003: Elizabeth Kolbert, Conversation 1: Honest reporting, full transcript

November 30, 2017 by Joshua
in Podcast

Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert presents a practical adult perspective on the environment. This is what’s happening without fanfare, without sensationalism, something that adults can act on. I highly recommend her book The Sixth Extinction for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and I highly recommend reading her many articles in The New Yorker in which she treats these environmental issues, often adding a human element, a historical perspective, but not telling you what to think. She leaves that to you, which makes it haunting, often difficult to read but critically important. This interview presented a classic challenge that people who care the most and have acted the most on environment, had the least to change, which makes taking on a personal challenge difficult. However, the goal of this podcast is not some Disney fantasy that it’s all easy for everybody, but how things work for people with difficult challenges presumably like many of you. She’s also a woman of few words so I’ve probably talked a bit too much. I hope that’s OK, Elizabeth. In any case I urge you to listen and hear our perspective and discussion on the environment. I suspect that her challenges will be like many of yours.


Joshua: This is the Leadership and Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Elizabeth Kolbert. Elizabeth, how are you?

Elizabeth: Pretty well, thanks.

Joshua: And the way that I met you if you don’t mind my sharing is I read The Sixth Extinction and then realized that I’ve been reading stuff by you without really paying attention to the byline in The New Yorker for a while, and then I saw that you spoke at the new school near me and I went there with the intent of meeting you and because your stuff is really moving to read.

Elizabeth: Thank you.

Joshua: You’re welcome I guess. I’m going to characterize it if it’s okay with you and I’d love to get your comments on it that the stuff you write about it feels to me, which are things like our birth and population and extinctions and overfishing and carbon capture. And from the point of view of someone who cares about things about the environment what we’re doing to it, what we can do about it is very compelling. These are the topics that I wish people talked about more. But when I read them, It’s like there’s a reason people don’t talk about it because it’s like we’re sleepwalking into mistakes that we know are going to happen and it keeps happening and so it’s this, sorry if I’m talking too long, but it’s reading that I find very compelling and there’s always these little turns of phrases that I find that sometimes really funny. Meanwhile, I figured you… It sounds like you have a lot of fun with the language.

Elizabeth: Well, I like language, writers, journalists generally like language. So that is one of the pleasures of the profession.

Joshua: I picked one that was you’re reviewing a bunch of books that talked about the morality of having children, talking about the population what it could be. You said no one in his right mind supposes that it could reach 64 billion without horrific consequences, except perhaps a few economists.

Elizabeth: Yes, it’s my data economist, yeah.

Joshua: Yeah. That one was the one, yeah.

Joshua: It feels like you’re writing about stuff that’s incredibly important, but is off people’s charts since they don’t really think about it, and then when you read it it’s both compelling and depressing but fun and funny. Is that what you’re writing? Is that what you’re doing?

Elizabeth: You know, what does one do, I mean one… I guess, I would say I write about things that I think are important and I think people should know about. But as you say they’re not issues generally speaking that make for a nice, you know for chit chat or small talk or the sorts of things that people want to read, so you have to try to figure out how to get people into a story that they might not say instinctively that they’re really interested in. And I think that that’s a very common problem for journalists and people have very different you know have different strategies for dealing with that. It’s you know the key inside of say a People magazine or National Enquirer or whatever is you know there was a very interesting reading about Brangelina, you know but we were until they broke that one up. But you know there are a lot of topics. And in anything else almost anything else is not as attractive. So how do you get people to read on and then that’s especially in an increasingly crowded media world. So that’s a problem everyone is grappling with not just people like me who write about you know what are conventionally considered depressing topics.

Joshua: It’s funny that when I read it I feel like you’re writing stuff that if I don’t really think about it too much I just think OK this is a story but if I think about it, then it does depressing isn’t the right word. It’s alternately outraged and alternately confused and really evokes a lot of emotions partly because I feel like you presented it very matter-of-factly and leave it to me to conjure up all these emotions.

Elizabeth: Well, I appreciate that. I try… I mean there are lots of ways to write about any issues and you know one way is to write much more of what are the authors’ opinions and you know more of a polemic, I guess I’d call it. And I love polemic. So I have nothing against polemics it just this doesn’t happen to be how I feel most comfortable writing. So I would rather leave it to you, and you know part of often what I’m trying to leave people with is a sense of, you know, oh my god I didn’t realize that, oh my God you know what the hell is going on here because some, a lot of what’s going on planet Earth right now is so astonishing really, and you open this podcast by talking about our sleepwalking into some really dangerous territory, and I think that is unfortunately a very good metaphor. We’re just worrying about and especially nowadays with the outrage of the day, the horror of the day that we wake up and read the headlines on. But meanwhile, these huge, huge changes on planet Earth are occurring without anyone really, nations or anyone without most people really paying attention to that.

Joshua: Yeah, that paying attention part, I mean the big thing motivate me to you know we well the big thing motivated me was seeing that we have a government that is like happy to plunder, step on the gas as we’re approaching the wall.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Joshua: And I said I can’t wait anymore. I can’t wait for others to step up and I don’t know exactly how effective I’ll be but I’m going to give it my best shot. And amidst all the sleepwalking you always present a human side. I think you generally present a human side of people who really do care and really are trying their best and are deeply passionate swimming upstream. But you hope that what they do will pick up or the people will catch on but it doesn’t seem like that’s happening. But they sound like very engaging people. I think you must have enjoyable conversations with them.

Elizabeth: Yes. I mean in that sense my job is a great…. I mean in most senses my job is a great job. But nine times out of ten I go to meet someone and they’re a really interesting person. And I often go to really interesting places and I always ten times out of ten I learn a lot. You know so I’m constantly getting, I am constantly learning about new things so it’s a great, great part of the job.

Joshua: When I look at your background it doesn’t look like you were into science when you were in school. And it seems to be like a deep passion of yours you’ve gone into depth with. And I think a bunch of people listening to this podcast will be people who generally don’t have that much of a science background but do care about something. Do I get it right that you learned this on the job or did you have a background that I didn’t pick up on?

Elizabeth: No. I have no science background or very little. I may I took one semester of physics in college and I bailed out at science pretty quickly. So I am really a lay person completely and I think that that at times you know is difficult for me when I’m dealing with really complicated science and you know very often I’ve had very eminent people explaining very basic science and they generally been very generous about that. But I think that you know what I bring to it is what I’m sure most of your podcast listeners bring to it is a curiosity. And I think that you know what science really is a methodology on some level which as a very, very, very powerful methodology as we found and as we all are you know virtually every aspect of modern life has been determined by people using this methodology and it’s very frustrating to me once again not as a scientist even but you know the kind of anti-scientific attitude that prevails in Washington D.C. now is I think extremely frightening because it’s really a rejection of our best attempts to understand this world that we live in. And once again it gets back to this idea it’s worse than sleepwalking, it’s actively putting blinkers on yourself.

Joshua: Yeah, plundering is the word that comes to my mind

Elizabeth: I guess I think that’s a good word, it’s a very good word.

Joshua: Part of the reason that I’m asking about your interest in science or how it’s developed because I think a lot of people they are like, “Oh, that looks really complicated” and so they’re like, “We don’t care, like we want to do what we want to do.”

Elizabeth: Right.

Joshua: But even people at home are, you know, OK so we pulled out of Paris. I’m not happy about that. But we wouldn’t need Paris if people weren’t polluting as much as they are and you can talk about industries and so forth, like what people have responsibility for themselves. I don’t want, how do I put it, I don’t want people’s innumeracy to excuse them from their responsibility. Or alternatively, as a teacher of leadership, I want people to find what I found which is the more responsibility I take from actions, the better my life becomes. Even though it doesn’t look like that before I do it.

Elizabeth: Yes, we’re drowning in you know in a sort of innumeracy, you know the really tremendous challenge of climate change is that, you know, the fact is I should say I guess you know everyone here in the U.S. we’re all terribly big emitters you know, almost just by virtue of you know getting up and getting in our cars and doing things that we consider terribly, terribly ordinary. And, so for individuals too and this is where you know the numbers part does get very, very daunting for individuals to dramatically… Like for an American even to approach just what a European emits most people not all but most people probably have you know fairly dramatically, changed their lives and people are loathe to do that when they don’t see anyone else doing it. And that is why you know when people ask me what they should do about this. You know I do advocate always taking the steps that an individual can take to cut his or her carbon emissions. But I also think but I think more, more significantly I’ve sort of come to that conclusion we really need political action, we need collective political action, we need to change our energy systems, we need to change our transportation systems and that’s not going to be done you know one person at a time.

Joshua: Yeah, so I don’t know if you got the chance to listen to the episode zero that I posted about what this podcast is about. Can I share a little bit? I’m not sure how much of it I got to tell you when we met.

Elizabeth: Oh yeah, go ahead.

Joshua: So I want to add that there is global warming and even if you don’t believe in global warming, there’s all these other issues of overpopulation and pollution and just litter and, you know, you don’t want mercury in your fish and things like that. So it is like pick your topic, there’s things. And, you know I’ve had a couple of guests who are like really I don’t believe in global warming, I think you know since the dawn of time there’s always been people saying there’s doom right ahead. And this just happens to be the flavor of the day. But, they don’t like litter, they don’t like pollution. So there’s stuff that they can still connect with.

And for me, I agree that only when we get political change that when we have something like a carbon tax which, I believe should be called a pollution tax or externality tax. I mean language really makes a difference. And I come from a very systems perspective that Limits to Growth is a very influential book for me. I am not sure if that’s the one for you. And I see a lot of changes like if we changed all the technology for renewables and we have no more fossil fuels and lots of things like that we would still hit all these other problems. And so those are all elements of a system to me and at the top of the system the key leverage point is the beliefs that are driving the system. The goals of the system, which our goals tend to be growth especially of GDP which by mainstream perspective means population growth which means exponential growth which means you swamp everything. Well there’s also this thing of a strong belief of me like I want to go to Paris. I want to see the Eiffel Tower, yeah it pollutes but I want to do it.

And what I’m trying to do is get people to act, to change and to go to through some changes that I went through of experience and when you do these things, take responsibility and act on what you value, life gets better. I’m not depriving myself in all these fresh vegetables and fruit that I’m eating, it’s more delicious than ever. And I had no idea before I did it. And I think also to get people…

We’ve heard a lot from scientists. And I have a science background, I value science but I don’t think scientists are particularly influential and I don’t think people are very much looking… They say they want to hear what scientists say but I’ve read the IPCC the working group one talking about what’s going on with the physical background for why we come to the conclusions we have. It’s like pretty tough to read. And we like to watch movies with Leonardo DiCaprio on them and with Al Gore in them and I want to get those people to change themselves. And it’s a big message of like everyone should change. And the long-term goal is partly to get the change but partly to get the votes so that it’s an easy job to pass these laws because right now people talk about wanting to change but I don’t see Americans changing and I think politicians know when someone says one thing and does and other, which we will vote for.

Elizabeth: Well that’s a dismaying thought.

Joshua: Well, I mean what I hope happen is have people you know Pulitzer Prize winning writers from The New Yorker to be guests but hopefully you know Leonardo Di Caprio too at some point and have them take on a personal challenge based on what they value and then share hopefully for people they’ll listen to hear their experiences, to hear their struggles or to hear that it’s easy and hopefully change the goals and beliefs of the system.

Elizabeth: Yes, I think that that is a very, very compelling point. How is that? No I do, I think that there’s very little pushing back against the values of our consumer culture. And, you know that’s perhaps the reason, part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in.

Joshua: Yeah. I think that it looks now like the population may level off say 10 billion – 11 billion.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s a lot of people.

Elizabeth: It’s a lot of people. But let’s say we do that and we get all these renewables way ahead of time to clean a lot of stuff up. I’m pretty sure that if we don’t change the beliefs driving things that we will then get to 12 and 13. Because we’re predicting based, I mean things will change will have to make new predictions.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I mean I think one of the ultimate questions unfortunately we are going to find out is whether that it’s possible you know where we stand and finding out it’s not clear. I mean once again, it’s not clear what the limits to growth here I guess. We seem to be intent on probing them.

Joshua: Or sleepwalking toward them because we can’t stop ourselves. We’re reflecting as a species.

Elizabeth: Right. And I do think that you know once you know we’re sort of this super organism now and we’re you know we’re not one thing, we’re not one… There are many, many forces in the world right now driving this truck. You know it’s like many people fighting over driving a truck but where is the truck going to end up, it doesn’t have a happy ending you know. There’s no one in control of this trajectory. And when you realize that and I guess that’s part of adulthood realizing it and you realize it and more and more ways and one of the things that’s I think extremely scary about what’s happening right now in Washington and you realize there is no one in control of that our elected officials have always tried to at least give the impression that they knew what was going on. But we don’t even have that anymore. So we’re in sort of uncharted territory here.

Joshua: Yeah and you know your carbon capture piece in this week’s New Yorker you ended it with… We need this and let’s project what happens if we get it as if the need would create the solution.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And we see that sort of thinking a lot now I think because we do need these solutions. And you know sometimes need does act you know the necessity is the mother of invention. So let us pray that that is in fact true.

Joshua: Yeah, it sort of feels like Lamarckian evolution.

Elizabeth: Exactly. No. it’s a heavy dose of magical thinking even among very, very, very rational people.

Joshua: And I talked to a lot of people about how I’ve chosen to go for a year without flying.

Elizabeth: I commend you, commend you for that.

Joshua: Well, I have to say it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m now in month 19 or 20 and I’m getting more adventure and more culture and cuisine than I was before because I’m actively making it happen as opposed to just like going and hoping for the best. So when I talked to people about not flying by far everyone comes back with, “Oh, yes, easy for you. But I have family all over the world and have a job and all the stuff like of how they are special snowflakes.” And that thing you know… But there’s also a current that I get a lot of… You know I don’t want to pollute and someone should invent a solar powered airplane. They haven’t yet but you can’t blame me for them not having invented it. And that magical wishful thinking it doesn’t change the plane that they’re getting on its jet fuel.

And so another thing that I’m trying to work around or work against actually is that I think a lot of people say they make other people feel guilty. And would people feel themselves guilty without anyone else doing it? And then they don’t go toward it and you go toward it. You treat these things like let’s look at this. And where’s going on? And what’s the story here? But it took a lot of people would rather just be like “I hope this works out but I got to do my life.”

Elizabeth: Yeah, well I think I mean you know I have as it were this is my profession it is you know this is what I do for a living. Everyone is out there. Most people are out there doing something for a living and they have their responsibilities. So it’s not like I know [21:05] myself as you know particularly unusual in any way. This just happens and this is what I do for a living, which is… And any journalist [21:14] would just try to shine a light on things like you know people might not know about or might not or people might prefer not to think about it, there are all those possibilities you know.

But everyone is busy also doing their own you know fulfilling their own responsibilities. So there’s a lot of competition for people’s attention and I don’t in any way…You know I understand why everybody is very busy trying to fulfill their own obligations. I think that it gets back to why I do really blame our political culture which is you know we do elect people to set priorities and to look at the big picture and increasingly you know maybe that never really happen that but it seems like increasingly that doesn’t happen and there are also really once again just looking after very narrow interests and no one has the public interest at heart. And that is very terrifying actually.

Joshua: Well I hope to decrease your terror because that’s what I’m jumping into.

Elizabeth: Good. I think you should have our… You should try and get some of our elected officials on this podcast and talk to them about these issues and how can we change the political culture.

Joshua: Yeah, I really want to do that. And after we speak I’ll probably talk to you about if you have connections to any of them. I spoke to Bill McKibben a little while ago and he’s in the middle of a whole book thing so it will be a while before he’s on. But a year ago when we elected our new president and I saw the writing on the wall I said I’ve got to do something. And then I realized most big changes of this sort and the names that come to mind are Mandela and Gandhi and Vaclav Havel and King that they came from outside government. Ultimately they maybe became president of South Africa or helped at the Civil Rights Acts passed. But they started with citizens acting and I said, “Oh yeah I can do that.” Well actually I started by thinking alright I’m going to be the Martin Luther King of the environment. And as a professor at NYU I could get space in Manhattan I do this year talks mostly to graduates in my courses and science. And boy did I realize quickly that I wasn’t prepared for speaking to groups because it was just an emotional minefield that people just criticizing you know “don’t tell me what to do” and all the stuff.

And it took a while to realize working one-on-one… I actually the way I put it is what Martin Luther King didn’t start with “I have a dream” either. He started with the Montgomery Bus Boycott which is I don’t know where Montgomery is. I mean I know it’s in Alabama. But I realized I think you have to start with the ground work. And working one-on-one with people. And that the podcast has emerged out of that. Maybe it’ll turn into a TED talk I’m not sure but you know I hope to reach the people who are setting the tone… Of you talk about politicians. I definitely agree with that because I think a carbon/pollution/externality tax would be one of the big things certainly going back into Paris and strengthening that as opposed to pulling back on that but also to get you and me to think….Like if I became like Sergey and Larry I’m not like hopefully they’ll get rid of their 737 and then people with a mere billion dollars will say…. These guys are setting the tone, I don’t want to be the one… If they’re acting personally like Google like I don’t know I think they want to make Google carbon neutral. So if they’re also becoming carbon neutral then I kind of have to too.

Elizabeth: Yeah, although you really have to look into in what would they mean by carbon neutral.

Joshua: Yeah, yeah. Yes I think there’s a lot of what do you see by carbon units and it’s not really.

Elizabeth: Exactly, yeah.


Joshua: Well the thing that I’m finding from the podcast is that when people act on their beliefs the big thing I’m finding and I hope that you’ll take on a challenge and we’ll get to talk a second time to hear how it goes that there’s this mindset shift of “Oh, this wasn’t as hard as I thought” or “It was hard but worth it. I wish I’d done it earlier.” I’d love for that to be…. You know I’d love for Elon, Oprah whatever to be saying like, “Oh, that’s change. I wish I didn’t earlier. A 100000-square foot house wasn’t so necessary.”

So, on your side I’m curious what motivates you because I can easily see how you could become despondent or see things as futile. But I think there’s a fun in at what you do. But I’m not sure it’s curiosity. The writing is so evident that it’s just like that I just laughed out loud.

Elizabeth: Oh, well thank you. What motivates me? That’s a really good question. I guess, I’m going to be frank and say I don’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to really impact the conversation in the direction of the world at this point. But I guess what motivates me is the…You know it’s a long strain of a long tradition I’m sort of you know bearing witness I guess is the best maybe the way I would say the way I think so much a new recording you know what’s going on here even if it’s not going to change things. At least, there will sort of be a record.

Joshua: So like I mean Rachel Carson comes to mind or Bill McKibben I guess is more active.

Elizabeth: Well I mean Rachel Carson you know Silent Spring really did change the course of history. You know I mean I think the surprise to even Rachel Carson how much attention they’ve got and how it was translated into legislative action. So she’s actually an example I think of someone who you know through her writing really did change things. So I mean every writer aspires to that. But I don’t really delude myself into thinking that I am going to have that kind of impact.

Joshua: Well I don’t want to sound like I’m spreading sunshine for no reason your stuff you cover what no one’s covering. And I consider that essential. If I didn’t read your stuff… You see your science background isn’t so strong or I guess maybe your training wasn’t so strong in formal education but you’re getting into the stuff that I read and I am like, “This is what I need to know. This is like what’s going on here and what is the status of things.” I find it, and it’s engaging to read. Like IPCC report is not so engaging.

Elizabeth: Well I appreciate that. But that doesn’t mean that I mean I definitely do try to write things that I think people ought to know. But as I say the question of what happens next and whether you know anything measure rate changes because of that. I don’t think you can really go into this, into journalism. You know some people probably do. But I think that’s… It’s probably not you know occasionally a story really rocks the world and you know we certainly are seeing a lot of that right now [28:27] the stories rocking the world and you just never know what the impact of your rating’s going to be. So you kind of have to write for I think for somewhat different reasons.

Joshua: Well, I hope to fill in that gap of to me the missing pieces, leadership and style Mandela and the people like that. And that’s a big mental, but if no one else is doing it, I’ll do the best I can.

Elizabeth: What the hell, yeah!

Joshua: Yeah, I mean, and then I want to pass that off to I want to give the people who are the real you know the first name people like Elon and Oprah and people like that give them the opportunity because they’re already there to be the leaders that everyone follows and to set that to be…You know Mandela was the father of the nation. These could be the mothers and fathers of the new values, if we pull out of this. And the Elizabeth Kolbert who a lot of people read her stuff and keep reading it and give you a chance to do a little bit of leading by example, if you’re up for it.

Elizabeth: By which you mean?

Joshua: Well let me ask one more thing. What do you care about the environment? I mean there’s so many answers it could be.

Elizabeth: What do I care about it? Why do I care about it?

Joshua: Yeah, I presume there’s something you care about.

Elizabeth: I think yeah I mean it’s overdetermined as they say. I mean I care about, I think that it combines an ethical system I suppose and aesthetic and you know perhaps even quasi spiritual. I mean I think that the world, we have inherited a world that is, the living world that is the product of you know almost 4 billion years of evolution and to unravel that you know in the course of a couple of human lifetimes seems very, very and you know as I said them that at [30:21] lecture that we met after, terrible legacy to live for one species and so I guess that is really what motivates, you know kind of protection of living things in grandest way once again I’m no expert on you know any particular species or and I’m not you know a conservation biologist but I believe that that’s what the world is, I guess that’s what we’ve got we’ve got you know life on Earth and if we are not interested in protecting that really what are we interested in protecting?

Joshua: So this resonates with me… You start off by saying ethical but the next one aesthetic, which I take a beauty of nature, especially of life and protecting it. I mean certainly the beauty of nature got me into physics and then see the protection and what’s going on is what moved me from physics into environmental awareness but then action. Is there anything that like got it started or was it from childhood or was it something that you…?

Elizabeth: No I don’t have, I can’t really point to, this was it. No, I wish I had a good story there.

Joshua: And it sounds like when you’re off researching like frogs and observing what’s going on that you’re probably that’s what you’re doing is like documenting the beauty of nature that you see.

Elizabeth: Yes. Right. Yeah, I’m trying to. Yeah.

Joshua: Ok so I wanted to pursue that to get what motivated you. So what I eluded to just before that was if you were up for a challenge because what I aim to do with this podcast is to get people, influential people who care about the environment to take on a personal challenge and something according to their values. There’s a few things I’ve found: by their values, something that they weren’t already doing, something that they do themselves so it can’t be telling someone else what to do and then if they go for it at their option, then the next time we talk to share how it went. And like spoiler alert, people tend to like it. Except it’s hard at the beginning.

Elizabeth: I have to confess I’m flummoxed because there’s things that I could do. You know I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. And those things that I as they were challenges that I would take on I have sort of already taken on so and those you know and I as I said I really admire you’re not flying but I don’t think I can take that on because I have…

Joshua: I couldn’t have taken… Oh yeah, I can tell you that the hard things…

Elizabeth: …job that demands it. So I’d have to quit my job and I’m not ready to do that for the sake of this podcast to be frank. So I don’t have something at the top of my head. I may have to get back to you now. Yeah, what have people taken on, tell me what people have taken on and I can…

Joshua: Yeah, by far they’ve taken on simple things that have led to other things if they get into it. So like a student of mine took something that I do. I pick up a piece of trash every day and put it in a trash or recycling. I know all the external outside recycling bins around my neighborhood because if I’m near recycling bin I’ll preferentially pick up paper or metal. So recycling was just supposed to be trash. You know some people are eating meat less or favoring public transportation for instead of cars for a month or some people over the summer were not using the air conditioner for a while. One guy with a he’s got this Jaguar that was like his dream car and he decided he was only going to drive 100 kilometers a month, which is very little for him. Some people are bringing bags with them to the store which they had been meaning to do forever but never got around to and now this is their chance to do it.

Elizabeth: You see that’s my problem. I try to do all this. I don’t have air conditioning. I’m trying to think what I could possibly add to the list.

Joshua: That’s a funny thing that my friend who works at this big oil company it’s very easy for him to find stuff so easy. It’s more challenging when you’ve done the things.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. Wow. What I meaningfully could do?

Joshua: One guy’s composting and he never composted before. So what’s going with compost and it turns out there’s a pig farm pickup place that… I don’t know it’s kind of like compost what it’s going to fix and …

Elizabeth: I’m trying to think about something that I am not doing.

Joshua: One guy was…He was originally going to carpool. I am sorry, he was going to take public transportation. He lives in outside Charlottesville. And it turned out that this was keeping him away from his family too much, he sat down with his family and they came up with carpooling. And it ended up being that the problem with carpooling was it’s taking him away from his kids. And he sat with his family and he says, “I don’t want to spend time away from you. What can we do instead?” And they came up with carpooling which was he had to spend the extra time with his kids and getting to meet his friends. He made a point of less packaging with his food.

Oh that’s another big one is that for me the big action I did to start this for me was to go for a week without getting any food where I had to throw away packaging afterward and that’s what led me to eating all these fresh fruits and vegetables and learning how to cook from scratch. Which actually you know you teach I teach and it’s the last class of the semester for this one class and it’s adult class so there are adult students so they’ve…After this I’m hosting dinner with my class because it’s a class in systems thinking and so I talk a lot about environmental stuff and food just worked out to be a part of it.

Elizabeth: Well I guess a good challenge would be purchasing stuff. I know I don’t purchase a lot of stuff but I like I could try to not purchase anything besides food is [36:25]

Joshua: I have a couple of people did a… One guy gets…

Elizabeth: [36:31] willing to give up food, how is that?

Joshua: I mean yeah, if it works for you. It made me think of one guy who treats a lot of coffee and he just went I think a month with only getting it in mugs. Go to Starbucks but I guess they have not disposable stuff and he wouldn’t insist on it and he ended up building relationships. It’s funny because he describes himself as an introvert who is not good with talking to people and he ended up making relationships with these, for instance…

Elizabeth: Yeah, well you see none of those things, I live out in the country so I don’t go to Starbucks so I could certainly go for a month to take out coffee but I wouldn’t be doing anything. That doesn’t really seem fair. And unfortunately I didn’t say I know too much and I know there are real impacts are and they’re not in coffee cups now. So I had to think what I could do that would have a real impact that I’m not already doing and nothing as I say nothing very dramatic that is within my power because as I say I thought about this a lot, a lot for 10 years it is coming to mind. So I have to I might get back to you on that one.

Joshua: Well I’ll mention one last thing. I think a lot of people including myself are troubled doubled with “If it doesn’t make a difference, then it’s not worth doing.” And I doubt I strongly believe that I do not like the message. Here’s one little thing that you can do for the environment. Partly because I won’t argue with people who say that it adds up to something big. I think little things add up to just a lot of little things.

However, what I do notice and worse than that or more important than that is that if I tell you here’s a little thing it implies you don’t want to do it. And that reinforces the belief driving the whole system. Even if I get compliance on the little thing I’ve reinforced what’s driving everything. Because if I tell someone like not to drink and drive, I don’t promote drink less driving Monday. I say never ever drink and drive. It’s just better not to drink or drive. But there’s a big thing that I’m finding on this podcast which is that when people… The thing is not how big the thing is does the person act or not.

And when I see people acting on something then the next thing that they do they find is easier than they expected. And so the guy who picked up ten pieces of trash per day took it on himself without talking to me at all to stop eating meat or to lower meat consumption. He just spontaneously saw I can do something I didn’t realize I could do before. I could not have done the no flying without doing the no food packaging first and I couldn’t have done… Even the no food packaging it took me a long time to start but once I started I was like I’m glad I started. So that’s one of the conditions that I’ve earned. One of the not constraints but one of things that makes it possible is this thing does not have to solve all the world’s problems overnight all by yourself.

Elizabeth: No, I certainly agree with that but I guess they say as somebody who has thought about this over impacts you know has a pretty good idea of what my impacts are and where the big ones are and has really tried to you know reduce my impacts in every way that I can. You know I could certainly say to you “Yeah I am going to go pick up a piece of trash every day” and I could certainly do that. But I just don’t find that meaningful. For me that’s not a meaningful gesture. For me, to make for someone who has really thought these things through pretty hard. So that’s the impasse that we’re at. How is that?

Joshua: Yes, that’s a challenge. It’s the people who care about it the most and have acted the most are the people that it’s the hardest.

Elizabeth: Right, exactly. And as I said that [40:17] I very much commend you for not flying. It’s something that I have thought about. You know I would have as I said you know quit my job and things like that and radically reorganize my life. And I think it’s a very commendable thing to do but I am not prepared as I say as podcast to take that step. Perhaps one day I will but I need to reorganize things first. How is that?

Joshua: So should we leave it and think of how to leave it…

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think I’m going to try to think of something because I think it is a good idea. I really don’t want to in any way you know I think it is a good idea. As I say I am covering all the things you mentioned from composting to cutting down on your meat consumption to carpooling. Those are all things that I do. I am trying to think of [41:03] where we can have a conversation in four or five minutes and I could say I did X and I changed things and I’m not coming up with anything but I’m going to try to.

Joshua: That’s great. I can’t ask for more because you’ve done a lot of things that most people are only thinking about. And it’s not easy. Eventually you reach a point where it’s like there’s no long [41:22] for it anymore.

Elizabeth: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And I feel that’s where I am but maybe if I think about it maybe I’ll come up with something that I’ve been meaning to do and haven’t done yet. How’s that?

Joshua: OK. And then I’ll just ping you by e-mail every now and then just to see how things are going if I don’t hear from you.

Elizabeth: That sounds good.

Joshua: OK, let’s see. Well, two things: if there’s anything I didn’t think to ask that’s worth bringing up and if there’s any message you want to leave off with for the listeners.

Elizabeth: Will I guess the only message I want to leave off with is that I really commend you for doing this and for taking and I think that inattention is the enemy here. And it’s there’s so many distractions in modern life that the big picture [42:09] the big picture unfortunately and it is up to us that as I say that is unfortunate part of adulthood is realizing OK there’s really no one else looking out for us or looking out for the world. The whole world aren’t looking out for the future generations and that’s very at first an extremely alarming realization and then it’s like as you say then it’s like as you say OK, let’s get down to doing it. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.

Joshua: I see that as a message of responsibility and kind of acceptance of how things but…

Elizabeth: Exactly. But not happiness about it. Yes, you are right not complacency about that…

Joshua: Well, thank you and everyone who’s listened to this, please read Elizabeth Kolbert’s stuff. I mean The Sixth Extinction is how do I describe it? It’s a compelling book that you will be glad you read even though it’s challenging but that covers a lot of stuff. But if you don’t know the stuff, it’s stuff that you wish you knew and you’re glad you know. Go on Amazon you can read a lot of reviews. It’s like really… Thank you for coming on and sharing.

Elizabeth: Oh, thanks for having me.


Elizabeth’s case brought up a challenge that I see when companies win awards for doing things for the environment the awards often go to places like GM or Exxon, which are polluting so much that they can make really big changes whereas companies that made those changes long ago or that weren’t polluting in the first place it’s hard for them to get that visibility. I’d love to hear from listeners if you have ideas for guests who have already made big changes or don’t have big changes left to meet, what we can do instead if there’s an alternative? I think they generally will like making changes and taking on personal challenges. But I’m open to new ideas. In Elizabeth’s case we don’t have a scheduled second conversation but I’m confident that she’ll come up with something and that we will see her here again soon.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter