090: Obesity and the Environment (transcript)

September 25, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek


Today I want to cover a topic that I thought everybody saw and everybody knew about. But the more that I talk about it to people in person, the more that I find people say two things. One is that they never thought of it which is surprising to me. But the other thing that they say is that I should share it because they find it insightful. So I’m going to share it. And so today I’m going to talk about obesity and the environment. I understand that some people find talking or hearing about obesity difficult. If you’re one of them, this recording might not be for you. My goal is to support and empower by saying what I wish someone had said to me when I polluted a lot more than I do or what I would want others to say to me if I were obese. If what I say doesn’t feel supportive or empowering, I recommend not listening.

I’m going to start by talking about the first time that I ever had a Twinkie. It’s drawing memories and memories and memories now because this would be the 70s when I was a kid. When I grew up we were not allowed to have sugar cereals. We didn’t have candy like that in house. So this would have been at some friend of the families. And I do remember I was alone in some kitchen and on the kitchen counter was a box of Twinkies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before. I opened the box up and inside were individually cellophane wrapped Twinkies so right there I wouldn’t have it because of the cellophane because the packaging. In any case, I was a kid. I got it out. And you know you can squeeze it through the cellophane which is inflated and so you can’t squeeze it all the way. But I open it up and there’s that smell of it’s like a sweet almost maple syrup, I guess it’s corn syrup, smell and it’s soft. It’s chewy. I mean I haven’t tried it yet but you know you want to taste it because it smells like it’s going to taste really good and it’s got this… And when I say good I mean good for a kid because at the time you like sugar sweetness.

Here’s what I remember. Putting it in my mouth just one end of it and biting down so my incisors would pierce the end of it. It’s not crispy on the outside, tender on the inside like a lot of comfort food is but it’s got that sponginess so your teeth are kind of pushing on it and then they pierce through it and they go through this soft gooey, I don’t know if you call it a dough, and then they you get to the creme inside. And you know that’s got to be crème, C R E M E as opposed to C R E A M because there’s no way there’s any dairy in these things. But by this point you get the simultaneous effect of your tongue being on the sweet exterior and your teeth getting that creamy interior and it’s all soft and it has this quality where you close your teeth on it… I don’t know if to a kid’s mouth it tastes really good. I think I ate four Twinkies in a row before they came out and stopped me because they tasted so good. And when you’re a child it tastes really good to eat really sweet things. You’re still in that yummy phase where you just like yummy foods.

Before I get into obesity and the environment I want to give the standard disclaimers. As far as I know, many people like being obese, they like being fat, that’s their business. I respect. I’m not here to change people’s views. I’m not here to change people’s values. If you are overweight or obese and that’s something you want or you like, if that’s what you want – respect. This podcast episode is not for you. But there are plenty of people out there as far as I know who are obese and don’t want to be obese and they buy diet books and they look at themselves in the mirror when they’re naked and they say, “I don’t want to look like this.” And they don’t implement the diet as they could and they don’t do what they could to do something about it. Now it seems like there’s a lot of people out there who say that there’s nothing they can do about it. I don’t know if that’s your case or not but I know that there are some people who can do something about it. This is for the people who can do something about it but for some reason do not do something about it. That’s the people I’m talking to. People who don’t change their lifestyle to create the bodies that they want. People who do like their bodies however they are, that’s great. People who can’t do anything about it, I’m not a medical doctor. But anyway. This is for people who can change and haven’t.

And for context, for the environment, think of some pile of garbage that you’ve seen, some exhaust coming in or some vehicle, some scene of Beijing or New Delhi. It wasn’t always like that in my lifetime. Even if you don’t have a problem with pollution or global warming or litter many people do and the pollution and waste is increasing as you can plainly see in our lifetimes almost anywhere you go. And I’m thinking, I live in New York City, there’s plenty of places where I’ll go to either parade or just certain street corners will have a lot of garbage in them. It doesn’t have to be like that. A lot of the garbage is single use stuff that someone uses for almost no time and never needed to. And that’s the world we live in today. What standards we used to have we have just blindly abandoned. The cleanliness… Of course, it’s cleaner in some ways than it has been in the past but nowhere near like it was before we didn’t used to have plastic that could last for 400 years.

And it’s similar with overweightness and obesity. If you look around, there is a lot of obesity in this country, in this world. Most people I talk to say that they’re helpless but our genes have not changed since our country was I don’t know 10 percent overweight or 20 percent overweight. Now it’s something like 80 percent. So we’re similar people, similar genes, yet we’re way more overweight. And that’s changed in my lifetime. If you like it, great. If you don’t like it, that’s the context that I’m thinking about here.

How we treat our bodies is how we’re treating the environment. How we treat the environment is how we’re treating our bodies. The fat and CO2 concentrations, the amount of mercury, the pollution – these aren’t the cause of the problem. They’re the effects. The cause, what’s causing these concentrations and the growth of these things is our behavior. Our behavior is rooted in our beliefs, our emotions and our motivations. If we want to change these effects, if we want to lower the concentrations of these things, the output of these things, the litter, the pollution, the fat, we have to change the causes which is our behavior and changing behavior is the realm of leadership. Our environments and obesity, related behaviors, beliefs, emotions and motivations are more similar than different. They come from similar cultural trends and have documented problems of disease and death no matter how people change the standards from the past to now to accept them. There’s just no changing standards on suffering and death because that’s the result of all this pollution, all this obesity and so forth.

And the way out is through leadership. Changing people’s beliefs, motivations and behaviors is easier, healthier, more fun, more rewarding than surgery, untestable technical solutions like putting reflective particles in the air. You know technical solutions rarely solve social problems or emotional problems and they tend to augment them. And we’re talking about social and emotional problems here. How do we know that we can change? Why do I believe this is possible? Because humanity wasn’t obese like the past couple of generations for hundreds of thousands of years before because we didn’t have pollution like this for hundreds of thousands of years and yet people found ways to be happy. Sure, lots of people are happy today but we have opioids, heart disease. People go blind and need limbs amputated because they’re sugar laden blood can’t reach tissue to keep it alive. And with all the people prescribed Prozac and the marches in the street and so forth it doesn’t look like people are that happy today.

So I’m here today to talk about obesity and the environment from a leadership perspective. What I mean by leadership perspective is the emotions and the beliefs driving each – the growth of obesity, the growth of pollution and waste and the inner monologue as well. In both of these things I think a lot of people think, “Oh, no one will notice if I just litter this thing here. If I put it here, no one will notice I did it.” or “If I eat this thing, then maybe it won’t stick. Maybe these calories will pass right through me. I don’t want to do the work or I want the comfort and convenience. I don’t want to deal with this stuff.” And nature doesn’t forget what you’ve put even if no one saw you litter. Nature doesn’t forget even if no one saw that you did something else that caused some exhaust to come out. Nature knows every calorie that you’ve ingested. But we still so much want to think it doesn’t count.

I know that feeling. When I was younger I remember in graduate school I always had ice cream in my freezer. I didn’t always want ice cream but when I had it, I would sometimes think about it and it’s hard when you are thinking about it, especially when you’re trying not to think about it, it just stays in your head. And I think about it, and I think about it and I think, “I might as well just have some.” And I get it out and I eat it. And even though I didn’t want to eat it as I put it in my mouth and I taste the sweetness and the creaminess I think, “Oh, this is really good. I’m so glad to eat this.” And then as soon as I finish it, I’m like, “Why did I do that?” And then when I finish it, the whole container, I would go out and get more and the cycle would continue. And I felt helpless. I felt there was nothing I could do about it. Well, now it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had ice cream. Well, I’ll get back to that in a second. I would have chips and pretzels always in my cupboard. We weren’t allowed them when we were kids but I would go through these things.

Actually, the other day I went to a food event. I was invited to cover it for my Inc. column and there are all these free samples of things I normally wouldn’t get. So I got them and I ate these you know they freshly made things but a little more oily than I would normally get. There were some Impossible burgers. I ate some of the stuff and it was more than I would normally eat and a little less healthy than I would normally eat. And what do you know? The next morning when I woke up I could feel new fat on my abdomen. One meal. It wasn’t even a meal, a few things and I can feel it. I don’t know, other people sometimes say that maybe I don’t know. Sometimes you’ll think this won’t count. Every little bit counts for me and my body. And that’s part of why I like to be fit is that is accountability for every meal that leads me to eat every meal healthy. Although nowadays that I know how to cook and make things very delicious that are healthy, it’s really I just eat what’s delicious because I’ve learned to love green leafy vegetables and legumes and things like that. But, in any case, every bit counts for me. Of course, it counts for everybody. There’s no one for whom they can just ingest calories and it doesn’t stick to them in some way. But of course, I just want to make it clear. I’ve never had an experience where I could ingest and it didn’t stick with me. It always does. But that’s physics.

Now it’s funny when you look at pollution or litter it accumulates in similar places. If I walk around and I see trash in New York and I [unintelligible] to clean that up and come back a little bit later where I’d cleaned up would get dirty again. It could be my neighborhood. It could be by wind pattern or can be by…You know New York it seems… You know I have this habit that I put on to myself which is I pick up at least one piece of trash per day and I pick around my neighborhood. But I’ve noticed the patterns of where people put trash like horizontal surfaces on the top of mailboxes, on the top of newspaper boxes or they put them in little corners where people don’t really look. And I get this feeling that people think to themselves, “No one will notice” or “Maybe it won’t count.” But it does and stuff gets blown off into the Hudson into the river, into the ocean. It really gives you an insight into people. But, in any case, it accumulates in certain places. It’s the same with fat. It accumulates in certain places With me, love handles, right around my bellybutton, right away that’s where it appears. You know you don’t get to pick exactly where it goes because I think that’s genetic that some people’s visceral fat and some people’s subcutaneous. But if you eat more than you use, it accumulates. That’s how it gets there. There’s no mystery, there’s no mystery for any of this. Where litter comes from, where pollution comes from, where obesity comes from. It comes from what we eat is where the obesity comes, less what we exercise.

With litter and pollution, it’s you know someone else might litter and you might not. But when you get single-serving stuff, when you get some toy that’s going to bring a smile… The difference… There’s so many toys out there and I look at them and I think, “The difference between that toy and landfill is about 30 seconds of someone smiling, sometimes forced.” And then we get junk that we don’t need. There’s no mystery where the stuff comes from. Someone hands something at the store and they give us a bag. We don’t need the bag at all. We still get the bag. You know I could share a little bit more of what I’ve seen in the year two since I’ve decided to pick up at least one piece of trash per day. And this is not producing less trash. I do that elsewhere in my life but when I pick up and move it into the trash from the street that’s just moving it from one place to another. At first, it’s a little habit but after a while you pick up these patterns. You know the most disgusting is in the gutters by the curb. I oftentimes see water bottles that are filled with yellow liquid and I can just tell that there are drivers that have to drive all day and they pee in this bottle. And here’s what I can see is that they park their car or they’re by the curb and I can only imagine they opened the door a little bit, throw the bottle down and then drive away and because no one sees them they are like out of sight, out of mind. And of course, there’s lots of other garbage there too. But it’s not quite as remarkable as the yellow liquid in these disposable water bottles. I can’t tell you what this says what you learn about humans even if it’s just innocuous yellow liquid.

I can’t imagine. I mean there’s so much garbage around. How does this happen? What have we done? How have we gotten into this state? It reminds me of a time when I was in business school where I was in class in, I don’t know three or four rows back, and in the front row, it was the stadium seating so I can kind of look straightforward to the board or look a little bit down to see the people in front of me. And there’s this guy and he’s pretty obese. He’s come back from lunch and he’s got two packages, each two packs of peanut butter cups. So there’s four individual peanut butter cups in two packages and I’m not trying to look at him. I just notice when he opens one of the packages and he’s getting out one of the peanut butter cups and the teacher says something so I look up at the board, maybe three or four seconds before looking back down again and three or four seconds after I saw the guy getting the first peanut butter cup out. he’s getting the second peanut butter cup out. He’s already eaten the first one. And I see him with the second one. He just inhales it. I don’t even think he bit into it. He just swallowed the whole thing. I can’t imagine who’s getting any joy out of at least get the sweetness of the flavor that they’re eating but he just swallowed it down. I think he was just getting… There is a pleasure I guess to swallowing something and that’s what he got.

You know I wrote on my blog about the privilege of scientific ignorance. It applies here. When I wrote about the privilege of scientific ignorance in my blog I wrote about how people who have no idea how a jet engine or an airplane wing works will think nothing of flying all around the world and when they do they are polluting more than nearly anyone in history. Most of history, there was no heavier than air flight. So talk about the 1 percent of the 1 percent is…. I mean it’s a few people in the billions who’ve ever lived have been able to fly with the wanton disregard for the people who have to deal with the exhaust that comes out of the back of the plane which is a lot. One flight can easily be more than what the IPCC recommends for an entire year. And the rest of us have to live with their pollution for centuries. Some of the gases have come out of there.

This behavior is to me as entitled and privileged as you can imagine because they act as if they can just do it without any regard for what other people have to deal with it, without any thought of the stewardship, of the dominion that we have, of this gift, of this once pristine Earth. And the thing is what they come back with. If you point this out to them is this specious, fatuous, self-serving, I can’t even call logic, it’s a non-logic of why they have to fly. How somehow they’re spending what they need to do it with their family or for their job as if… And people have lived for hundreds of thousands of years without flying and they were still able to be happy. And the things that if you were to point out to them that they chose to live so far away from their family and they’re actually spending less time with their family because of their choices which they then claim they couldn’t have done anything otherwise and they call other people around them privileged for things that those people can’t choose. But these people can choose these things.

So the same thing applies here is that people blithely litter or they act as if recycling were benign which is not. It pollutes. They pollute. They get stuff that they don’t need at the same level of specious fatuous self-serving non-logic explaining why they say they can’t do anything about it. They can and that’s the leadership issue is that they have this belief that they can’t do anything about it when they clearly can and I think… You know this is the core of what I mean by a leadership perspective. It’s the same motivation, the same beliefs, the same emotions and self-talk behind littering and waste, the plastic and the exhaust. It’s the same thing as what goes through the mind of someone who’s obese and says that, “There’s nothing I can do about it.” So the examples are people saying things like, “Maybe no one will notice when I do this” or “Maybe this piece won’t stick” or things like, “There should be solar powered planes. It’s not my fault that there aren’t. If it were up to me, there would be solar power planes. It’s the engineers who haven’t yet created the solar power planes. It’s their fault.” Or someone talking about like chocolate cake how they’re not accepting that they demolish their taste buds with salt, sugar and fat so that they can’t taste the subtlety and nuance of fresh fruits and vegetables which they could enjoy just as much.

Nor do the either group of people who are obese and don’t want to be or who litter and waste and don’t want to but still do that they bought into a system that makes them miserable on a cycle of buying things that they don’t need, of eating things that they don’t need to and not exiting that cycle. So people argue that they live polluting lifestyles that they just can’t do anything about even as they realize that their life choices that put them into the system deprive them of time with their families, time with their friends, time in nature. They argue that they eat healthy knowing full well that their diets are making them obese and in fact the more obvious their situation, may be people listening to me right now, that it tends to be that the more obvious a situation that people are doing things to themselves, to their environment, the more that they often argue that there’s nothing they could do any different. But I put to you that there is in my experience, maybe it’s different for you but in my experience there’s just no joy in downing a peanut butter cup in under a few seconds.

There’s something missing from a life of leaving your pee in a bottle for others to clean in a gutter also filled with Doritos bags and things like that. And if you say, “Well, I am not that bad. I’m not eating a peanut butter cup in three seconds. I’m not leaving my urine for other people to clean up.” Look at the mountains of garbage. Much of it is like so-called recyclable that we pay Third World countries to take. Consider that you probably pollute hundreds of times more than people who are happy. You’re almost certainly on the spectrum of all the humans who have ever lived much closer to ignorantly polluting, being overweight or both. If you’re an American, listen to me, that’s probably the case.

The flipside is that there is great joy in examining your life. My point here, I’ve said a lot of stuff about the way things I see them, but the point of this is what we can do about it because I believe that there is great joy in examining your life and living by your values. In fact, I believe that there is no greater joy than living by your values because living by your values means value from evaluate – what’s good, what’s bad. Living by values means doing what you consider good, not what I consider good, not what others consider good except by coincidence, is what you consider good. It’s creating a better life. Our culture meanwhile tolerates obesity and pollution so much that it seems to have come to celebrate it in many corners. We abandoned standard after standard and standards of the past are maybe not your standards today but they were standards in the past that we’ve abandoned in favor of comfort and convenience that makes us and our world sick. Our arteries are as hardened and laden with cholesterol as our rivers and air are choked with plastic, greenhouse gases, mercury, you know it all. But would you rather point at others or throw up our hands and call ourselves helpless than act?

When I was a kid there were TV spots that said the amount of litter that people put out made people cry. If you know what we call the crying Indian ad where there was a Native American walking around seeing how polluted our world was. At that time, it was a crying shame. And if you look at the numbers for how much plastic we had produced ever up until then, it’s something like what we produce in a week or a month today. What was a crying shame at the time, what was the standard then we go past in a week or in a month. It’s unbelievable. And most people don’t even pause using straws, let alone riding a bike or stop living so far from their families that they have to fly around the world multiple times per year. Likewise, TV spots used to say that if you could pinch more than an inch, meaning if you could pinch I guess they would get the skin just around your bellybutton, if there was enough subcutaneous fat that it was more than an inch when you pinched it, then you’re risking your health. Now there are people out there who can probably pinch a foot because of the subcutaneous fat and they act as if people can’t tell the difference between caring about fitness and causing anorexia. No one is saying, “Be unhealthily thin.” They are saying “Become healthy” which eating your way to heart disease and diabetes and so on is not.

So I want to get back to the main point. The flipside is also the case. If these behaviors and the results of these behaviors come from environments, beliefs, behaviors and leadership things, then developing the skills, experiences and beliefs to act on one also prepares you for the other. That is if you want to lose body fat, acting on the environment will help you develop the skills and experiences and beliefs to enable you to do so and vice versa. But I think for most people losing the body fat unwanted if you like yours, that’s fine. I’m not trying to affect that but if you want to lose yours, then acting on the environment I believe will develop the skills to enable you to do that. Over and over on my podcast I have people on and ask them, “What are your values environmentally and would you care to act on these? And over and over again after they do, they do things by their values that they meant to and haven’t gotten around to. But after they do, they usually share one or both of two responses. One is, “It was easier than I’d expected” and “I wish I’d done it earlier” or “It was hard but it was the kind of hard that I value that I  wanted to do this.” And they thank me for being a part of them taking on a challenge and doing something they’ve always wanted to do instead of looking outside and saying that others are responsible.

Now they maybe, they may not be but that doesn’t change how you can act. Then you can look inside yourself and you can develop yourself. It’s not about the magnitude of what you do first, that’s a big barrier for a lot of people. They think if it’s too little, then it’s not worth doing. If it’s too big, then it’s too much effort. But what I find is it’s not the magnitude of what you do first but that you act at all. The conversations I have with people who haven’t acted, they go around and around in circles about analysis and academic questions, “If I do this and they do that” or “If I do this, what if I don’t get it right?” And it keeps them from acting. When people do act over and over they say, “Now that I’ve done X, I started doing Y, too and I didn’t realize it because I do X I can do Y. I can do Z.” And they think, “What I’ve done, how can I do it better? How can I do it more?” It’s skills. It’s not how much you do the first time.

To me it’s like if someone wants to play at Carnegie Hall and you say, “We’ll play some scales,” people will say, “That’s scale, that’s too little, it won’t make a difference. They know that you start with scales and you build your skills and you build your skills and it may take time and it may take effort but eventually if you keep practicing, you’ll get to Carnegie Hall. Likewise, with developing the skills to bring yourself out of obesity or to bring yourself out of waste and pollution you first practice what you have access to. If that’s avoiding straws, start with avoiding straws but keep in mind the goal is not getting rid of the straws. That’s not the main goal anyway. The main goal is to develop skills and to get out of it. And you can develop these skills. You start with environmental things and you’ll find yourself able to choose your diet more healthily and I would say more deliciously and you end up with a totally different perspective, a perspective based in responsibility, accountability and action. Instead of being paralyzed by, “If no one else acts, then what difference does it make what I do?” Which is sad and pathetic and when I say pathetic I don’t mean it as an insult. I mean it evokes pathos. Instead they feel, “I can do something. What I do makes a difference.” Even if it’s small at the beginning but you know that it will get bigger and bigger as you practice. They feel, “The more that I do, the more that I want to do.”

Isn’t that how you want to feel about fitness? Don’t you want to enjoy the process of becoming fit and then see the results and enjoy the results and that leads you to more and more and more. That’s been my experience and it’s more than ever since I’ve become more environmentally active. I had no idea that that would happen. But that’s there and that’s why I’m connecting obesity and the environment under the category of leadership.

Speaking of responsibility, as a kid, I don’t know about you but I drank the sugar water in the little plastic barrels with the foil lid. Chris Rock has his routine where he talks about them and he says the ingredients for the purple version of this little plastic barrel, the lid and sugar water, and he goes, “The ingredients are water, sugar, purple.” When you’re a kid, you drink that stuff because it tastes sweet. And that’s all you know. Later when you get a little older you maybe drink grape juice instead so it’s not just pure sugar and there’s a little bit more complexity of the flavor. And eventually you become an adult and you drink wine and wine is not as sweet as that sweet stuff in the barrel. But when you become an adult it tastes better. It’s more complex, it’s more nuanced, it’s more subtle. I am talking about the alcohol part of it because I wouldn’t give kids alcohol but the flavor, you enjoy things are more complex and getting back to responsibility, responsibility means you can’t do things you used to do. And it means that there’s some things you didn’t used to do that you have to do.

When I was a kid I didn’t want responsibility. I didn’t want accountability. As an adult I much prefer responsibility. In virtually every case I can think of where I’ve taken responsibility it has made my life better. The emotional reward and the relationships that emerge from taking on responsibility in my experience far outweigh the loss of the simple basic pleasure of great drinks or for that matter in the environmental area of not caring how my behavior affects others. I care how it affects others. That improves my relationships with them, that improves my relationships with myself. To me that’s part of becoming an adult is that you take responsibility for your actions, how they affect others, how they affect your stewardship of the earth, of this gift that we have. Twinkies still taste sweet but I haven’t found anything remotely like them, that’s remotely appetizing in years, maybe decades. On the contrary, I love vegetables and I can’t believe how sweet fruit tastes. I bite into an apple or a pear and I’m stunned by how delicious it is because it’s been so long since I’ve overloaded my taste buds with so much sugar or salt that they can’t taste anything, they’ve recovered from that assault and it’s amazing. Every time I bite into a piece of ripe fruit I think to myself, “How can anyone eat candy?”

So the net effect of not having ice cream in all these years is that when I eat an apple or any fruit, I sense the same amount of sweetness I used to when I had the ice cream. So I have all the sensations of sweetness that I used to but I’m having less sugar. And now sweet vegetables taste like apples used to, so apples have replaced Ben & Jerry’s which I find disgusting now and sweet vegetables like kohlrabi they taste like apples used to so I have more sweetness, less sugar. I feel more full but I have fewer calories. I have more total volume of food than ever used to but I’m spending less time and less money on it. So in my case, acting environmentally improved my diet. That’s what I come across with everybody who does this that everybody finds that… And these things merge together. In my case I chose to stop eating packaged food, to avoid the pollution and it led to my diet becoming more delicious and that’s why I’m tying together obesity and the environment.

,First, both of them have risen faster than any genetic changes. This is not something that our genes have changed. There are a lot of people out there who are simply polluting more than ever before. There are a lot of people out there who are simply eating more calories and not exercising them off than ever before. Maybe that’s not everyone listening to this but I’m talking to those people who do want to change the way out because what’s leading to it is so similar. The way out is so similar and I think that you’ll find that acting on the environment, no matter however small, if you have the mindset of developing skills of how to take account, how to steward the beauty, the land, the water, the air that we all share. If you’re developing skills, at the beginning you start small. I think that’s the best way to start. And then do the next thing a little bigger, next thing a little more and next thing a little more because when you get into the habit you start finding that, “If I do a little bit, it improves my life a little.” Then you start feeling, “If I do a lot, then it will improve my life a lot.” There have been very few things that have improved my life. And I’m here to share yes, I began with some tough talk, but I’m here to share the way out and how joyful, how emotionally rewarding, how pleasurable it is. And that’s obesity and the environment.

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