For those who don’t know one of the origins of this podcast was a series of talks that I gave at NYU. I gave the talks because at the time I recognized that something missing from environmental action was what I would think of as effective leadership, not telling other people what to do or spreading facts and figures of doom and gloom but leadership in the style of Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Václav Havel. I gave the talks because I could. I had access to space at NYU and a great location and I had students and so forth to come and I asked them for advice. It was kind of product development. I described the talks now euphemistically as great learning experiences because as I now put it, I had a lot of emotional minefields.
After one of these talks a friend of mine came up to me and he said, “Josh, the talk was great. The part where you talked about civil rights I just disconnected.” I should mention he’s black, I’m white. He said, “Josh, I appreciated most of what you said but when you as a white man started talking about the civil rights era to me as a black man I really disengaged.” After he said that I asked him, “What about the content of what I said? Did it make sense?” He said, “Josh, because you’re my friend I listened. It made a lot of sense but I have to tell you that most black people are just simply not going to listen to that.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that but one thing it’s not other people’s responsibility for me to be understood. It’s my responsibility to make myself understood.
Since then based on what he said I’ve taken out of my material most comparisons between acting on your environmental values today and the Civil Rights movement of the 50s-60s-70s and before. I still say although it took me a long time to feel comfortable and I still don’t feel totally comfortable saying that since what I think is most necessary is leadership in the style of Mandela or Gandhi or King that if I want to do something, I think that’s what was most necessary, then I’ll try to be the Mandela of the environment. But then I qualify that by saying if you can do it better, do it better. I’d be more than happy for someone to take it from me but if that’s what I think is most important, that’s what I’m going to do. But mostly I stopped talking about the parallels between the Civil Rights movement then and acting on your environmental values today however relevant I think they are and however much they inspire me.
I still try to follow in the footsteps of my role models of Gandhi, King, Mandela, Havel. When I say that I’m acting in the style of Martin Luther King most people when they think of Martin Luther King, they think of the Nobel Prize winner, of someone who helped bring about the Civil Rights Acts of the 60s. But the Martin Luther King in whose steps I’m following now I think of the Martin Luther King of the Montgomery bus boycott. At the time most people didn’t know where Montgomery was. It was some [unintelligible] town in the middle of Alabama. Martin Luther King was some outsider who was brought into… Well, what was he doing at the time? He was not known as a future Nobel Prize winner. He was someone who’s organizing people not to take the bus in a town… I’ve looked this up. Several months out of the year it routinely gets above 100 degrees. People wore suits all the time. It was humid all the time. They didn’t have an Internet to coordinate. So how do you get people not take the bus? And also, people could not look at non-violent civil disobedience as a strategy that would work. I guess people would know that it worked in India. But I think most people looked at it as an ineffective or very likely to be ineffective way, a weak way of reacting. People probably preferred violence or using force. Now we look back and say it worked and we use it still today. Obviously, we’re not done, we have a long way to go but it worked to some extent.
As a side, I’ll also mention something I’ve written about recently is that I also think of the first women to wear pants. I can’t imagine the vitriol, the hatred, the scorn that people must have rained down on them from men and women alike. And yet they did it. And today virtually all women wear pants. I don’t know if I know any women who only wear skirts and dresses and don’t wear pants anymore. Those women influence millions, talk about leadership… I’m sorry, they influence billions. Still it must have been very difficult for them. But the foresight that they had, the vision for the future we’re all living in the shadow today. And so a lot of times when I’m doing something like not getting plastic bags I think this is nothing compared to them or going without plastic water bottles, I think it’s nothing compared to what they did. I hope that my influence in some way is comparable to theirs. But I imagine it’ll never be on the scale of their influence. Sometimes I think about people who say they can’t avoid plastic bags, who say they can’t get by without plastic water bottles or straws or lids or can’t get by without flying. I suggest declining these things but they say that they can’t. And the prospects of saying no in situations like that make me think about Rosa Parks.
Today’s the day we observe Martin Luther King’s birthday and it makes me think more of the Civil Rights movement and now enough people have listened to this podcast that I think I can start talking about it and get past my friend saying, “Josh, people aren’t going to listen to you about that.” I may be making a mistake. If I am, I hope I hear your feedback to say, “Josh, speak about it differently or don’t speak about it at all.” But for now, why would you remember Rosa Parks if not for when the chips are down when times are difficult, we don’t think of her as a role model and act in the way that she did and use her as a role model to act in the way that she did to give us strength, to give us perseverance, to do what she did. But with such small risk and such a greater chance of success and so many people supporting us, she said no. Now, this was not just on her own. It was part of a campaign. It was planned and strategized but she was still the one to do it. She was arrested and no one is going to be arrested for not getting a bottle of water or for not taking a flight or for not getting a plastic bag. Her actions also suggest that even when many people agree and want to act and know that if they do, they’ll achieve something that’s still a spark helps. It seems that everybody wants cleaner air, water and land. As long as everybody thinks, “If I act but no one else does, then what I do doesn’t matter.” then no one will act. I think we sometimes need people to take that step first, to be the leaders. That could be you. You never need to use another plastic bottle again ever in your entire life. People will follow you and it’ll be nothing compared to what Rosa Parks went through but you’ll still make a difference. If you’re like most people, you can reduce your packaging easily by 90 percent forever and you won’t get arrested. Your food will become cheaper and more convenient and more delicious.
I’m going to read from the Wikipedia page of Rosa Parks:
“After working all day Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus around 6:00 PM, Thursday, December 1, 1955 in downtown Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of backseats reserved for blacks in the “colored” section, near the middle of the bus, her rows directly behind 10 seats reserved for white passengers. As the bus traveled along its regular route all of the whites-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached a third stop in front of the Empire Theater and several white passengers boarded. Blake, the driver, noted that two or three white passengers were standing as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the “colored” section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit.
Years later in recounting the events of the day, Park said, “When that white driver step back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats I felt the determination cover my body like a quilt in the winter night.” By Park’s account Blake, the driver, said, “You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of them complied. Park said, “The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn’t move at the beginning but he says, “Let me have those seats.” And the other three people moved. But I didn’t. The black man sitting next to her gave up her seat. Parks moved but toward the window seat. She did not get up to move to the re-designated colored section. Parks later said about being asked to move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.” Blake, the driver, said, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights movement, Parks said, “When he saw me sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I said, “No, I’m not.” And he said, “Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.” I said, “You may do that.” Pretty gutsy thing to say. In 1956 radio interview with Sidney Rogers in West Oakland seven months after her arrest Parks said she had decided, “I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and as a citizen.”
In her autobiography My Story she said, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No. The only tired I was was tired of giving in.” When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembers him saying, “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.” She later said, “I only knew that I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind.” Parks was charged with a violation of chapter six, section eleven, Segregation of the Montgomery County code. After her arrest Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights movement but suffered hardships as a result. Due to economic sanctions against activists, she lost her job at the department store. Her husband quit his job after his boss forbade him to talk about his wife at the legal code. But Parks travelled and spoke extensively about the issues.
Now I don’t know what it’s like for you to compare what Parks did to the prospect of not flying or the prospect of going without a water bottle, to go without water for a couple hours or bringing a cup with you. As with Parks, that’s not the end goal. That’s just the beginning. For her and many others it was a beginning or at least a big escalation the Civil Rights movement. For you it will be personal goals, personal results, personal growth as you find what more you’re capable of, of not polluting. It seems to me a way to show reverence, to follow in her footsteps is to be able to say no in the way that she did. Why else do we honor her if not to follow in her footsteps?
It seems so simple. To go without water for a little while or to bring a cup with you is not a matter of arrest. It’s not suffering. What she did was suffering and what came about was so great and what could come about today is also so great because we’re choking the land and air and water with so much plastic and so much pollution. She was a leader. She accepted her fate of arrest. She risked in that context of blacks being lynched and killed so much more than we risk today. We have it easy comparison. We can say no and still be leaders. People that you know will follow you. You will make a difference with no risk of arrest, with no risk of being beaten, with no risk of financial hardship, no risk at all and yet you can still make a difference. So in this light now that I think of it I don’t think of myself as taking much of a risk at all drawing these parallels between the Civil Rights movement then and acting on our environmental values today.
Anyway, from Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday I’m sharing something that has been on my mind a lot which is the prospect of saying no and how much I personally feel that I’m honoring Rosa Parks, that I’m acting in her shadow, that I’m following her and despite my friend’s words still in my ears that some people may not hear me, their actions, strategies and results so inspire me. I just feel it best to do that now but I feel there is so much that we can learn from them and I personally draw from them so much that I think it’s time for me to share and I hope I don’t offend anyone. If I do please let me know. I’ll act on what I learn. But I hope that we can all follow in the footsteps of Rosa Parks and in a much simpler. much easier. much lower consequence, much higher chance of success context. Say no and decline the plastic bottle, decline the plastic cup, cut your food packaging by 50 percent, then 90 percent, forever and build on that in other directions, in more parts of your life and pollute less and less as you enjoy life more and more and more. Sometimes say no to those flights and lead others in making a difference in the world today.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees