventually Reach Overpopulation and Overconsumption

This Sustainable Life

475: We Can Dance Around Environmental Problems All We Want. We Eventually Reach Overpopulation and Overconsumption

Ep. 475

Have you ever tasted an heirloom tomato so delicious it was almost a religious experience? I used to think people who complained about supermarket tomatoes sounded full of themselves. How different can they taste?

Then I tasted heirloom tomatoes with so much flavor, I couldn’t believe my taste buds. The next time I ate a mainstream tomato it felt like eating wet cotton.

Do you know what they used to call heirloom tomatoes?

They used to call heirloom tomatoes tomatoes. Our post-industrial values of growth, efficiency, externalizing costs, comfort, convenience, and extraction turned something divine into something available year-round at an affordable price but a fall from grace to say the least. In the way that my rare sips of scotch today give me more appreciation of spirits than the larger quantities I drank of beer in college despite drinking less alcohol, my net appreciation of tomatoes is greater now, despite spending less overall on them and only eating them in season.

I mention this contrast for context.

Every day we read headlines about environmental problems. Deforestation, sea level rise, plastic in our bloodstreams, forever chemicals crossing the placenta, lead lowering our IQs.

We can dance around environmental problems all we want. We eventually reach overpopulation and overconsumption.

Everyone thinks reducing population means killing people and reducing consumption means reverting to the stone age. More like switching from binge drinking cheap beer or eating industrial tomatoes to appreciating scotch or experiencing preindustrial tomatoes.

Mainstream views, and, no offense but likely yours, are wrong on alternatives to both. They associate reducing overpopulation with the One Child Policy and eugenics, and the authoritarian, inhumane, and inhuman practices they led to including forced sterilization, forced abortions, and more. They associate reducing overconsumption with deprivation and sacrifice. We associate buying things with happiness and quality of life, so less must mean unhappiness and lower quality of life. If we don’t grow the GDP, people will lose jobs, we won’t be able to maintain our infrastructure, hospitals will close, mothers will die in childbirth, and 35 will be old age. Do you want to return to the stone age, Josh? Is that what you want?

But the alternative to overpopulation is lowering the birth rate, which many nations have done through purely voluntary, non-coercive means, mainly education, access to contraception, and the freedom to choose their family size themselves—the opposite of the One Child Policy or eugenics. These policies throughout the world brought health, longevity, stability, prosperity though voluntary means—the opposite of mainstream expectations. Frankly I thought that way too and couldn't talk about it until I learned of it happening all over the world. Until then, I thought if the cure is worse than the disease, I’ll take the disease. The last place I want the government is in the bedroom. As it turns out, globally, the government is in the bedroom, promoting larger families based on disproved economic myths, trying to coerce people into larger families. Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans have kept our population at replacement. The past few centuries since stumbling onto fossil fuels are the aberration that we’ve born into, erroneously seeing as normal. For the two to three hundred thousand years of human existence before agriculture, our ancestors lived longer, healthier lives than the past ten thousand years until living memory. And now we’re making ourselves sicker and dying earlier than our parents.

People associate consumption with quality of life. More stuff can improve life if you’re on the cusp. People you know imagine themselves cousins with such people eking out a living, as if they are like cousins or siblings. On the contrary, you and people you know are likely benefiting from their suffering and contributing to it. They are if they're using single-use plastic, flying, heating their homes too much in winter and cooling them too much in the summer. The alternative is joy etc. You and I aren’t on the margin. We have so much stuff, advertisers spend billions to make as want more because it doesn’t improve our lives.

Since Earth's carrying capacity without fossil fuels is, as best I can tell, about two billion, leveling off our population doesn’t move us away from the population collapsing. The solution is to copy what many people around the world have done—to choose to reduce birth rate globally to well below replacement and to consume less. If you heard classism, nationalism, sexism, or racism in anything I’ve said, you stuck it in yourself. Such preconceived notions aren’t helping anyone.

Reducing consumption and number of children in rich nations are easier physically, but people here are so entitled and spoiled that in our minds we think it's harder. We’ve lost the sense that technology has made us more dependent on it and less resilient. So we need to restore our culture—that is, role models, beliefs, images, stories—to historical ones including stewardship and Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. Nobody wants to be displaced from their land or have their air, land, and water poisoned.

I've reduced my consumption and waste from average American by over ninety percent, all improving my quality life. I have no kids, though I could still have one and be below replacement level. I doubt I'll have one because I couldn't look my child in the eye knowing what world is in store for him or her. Yes, if you’re a parent, I’m improving your kids’ future, possibly more than you. Yeah, I said it.

If you're like most people, facts, figures, logic, and instruction, however simple and sensical, won't influence your behavior. You'll change when about five people in your life do. So here are my changes:

  • I haven’t flown since 2016 by choice
  • I take two years to fill a load of trash
  • I’ve picked up litter daily since 2017
  • My monthly electric charges have been below $1.95 this year
  • I buy mostly local produce year-round, including winter. The major exception being dried beans, which I buy from bulk and are my main staple.
  • Last ate meat in 1990, vegan a big chunk of that time
  • I lead global leaders to change so I’m not acting alone, but working to change systems and culture

Now you know one person who lived like the average American, thought individual action wouldn’t make a difference, but voluntarily chose to live more simply and loved the results so much I’ll never return and only wish I’d acted sooner. Like you, I felt I needed to fly to make a living. My family is scattered around the world. Nothing about the change for me was any easier than for you, no matter how unique you consider yourself. So knowing my change, you're about twenty percent of the way to changing. Look for others and you'll change sooner. The number one predictor of someone installing solar on their homes is how many neighbors did already. Same with habits in eating, drinking, smoking, voting, and many other areas.

What about efficiency and decoupling? Aren't we reducing consumption and waste while increasing GDP? This is a quantitative case. Before doing the numbers, you could imagine it going either way. After doing the numbers, decoupling is a myth. Actually, more a scam, like recycling plastic and carbon offsets. We want to believe so we can cling to our old ways, but once you see the effects are the oppositive of your fantasies, it becomes overwhelmingly clear. If you make a polluting system more efficient, you pollute more efficiently.

We have been sold scam after scam by polluters. I doubt they mean harm, any more than an individual does when ordering takeout or flying. Systems often work differently than we expect, so they sound like they could work. The numbers matter. They don’t. Here are some of the scams:

  • The hydrogen economy
  • Future generations will solve what we messed up
  • Recycling
  • The closed loop economy
  • How we'll feed 10 billion people by 2050
  • Net zero
  • Carbon neutral
  • Electrify everything
  • Mars
  • Fission
  • Fusion
  • Decoupling
  • Demographic transitions
  • Carbon offsets
  • Geoengineering

They all sound like they’ll work. Asbestos worked. So did leaded gasoline and marketing cigarettes to children. Then we learned they killed people and we stopped them.

You probably suspected deep inside that carbon offsets were too good to be true. When you look at the systemic effects, they increase the problem. Same with fusion and all the others I listed. I have a PhD in physics, an MBA, and I’ve studied this stuff. Nobody wishes it worked more than I. I expected it would work as much as anyone. But they all accelerate the problems. To clarify: several of these actions could work as tactics within a strategy of lowering birth rate and consumption, but not as strategies themselves.

In practice, as a culture we do the opposite of the first term in "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," while taking false refuge in the third, accelerating Earth's degradation while feeling good about ourselves. We live the pattern in most of the points above, increasing our damage while telling ourselves the scam trend is helping. Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers. Contact me for sources. The indicators of our lowering Earth's ability to sustain life are all increasing, especially CO2, plastic, deforestation, extinctions, and forever chemicals like PFOA.

For generations we’ve known we were impacting too much and said later generations will fix it while buying into the latest scam trend to keep from the obvious. The tragedy is that the scams weren’t improving their quality of life. Research shows hunters and gatherers have higher qualities of life than most industrialized people outside the elite few percent.

They all promote thinking “not me, not now, someone else, some other time.” They all fail to change our pollution. When you hear them, expect them to lead you to think palliative thoughts: “Despite all the problems, you aren’t responsible, your pollution doesn’t count, keep buying, keep consuming, keep flying. Don’t change.” These scams accelerate our lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life. Only two things work: fewer kids, less consumption and its resulting less production.

If you want to pollute less, you have to change the system. Changing parts of a system won't do it. You need to change the system's values and goals from material growth to enjoying what you have and personal growth, from externalizing costs to taking responsibility for affecting others, from extraction to humility toward nature and honoring it, from comfort and convenience to the satisfaction of a job well done, and from efficiency to resilience. These new values aren’t new. They’re more fundamental for most of us but lost amid the advertising-driven craving.

Leaders change cultures’ values. You can choose to lead and act first. I can tell you from my experience and seeing others that you will love the change. Instead of loss, you'll save money and time, connect with your values, connect with nature. I’m not talking returning to the stone age. The opposite.

As I mentioned, heirloom tomatoes used to be called tomatoes. We can return to quality without losing modernity. We're seeing modern life decrease health, prosperity, and longevity. Eighty percent overweight and obese, millions dying from breathing air, tens of millions addicted to drugs, social media, Twinkies, and Doritos. My changes restore and increase health, prosperity, and longevity. Earth will host fewer people at a time, but more humans over the long future. Only they won’t barely survive in a poisoned, overheated hellhole.

My route leads to us living happier with a bit less stuff, better food, closer to family, less flying and shipping but more appreciation of our world and selves. What's so great about ten billion anyway? If we have to level off, why not a sustainable number? Two billion was more than enough to create Einstein and Mozart. A few hundred million produced Buddha, Jesus, Aristotle, Laozi, Muhammad, and the pyramids. We're overcrowded. A Buddha or Jesus today born to a favela might never realize his or her potential.

We can change that outcome. Most people focus on “one little thing you can do for the environment” or telling people how dire the situation. I won’t stop them, but they base their work on extrinsic motivation, often coercion ending up making people feel guilt and shame. I work with intrinsic motivation that is already inside you and unique to everyone. I don’t care if the first thing you do is big or small. I care that you care because if you do, you’ll find it meaningful. You’ll do it again. You’ll influence others. If you want to stop someone from doing something, a great way is to judge their first attempt. I do the opposite. I support after first listening.

I’ve taught many people what they’re now calling The Spodek Method to find your intrinsic motivation to act on the environment. You'll find when you do you want to act more. When you act for your reasons, you'll find meaning and purpose, independent of magnitude, and you'll want to act again. Soon enough you'll influence people around you.

The biggest change you can make is to lead others. It multiplies any other effect. To lead others you must first lead yourself. The Spodek Method does so. After you've led yourself, lead others with the Spodek Method.

My next book will teach it, as will upcoming courses. Or you can listen to me teaching it to one of my podcast guests, Jonathan Hardesty. I’ll put the link in the show notes. If you go to his third conversation with me you’ll hear me describe step-by-step how to motivate someone to share and act on their environmental values to create joy, freedom, fun, community, connection, meaning, and purpose. You can lead others through the method and they can lead you. You’ll love the experience and all it leads to. Leading others and teaching them to lead yet more others and to teach them to lead will transform culture.

We’ll restore the bounty of nature, where industrial tomatoes are a sad memory of humanity’s brief addiction to craving and tomatoes are tomatoes, unspeakably delicious.

More episodes

View all episodes

  • 734. 734: Alon Tal, part 1: Israel, Hamas, and overpopulation from a former Knesset member

    Last month I read Hamas-Israel story from an angle few will touch, but is critical: overpopulation, which I wrote about in my post Overpopulation in Israel and Gaza. The population in Israel and Palestine have both more than quintupled since 1950. There are plenty of sources of problems there, but not many places can handle that kind of growth, especially when mostly desert.The article led me to read Alon's book The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel. You can't understand the situation there without including population---including human violence and environmental degradation.Alon isn't only a professor. He also served in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. He's one of the few politicians to talk about overpopulation. In Israel it's impossible to miss, though many people still want to keep growing it.In our conversation, we talk about population, participating in politics, the meaning of his book title The Land Is Full, and Hamas.Alon's page at Tel Aviv University
  • 733. 733: Jacqueline Bicanic, part 1: Listener as Guest: Australian University Student, Very Active in Sustainability

    Jacquie emailed me that this podcast is inspiring her. She wrote that she'd "always had a spark of interest in sustainability, but I mostly followed the herd mentality and went about my life not really making a conscious effort & just thinking about ways I could reduce my impacts. In the last couple of years, it’s like jet fuel has been added to that spark and it’s changed the trajectory of my career aspirations, and had a significant impact on my life as a whole. . . It’s comforting to know that there are people all around the world who feel similarly to me, and it’s been inspiring to hear other peoples’ stories. I find this especially helpful on the days where I feel helpless/hopeless or even on low energy days."She asked me for advice, we got to emailing, and I invited her to be a guest, following the lines of other impassioned listeners who contacted me. You wouldn't believe it from her sounding natural and confident in our conversation, but she hadn't been on a podcast before.In our emails, she talked about how busy she was, which I hear from everyone, especially businesspeople, who say: "I'd love to work on sustainability. It's very important to me. I just have to do this one thing first, then I'll get to it." If you've felt that way, you may learn a lot from Jacquie and our experience doing the Spodek Method.Working on a podcast may sound like me talking to guests a lot. There's a lot of solo work, so I can't help but quote her from her first email again, since I appreciate her validating all that solo work: "Again, I’m a hug fan of the show and yourself. You’re an inspiration and a wonderful reminder that individuals don’t have to fix the worlds problems overnight by themselves."
  • 732. 732: Siddharth Kara, part 1: Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives

    Living unsustainably means you need resources beyond your immediate environment. It requires you take from others. When done on a cultural level, it's known as imperialism. When we take their land too, it's colonialism. When we take their labor, it's slavery.All of these things are happening in the Congo. If you think solar and wind are sustainable or avoid human suffering, read Siddharth's book Cobalt Red. If you listened to my last conversation with Adam Hochschild on his book King Leopold's Ghost, you know about the west's cruelty in the Congo. It hasn't ended. Adam put me in touch with Siddharth.The book will change your views on what we call clean, green, and renewable. Siddharth doesn't outright say it, but it seems every rechargeable battery, therefore every phone, electric vehicle, laptop, and so on should be labelled: "Produced with slave labor."Cobalt RedReviews in the New York Times and L.A. Times
  • 731. 731: Debate and Understanding on Population Projections with Wolfgang Lutz and Chris Bystroff

    I hosted two professionals who model population growth with different views, some complementary, some conflicting: Wolfgang Lutz and Chris Bystroff. I learned from both and recommend listening to their episodes first. I've also recorded episodes with many guests and solo episodes on population:475: We Can Dance Around Environmental Problems All We Want. We Eventually Reach Overpopulation and Overconsumption294: Population: How Much Is Too Much?251: Let's make overpopulation only a finance issue250: Why talk about birthrate and population so much?248: Countdown, a book I recommend by Alan WeismanI invited Wolfgang and Chris to talk about their different views and see if they could learn from each other and we could learn from them. That's this episode. I clarified I wasn't looking for Crossfire-like talking past each other but seeing what each or the other is missing and mutual learning. I think you'll enjoy the conversation. My only regret is that we couldn't have talked longer because we could have covered more.Past guests who spoke on populationJane O'SullivanAlan WeismanAlexandra PaulBill RyersonDr. Michael GurvenKaren Shragg
  • 730. 730: Tony Hansen, part 1 : McKinsey's Director of Natural Capital and Nature

    Most of the partners I know at the top tier consulting firms have worked there since business school. Tony has a different background, as he describes at the beginning.Because the Firm influences people at high levels of business and government, therefore potentially able to help change culture, I'm very interested in working with them. They are as prone to inertia as any other group, so I'm curious how much they can change others. After all, it's hard to help someone stop a habit while you keep doing it.I consider the Spodek Method the most effective way to help people who want to lead others lead others---a mindset shift followed by a continual improvement. It opens the door to systemic change, which begins with personal change.If you don't mind my spoiling what happens a bit, but I think I can safely say that Tony responded positively to the Spodek Method. Listen to hear how. I can't wait for the second episode to hear his results.Tony's publications at McKinsey
  • 729. 729: How to Develop a Sustainability Leadership Culture in Your Organization: a Panel I moderated

    If no one is changing culture in your world, it's your opportunity to fill the leadership vacuum, no matter where you are in your organization or communities.Many companies are making strides toward goals for greening their businesses but need to find ways to maintain the momentum now that they have tackled the easiest challenges. Others are about to embark on their sustainability journeys and seek a roadmap and best practices. Increasing regulations, particularly in Europe and the U.S., and demands from investors are pressing businesses to define, monitor and publish their net zero targets and green their practices and products.The IPCC reports that there is a closing window in which global citizens can mobilize to reduce carbon emissions and hope to achieve the target needed to stabilize the climate. It is becoming clear that it is up to leaders to transform corporate and political cultures to meet these inside and outside pressures. The webinar panel featured guest speakers:Lorna Davis, TED Speaker, Coach and Board Member, created largest B-Corp on Earth (Danone USA)Gautam Mukunda, Author, Podcast Host, Senior Advisor, America’s Frontier Fund and Professor at Harvard and YaleMichael Ventura, Advisor, Author of Applied Empathy, Entrepreneur and Keynote Speaker​Bob Inglis​, former U.S. Congressman for South Carolina, Executive Director of RepublicEN, leader of EcoRightThey shared success stories and lessons learned: how they got reluctant board members, voters, and employees on board; what products and processes they prioritized and how; how they held suppliers accountable; what worked; and what didn’t. Speakers discussed their journeys and answered questions. If you are a senior executive responsible for mobilizing your organization’s sustainability initiative, a shareholder who realizes her investment companies’ efforts need a boost, a citizen considering running for office, or a board member who wants to catalyze the greening process, you'll enjoy this lively panel.Moderated by Joshua Spodek PhD MBA, a premier voice in sustainability leadership, host of the award-winning This Sustainable Life podcast, four-time TEDx speaker, bestselling author of Initiative and Leadership Step by Step, professor at NYU, and leadership coach.
  • 728. 728: Chefs Irene and Margaret Li, part1: Winning Awards Saving Perfectly Good Food

    I first read about Margaret and Irene and their book Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking in an article on doof in the New Yorker. Then the next week the magazine devoted an article just on them and their approach to avoiding wasting food by eating it all.You might say to me---someone who avoids packaged food, in his fifth year on one load of trash, who eats citrus peels, who almost never throws away something edible---their perfect for you. But avoiding waste alone wasn't what made me invite them here.What made me invite them here was their attitude: They're fun! They make enjoying every last bit of food fun. I invited them here because I'm working on changing culture and they belong to the culture I do, which is joy, freedom, fun, and delicious. I don't hear anything from them that's obligation, judgment, telling people what to do, our what I call CCCSC bludgeoning (convincing, cajoling, coercing, seeking compliance).They also win awards and organize community.Listen for the fun and freedom of it. Enjoy never throwing food away again.Their restaurant, cafe, community center: Mei Mei Dumplings Factory, Cafe and ClassroomThe New Yorker article on them: The Sisters Behind the Fridge-Cleanout DinnerThe New Yorker article on doof that mentioned them the week before: The Perils of Highly Processed Food
  • 727. 727: Fun, liberation, freedom: How people talk after seriously acting on sustainability

    Evelyn joined the first workshop I led in the Spodek Method: practicing it, leading others through it, and how to create a movement. She then became the teaching assistant for the next two workshops.The liberation, fun, and intimacy of sharing one's fears, anxieties, and other vulnerabilities from acting more sustainably in a corrupt culture that makes it hard, all the more so in teaching others to reveal these things and still to act, led us to get to know each other. We decided the world could benefit from hearing how people who have acted to live significantly more sustainably sound: fun, playful, but still challenging.We decided to livestream our conversations for people to join and ask questions. Setting up the technology is taking time. Do we wait to figure everything out before starting? Hell, no! We just started recording with what we could. When we get livestreaming working, we'll do it there and hope you can join us to ask questions, challenge us, and whatever you want.In the meantime, here's how we sound. We start with Evelyn sharing about a sustainable cooking workshop she led at a culinary school with a chef. He invited her as an expert even though she only started anything on sustainability about six months ago. Then I talk about my third annual cooking workshop I led in the Bronx. Many digressions and such along the way.Learn more about the workshop here. You'll love the experience.Our first recorded conversationOur second recorded conversation
  • 726. 726: Amy Westervelt, part 1: Showing What's Actually Happening Behind the Scenes

    Amy hosts and produces a lot of podcasts, but Drilled is the big one I've listened to a lot. I listen partly to learn what happens behind the scenes and in the past in the fossil fuel industry. She's also covered how these companies influence the public in what until about World War II was called propaganda but the advertising industry changed to public relations.As a podcaster myself, I wanted to know how she came to win all those awards, start all those podcasts, and found the company that produces them. If you think you've struggled and failed, you'll love her story since she struggled and failed on the way to success.I recommend listening to her podcasts. First listen to our conversation to learn about the person behind the microphone.Amy's home pageBy the way, I misstated about my friend's small car. It tops off at 25 miles per hour, not per gallon. It doesn't have an internal combustion engine.