118: Beth Comstock 2: Action creates awareness (transcript)

January 12, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Beth Comstock

I’ve posted a few rather sort of monologues lately about how in a world where environmental issues are front page news on a weekly basis or more and everyone sees the pollution around them and that they create the goal of awareness often delays action. Action creates awareness much more than awareness creates action. In today’s world where everyone’s hit over the head with awareness on environmental issues claiming to seek awareness is a delay tactic. Beth shows personal leadership, especially accountability, responsibility, openness and honesty in revealing that someone who is plenty aware when she chooses to act reaches whole new levels of awareness. Action leads to awareness. I believe that most people delay action because they anticipate how much awareness of themselves they know that action will create. They realize they could have changed long before and they will feel bad about it. So Beth got hit over the head with how much more she depends on plastic than she had expected. Unlike most people instead of giving up she seizes the opportunity to grow and to live by her values that she thought she was but wasn’t. The route out of feeling bad is to face and overcome the internal conflict creating those feelings. It’s not other people of the world that creates internal conflict. It’s value in one thing while doing another. Few people face such challenges. Fewer still among renowned leaders and fewer still publicly and fewer still keep at it and find ways to use the challenge to recharge them. That’s what Beth does as you’ll hear. So let’s hear how Beth shows personal environmental leadership beyond what I believe you’ll hear from nearly anybody else.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Beth Comstock. Beth, how are you doing?

Beth: Great. How are you doing, Joshua?

Joshua: I’m very good and I’m at the edge of my seat because the challenge you took on was… Some people might think, “Oh, that’s easy.” but I think a lot of people, certainly me, think I bet it’s got challenges that you didn’t expect when you set it. And I’m really curious. Can you remind us what your challenge was? And then I’d love to hear how it went.

Beth: Well, my challenge was to see how I could take plastics out of my life this week. And it was really hard because I’d already given myself this commitment earlier in the year, I’ve gotten associated with the National Geographic as one of their trustees and I’ve been really passionate about their Planet or Plastics? initiative and I think the attention they’ve drawn to it so it’s really been top of mind and as somebody who’s very passionate about the environment as well. So I had already taken some steps myself to figure out how do I, just the way I live, how do I get rid of plastic. But this week just reframed my thinking on it again because you know you sort of get into habits and I just realized how hard it is. It’s very rare that I’ll drink water out of a plastic bottle but I do. I live in a city, I get take out from time to time. I’m on the go when I travel and you just realize how hard it is to get anything that’s not packaged if you’re on the go.

Joshua: And so the listeners know in two days it’s Christmas and there’s like gift some things. I imagine that probably [unintelligible] too.

Beth: It did. I mean I’m good about not taking plastic bags. I take tote bags. But you’re right. Holiday shopping meant I had to often grab an extra bag. Mostly I found for me it was more when I was eating on the run or grabbing things more really around sort of you know packaging, the packaging the things come in just sort of the consumables of life I guess is how I’d say. So I’d like to tell you I was immensely successful. I made some progress but I’m actually kind of stumped. I got to really think about how I keep going on this because some of it is just a fact of life. You go to the drugstore and your aspirin comes in a plastic bottle. So I don’t know. I’m curious how you think about this but I feel like I’ve done maybe some of the easy stuff and now it gets a bit harder.

Joshua: So there’s a couple of things that I found work but before getting into that I want to bounce an idea off of you that I’ve been seeing a lot lately. A lot of people put off acting and they say they want to raise their awareness first or they want to raise awareness of other people and something that I’m finding is that I believe that as much as they think awareness leads to action, I think it’s much more that action leads to awareness. And this challenge of yours probably raised your awareness by trying to do something about it much more than would have happened had you just plan but not actually done it.

Beth: Yeah. I think that’s right. I absolutely think that’s right. I think so I think it’s smart that you give people challenges. I like challenges just for behavior change as well. I talked about it in my book sort of personal challenges. So I think you’re really onto something because it is unless you do it how do you know. And now every purchase I make, every interaction I have I’m thinking, “What do I do about the plastic I’m using?” You know shaving my legs I use my razor over and over but it’s a plastic handle. I have had it for years but still it’s plastic. Well, you know I refill the soap in my sink but hey, it’s a plastic jar that I’m refilling it in. So you just start to think about these things and so I am aware and now I’m kind of at the stage where it’s like okay what do I do about some of these things. Because it is system change. I mean as one person there’s only so much we can do. I think we can demand it from the places where we do business, where we consume things, I think we can start demanding that, we can work with manufacturers and consumer goods companies. But it’s going to take a lot of us doing that to make change happen.

Joshua: It’s really easy if people don’t start doing the change themselves. It’s really easy for the consumer products goods companies to say, “Well, look at what people are buying.” And if people buy it, then they say, “Well, that’s what they’re making.” And it’s very easy for both parties to say, “Well, if the other one acts, then I will.” But what I’m trying to do is to get individuals to do it. And correct me if I’m wrong, I’m not reading emotions you don’t like. I’m reading that you’re challenged and you’re surprised but not that you regret this or that you wish you hadn’t done this.

Beth: No. I’m frustrated that I don’t know what to do about it but it makes me more committed and I kind of love a good challenge. But you know you feel bad. I mean you know I mean things like OK if I get take-out, I’m not going to take a plastic spoon and a fork. You’re running through the airport, you got to do what you got to do or not. I mean I think some of it is thinking ahead and say, “OK, I’m not going to put myself in that position.” That convenience is actually not that convenient in the long run. So is that really you know a convenience that I could work around? I think that’s some of what I have to… You have to just start thinking ahead on these things.

Joshua: Yeah. And if you don’t act that time you walk through the airport and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t have a choice. I got to do this. OK.” So I think people, some people say, “This is too hard. I give up.” I don’t hear you saying that. I think the leaders that I have on the show that have a track record of success in leading others and themselves they say, “Oh, let’s learn from this. What can I do next time? So one of the big perspectives that I have is that all this environmental, I look at environmental behaviors skills that you learn and like any other skills you have to practice. And so I always fall back on learning to play piano. You start with scales and no one plays scales perfect the first time. You know your thumb is going to hit harder than your pinky and you’re not going to get the timing right. And you can tell a first timer playing scales from Vladimir Horowitz playing scales. But with each time you do it you learn a little bit more of what you didn’t know before and you become more aware and you become more skilled and as far as I know it’s the only way to learn is to practice. And the first bunch of times you always get it wrong. I mean I don’t know any way around it and I don’t know if that’s a glory of it or it’s a tragedy of it but it’s a property of it and you’re playing your scales.

Beth: Yeah, it’s a good way to think about it. But definitely this week renewed my focus on it and you know it made me realize just as what you’re saying early just how much harder each successive step is but because I’m aware I think it’s just a creative challenge in some ways. So I’ve got some work to do for myself to figure out how I work around some of these challenges.

Joshua: So I’m curious also we were talking about the “what” and we’re touching on the emotions behind it. Can you see a bit more about how does it feel?

Beth: Well, I mean on one hand it feels frustrating because there are things you know take plastic you know it’s not good and especially just the disposability of things and once it’s out of our sight we don’t think about where it ends up. Do you see those horrible pictures? Like again National Geographic has been so good at especially this year showing us some of those photos and other journalists. So when you see those photos you start to make a connection. But most of us don’t know where our trash goes and how a lot of it ends up in the bottom of the ocean or floating on the ocean or something. So I think one you just have to be more aware of those things. So the awareness, the frustration, the frustration I think leads to action. And then say to yourself, “It’s a bit of a creative challenge. Okay. What are some creative workarounds I can figure out here? How can I do this in a creative way?”

I’m a big believer that constraints fuel creativity. So if you look at it as a constraint, then how can I find a creative solution here. So I think that’s a way to work through the frustration. There has to be a more creative way. So perhaps it brings out the innovator in each of us when we think about it that way.

Joshua: Sounds like someone who might have written a book on imagination.

Beth: And created an innovation. Exactly. So I don’t know. That’s the process I go through but I think all those emotions are real and we feel them. We feel frustrated, “What can I do?” And you also like sometimes you just you know, “OK, I’m hungry. I’m going to eat with the plastic fork. But next time I’m not going to do that and I’m not going to beat myself up. I could have done better. I should have…” You know, all that. You start to get in these cycles. You just have to do the best you can and keep working toward it. To me behavior change it’s like a diet. It’s like innovation. These things you just go back and you try it again. You keep going back different ways and return to it and I think that’s what you’ve raised here. Certainly, the way I thought about it this week and kind of taking on a challenge around plastics


Joshua: I’m also listening to what you’re saying and thinking about GE with the PCBs. I don’t know if you know I swim across the Hudson River and to this day when I mentioned that a lot of people, one of the first reactions is, “PCBs!”

Beth: Certainly, if you live in New York. Yeah.

Joshua: Do you wish… Would this have been helpful if you’ve done this exercise before then? Or do they relate to each other in any way? Because that was a big challenge for you in a corporate sense and a major global… You’re under the microscope there.

Beth: Yeah. Well, I mean in my time we launched Eco Imagination which was our attempt to go to a more clean-tech future. We talked about that before. And part of that created a whole series of challenges we gave ourselves as a company. Challenges to invest more in technology that had an outcome that was ecological, challenges of employees to reduce way. So that’s very relatable. Everyone had to make it personal. It wasn’t like you could just say to some big monolithic company you know, “Well, the company’s got to do it.” You have to stop and go, “We’re part of the company.” So I think as you say that that’s what makes me think about it.

Joshua: Part of the reason I ask is because I am working increasingly with corporations. I believe from my side that the more that people take on personal challenges like these that the skills that they learn doing something personal will transform into skills that will apply as things that they can do at a corporate level. I’ve seen that happen with a couple of my clients and I’m curious about your perspective. Would this be useful exercises for a corporation that has a sustainability team? Would it be useful for them to do things like this?

Beth: I do and I think the other thing that I found helpful when I worked on the Eco effort at GE we had something we called Treasure hunts that were really kind of a gamification where people would go around their workplace looking for “treasure” which was just ecological impact opportunities and tally them up. And we did it and passed it on to customers. So I think there’s a gamification aspect to it as well where teams give into it and one team wants to you know kind of beat the other in a very good natured way. But it continues to have people level up their efforts. So yeah, I think giving challenges and giving it in team levels is really helpful in companies.

Joshua: I appreciate you helping me with my market research.

Beth: Yes. Thanks for the challenge that you gave me. It really was a good renewal for me this week to take it on.

Joshua: Well I was going to close with… I have one more question I want to ask but I’ll say this now also that I give you an open invitation. It sounds like you’re going to keep up with this. And I’m curious what will happen in the next week or next month or next few months and if you’re willing to come back and share how things have gone after this, I’d love to bring that to the listeners.

Beth: Sure.

Joshua: And another question that often comes up is when an issue that comes up when people take on big challenges is relationships with other people. And I wonder if this affected people around you, people you work with, people in your family or friends. Did it affect your relationships at all?

Beth: This past week?

Joshua: Yeah. Avoiding plastic because maybe you’re at lunch with someone and you’re trying to avoid something and…

Beth: I mean I have to think about that. I mean I certainly think my interactions with people, “No, I don’t need that. No, I won’t take a straw.” You know I certainly think people would have seen new behavior for me. You know my husband and I’ve been trying to do this already so I think he would have seen this renewed effort for me again and it became a good conversation point. So sure, I think you model change and other people observe you doing it and they see your sincerity. I think that’s all very positive.

Joshua: Oh, I am glad to hear that because a lot of people come back and you know maybe if they go for a month without meat and then it’s the holidays and mom cooks them a stake and now there’s like this friction or they have to figure that out. Usually it works out that it’s… Well, the people in this show tend to be people who have solved issues like that in the past in some way. And so they say you know, “I’ve figured out how to make it work.” And usually it strengthens their relationships but not always but it doesn’t sound like you hit hurdles like that where there was a conflict.

Beth: I didn’t this week. I mean I could see that happening and in certain situations you know you go to someone else’s house and they’re not looking at it the same way you are. So that just didn’t happen to me this week but I certainly could see what you’re saying. I think that’s a really valid point and you have to have a bit of you know some talking points and think ahead, “OK, I’m going to go to someone’s house. They’re going to have plastic cups. What do I do? Do I bring my own glass? Do I bring my own bottle?” Probably. I mean maybe that’s what you do. You know you think ahead that way. You don’t have to make a big scene out of it. I mean you just show up and you go, “I’ve got my own cup, thanks.” So I think those are the things that, back to the constraints discussion, think ahead and how will you react to those situations.

Joshua: And something that has worked for me is to iterate because the first time I think of what I can but then something is always going to happen that I couldn’t predict and then I learn from that.

Beth: Do not beat yourself up. I mean you know it’s like a diet. Just because I did this doesn’t mean I can’t go back to doing it and you know go back to my goals. So I think that’s also part of it.

Joshua: Yeah. I think there’s a big overlap. From a leadership perspective to how we behave environmentally, how we behave with respect to our own bodies, it’s kind of where we put our garbage. Some of it is in our mouths and some of it is on the streets and oceans. Well, it sounds like we’re going to have you again. So let’s pick up again later. To wrap up, is there anything I didn’t think to ask that was worth bringing up or anything you want to say directly to listeners based on your experience?

Beth: No. I mean I think you’ve got to give yourself these challenges where [unintelligible] that I think all behavior change starts with kind of the change you can make and especially with the environment it feels daunting. It’s like a whole system and what can one person do? But one person can do a lot. And you know challenge yourself and see and when you do it other people observe what you do. There was an article I read this week. I forget the name of the island but it was an island that’s being overtaken by climate change. And it was an island of like 500 people and they had sort of taken all… You know they had gotten rid of a lot of their forests and stuff. And they were just having really hard time with climate change and over the course of a decade they have replanted their forests and managed to really control the climate around them in a way that they never thought possible. And I just thought that was so encouraging to think that some very small group of people can kind of affect the climate. And so I think for all of us we feel overwhelmed but that’s how change starts. It’s kind of one person at a time and it’s the only world we got. So I think it’s really important that we think what can we each do to effect change.

Joshua: I can’t really add to that. Let’s close on that. And thank you very much, Beth.

Beth: Thanks, Josh. Good to talk to.


Beth highlights what’s missing from environmental leadership among other things as well. Living consistently with the ideals that they espouse and recommend to others. People disengage from leaders who say one thing but don’t practice it and opponents attack that discrepancy and they feel like they’ve checkmated people who don’t live by their values. Such leaders may consider themselves right but they lose the ability to influence particularly the people who disagree with them. Those are the people they want to influence the most. Beth’s challenge is hard in today’s world but she’s taking it on publicly, accountably and responsibly. Notice how she called it a creative challenge. How does that sound? It sounds interesting, it sounds intriguing, it sounds like something she wants to do. I don’t know how she’ll do and I look forward to hearing in three months. But she’s already got me reducing my use which was already pretty low. So if you want awareness, act. Everybody knows something that they can do. The more that you act, the more you’ll become aware and the more you’ll want to act, the more people will follow you and more you’ll enjoy it.

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