091: What Works That We Can Build On (transcript)

September 27, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek headshot

Whether you believe in global warming or not there is a lot of big environmental messes out there. There’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish, people project, within our lifetimes. When you think of how many fish there are and how big the oceans or when you think of how much plastic it would take to have more of that. I don’t know if that’s a lot of fish we take out or if that’s a lot of plastic we put in but it’s a lot. And that’s just one thing. You can read the headlines for lots of other things that are going on. A lot of people ask me, “Josh, do you really think that you can make a difference? Do you really think that we can really pull out of this?” I’m going to tell you the answers that I give but I want to get to the main thing in a second which is the models, the examples of successful things that humans, Americans, nations have done to pull out of messes like this before.

First, I want to start with I want to live by my values. So my not getting packaged food, my not flying, yeah, I hope that that influences other people. But I do it because that’s what’s right for me. So I hope it helps lead change. I hope that you find as I found the joy in discovering all the great things that I don’t think it was not flying. I think it was enjoying my community. I think it was developing skills in myself to develop passions and adventure and explore new cuisines and things like that. Also, if we go down, I’d much rather go down swinging. I’d much rather do my best to pull out of this to do my part. I don’t want to just complacently watch things happen around me.

I find leadership improves my life. I find taking responsibility, I found giving myself accountability, taking a leadership role, these things improve my life so I’m not doing this specifically for others although I am. I am also doing it because it improves my life. I don’t know why people would do otherwise. I did do otherwise for a long time. I take that back. I did do those for a long time and I don’t like that. It felt like you know when you do stuff that’s acting against your values, when you do things when you know what’s right… Well, let me speak just for myself. When I know what’s right and I don’t do what I think is right, I’m not saying it’s right for others, but what you know what’s right for yourself and that doesn’t depend on other people, other people may disagree but you know what’s right for yourself. The way I always talk about is you ever walk outside and it’s raining or you step in a puddle and your feet get wet, your socks get wet, then you have to go about your day and you don’t really think about it. But you don’t have time to change and at the end of the day you get home, you take off your shoes, you take off your socks and it’s like ahh, it feels so good to take wet socks off. And then you look back at your whole day and you realize, “I’ve had wet socks all day and I might have been busy doing other things but it’s always been on my mind. It’s always been there. It’s been bothering me.” And that’s what acting against your values is. It’s like wearing wet socks all the time. It bothers you. You can try to make yourself busy and distract yourself from being there but there’s that misery. It’s always there. If it’s big enough, then it starts eating you up inside. And I don’t want that. I don’t like that. And I did do that and once I changed I realized that that went away and the feelings of guilt got replaced by feelings of what can I do. That’s me on a personal scale.

Do I really think that we can pull out of this in time? Different people disagree on what this is, what these problems are. If there are at all problems. But I believe there are problems and this is why I believe that we can pull out of this. I want to give examples of changes that we as a culture have made whether Americans or the world have made that are something like this. And I’m not saying that they’re exactly the same. I’m saying that things on the scale, on comparable scale have happened, some through legislation, some through social change, some through technological change, most are a mixture of these things. I’m not saying that exactly what work there will work here. Not at all. I’m saying things that are comparable have happened. Smoking is a big one, especially smoking in New York City. When I was a kid growing up I think people mostly associated smoking with Humphrey Bogart. It was cool. It was what the cool kids did. Now I think people mostly associate smoking with diseased lungs, with cancer, with smells in their hair. They associate it with something in the past, they associate it with big companies lying to them, lying to the government. Smoking has totally changed.

Drunk driving. When I was a kid at a party when you were leaving or at bar you could say, “Give me one for the road” meaning I’m about to drive, give me alcohol to drink before I drive. And people would say you know, “It loosens me up. I drive better with alcohol.” Nobody that I know accepts that anymore. Now of course there’s drunk driving in the world a lot less than before. And the social acceptance of it, it’s not quite murder but it’s pretty close at least in the people that I know. Drinking and driving is simply not acceptable today like it was before.

Seatbelts. When I was a kid if you told someone to wear a seatbelt, you to prepare for them coming back and say, “Don’t tell me what to do. You can’t tell me what to do. It doesn’t affect anyone but me. I’m not going to wear a seatbelt. If you want to wear one, that’s fine but don’t tell me what to do.” Now I don’t even notice people noticing that they do it. You simply get in the car and you put the seatbelt on. I think it was the law before that you had to wear a seatbelt but it wasn’t really enforced and people didn’t agree with it. Now try selling a car without a seatbelt. Try selling car without a major point being the safety features of that car. You don’t sell cars without safety being a major part of it. That just wasn’t the case before. So there are technological changes. When I was a kid putting on a seatbelt was a kind of pain in the butt. There’s this big thing that you had to adjust. Now it’s just very simple. I’m not sure what other changes happened but now it’s just you put on a seatbelt and you don’t think about it. That’s a big model for me for environmental change. I would like things to happen where people don’t think about it. You just do what you normally do because that’s the way things are, that you don’t think about getting a disposable thing. If someone offers you a disposable thing, you’d just be like, “What’s that? I don’t need that. I wouldn’t use that. Just give me the non-disposable thing.” Or you’d use your own thing. That’s one of my models for you just do it because that’s what you do. So it’s like putting on a seatbelt.

Bike lanes in New York City. Now they’re everywhere. I commonly will look in the street and I see a bunch of cars going by and a lane significantly smaller than the lanes of the cars are the bike lanes and there’s actually more people per square foot using them. It’s a much better use of tax revenues. But when they first started people opposed it. There were lawsuits against the city to try to keep bike lanes away from Prospect Park which is a natural place to put bike lanes. People with connections in government and public relations they put out big public relations efforts to discredit these things. Now as far as I know people really like the bike lanes. People use them in the wintertime. That’s been a total shift, the opposite of what it was before.

The ozone layer. That’s a big international thing. I don’t know if it’s through legislation because I don’t think it was through… I think voluntary agreements, through science, through the public saying, “We don’t want cancer. This is going to be dangerous for us” and it’s turned around. I know that people are periodically fined, people who are creating fluorocarbons and things like that. But by and large that’s something that the world has changed about.

Leaded gasoline. When I was a kid most gas was leaded gas, for that matter there was leaded paint. I don’t think it’s sold anywhere anymore. It caused, what, reductions in IQ for children, it caused diseases. So it was legislation. I think for a long time, companies said, “It’s impossible. We can’t avoid leaded gas. We must use leaded gas.” That’s not the case anymore. You just don’t get leaded gas anymore. Did it come through legislation? I am not exactly sure I think it came through public health awareness and things like that but it happened.

The guests on my podcast, many, many guests have come on and when I asked them, “Would you like to take on a challenge based on the values that you share about the environment?” a lot of them say, “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.” And you’ll hear me go back and forth with them to try to figure out and a lot of them they say, “You know there is something I wanted to do. There is something I want to work on.” When they come back on the second time almost always it’s, “That was easier than expected. I wish I’d done it earlier” or “It was hard but it was the sort of thing, the type of challenge that I wanted to do. Thank you, Josh, for getting me to do it.” And a lot of them also will say, “Now that I did non-disposable cups for a month you know along the way I also realized I could do this at home. And I realized I could bring a fork with me” or “I realized that I could do this other thing.”

My whole podcast began because one of my students decided to pick up 10 pieces of trash per day for a month. That’s what we talked about and I said, “Go for it. Let’s see what happens.” And he came back and said, well, he said a bunch of things. One was at the beginning he felt weird going to pick up trash. At the end he felt weird passing by trash without picking it up. That’s kind of interesting. On top of that, he decreased his meat consumption by I think half. I never talked to him about meat at all. That was totally on him. So that’s a change that happens at the individual level.

You know if you talk to someone about environmental action and you haven’t prepped them in any way, they’ll often come back with, “Well, if I do this but Exxon does that, it won’t really make a difference” or “These little things don’t make a difference”, “Big things are too hard”, “If I do it you know maybe there’s another thing that I should do more. Maybe I should think about that.” And they go in this analytical planning academic approach. If on the other hand you talk to them about their values and they act on their values to do something and then you talk about it, the conversation is totally different. Instead of this academic roundabout not going anywhere, not acting stuff, they say, “You know I did this and now once I did this I realized I could do that and I hadn’t thought about how I could do this other thing. And I got my friends to do it. I got my wife to do it or my husband to do it.” Big change, that gives me a lot of hope and they stop doing it because of something related to me or the podcast episode that they did that led them to start. They do it for themselves and they do it for the people they care for, for cleanliness and purity and stewardship of the environment. But it totally changes from academic, putting stuff off to actually doing it.

Then there’s my podcast for me. When I first started doing the podcast or before I started doing it I thought, “Is this going to make a difference. Maybe I’m going to embarrass myself. Is this going to work out?’” Quickly off the bat I started getting guests that were world renowned with tens of millions of TED talk and that’s only increased and now people come to me and they’re suggesting guests that I didn’t expect this to happen. So this podcast appears to be making a difference not on the scale that I hope it will but it’s on the way. So that’s a change that’s happened, small scale on the scale of global, on the scale of the nation but it’s happening. Then I have had many guests on my podcast who instead of looking environmental action like many do. Many are looking at environmental action and think, “You know, Josh, I’m trying to get ahead. I have a career and I really want to do well in it. And yeah, I care about the environment, I want to act on these things but I want to get ahead and so I’ll get to that some other time. It’s a distraction.” Now as an aside I’ll mention a lot of the things that they’re doing to get ahead to take leadership roles they’re actually complying and following which can work but generally is not the most effective way to get to leadership is to follow and comply and not take leadership roles. Whereas I have many people in my podcast who have taken on the challenges that others don’t do and have emerged as leaders in government, in private business, in their own projects and they like it. They’re glad that they did it and I hope more people listen to this podcast realize that the opportunities are there. When there’s global demand for something and no one’s doing it or not as many people are doing it as could there’s opportunities for people to take leadership roles whether it’s in your company, in your community, in your own life. The opportunities are there. And so several people have taken on leadership roles because they’re doing what others don’t and they like the outcome.

Speaking of my guests, a couple of my guests have led me back. Whether they did it on purpose or not such as Jeff Brown, for example. He decided to work with his homeowner’s association to bring recycling into his housing area. And when I first heard it, you’ll hear me talking about how my board, the co-op board for my building, I don’t really get a lot done through them so I didn’t really want to work with them. But then he’s been on my podcast four times and he really enjoyed the process. He has the Read to Lead podcast. He’s spoken to many, many leaders and people who have written leadership books and as far as I know mine was the first that got him to actually act and do leadership things that inspired me so he got me to talk to my co-op building board and I proposed and I now started a sustainability committee for my building. So again, this is global level, not even city level but people have stopped me in the hallway including board members and said, “I’m glad that you’re doing this. I want to do stuff. Here here’s some things that I’ve started to do. Let’s do some more things.” It’s turned the corner and it wasn’t even that hard. It feels great.

Another thing, John Lee Dumas talking about picking up trash from his beach that helped lead me to sailing which is my replacement for flying to get to places off of North America. But he’s also gotten me to pick up plogging which is, look it up on the Internet, plogging is this thing that started in Sweden which is when you go running you pick up garbage while you run. One, it picks up garbage. Two, it gives you a totally different work out because you’re stopping and starting you’re doing all these, I guess, lunges because your quads really start burning. You know I got to mention starting doing it I wasn’t sure how much I would like doing it in Manhattan because there’s so much garbage. But then I realized you had to make certain rules like I’m not going to cross a street to pick it up. I’m just going to pick up what’s directly in my path and I will only get to pick it if there’s a trash can nearby me. I don’t bring a bag with me. I just pick up, and usually when I’m running through the streets there’s a trash can within a block or two of where I am. One time, coming back from a run…So I run down to the river, run down to [unintelligible] Park and then back up the streets that I went down to the river on. On the way I felt like this isn’t really making much of a difference. But then after I came off the river and I was running back to my place I was running on the exact same path that I went down and there’s garbage all around except where I picked it up and I realized, “I made a difference. I have like this shining path right in front of me that I cleaned up.” I felt great about that. I could see specifically the difference that I made. Now plogging pick up to lots and lots of joggers too or lots of people pick up trash all the time. I’m not sure but it’s possible but it improved my life. Anyway. I’m not trying to make a comprehensive list of all the different things but some of them are pretty big.

Seatbelts, the ozone layer, drinking and driving, smoking, bike lanes in New York City, people on my podcast, people on my podcast who took on leadership roles and became leaders through acting on the environment improving their lives that way. My building, taking on leadership role there, plogging, these things are out there. Some of them are similar, some of them are different. We can take lessons from some. My point here is that stuff on similar scales we’ve had [unintelligible] that I think that that says that it’s possible in this area. Will it work out? I’m not sure. I could tell you this. I’m going to go down swinging. If we go down, I’m going to go down swinging. I think there’s a chance of us not going down. In any case, it’s how I want to live my life. I hope that it feels something similar to you, whether you believe we should be stewards of an earth that’s a gift to us. If you believe in the cleanliness and purity that we once had and we can again have. If you believe in caring about the next generation. If you care about living in a world that’s cleaner for yourself, for whatever reason. I think we can pull out of this. I think there’s a chance we can do it.

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