I’ve talked to hundreds of people who say that they want to live by their environmental values and they consider their environmental values to be polluting less. Yet not one person of all of them has changed their flying habits despite flying being one of the biggest contributions for most of us to global warming, to pollution and to really annoying parts of our lives. And yet in my experience when I changed my flying habits, I’m now in my third year of not flying, it’s been one of the best things that I’ve done. People just normally they don’t change. They claim it’s impossible not to fly. They say things like they have family all over the world as do I, they have jobs that forced them to fly as do I. So what I want to talk about today is values and systems and try to explain why things that look impossible and try to explain why things that are clearly not impossible, appear impossible. I’m going to start with an example that’s a clear-cut case that everybody experiences in their life. Then I want to talk about a big multi hundreds of millions of dollar involving tens of thousands of people’s lives case which I think you’ll find very interesting. Then I’ll talk about how what happens after you get past this confusing a system’s values with absolute reality.
So, the first case is the cereal aisle in the supermarket. We’ve all been in cereal aisles. When you walk on the cereal aisle it’s a variety of colors, incredible marketing. It looks like a huge diversity of cereals. And from within this system what’s valuable? Colors on the package, sweetness crispy crunchy, and when you eat packaged cereals Froot Loops (F R O O T) because I think they don’t have any fruit in them, Count Chocula that sort of stuff. It feels like there’s a lot of variety. Froot Loops is colorful, Count Chocula is brown. From that perspective for someone who suggest putting an apple, slicing an apple on your cereal is kind of a weird thing. Froot Loops are already fruity. I don’t know if people put fruit on top of industrial cereals like that. If you look on the side of the package it lists all the vitamins the stuff that they’ve added to it. So I think a lot of people eat that stuff thinking it’s pretty healthy.
For someone who lives in that world their life is full of variety. And if you say to them, “How about eating a bowl of oatmeal?” and not the Quaker Oats instant with the maple syrup flavors. But I mean like whole oats with nuts and fruit chopped on top, sliced on top I think most of them say that’s bland. And if you had them eat it, they’d say, “This is really terrible. This taste like cotton. It doesn’t have any flavor, it’s not crispy crunchy.” That’s not to say that it doesn’t have flavor. It’s just that they can’t taste it. If they’ve been assaulting, how do I put it, if they’ve been overloading, saturating their taste buds with the froot loops and the Count Chocula and probably throwing on their soda and Doritos and things like that. Actually, if you go for…. You know this, if you go for I think it takes a couple of weeks, maybe a month without those really strong sugar salt fat flavors overloading everything, you start to pick up as I have that fruit and vegetables have a lot more flavor and nuance if you’re not overloading the circuits of your taste buds.
If you suggest to some of the switch from industrial cereal to oats and actual fruit and actual nuts, most of them will say, “No, it doesn’t taste good.” It’s not that it doesn’t taste good. It’s from within the system that you’re in if people don’t see that there’s another system once you’ve made the switch to the other system it’s weird to go back. Well, you might say, “But what difference does it make? I’ll just pick one system or another system.” If both systems when you’re in, it feels like to have a lot of right and health and so forth, what does it matter? I’ll just pick the one that has the colorful shapes and stuff like that. Well there’s one big difference. Despite the claims of them being healthy and like Honey Nut Cheerios probably has a thing on it that says healthy heart oats or something like that which is a fraction of the oats that oats have. Despite their claims of being healthy one of these systems actually is healthy and the other system is not healthy and your life literally depends on it. I could also add on that one of them pollutes a lot more. One of them…. There’s lots of differences between them besides just that one them tastes full of crispy crunchy that sort of stuff.
My point is when you’re in one system if you evaluate the other system by the system that you’re in, other things look really impossible. If you make the switch, I think most people who make the switch from industrial to oats, actual fruit, actual nuts I don’t think most people want to change back. When you’re in one system you want to stay in it but one of them is actually healthy, actually saves money, saves time and so forth. You might say, “Well, cereals. Not that big of a deal.” From cereals I want to make a jump in this conversation to what I did historically which was to airplanes. After I made the switch from packaged food to unpackaged food and I heard how much pollution flying caused New York – L.A. roundtrip is something like a year of driving per person on that flight if its coach, more if its business and more if its first class.
When I first had the idea of not flying for a year I also thought, “I got family all over the world. My job, my book is coming out that year, I want to do a book tour.” It was a very difficult decision but I also knew that having made that switch from one system to another switch before I anticipated the switch would work out for me. As it turned out it did. Why did it look so impossible for me as everybody else says it does for them? Because I was in a system in which the system requires flying but if you look at where that system goes you read the paper. It leads to coral reefs dying, mercury in your food, Florida possibly going to be submerged, things like that. You know where it goes. One system leads that way. The other system doesn’t necessarily. So I have to ask myself, “Do I want to keep that system going?” I didn’t. And so that prompted me to make the switch once I made the switch I got into a new system that new system for me I should say…
Human beings have been around for hundreds of thousands of years as homosapiens. Airplanes have been around for roughly a century and I think that for those hundreds of thousands of years leading up to that century probably a lot of people figured out how to be happy. After I made the switch and I started living in a system where I wasn’t flying everywhere what seemed impossible stopped seeming impossible and whole new things opened up. It’s not what you don’t do. When I say I’m not flying it’s not that I’m not flying, in my head and in my heart I’m doing other things.
So, let me give you the big example of someone who made that switch on a huge national security level and found that he could do a lot more than people expected. I want to tell you about the Millennium Challenge 2002. I’m going to read the following from Wikipedia because it described it pretty well:
“The Millennium Challenge was a major wargame exercise conducted by the United States Armed Forces in mid-2002. The exercise which ran from July 24 to August 15 and cost 250 million dollars involved both live exercises and computer simulation. It was meant to be a test of future military transformation that is a transition toward new technologies that enable network centric warfare and provide more effective command and control of current and future weaponry and tactics. The simulated combatants where the United States referred to as Blue and an unknown adversary in the Middle East the Red team which was basically Iran. This was a major wargame situation in which the United States was testing its use of technology against a small foe that was supposed to be like if someone in Iran went rogue. In the system that this was set up everybody knew that the United States was going to win. They asked retired Marines general to simply being the rogue person from this Middle East state, something like Iran. He did not have anywhere near the technology on his side that the Blue team did, the one representing the United States did.”
I am going to read the following from an article about the guy who played the role of the Middle East rogue leader:
“Paul Van Riper is tall and posing. He formerly served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam and had a long, distinguished career. He ran his soldiers directly concisely and confidently. He was strict and fair, a student of war who gave clear ideas about how men ought to conduct themselves. He was aggressive so all under him obeyed without question. His former soldiers lauded his leadership as natural and effective. In the spring of 2000 senior Pentagon officials approached him postretirement planning the Millennium Challenge 2002. They asked Van Riper to play a rogue military commander who had broken from his government in the Persian Gulf and was threatening to throw the entire region into war. He had considerable power base and was harboring and sponsoring multiple terrorist organizations and was strongly anti-American. On the opening day of the simulation the Blue team that is representing the United States sent 10000 troops into the Persian Gulf, the simulation.”
This is me speaking now. All this is simulated. So there were no people dying, there no ships sinking, it was all simulated. “On the opening day of the simulation the Blue team, the Americans sent 10000 troops into the Persian Gulf Parkton aircraft carrier battle group offshore the Red team’s home country and demanded surrender, acting with confidence ostensibly knowing the Red team’s vulnerabilities and moves. Then Riper did not act as the computers predicted. The Blue team had destroyed all the electronic fiber optic communications assuming that the Red team would rely easily on intercepted satellite communication. Van Riper instead use messages hidden in prayers and motorcycles, he used World War II [unintelligible] methodology to circumvent the modern technology that would give up his moves.”
OK, so this is me again. What happened was they sent in a big giant aircraft carrier and they just came in and said, “Surrender” and they figured, “We can tap into all those communications, we know exactly what he is going to be doing. There’s not much that he can do.” So, what happened? Let’s go back to the article quoting again:
“On the second day of the game Van Riper put a fleet of small boats in the Gulf to track the ships of the invading Blue navy. Then without warning he bombarded the Navy in an hour-long assault with cruise missiles. In the end 16 American ships were at the bottom of the Gulf. Had this been a real war, 20000 American servicemen and women would have died without having fired a single shot.” He wiped up the floor with them. It looked like he had been completely one way the other way. How did he do this? Because he was not relying on technology. He didn’t live by the values that they all set this thing up by. He looked at the values that he had for him and he figured out how to make things work.
So there was an interview by Nova PBS’s TV show. I’m going to read you what he said about technology. I want you to… As you listen to this, think about how people view technology with respect to the environment because I think a lot of people think, “Technology will save us.” Well, the technology doesn’t quite exist yet but we’ll have solar powered airplanes, we’ll have carbon sequestration, things like that. That’s living in one system and thinking technology has always worked. Let me read what he says. So Nova asked him, “How has technology changed the nature of war?” Paul Van Riper response, “When I look at any of the modern technology whether it’s precision guided munitions, some of the automated command and control, the use of space the overhead surveillance systems and so on, I appreciate that technology but I try to take the long view. Look back over the course of history. There are many moments that could have been called breakpoints because of technology. People at the time thought the world would be fundamentally different because of that technology. Gunpowder would be an example, use of gas in World War I, atomic nuclear weapons. In reality the fundamental nature of war has not changed. It won’t change and in fact it can’t change. The nature of war is probably best explained and articulated by Prussian general and theorist Carl von Clausewitz who wrote the classic On War. In the book he lays out the nature of war which is first of all fundamentally uncertain. There’s no way to predict how any war will turn out. As he said, it has its own dynamics as it unfolds.”
OK, so it’s back to me now again. This contrasts greatly with how most people view technology with respect to environment. People are living in this world thinking they’re living in a system thinking, “Things will work out. Things have always worked out.” But the situation has changed. We can no longer expand out into new territories. We can no longer believe as we once did that any human being is so small compared to the whole planet that whatever we do won’t change things on a global level. Well, that’s my perspective. You may feel differently but it seems pretty clear to me that this is the way things are. PBS also asked him, “But technology evolves. Is it vitally important to pursue new technology?” This is me talking. I’m not here to say technology we shouldn’t use it. I agree with what he says about technology in war.
So here Van Riper says, “Anyone who understands war would never deny the place of technology. It has a very prominent place, a very important place. The American nation needs to invest all it can afford in new technologies for the military. It just needs to be very careful that that investment supports an operating idea or concept. It’s not technology for technology’s sake. Worst of all would be for technology to lead the military instead of the ideas leading the development of the technology. The first thing you have to understand is how you plan to fight in the future or in a particular engagement, a particular war. Once you understand how you’re going to fight, then you bring the technology to it. If you lead with technology, I think you’re bound to make mistakes.”
This describes how I look at technology with respect to the environment. Yes, by all means put everything we have into developing new technologies but to serve a goal I think that goal has to be the change our beliefs and goals guiding the system. If you simply make the system more efficient and that system is driving us toward… You’ve read the headlines you know what is driving us toward – species extinctions, global warming, pollution, litter everywhere. Before that simulation I believe that everybody except for Van Riper himself, would have said, “It’s impossible for red to be blue.” What happened. He wasn’t in that system. They were not describing impossibility of absolute reality. They were describing impossibility of their system which had a certain set of values that he did not share. His values led him to win. And in my experience that applies to choosing not to fly yourself. If you don’t question the system that you’re in it’s impossible to imagine not flying. If you leave that system you find that there’s much more possible and then I got to tell you when you look back at that system after you’ve left it, what seemed impossible is not impossible. There’s a lot of problems with that system and there’s a lot of things that people think make them happy that you can get that happiness without all the pollution that comes with it.
Let me give you an example from my life. I’m now in my third year of not flying. And it occurs to me that the longer I go without flying, the more I want not to fly, the more flying doesn’t make sense. Will I fly again in my life? I’m not sure. I think it’s pretty high chance that I will but a lot less than I used to but I’d like to see the Eiffel Tower again. I’d love to eat Thai food in Thailand, that’s my favorite cuisine and not flying makes it kind of difficult. So, I started thinking what could I do. Naturally, you get to boats. I don’t want to take a cruise ship. I don’t want to take a passenger… They take passengers on freight boats but those things look a lot like Count Chocula, if you know what I mean. That leaves sailboats. Sailboats you’ve got to make them, that produces something. But wind is renewable. Even I thought it was kind of weird to start talking about sailing across the Atlantic or not possible. But in the way that I normally do I just put the word out, I started talking to people. If you listen to some of my podcasts, especially the John Lee Dumas podcast, you’ll hear that I talk about it and the more that I talk about it the more I find there’s a lot of people that sail. A lot of people who sail mostly up and down the Eastern Seaboard close to New York I’m not talking about…. But they go across the Atlantic. And the more I talked about it people started to come back to me and talk about their uncles or their friends who sailed and stuff like that.
And now things have worked out really interestingly. For one thing in New York City’s harbor there are sailing lessons and they’re not really that expensive. I’ve saved a lot of money by not flying. I’ve got to mention because when I think sailing I think that’s something that like yachts is something that rich people do. By the way, being at NYU and just talking about environmental things there’s a lot of people who say when you talk about food they are like, “Oh, you have some privilege. You have some special ability to get food but what about people who can’t? What about people who don’t have access to, who live in food deserts and things like that?” I don’t quite get where they’re going if they’re suggesting that I should pollute more because other people don’t have access to some food, that’s a whole other issue. But as far as I can tell everyone who has ever suggested that to me flies and flying seems like a lot bigger of a deal than not polluting by… Anyway.
I don’t quite get what they’re saying but I can tell you this – everyone who points out privilege stuff they seem to fly. But by not flying I have more money to spend on boating. These boats that you take the courses from the New York City Harbor they’re used every single day and so the cost per person drops a lot. And so, you’re not buying fuel you’re just going out on a boat. So one, I signed up to take lessons. If you listen to John Lee Dumas’s episode you’ll hear that he takes on a challenge of where he lives in Puerto Rico he’s picking up trash one time per month for this year. And at the end of that episode I mentioned to listeners, “If anyone is interested in going to Puerto Rico to pick up garbage with John Lee Dumas and you have a boat, I’d love to go on a boat with you.” Well, I started mentioning that to people and a friend of a friend in Atlanta has said that he’s been sailing for a few years and he wants to sail. And when I mentioned the prospect of picking up garbage on John Lee Dumas’s beaches, he was like, “That sounds great.”
So now look at this coming together. I got someone who sails and has done it enough that he can go to the Caribbean. He’s got access to a boat and other people started getting on board and it might start coming together. Now I’ve also been invited in June of 2019 to a big event in Europe. And so, I want to be able to get across the Atlantic, you know be able to not be dead weight on a boat to go across the Atlantic. Will I be able to learn fast enough? I’m not sure but it certainly gives me a deadline to keep trying. I should mention one of the people who wants to go on a boat to the Caribbean has connections to media and he’s talking about making a… He was like, “Josh, you got to make a show out of this.” And so, we started talking about making a show out of it. He wants to do like antics on the high seas or high [unintelligible] on the high seas. I want to make sure that whatever we do makes it clear that we’re not just having fun in the ocean but we’re specifically doing what happens when you don’t fly. When you live by your values you end up finding things that work really well. I’m a big fan of having new technologies and having more efficient solar and more efficient wind and stuff like that. But sailing is a millennia old technology. I don’t even know if we can call it technology and it works pretty well. I mean will I be able to get across the Atlantic? I’m not really sure. I don’t think it’s held me back from things. I think it’s given me a lot of opportunities to do things that I couldn’t have done otherwise now that I’m in the system.
So, I’ve gone on for a while. I wanted to talk about the cereal aisle and how it represents how living in one system blinds you to the possibility of another system as long as you’re in that first system. All this stuff “it tastes really bland, it seems impossible” if you decide to change the system first, then you realize it works. So, Paul Van Riper and the Marines, well, retired and doing the Millennium challenge 2002, he exited the system and was able to do what everyone would have considered impossible on a huge multi you know close to a billion-dollar scale. And in my life, I found that not flying once I’d change the system I found it’s very easy to stay this way and whole new opportunities arise.
It’s possible I got on the water. I’m taking my first lessons starting tomorrow to learn to sail. It’s possible that I won’t like it at all. It’s possible I’ll give it up but I have a feeling I’m going to like it a lot and I have a feeling I’m going to start doing things that other people couldn’t do and I’ll have a lot of fun. I think this is not the last you’ll hear about sailing. I’ve gone on for a while. This is me talking about systems and values within systems. If you don’t exit the system, if you believe that that system is absolute reality, you’re going to prevent yourself from doing a lot of things that you could do. So if you want to pollute less, think about the system that you’re in. Think about is it possible that there are other systems with other values that might be just as stable and might work just as well for you. It’s worked for me.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees