033: David Biello, conversation 3: “It’s easier than you think,” full transcript

March 6, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

David BielloIn our third conversation David and I talk about environmental action, in particular his based on his having acted. In my experience having spoken to a lot of people who have both not acted on their values despite knowing them versus people who have acted on their values based on knowing them. It’s a very different tone of conversation when people have acted on versus not. I find these conversations to be less defensive, less, “What about you? What are you doing? Or what about these other people? They’re not doing anything”, and more thoughtful, more oriented to action and introspection. As he says, once you start there are many reasons to continue but only one not to, which is basically lethargy. And if you value leadership, if the reason you listen to the Leadership and the Environment podcast is that you value leadership, you probably want not lethargy. So let’s listen to David.


Joshua: Glad to have you here. I hope you don’t mind I just started recording.

David: No, no. Go for it. We have limited time so best to get right to it.

Joshua: OK. So there are two things that when last we spoke we had even more limited time and we ended it with you saying…You’ve taken on a personal challenge and you said… What I remember is something like I’m thinking about going and I remember full veggie. And so that’s one thing I want to talk about is if you’re thinking about doing a next stage, if you started one already. And the other is I don’t know if we would put this on the recording but I sent you an email with the latest version, you probably didn’t have time to read it, but the latest version of…

David: Yeah, I haven’t had the chance to look at it yet but yeah, I did see that. So I will take a look.

Joshua: OK so let’s leave that for later. And so, you took on a challenge and it sounded like it went well and it sounded to me like you took it on yourself. You want to do more.

David: Yeah, although full veggie given… As I recall and you will have the recording to prove one way or the other, I don’t remember saying full veggie. I do remember saying I wanted to kind of restrict the meat eating even more.

Joshua: I remember the words but I don’t remember you saying, “I will commit to it.” I just remembered those words so…

David: Yeah, yeah. So it’s interesting you know because I have the whole family and everything, I don’t think that I can go… I personally could go full veggie but I’m not sure that you know I could have family dinners that don’t have some meat some of the time.

Joshua: Especially with the holidays coming up.

David: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So that’s why I’m not ready to commit to like complete vegetarianism. But what has been working for me and what I’ve mostly stuck to except where social circumstances dictate otherwise is a lot less meat. So I’m probably instead of it being, what is it, Meatless Monday, it’s probably Meat Monday for me and the rest of the week is veggie. So that’s what I’ve been doing and it’s been a mix of good and bad, the good being like I feel healthier and presumably, I’m getting better nutrition because I’m eating up kind of wider variety of foods. The downside being I’ve somehow managed to gain five pounds. Well, that may not be related. That may be you know correlation not causation. You know what I mean?

Joshua: Or maybe you would have gained more?

David: Yeah. Who knows. Who knows. So yeah that’s where I’m at. I don’t think it’s from the travel because that hasn’t changed too much. It’s either metabolism, diet change, stress in my life, eating more pasta. I don’t know. It’s one of those things.

Joshua: I’m trying to think of this from the listener’s perspective. So you decided to take on a challenge and then you separately decided to augment it. And to me I like the sound of that because that’s what I’m trying to do I think that people once they start doing this and they realize, if they pick something that they want to do when you do it, I think they’ll find other things that they want to do but kept off the horizon because they were too nervous about it. Should people get worried if they start doing this, they’ll get caught up in it and maybe will do more than they want to? Or is this something you like? Like what got you to do it and how come you want to do more?

David: Well, what got me to do it is that it seems like the right thing to do. You know obviously as someone who covers environmentally issues broadly but in particular climate change you know doing my part to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions just seems like a no-brainer. You know walk-the-walk and all that.

Joshua: That still begs the question of why you cared before that. I mean, ok.

David: Oh, why did I get involved in…Why did I care about climate change in the first place?

Joshua: Yeah.

David: That’s an interesting question. I mean I’m not sure that I can… I don’t know. You’d have to go all the way back into my childhood somewhere, probably something that I don’t even remember that kicked off my love of the environment, you know like going to the park when I was very young or whatever it might be. I’m not sure I can answer that. But I’ve always kind of cared about the environment in general and in particular about climate change I’ve really always thought that you know one of the best things you can do with your limited time here on this very special planet is to try to leave the world a little bit better than you found it. I don’t know if you’ve heard that kind of moral before.

Joshua: Universal. Yeah.

David: Yeah. So you know that’s just something that’s always appealed to me and you can leave it a little bit better than you found it in a wide variety of ways but this is definitely one of them and certainly if you want to leave the world a lot better than you found it, then you certainly don’t want to make it worse by putting extra CO2 in the atmosphere or whatever it might be. So that’s what motivated me.

Joshua: So, yes. It sounds like even if you can’t identify it exactly, it sounds like it runs deep and long term and something about an experience of nature.

David: Yeah, I would say so. I can’t point to a specific moment when I was like yes, you know we need to do something different. But you know that’s from a very young age and you know even though I grew up in kind of the suburbs of St. Louis just had a lot of exposure to nature, love being kind of out in the woods and in the prairie and in the creek and you know just cared about those things just as much as I cared about my family and people and everything else. You know I want a world where everything thrives rather than we’re faced with this kind of what I think of as a false dichotomy between like either people can thrive or the planet can thrive but not both at the same time. I just kind of reject that.

Joshua: Yeah, man, you’re just talking about being out in the prairie and things, I grew up in Philadelphia, no prairies, but there was streams where we could find salamanders and things like that, and birds. There is just not as many species of birds. You know we don’t see bluebirds anymore and I don’t even see starlings anymore. It’s all sparrows and pigeons.

David: Well, they do say that the world is getting more homogenous. You know that the species that do well with people are doing really well because there are you know so many people doing so many things to the planet. That said, you know people are also doing…

Joshua: [unintelligible]

David: Yeah, well, people are doing some pretty amazing things to help save plants, animals, you name it. Yes, we need a slightly better ad campaign for the uncharismatic micro fauna. You know people aren’t going out of their way to save I don’t know worms and microbes and whatnot the same way we do for panda bears or polar bears or the charismatic megafauna but you know we’re doing better. There has been a cultural, you know we talked about this before, there has been a cultural shift away from kind of killing wild animals for fun or fur or feathers or whatever it might have been and towards preserving them. You know people spend a lot of their free time building ultralight airplanes so they can teach cranes how to migrate or… You know what I mean? Like we do some amazing things to try to save our…

Joshua: Still, it’s like the… That’s a finger in the dike. I mean for one thing the ones that are disappearing, I just finished reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and the numbers of things that are disappearing is great and the cultural shift hasn’t yet reached Washington D.C.

David: Well, I think it had. And now the small coterie of folks who it hasn’t reached are in charge. So that’s a problem, for sure. And you’re right, the jury is out. Will we do this and will we do it in time? That’s the question. My opinion or judgment is that there is still time. You know we can still choose what kind of legacy we want to leave. It’s not too late to save whatever we want to save. We just have to want to save it.

Joshua: Yeah. And want and act.

David: Yes.

Joshua: So, you’re in a position of influence, so you must… It’s not exactly a dream job because you’d rather probably not have to do this job at all. But at least you’re having some influence.

David: Oh, it’s definitely a dream job. I mean this is part of the reason that I do this as you know…The tagline here is ideas worth spreading. And I would say this is one of them. And you know there are many others. And again, it goes back to that credo, if you will, “Leave the world a little bit better than you found it.” And you know hopefully in my job and in my personal life and in most respects I can do that.

Joshua: Congratulations. So that comes back to before. So OK, you started this and now the challenge with this podcast. And why did you take it on yourself to take the next step? Should people worry about that or should people look forward to that?

David: I think they should look forward to it. I mean it’s not really, it’s you know… The honest truth is I think we… Man, it’s like that other old saying, “You suffer a lot more in your mind than you ever do in reality.” It’s actually easier than you think it is. You know you can think about all the hurdles and impediments to making a change. It’s very easy to be like, “Oh, that’s too hard.” But once you’re actually doing it, it turns out you know being a vegetarian might have been hard in the 1970s or 80s or something but it’s not too hard in 2017. And so, you know the plant-based option is usually there if you want to get…

Joshua: Certainly Manhattan.

David: Yeah, certainly in Manhattan. But even in the Midwest where I’m from you know that’s another culture change that’s happening. Now that one’s even further behind than the shift from killing animals to preserving, to saving them. But it is there. It is there.

Joshua: OK. So if it’s so easy, how come you didn’t do it before?

David: It didn’t occur to me. I’m not saying it’s so easy. You know I had all these excuses like, “Oh, you know I travel a lot and it will be hard you know to find the vegetarian option.” I just had all these kinds of mental blocks. And that’s what I had to overcome, not… You know once you kind of commit to doing it or commit to at least trying that that’s when you discover that it’s easier than you thought it was.

Joshua: [unintelligible]

David: Well, you know you built up these hurdles in your mind. Like, “Oh, you know I just can’t do that. What are you talking about?” But the reality is once you start trying to do it, it’s easier than you think it is. And even if you fail some of the time like you know I don’t know you’re at a diner in St. Louis and there is no vegetarian option, that’s OK. You’ve still cut back significantly on your environmental footprint.

Joshua: I think that’s a big thing because a lot of people I think they try… Maybe they do it on their own and they try and I’ll put this in quotes “they fail” and then rather than… I think a standard option for a lot of people is, “Oh, man, that sucked. I didn’t do it well. I don’t want people to know about this.” And so, they distanced themselves from it. And I think a lot of people who succeed fail along the way several times and maybe they don’t like shout it from the rooftops but they don’t necessarily let the guilt overcome them and they say, “You know alright, that’s how you learn.” You know when I first learned [unintelligible] I fell down a bunch of times too.

David: You’re right. Exactly. And it’s you know I think one of the hurdles that we have is that either it’s going to be perfect or it’s not going to be at all. It’s like it’s 100 percent or zero percent. When the reality is if you can be 50 percent or better, that’s a huge improvement over zero. And that’s way you should think about it. Like if you’re eating meat two less times a week and then three less times a week and then you know five times less a week, each of those is an improvement and each is important.

Joshua: And I want to add, and I love to hear your take on it, not just improvement in the sense of if “You want to leave the world a better place than you found it.” But also, if you care about it… Like in my case it gets more delicious. Like at first, you’re giving something up but then you start…It’s what you refill it with. And that is with things that you do value, you’re replacing things you don’t value with things that you do value and you keep making your life better and better.

David: Yeah, it’s kind of a throwaway… You know you were making the default choice and now you’re making an intentional choice and the default choice is usually not that delicious. Whereas if you’re really making an intentional choice you can find the dishes that you think are great. You know whether that’s Burritos or pasta or whatever it may be.

Joshua: I go for my famous vegetable stew myself.

David: There you go. There you go.


Joshua: OK so why is it that the set of plant and animal and fungus foods is greater than the set of plant and fungus only? So why did you say you have more variety?

David: Well, I think you know you’re right just strictly in numerical sense but when you’re eating you know the animal stuff it tends to crowd out the different vegetables that you could be eating, at least in my experience. So if you’re eating turkey, you’re probably not eating portobello mushroom at the same time. So the variety of different things that I eat and you know it might be portobello mushroom one day and then some kind of pasta dish the next and so on and so forth it has changed rather than kind of turkey sandwich, ham sandwich, cheese sandwich, turkey sandwich, you know what I mean, that’s at least my experience. So you know you go from vegetable stew to salad to portobello mushroom burger to pizza or whatever.

Joshua: You know I’ll also add… I’m listening you talking and I’ve been also vegetarian for so long, I don’t really remember the transition anymore. I know that when I first stop eating meat I had a lot of dairy and eggs but then they started looking more like meat so I cut them out and the variety started going up.

David: Now you’re vegan.

Joshua: It really picked up lately when… Not quite vegan because I have cheese every now and then.

David: The variety?

Joshua: The variety increased lately. Oh, yeah. It’s that also you get on a different track in life. I mean one of the big things I talk about when I talk about this to groups and maybe one day to your group that it’s you know this is we’re in a system and the system was built on beliefs and… You know a system has goals, a system has beliefs that underlie it. And if you don’t change those, you can change a lot of technology for example but that’s an element within the system and the system will… If it’s all about growth, if it’s all about entitlement, then it’ll stay. It’ll get back on that… It’ll stay on that track and we’ll just overshoot a little bit later with… You know we’ll have solar but then we’ll keep growing and growing and growing, until it becomes uncomfortable again.

So bring it back to just here and now is that when you eat whatever is the mainstream stuff that you eat you just get the mainstream stuff and you go to the store and you go to the aisles that have the advertising and so forth, you just get whatever’s there. And for me that meant most of my life was Doritos and you know the usual stuff, the stuff that was advertised. And then when you have to put in a bit of effort it starts becoming your values that you start acting on, not just the ones that are handed to you and like you said, it becomes more about intent.

And I think that you know that’s one of the things I’m trying to drive in this podcast is to have people who are influential show that when they…I think the more influential people share that they’re changing and getting on a new track, the more people can feel comfortable following that because we tend to follow influential people which is why I have some scientists and some educators on here and I want to have more. But I think what’s going to help the most is that people who are the most influential so in our society you know certainly like people on TED talks and…

David: Celebrities.

Joshua: …people in the media and actors and singers and things like that. I mean it is not that… If you want to influence people, you’ve got to get influential people and if you want them more… And people who do what you do and say you know, “I gave it a shot. I did the best I could. Sometimes it didn’t work. But you know the next time I did a little bit better and now I want to do more.” I would love to have that coming from like Oprah.

David: Yeah, yeah absolutely. Well, I mean let’s be honest, as we’ve discussed you know if somebody who has a private jet and you know seven houses and whatever else decides to reduce their carbon footprint, that has a much larger impact than say a million people living on less than two dollars a day in terms of their environmental impact. That’s just the reality that the 1 percent, if you will, are responsible for the outsize share of the environmental damage out there. And that’s the one percent not just people but corporations as well.

Joshua: So there are also people that… That’s from the perspective on the effect of the environment, they’re also setting the tone of what are our values.

David: Right. Conspicuous consumption and all that. Yes.

Joshua: Yeah. And I would love for you know Larry and Sergey to say, “We got rid of the 737 and we’re spending more time with our families” or whatever you know whatever their equivalent of my delicious. And that way all the people who have a mere billion dollars poverty compared to them can feel like my, “Now I can aspire to a new standard of enough.”

David: Jeff Bezos. Yes.

Joshua: Is he doing that or…

David: No, I don’t know. I’m just thinking…Isn’t he the world’s richest man or something?

Joshua: Yeah, I remember reading that…Like the article said he leapfrogged Bill Gates but I think Bill Gates has given away a lot of money and I’m not sure if Bezos has.

David: Yeah, I think that may be right. That may be right.

Joshua: And I wonder if it is possible to get the most influential people to start saying, “We are entering a new age and we are…” either usher in a new age in which case or we don’t, if we don’t, then I don’t know, nothing’s going to matter. Or we do. You know what I’m trying to do on this podcast I want to get people on who will make this change and the really influential ones. So if Elon is on and he started saying, “I’m finding joy in simple things. You know cooking my own vegetables and biking to work,” and then that could be… If we make it, then the people who are the most influential today who make that change will be the ones who are the Mandela’s and Thomas Jefferson’s not fathers and mothers of nation but the fathers and mothers of the new way we look at things. I wonder if we’ll put that off.

David: Well, that is the question of the 21st century, isn’t it? Will we pull it off? You know either we’re going to remake civilization again in a more sustainable fashion or not. And that’s the big question facing us and we all have our part to play.

Joshua: So I got big there and now you just segued back into parts to play. Do you want to make a SMART goal of the next thing you do?

David: Well, I think you know I’m just going to continue with the diet thing. You know I like it so I’m just going to keep doing that. And so that’s easy for me. It’s the other… You know I live in New York City so I have the luxury of using public transport and therefore don’t have a huge transportation carbon footprint or day-to-day transportation carbon footprint.

Joshua: Yeah, I was going to say commuting.

David: My job you know for all that influence, you know one of the job requirements is travel and that is one that I can’t quite figure out how to do differently. But I do think about it. I do think about it quite a bit and we do do a lot of videoconferencing so we do less travel than we might otherwise. But there is you know they want you physically present for a conference or wherever else. There’s still something about that you know in person thing that seems important. So you know it’s tough for me because it’s job related, it’s tough for me to make some kind of travel related goal and that would be the biggest part of my job, I guess, the biggest impact I continue to have.

Joshua: It’s a really huge one for a lot of people and we have a system that where everyone’s dispersed and so they have to fly and then they fly because they can fly they disperse more.

David: Yeah, we need to change the system even more than the individual behavior. But that’s true across the board. You need to change it kind of at the granular level, the individual level as well as the systemic level, if you will. And that’s why you know I always joked that the biggest thing you can do for the environment today is vote. You know if a few thousand more people had voted in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, we might have a different government in the United States that might have a different stance on a lot of these issues that we’re talking about and that’s a big way to change the world. So I’m pretty committed to doing more on that front as well.

Joshua: So there’s a couple of minutes left. So if you keep thinking about that I hope that you come up with something. I’d love for you to come back. I’d like to leave the door open that if you come up with something either specifically on travel or more generally if you notice something about how the eating habits evolve into something else I would love to have you back to share more…

David: …And update. Yeah, sure. And who knows maybe some TED speaker will enlighten me with the big idea of what I can change, what I can change next or what I’m overlooking which I’m sure is a lot.

Joshua: So let’s leave it there. And I look forward to hearing back from you. And then any last message for listeners?

David: It’s not hopeless. You know I feel like right now I meet a lot of people who feel like, “Well, there’s no point. We’re not going to do anything about climate change. We’re all doomed.” And I guess the biggest thing that I would say is that we’re only doomed if we say we are. We can still do a lot to make the world a better place.

Joshua: That’s what’s motivating me this whole time. And that, plus the feeling if I can do something about myself. Thank you for that message and for doing what you’re doing.

David: Thanks for the podcast. I look forward to hearing it. You’ve got to clean me up and make me sound smart even though I’m not.

Joshua: That’s my goal to make the guest look good.

David: Well, I appreciate that. Cool, well I got to run because I have this other meeting but always a pleasure to talk to you and I will get back to you about the pitch that you sent.

Joshua: Great. Talk to you then.

David: OK. Have a great weekend.

Joshua: You too. Bye.


My biggest takeaway from this was how we talked about it’s an intentional choice and intentional choices improve your life. He got many benefits he got for example more food variety despite having less choice of food. This happens all the time that people get results that are opposite their expectations. They think it’s going be a challenge and it’s easy. They think it’s going to make it difficult to work with people and it ends up building relationships. In his case he had more variety of food. He also got all the way to talking about reducing his flying. Now suspend for a moment if you don’t want to stop traveling. Think of the magnitude, of the sorts of things he was thinking of and think of the things that are that you would like to change in your life that are outside your horizon of what you think you can do. That’s probably what it’s like for him but when you take these actions it brings things within your horizon. Acting on your values enables you to act more on your values.

So I hope you’ll keep that in mind as you think of what challenges you want to commit to and I hope you’ll go to joshuaspodek.com/podcast and click on Commit to a Personal Challenge. And finally, I hope you noticed the direction that is coming from these conversations with him, in particular about influencing influencers and how this podcast has worked so you’ll see changes that come from this conversation in future conversations with other guests.

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