062: Business and systemic change: Michael Lenox, part 2 (transcript)

July 12, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

Michael Lenox

Welcome back for the second conversation with Michael Lenox. We start by talking about how his book is catching on. My favorite part of it is that it’s about a systems approach. Now I’m going to say as an aside that he puts more faith into destructive innovation than I would. I consider it important even essential to keep developing technologies to make them more essential. But check my blog for posts on how I find that technological innovation has historically increased pollution even when you make things more efficient in the short run. But I say that as an aside here because my goal is to expose his views not to debate him. The big thing is that business produces leaders. I want to bring leaders to environmental action not just to highlight a few small achievements of a few people who did some small things because in the opposite direction we have Donald Trump, we have the Koch brothers leading tremendously effectively. I don’t like what they’re doing but I recognize the scale on which they’re working and it’s much bigger than a small recycling program or a bunch of people not getting straws. And I want to bring leadership on that scale to protect and conserve the environment. And of course, we also talk about Michael’s taking action himself. So let’s listen.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Josh Spodek. I’m here with Michael Lenox. Michael, how are you doing?

Michael: I’m doing well today.

Joshua: And since last we spoke two big things have happened. One is that you’ve done the personal challenge but I’m really more interested in starting by hearing about the book because you wrote the book not just for the usual audience for you which was an academic audience but for the general public. I know you’ve been out there talking about it and so forth. How are things going with the launch?

Michael: Yeah, so I’m very excited. You know the book launches on Tuesday, May 22 here coming up. And I’ve been on the road talking about the book to various audiences. I was actually just in China last week giving a couple of talks in Hong Kong and Shanghai. And as you mentioned there you know this is a new experience for me and that this book is really aimed at a general practitioner audience here, not just an academic audience. And it’s really fun to kind of hear from others in the community what resonates with them, what’s novel to them. I think this notion that the criticality of innovation for dealing with climate change and other sustainability challenges has resonated. And then for them to be able to relate some of the anecdotes and the stories that I’m telling with their own experiences, their own expertise [unintelligible].

Joshua: Oh, now I’m curious to hear one or two of the stories although I’m also… One of the big things you talked about was the systemic approach and seeing that it’s not just one thing. Is that something they’re getting? Is that something that is making a difference?

Michael: Yeah. I think it’s resonating with people that notion. Again, trying to understand the scale of the problem we face and that innovating new disruptive technologies is going to be a critical part of that and that understanding how those technologies come about and how the broader system influences that, I think people are getting that story. Snd it might change the perspective slightly from those who maybe thought of it purely from a simple corporate social responsibility angle you know how do we get large companies to reduce their emissions 5 percent or so to again what we’re arguing for which is that really what we need is real disruptive innovation across a wide number of sectors here.

Joshua: Now I want to check a story. Can you share one of the stories that you share with them that they like or a story that they’ve shared back with you?

Michael: Yeah. Some of these are taken directly from the book. So just you know I tell the story of some companies that I think you know many people are familiar with like Tesla, Nest now owned by Google. But I also tell stories about for example Climate Corporation which is developing information solutions for farmers to help increase their efficiency and reduce their environmental impact of their efforts. At the end of the day it’s a technology solution but it’s having a big impact on the footprint of farming operations.

Joshua: Now speaking of impacts that you’re having on others, does reaching a new audience and talking to new media is that leading to changing yourself?

Michael: Yeah. I think you know this isn’t the first time I was trying to reach out to external audiences for a while now with my work. It is always a reality check for you. It’s always good to hear from those… First, those who might not be in this space at all. See again what they’re thinking of and what resonates with them. And then of course you know there are people I’m speaking to who might be really deep into the solar industry or really deep into the electric vehicle industry and hear what they’re dealing with and what this kind of prodder story I’m telling resonates with them.

Joshua: I remember when I was about to release my book I was crazy. So much stuff going on. I presume this craziness, I mean with all the international travel, is it also fun or is it educational?

Michael: It’s a joy to have the opportunity to share your ideas with others and hear from them and in some ways, I’m learning as well as I’m on the road here now. It’s been a joy. I am a big believer that business and markets are one of the most powerful intuitions that have been invented by human kind. It’s not to say that the business and markets can’t be used for ill and we can all point to examples of CEOs or managers who backed it in ways that aren’t you know in the public interest, in the best interest of society.

I find that when I’m working with companies and CEOs more often than not they are citizens of the world and they do want to have a positive impact. The question becomes how can they operate given the constraints they operate in as business or even just any organization. So that’s why in the book we really take the systems perspective and says we got to understand that institutional context, the business and markets operate and how they might provide the conditions under which we can get more of these sustainable disruptive innovations that they’re advocating for.

Joshua: Yeah. I think that a lot of people, how do I put it…A lot of people if they come to me and they say, “Josh, I’ve got this great person for your podcast, it’s this person who’s doing this recycling or this person who’s doing this farming in some urban area or something like that.” I am like, “That’s great.” I’m looking for leaders and business has one thing it does well… Well, let’s see. I mean certainly it produces leaders that aren’t so great but it does work on producing leaders. And I think that not to include that it’s part of what we do in environmental work is going to miss some of the most valuable people to contribute. Like I had this panel a little while ago and is leading to panels. Some people at UVA are talking to me about it and people at Duke and people maybe at Yale and it’s in the business schools. And then also I’m getting interest from Coca-Cola and from Exxon and a long time ago when I was in school I’d be like protest, we should protest these companies. But the delta that’s achievable by working with them is much greater. I mean they’re there, they exist. Coca-Cola, a lot of…I pick up a lot of garbage in the city because you know I have my daily habit of I pick up this one piece of trash. Coca-Cola produces a lot of it. If I want to change that, working with them is going to be much more effective than working against them.

Michael: [unintelligible] make this point in the book that if you know if you look at the top 50 economies in the world measured by revenue in the case of companies or GDP in the case of countries, you don’t have to go very far down the list before you start running in the companies. You know a company like Exxon is like the 10th largest economy in the world. That might not be exactly the right number but it’s a high level there. We just have to accept the fact that large organizations, large businesses are powerful institutions and can affect change both positively and negatively. But again, the question is how do you get the positive change you want?

Joshua: I am going to use that to segue into a positive change and I’m going to throw in personal change as well. Since last we spoke you, can I say someone who enjoys the taste of beef…

Michael: Yes. Yeah.

Joshua: …have over the past month based on, correct me if I’m wrong, but based on values of yours said, “I’m going to go for 30 days without.”

Michael: Yes.

Joshua: How did it go? If you don’t mind sharing.

Michael: Successful, I have to say. I was able to stick to my pledge. To be honest you know it’s not that huge of a sacrifice. I was thinking about you know there was only a couple instances where it was problematic at all and they were basically instances where I wasn’t controlling the menu. So two come to mind. One, we went over some friends’ house on Mother’s Day to celebrate our wives and the mothers and we had a cookout and so hamburgers were the main course. And so that was fine. I just you know bypassed the hamburger and had some sides and it was all good. And then there was another instance where it’s the time of the year at the university where we have different banquets and end of the year celebrations. And so this one, the main course was beef. And again, I was just able to politely ask for an alternative. They brought me something. So this isn’t a great sacrifice. I was pleased to see that I was able to honor the pledge. But being honest it wasn’t like it was a huge sacrifice to do it.

Joshua: I was actually expecting each of the times that you said that you were with the mother or at the school events, I thought you’re going to say, “No, it wasn’t a big deal. I just had it. And then you know I didn’t count it as like a big defeat.” But you didn’t. You actually you went further than a lot…. I mean I’ve had other people do this before and some people are just like, “Yeah, I just said no big deal.” But yeah, I think that the idea is if you prepare it, then it works out and if it doesn’t go, I’m speaking now a bit to the listeners, if it doesn’t go well, you just think of…Do you say, “That’s the end of it” or do you say, “Well, adjust on the fly”?

Michael: I think the harder thing and this is what I’m actually planning to do kind of moving forward is I’m not a big believer in kind of absolutism when it comes to diet or working out and all those things. I think the more important thing is actually routine. Now how do you establish a routine for yourself? I think you’re right, in the long run and just having absolutism is first hard to do and then if you run into the risk that if you break that, then you just are back to bad habits. So I think for me I think I’d like to continue to kind of minimize my beef consumption. I don’t want to swear it off completely but I think just even having that recognition like I should really work to limit my beef consumption and make that an eternal pledge here is what I’ve been thinking. My wife and I’ve talked about that is just something in general we need to do.

Joshua: Well, I’m curious what led you to that change. Well, I mean I presume it’s the experience but it’s not obvious what the connection is. Was it just because it was easier than you expected?

Michael: Yeah. I think so. I think sometimes it’s just a reminder. I mean again all of these kind of behavioral changes that we kind of all seek to improve ourselves I think again it’s more about routine. I work out regularly and my son and daughter are now 16 and 14 are beginning to work out more and they have sports and things that they do. What I always tell them is that the biggest thing is just showing up. Don’t expect that every day is going to be great and that some days you’re going to miss and [unintelligible] when I was in China, you’re not going to be able to keep this up every day but it is the mentality of like, “I’m going to strive to do this every day. I recognize it’s not a complete failure if I don’t achieve that. But keep at it. Go back again.” And I think that I find is a more realistic maybe way of keeping things as the same with diet. I tell myself always like I got to cut back on the ice cream but not I am going to give it up completely. Every once in a while, I’m going to treat myself I’m going to have that ice cream and I’m not going to feel guilty about it. But yeah, I got to cut it back. It shouldn’t be a daily thing obviously.

Joshua: So you’re talking a lot about the behaviors that are coming up and I’m hearing joy, happiness. What was the emotional experience of this challenge and looking forward as well?

Michael: Well, like I said I think the main thing it did to me was just remind me. I think when I was in for example that banquet situation I mentioned I wouldn’t have thought about it before. It wasn’t something that was you know would be top of mind. And because I had made the pledge and I wanted to honor that you know yeah, something I thought about. And again, I think moving forward I’d like to try to keep that reminder in my mind that if I am going to get you know a stake or hamburger like it’s going to be like, “Oh, this is something I can only do like you know once every couple of months.” That isn’t a regular occurrence for me. Again, I think that ends up at least for me being more realistic. I am trying to approach something than trying to take the absolutism like I would never do this again. I’ve seen so many people like you know where they were vegetarians for a while and then they backed off and then they go again. And I don’t know. I think restraint may be better than absolutism, at least for me and maybe it’s more personal. For me that seems to work better.

Joshua: So it sounds like you really enjoy this. It sounds like this what you’re doing and also the change itself. Did this experience lead you to reflect on anything that you wrote about in the book?

Michael: Well, I think you know I always struggle with what I think a lot of us do, which is knowing that the scope of the problem we face there’s a little bit of defeatism in the individual level. I am just a speck that is … I can only move the needle a little bit with my own behavior. As we all know the key is that collectively we begin to do that. At the same time, it doesn’t absolve you from making the effort. We actually have a sustainable initiative here at Darden and we talk about how we live and how we learn. And I really like that. I didn’t coin that phrase but it speaks to that we’re at one level doing you know a number of different efforts to increase our educational efforts around sustainability in the curriculum. But if we’re going to do that, we also need to live that as well. And so we need to make changes to our operations and how we go as an enterprise to be consistent in what we’re doing. And I kind of like that too from the individual level. So you know I’m writing about sustainability issues, I believe deeply in the need to make changes and action and if I do that, then you know I should be living some of those values myself.

Joshua: So did this augment that experience for you?

Michael: Absolutely.

Joshua: I asked a very leading question there. We talked about values before. I mean I remember you talking a lot about water in your youth and like that was one of your associations with the environment. What values did this connect with? You said you were honoring a pledge so it sounds like honoring something you said but I feel like it came from something prior even before you pledged it, there was something that I connected with. Were you thinking about your values while you’re doing it?

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. I think again we aspire to our better angels every day and we struggle with those. And I think a good reminder every once in a while, a pledge is helpful to return you to this. Because from everything from making sure we’re recycling to thinking about our carbon footprint when we buy cars and houses and things like that, I am by no means a leader in that but I strive to do better every day.


Joshua: Well, I want to wrap up with a couple of questions. One is if there’s anything I didn’t think to ask that’s worth bringing up that you’d like to bring out. And certainly, are there other events coming up with the book? And then also…. Well, let me start with that one.

Michael: Yea,h you know I’m going to be on the road a little bit more. We’re doing some alumni events for UVA once that I’ll be talking with. I’ll be out in Boston and I’ll be down in Philadelphia and I will be out in California. So more to come on that. And doing quite a bit of writing and reports in addition to the book that we’re kind of releasing soon through the [unintelligible] institute that I’m affiliated with. We just had a new report out on potential for decarbonizing the electric utility sector. And then we also have a policy playbook coming out that speaks to how do we increase the innovation coming out around clean technology. That actually grew out of an event we did back in February in D.C. called a Jefferson Innovation Summit where we got 50 delegates together from all walks of life – business, policy, government officials, NGOs, academics to discuss that and in the essence ideas how to do that. So there is a lot more coming out. Just be on the lookout for it.

Joshua: All right. And so for listeners but begin… Listeners can begin with Can Business Save the Earth by Michael Lenox and Arun Chatterjee. The last question I like to end with is if you have any personal message to say direct to the listeners?

Michael: Yeah. I think you know it can be daunting and we lay out in the book some of the you know the scale of the challenges we’re facing and it can be easy to be defeatist about that. But I choose optimist and I do think when we think about the economic and the broader social political economics as a system you have to recognize that we all play a role and that it’s hard for anyone of us to like direct the system when we all influence the system. And it’s all those acts of individuals, stakeholders and actors influencing the system that actually is what moves it forward. So it’s easy to get daunted and be pessimistic. I ask more people you know choose optimism, don’t give up and continue to have influence as you can how that system evolves.

Joshua: I can’t help but add to that because I feel like that message got me to do this podcast, it got me to do things like this. After you do it, it becomes really… You enjoy it. There’s definitely a lot of times that I want to give up and I still sometimes I get frustrated. A lot of times I get frustrated. But it’s worth it. I mean on the other side of it is living by your values.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely.

Joshua: And the people you interact with, the things you get to do. Thank you for sharing that.

Michael: Sure, absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Joshua: My pleasure.


If you ask me, Michael sounded as if he was smiling especially when he started talking about the personal challenge. Not so hard, kind of fun, he wants to keep going. I wasn’t sure before inviting him if an academic would act but Michael didn’t flinch. In fact, he jumped into it. So I ask you if you aren’t doing anything, what are you going to do? And if you know what you want to do, what are you waiting for? And if you’re doing something, I recommend clicking on Commit to a Personal Challenge on the podcast page joshuaspodek.com/podcast, share what you’re doing and be a leader among leaders.

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