123: Dave Gardner: Busting the Growth Myth (transcript)

January 22, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

dave gardner

David Gardner left a well-paying mainstream job to create and star in a documentary called GrowthBusters. That’s a play on Ghostbusters. He saw the problems with growth to local communities, the national economy, the global economy, the environment and many other places. He also saw the nearly unquestioned belief that growth is good, especially GDP growth and population growth. And once you question this belief, then like a sweater unraveling you start seeing the problems that growth causes. He acted beyond the movie. He ran for city office based on limiting growth. I’ve never been able to communicate the problems with growth to someone who disagreed so I’m not going to argue here. But if you have wondered about this connection, David’s documentary, his own podcast and this conversation will help you feel like you’re not alone. You’re not crazy. There’s plenty of evidence that I found conclusive that whatever growth helped with before, growth of a certain percent every year that is exponential growth is unsustainable and the more we push to keep it up, the more problems we create for ourselves. Sadly, believing that growth will solve everything leads us to push for yet more including problems that growth itself caused. You’ll be glad to know that not pursuing growth does not mean returning to the Stone Age. It means focusing on relationships, enjoying what you have and other meaningful things. Listening to David speaking about growth leads me to imagine resistance Martin Luther King or Gandhi must have felt when they promoted nonviolence. I try to imagine how many people equated violence with strength or fighting back not realizing that violence helped their points. I’m glad they stuck with it. The analogy isn’t perfect but it’s meaningful to me and I hope it helps David stick with it. So let’s listen to David’s story and views on growth.


Joshua: David, good afternoon. How are you?

David: Pretty fine. How about yourself?

Joshua: Very good. It’s been a busy day. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for a while.

David: Same here. Same here.

Joshua: Perfect. And my recording software begins automatically. Is it okay with you if we just go as we’re doing right now?

David: Yes.

Joshua: Great. So this is Joshua Spodek. This is the Leadership and the Environment podcast for people who didn’t know that already and I’m talking with David Gardner. And I’ll say a few words at the beginning and I hope it’s okay with you if I ask you a bunch of questions because I’m very curious about a lot of stuff that you’ve done.

David: Sounds great.

Joshua: Okay. So I came across you because a lot of what I work on in the environment growth is a big issue and a lot of people see growth as a solution to everything. And well, growth creates a lot of problems as well. And no one talks about it or not no one but almost no one talks about it. Economy always has to grow and the economy is always growing, then the population always has to grow. And you are taking this on and saying… Well, I’ll let you say what you say but you‘re challenging this growth mindset. And I feel like it’s like a third rail for a lot of people. And nonetheless I think if we don’t address it it’s at the… If there’s anything at the root, this is one of the big things.

Joshua: Well, I’m glad that you’ve articulated that. And that’s one reason why I am really glad to be chatting with you because it is a breath of fresh air to find people who get that. You know it seems like we’ve had you know a 100-year fantastic run, a great binge where growth in almost every aspect of the scale of the human enterprise has solved a lot of problems and improved a lot of lives. And I think what happened is we just sort of assumed that that meant we had achieved the final answer. This is the way the world works and we should be able to do that forever. So we kind of got hooked on growth. And I don’t know for some reason it was really clear to me the downsides of that. And after a little bit of research I discovered, my goodness, there are significant scientifically documented limits to growth and we have outgrown the planet’s ability to sustainably meet our needs and that means that we’re crushing, destroying slowly the ecosystems that we depend on to support us.

Joshua: To me it’s sort of like how they say like the scales fell from your eyes or you pull at the thread and suddenly the whole sweater unravels like you’re saying we’ve had this way of living for a couple of 100 years or 100 years and it really felt like before without you saying something like that it can really feel like it’s just always been that way. Obviously, there didn’t used to be seven billion of us. There were fewer and so we’ve just always been growing. But that’s not the case. I mean there’s clear changes where growth started and it’s not that it’s inevitable. It’s just that’s where we were reacting to say discovering fossil fuels or things like that.

David: Yeah. That’s very true and I think the reason we’re kind of stuck, we’re hung up on that is because the stories that we tell ourselves around the campfire are that growth is universal good. Everybody worships it. It’s necessary and it’s beneficial and it has downsides. Of course, the campfire today being media, the speeches that politicians deliver the promises that they make in the flyers that you get in your mailbox, the way journalists report on our economy or homebuilding or population growth, all of that just keeps on reinforcing this cultural programming we have that growth is good.

Joshua: And I want to ask about more depth on that. If it’s OK with you, I want to ask a personal question first because I think a lot of people they feel like if they go down the rabbit hole, their life is going to get crappy and they’re going to be miserable or something like that. And in my case, it’s been some of the greatest changes in my life I’ve been where I’ve not gone that path. And how’s it been for you? Is it something that has made your life better, worse, different? If so, how?

David: Well, that’s really a great question because it’s, I don’t know, if I should say surprising but it’s sort of unexpected benefits of the course that I took. I had a pretty successful business. I actually used to produce propaganda for big companies.

Joshua: Did you call it propaganda then?

David: No. I think you know over time I think I came to realize that I had learned the art of spin and that I was spinning. In fact, I was aware I was doing that. I certainly never admitted it and we never even had that conversation really you know inside the boardroom with the client. We never said, “OK, we know what we’re doing is propaganda.” But I definitely learned that from the big PR agencies and Fortune 500 companies and I produced propaganda pieces for oil companies, gas companies, coal companies, multi-level marketing firms and I even produced a film for Enron.

Joshua: Wow, you really have been there.

David: Yeah. You know and I never questioned it because you know money was good and I was being a good provider for my kids and then [unintelligible] just didn’t pay to ask questions about it. But eventually I did eventually, I kind of had a few wakeup calls and I decided, “Oh my gosh, it’s time for me to put my skills to work for good, for telling a different story.” And as soon as I did, I basically decided to become a documentary filmmaker and produce a film that I wanted to make that no one was commissioning me to produce. And I don’t think I realized when I started that that meant I was going to become a starving artist. And you know there was just not much money in doing that so I had to simplify my life. Each year that passed as I was working on the first documentary I produced, I had to look at my life and say, “What can I cut out?” And so I was forced to simplify my life and yet I was never miserable doing it. In fact, I was happier than I’d ever been. There was more meaning in my life. I think my kids respected me more, my friends and neighbors respected me more and I respected myself more.

Joshua: This is the whole point of this podcast is… You were like five minutes in. And I think that people associate it with deprivation, sacrifice and hardship and the results of people who do these changes I feel like the more that they do the changes, the more that they talk about we talk about. Simplicity is the beginning and then it’s the relationships and living with your values and enjoyment and things like that.

David: Yeah, you’re getting back in touch with the things that really count.

Joshua: Yeah and all these stories that… Like the reason all the marketing is out there because it’s not in tune with us and you know I don’t know the oil companies and the fast food companies, all, they’ve got to drill it into you as much as they possibly can until you just accept it I guess from repetition and other things. But it never really gets down inside like eating an apple tastes good. It’s the stuff that really resonates with us. I should say more like the relationships we have and react with people with empathy and caring and thinking about how we affect them. That’s where it feels to me like meaning comes from.

David: Yeah. I think you’re saying that there’s even though it’s you know it’s really asleep and so many of us… I think so many of us have become enslaved to the system. I’ve got house payments to make, car payments to make, you’re desperate to hang onto that job and you’re desperate to have substantial income just to cover all of these bad habits that you’ve picked up but it turns out don’t really make you happy. But if you’re so busy servicing all that, that you don’t even realize that it’s not making you happy and you do forget I think what really matters. I think it is deep inside, it’s still there but boy that’s so… This other system, this treadmill that we’re on and service to the growth machine is pretty darn strong and pretty darn entrenched. I mean it’s like sleep learning almost, it’s almost like you go to sleep every night and slap headphones on your head and all night long you’re told, “More, more, you want more. More will make you happier.” Of course, that’s not true, turns out.

Joshua: Yeah. You said that you were aware of it but I feel like yeah, there’s like levels of awareness I think that it’s there. I think of it sometimes as if you walk out in the morning one day, you step in a puddle and your socks are wet and you’re too busy to do anything about it and so you just have wet feel all day and when you get home you take off the wet socks and you like, “I didn’t notice it but it’s been making me miserable all day. And I kind of knew it but I kind of didn’t know it.” And I feel like that’s what just buying into this mainstream view is like is you know it’s there, you know it’s bothering you. If you’re listening to this podcast, there’s something probably bothering you and what it is is you believe one thing, you have a certain set of values and you’re behaving inconsistently with it. And there’s this is internal conflict. This is how it is for me. I can’t say what is for anyone else but you know I’ve been doing stuff I knew that it was against my values but it was so easy or I felt like was too hard to change. And that internal conflict was eating me up. I didn’t notice until afterwards. Does that ring true? I don’t know. I’m only me. I don’t know what it’s like for other people.

David: Well, it feels to me like you hit the nail on the head. I love what you just said. I think you’re right on.

Joshua: So you’ve talked about… You had lots of different things and I think most people also think, “Oh, I got to do everything or nothing.” Or maybe they think… I think a big common thing is they think, “Oh, if I do that, it’ll take a little bit more planning than I’m willing to. Maybe someday I’ll start planning.” If you don’t mind my asking, what were some of the steps that you took and how did they happen to stick or not?

David: Oh, gosh. Well, OK. So I think you’re asking about the steps I took as I was thinning my footprint really out of necessity because I didn’t have the resources I used to have the financial resources. And they were things like well I stopped buying clothes. I almost never bought new clothes anymore and it shocked me to just discover how often I used to go buy something just because I thought, “Wow, that is me. That really looks good. I want to own that.” And so I discovered I had a closet… I had a lifetime supply of clothes hanging in my closet and still going through them near over a decade after I stopped shopping at the mall every other month for something new.

Joshua: So you’re not buying new stuff but you still have quality clothes. It’s not like you’re dressing in rags. You mean you still look presentable and so forth.

David: Yeah, but maybe a little less. You know I don’t wear a suit. I almost never wear a suit. In fact, I’m not even sure a suit would fit me and I’m okay with that. I love that. I love being a lot more comfortable but my clothes are holding up better because another thing I did and I actually did this earlier in my life because my daughter had guilted me into it and that was to stop drying my clothes. So I hang my clothes to dry. And of course, that saves us a little bit of money on utilities. But that [unintelligible] probably no one is going to notice the utility saving so I didn’t do that save money but I did that to shrink my carbon footprint and buy clothes that last so much longer before they are rags. But I’ll tell you, I think, Joshua, I think I might be a little bit more relaxed about wearing a shirt, maybe the collar or the sleeves have started to get a little bit ragged and I’ll go ahead and wear it longer. And now I kind of wear it as a badge of pride. I’m not embarrassed. It used to be if everything wasn’t perfectly pressed and no damage to it at all, then that was a sign that I must not be able to afford to cloth myself. And I’ve gotten rid of that foolish notion.

Joshua: I am really glad to hear this because looking at your online presence it’s not… There are hints at this every now and then of your background where you came from. But I think now hearing it, at least for me, that hearing this part makes it more intriguing because of the change, because you weren’t, I don’t know, raised by hippies or something like that. Or maybe you were, I don’t know. But you know this is a conscious change through experience based on it sounds like thoughtful consideration and experimentation and exploration of your values, not jumping on the bandwagon. I mean you’re taking big risks… Am I saying it right? Is this is about what it was like?

David: Yeah. I think if I’m interpreting you correctly, I don’t think… [unintelligible] other people or movements that I said, “Oh, I’ve got to jump on that.” I think I did sort of stumble into this fairly independently and I certainly wasn’t raised this way. My parents were born and raised in Texas. My dad went to high school with T Boone Pickens, the big corporate raider. You know my values were you know…. You know I was certainly raised to be honest but I was not raised to have a real strong conservation ethic like I got lucky along the way and had a few good influences. But yeah, most of this I think was pretty independent just driven by my… Really my desire to practice to see intergenerational golden rule. I feel like I owe it to not just my children but all the children of the world to leave them an equal opportunity to enjoy the good life that a… I would define the good life a little differently than a lot of people would today.

Joshua: All right. I’m curious about that. You say the good life but you’re also… If someone just listened without thinking too much about it, you say you owe it to them. It sounds like there’s some obligation, you’re not getting stuff. It sounds like… That does that kind of sound like deprivation. But I hear what it sounds like the meaning for you is something different. It sounds like it’s more positive. What is it you?

David: Well, it’s a contribution. I don’t see it as a sacrifice at all although I can see how someone who hasn’t experimented with this might you know assume it’s a sacrifice. But for the most part I mean I feel really good about what I’m doing and it is a moral obligation. I would not be able to enjoy hopping on a private jet every other month to head down to a vacation home in another spot with this huge lifestyle footprint even though it’s sort of from the outside, “Wow, that looks like quote unquote the good life.” I couldn’t enjoy that because I would know that well, the world can’t support seven billion people living that way. So it’s really not fair for me to decide that you know why would I be one of those chosen few. No, I really want to try to move toward more what would really be a fair global average where you know seven billion people on the planet would be living in a way that the next generation have their needs met too. And right now we’re not doing that. We’re living really way too high on the hog. A billion or two of us out of the seventeen point six billion are living so high on the hog that it’s leaving too little for the other five billion people on the planet and it’s damaging the earth’s ability to meet everybody’s needs next year. So next year the carrying capacity of the planet is going to be less than it was this year.

Joshua: And the population is going to be bigger.

David: Yeah. So there’s a lot of things that need to change obviously.

Joshua: And it’s keeping us from simplicity, relationships, self-awareness. On a personal level it feels like it’s making us miserable.

David: Yeah. It might be more challenging. If being a rampant consumer really was the good life, if that really was what counted in life, then it would be a lot harder, I think to challenge the world to simplify their lives. But the fact is you know that stuff isn’t what really brings you happiness. You know there’s that old cliché “No one on their deathbed ever wishes they had spent more time at the office.” Well, you know you can kind of extend that you think about, “Well, what will you think about on your deathbed?” Those are the things that really matter. And you’re not going to think about whether you were you know carrying a designer purse or wearing designer boots or admired by everyone else around you because you were financially you know super successful. You’re going to be thinking about how much time you spent with your kids or your spouse or the people you loved or whether you treated them well, whether you made a positive contribution to society, I think.

Joshua: I think a lot of people spend more time thinking about, “Well, I do have to go to the office and I do have to do this stuff.” And when you read…And I’m just going to make this personal comment here, that when you read and watch David’s stuff it gets you thinking about things in a different way that you do notice, “Oh, I’m spending more time in the office at the expense of, I don’t, know my own personal growth or my time with my family or stuff that you will on your deathbed think, “Oh, I wish I’d done more of that.”

And so that to me is, as an editorial, it’s like a breath of fresh air that gets you thinking about these things in a positive way that makes you want to do this thing and I’ll use that as a segue to… Well, I want to ask you about how you are leading others and how you’re influencing others. But why isn’t everyone doing this? I mean where’s the missing leadership? Why aren’t I mean Greenpeace and I don’t know, different places aren’t really promoting? Why are we not getting it from other places?

David: Well, you mentioned Greenpeace. I think that’s probably one of the first places you might expect to get some leadership in this arena around sustainability, living sustainably which we tend to lump into it the category of environmentalism. And I think that’s totally fair and accurate although I think people have this tendency to sort of compartmentalize and think, “Oh, that’s the environment. That’s not necessarily life or survival.” And the truth is the environment is really everything because without healthy environment we can’t have our needs met and we can’t survive. So you would think that the environmental organizations out there would provide some leadership on this and that’s been kind of a frustration of mine and something that I’ve you know keep a close watch on to see whether they’re starting to get it.

And my theory is that mostly they don’t…. I guess there’s two reasons really. The first is financial survival. They carefully craft messages that will not narrow their sphere of influence but will gather a wider funnel of potential donors. So giving people what… Unfortunately, people are going to assume that it’s bad news if you tell them economy can’t grow forever or the population can grow forever or we need to live a little bit more simply. A lot of people without giving it a little bit of thought or exploring this more deeply like you are now, thank you for that, they are going to assume that that’s bad news. And so they don’t want to get bad news. They won’t be a donor. They won’t donate to Greenpeace or Sierra Club if that’s the message they get. You don’t even get that message from 350.org which is an organization trying to get us to shrink our carbon footprint. But they know it’s a matter of survival. They need huge numbers in order to make a difference. And I think they know that they will have fewer numbers of supporters if their messaging is you know you need to leave your car, you know don’t buy a car, you need to stay out of your car, you need to get on a bicycle, you need to not be air conditioning your house, you need to be moving into a smaller house and then all of these kind of life simplification things that would shrink your carbon footprint but that’s not their messaging. I think it’s curious but I think it’s kind of a matter of survival from a revenue enhancement standpoint.

And it’s also a matter of survival in terms of just having people listen to you. It doesn’t do you a lot of good if your message is true and no one will hear it. And so I think they worry about that and I think I had to kind of evaluate that when I started producing the GrowthBusters documentary. I knew that there was going to be a huge swath of the planet that would just not be interested at all. But I had to have some truth. And in fact, I tried really hard to make as few sacrifices as possible. But I also tried hard not to put unnecessary messaging in there that would just slam a lot of doors because I do want to influence as many lives as I can.

Joshua: I really appreciate that you’ve… I mean you’re sticking your neck at the… People at this stage I think are sticking their necks out even though these aren’t new ideas but people are afraid of facing them and I think we have to at this stage get people you know… If you say lower the population like someone is going to knee jerk say something about eugenics and they’re going to knee jerk say something that’s not about at all. And I guess we got to get out of those ruts.

David: Yeah but you’re right. You have to. Right now, you do have to have some courage to take your chances and not be too invested in what other people think of you. And I think well, that’s probably a pretty good part of the definition of leadership, isn’t it to be you know to really be comfortable in your own skin and secure in what it is that you’re leading about.

Joshua: As I’m talking to now, I have not yet launched the podcast and so there’s no I guess page up yet but when it goes up, I figure I’ll have a place where you can donate. And one of the things I want to do is to say, “If you’re not willing to change yourself, we will not accept your donation. And if you want to give money but you want other people to change but not you, here’s a list of organizations that will accept your money anyway.” As a way of differentiating and setting off and saying you know, “Give your money to them. If you just want to give your money and keep doing what you’re doing, that’s not what this community is about.”

David: I really love your fresh thinking.

Joshua: So okay. So you’ve decided to do this. You decided to take on to go where the others aren’t going. I’m curious did you have a strategy from the beginning? Did it emerge? What were the results? How did it feel? If you don’t mind my asking.

David: I think the biggest, the highest-level strategy I had was based on a really great book I’d read 25 years ago called What’s the Big Idea. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. It was written by George Lois who is a big New York city advertising guy. He was responsible for the Volkswagen Think Small campaign and I want my MTV.

Joshua: I know that one.

David: Yeah, this guy is a real creative genius. And the takeaway from that book was that you have to do something really surprising and memorable. Only the unusual in communications can be unusually effective and so I knew I needed to be out there. I needed to be surprising, shocking, astonishing and so of course just the name GrowthBusters was a big part of that. I think I might want to mention didn’t really answer that question but none of us are an adjunct to that leadership role that I took when I decided to start the GrowthBusters film and project. About halfway into that I decided to do something else that was really pretty gutsy and leading and that was I decided to run for city council in my hometown because this was in 2009 and the economy was sinking and I could see that the messaging from the usual suspects was, “We need to keep growth going again. We look at the city coffers are thin, we can’t afford to pay for our streets, we can’t afford to water our parks. We’re going to need to grow this city so that we have a bigger tax base.” And I said, “Man, that’s just the wrong messaging.” And so I decided to run for city council while I was in the middle of making this film which was difficult. But as it happened, we decided well, we’ll put this in the film and then I’ll get to a little bit more bang for the buck. But I basically ran for city council and my slogan was, “Growth created the problems that we have. It can’t possibly be the solution to these problems. We need different thinking to have a healthy 21st century economy.”

Joshua: And how that turned out?

David: Well, you know I actually had fights with my campaign committee over this because they… I remember, we sat in a room and they said, “You can’t be against growth, David. You’re not going to get elected if you’re against growth.” But I wasn’t willing to… I wanted to get elected being true to myself and true to what I believed or at least get the conversation going if I wasn’t going to be elected. I was willing to take the risk of not winning the election. Winning the election was my most important goal than I would have been tempted to really moderate the message and not be true and I think that’s what we see happening all the time in politics. No politician today is going to stand up while they’re running for office and say, “We need a steady state economy. I’m not going to promise you economic growth because that is killing our life support systems.” Even though that’s the truth I am sure very few people will vote for him and certainly not a majority of people and they are right that it would be hard to be elected. So my campaign committee argued with me about that and really it was a tough one for me because there were these people donating money, here were these people helping me and yet I was disappointing them and not making those truth sacrifices in order to get elected. But I couldn’t do that. It surprised everyone and I got 43 percent of the vote and that was against an incumbent who outspent me by I think about 3 to 1. So we did a lot better than anyone expected we’d do.

Joshua: When you talk about these early stages I think a lot about like one of things I’ve been saying a lot lately is is that I believe that environmental causes need leadership in the style of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel and Gandhi and a lot of people when you think of Martin Luther King I think the first thing I think of is I Have a Dream and Nobel Prize winner and stuff like that. But that’s not where he started. When he started no one… I don’t think, I was not there but I doubt in the 40s that many people knew where Birmingham, Alabama was. And I would bet that people thought of not taking buses is a real hardship and a real mess and I’m sure he spent most of the time organizing. And I guess Rosa Parks at the time would have been… Was it a criminal for her not to move to the back of the bus? I’m not sure. But I mean now she’s an American icon, a hero. But I don’t think it was like that at the time and I think that’s where we are now. And I hope that I guess it took him about 10 years to get to I Have a Dream from a nobody being brought in to help with a boycott to… And I don’t even know if he was brought in for the boycott or if it was pre boycott and the boycott was something that came out of them working. But I feel like 10 years is about what we got before we make some major, major changes. I mean hopefully faster. But I feel like that’s where we are is that we need people who are willing to walk instead of take the bus even when it’s 90 degrees outside and you know at the end of it know that they will say like [unintelligible] Pollard who said, “My feet are tired but my soul is at rest.” The 72-year old woman who walked around a lot during the bus boycott.

David: Yeah. I think you’re right. And I think it’s important to note that you know even great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. who didn’t just start out as a great leader. It’s a journey for him himself. And I didn’t flip the switch one day and decide I was going to be some kind of an eco-superhero and I didn’t become one overnight and I’m not one. I’m so imperfect today I’ve got such a long way to go. I’m on this long journey and I feel like as long as I’m moving in the right direction and I’m lightening my load a little more each passing year I should probably be doing it faster but I’m working on it. And you know there’s some things in the system that make it challenging and even in your relationships you know depending on who your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your husband or wife are you know you might have to bring them along gently and it might take you longer to get there than you’d like.

Joshua: Yeah. I feel like that’s really challenging is like how to influence others without falling into the ruts that like they hear what they want to hear which isn’t necessarily what you’re saying. It’s a big challenge to I guess lead with empathy.

David: Yeah. And you know I like to lead by example and in fact this weekend we’re having a big gathering at our house. We show a movie outdoors and invite friends over for a potluck and we put up a big screen and project the movie and have a lot of fun. And we ask everyone to bring their own cloth napkin and if they don’t, we say, “We have lots. So if you don’t have one, we’ll provide you with one. But we’re trying not to use disposable items.” And so we end up with a ton of dishes to wash because we put out a bunch of dishes, no paper plates and it’s a lot of work. But I think we have this whole neighborhood and group of friends that go away and I’m sure they’re talking about this on their way home from outdoor movie night and saying [unintelligible] saying, “Boy, these gardeners are just absolutely nuts. I would have used paper plates and paper napkins.” And by the time they get home I’m thinking some of them might be saying, “Maybe we should try that.” I hope.

Joshua: I’m doing something very similar when I invite people over. You know food has been such a big thing as I’ve done less packaged food, almost no packaged food now. And I am cooking from scratch and I invite people over more because the food tastes better and it’s actually cheaper for me to feed a whole bunch of people than for me to go out and not feed them but pay for my own meal and it tastes better. And one of the things I started doing was I send people a link to my blog which is a page where I say, “Please, don’t bring packaged food, no rubber bands, no bottles, no boxes.” And even with that, still a lot of times people show up with packaging. Like one guy brought extra packaging for me. I’m like, “Wait a minute. You had a bag…” He comes in my apartment, he’s got a backpack on and he’s got a bunch of kale that he bought a canvas bag and put the kale in. Of course, it’s not my responsibility to make him understand me. I got to you know craft this message so it makes more sense to people. Now it started to make more sense but people are still coming over but then it changes when they taste the food and then they are like, “Wow, where did this come from?” and I am like yeah, it’s because I don’t get the stuff that you get and I don’t want bland food. So I got to figure how to make it taste good. And that’s what happens when you live by your values as you start discovering what you really care about and making that a part of your life.

David: Yeah, that’s a great example of an awesome reward for doing it well.


Joshua: So, I’m curious what kind of results have you seen from people who have seen your movie or read the blogs? You have a lot of webinars that you can go on and see. What kind of results do you get from people either that you’ve met or that you haven’t met?

David: Sometimes I feel like the progress is way too ploddingly slow, if there’s any progress at all. It’s tempting to be disappointed because I would love to see the world moving a little bit faster. But then sometimes I do see real positive signs. In my community I’ve started out as really a pariah of this crazy person who would dare to suggest that prosperity isn’t going to come from growth. And I’ve gotten to the point now where the public library actually calls me and says, “We’d like to show your film.” That never would have happened you know 10 years ago or eight years ago. So I see some of those things as a positive sign and I’ve seen the vocabulary change [unintelligible] city council after I ran for city council and I talked and talked and talked about redefining a healthy economy and having a healthy economy instead of a growing economy.

And I could see after that the people who were still addicted to growth went out of their way to disguise it. And you would say, “Well, [unintelligible] progress?” Well, I think it is. I think at least they now have this little nagging feeling in the back of their head that if they’re going to continue to worship unsustainable destructive growth, they have better disguise it pretty well. And that’s just the first step. You know then the next step might be that they might actually start to believe that it’s unsustainable and destructive.

Joshua: Well, I have to see from all add to it from my perspective is that when I came across your stuff I was like, “Oh, I’m so glad that someone broke the ice already.” Two things. One is that someone to broke the ice because for me to talk about you know bringing the population down by choice, not through eugenics, not you know I don’t want to break it to anyone but we’re all going to die. And so that’s going to happen naturally. And everyone has this knee jerk response about eugenics and they have their knee jerk response about if you have too many old people relative to young people and I am like our productivity is to the roof, it’s really… Anyway. So you took that step and so one I don’t have to be the first one and I have that confidence that like someone is talking about it. And that was one big thing. The other big thing is that you have so much stuff that’s together that instead of having a… There’s all this stuff that’s all over the place but when I go to your page and I watch your stuff then it’s like, “Yes, someone brought this together and I don’t have to search for it.” I can read it and it’s much easier. So you made it easier for me to be more outspoken.

So this is the first one. Talking to you is the first time when I am actually talking about population and I knew I wanted to. I talk to people, one-on-one I’ll talk about it but I know that I would think that for a politician to talk about it currently is probably the end of their career but not for long. And I hope to be part of… I hope to follow you and being part of making that more palatable for people to talk about it. You know when I was younger putting on a seatbelt with something that’s like not macho or something and now it’s just you put it on. You don’t think twice about it. No one would sell a car without seatbelts on it. You don’t get in a car and… you just don’t think about it. You just put your seatbelt on. And I think some of the stuff you know that change I think is… Well, that’s what I’m trying to help make happen.

David: Well, thanks for reminding me that even though I think the progress has been really slow getting people to understand what a healthy economy over the long term really is that there really are some great signs of progress on this population front. Just over the last year I have seen conversations start to happen just about choosing voluntarily choosing to have fewer children and how that has such an incredible effect on your carbon footprint. And I’ve seen National Public Radio cover it, I’ve seen it in Forbes and New Scientist and on HBO and this is the kind of stuff that you know few years ago you almost never saw it. So I think there’s real signs of progress there. And I thank you for jumping into the fray and hoping the rest of us advance that hopefully.

Joshua: Yeah. I hope that… I mean there are few changes that I’ve seen in my lifetime that are on that scale of like when I was younger you could just say, “I’m about to drive away. Give me one for the road.” meaning “I am about to drive. Give me alcohol.” Which is totally unthinkable today. Or smoking when I was younger it was much closer to Humphrey Bogart. Now it’s much closer to a disease lung. And part of the reason I’m in this is that to think of like huge families and going to parties on the West Coast just for the weekend and then coming back to the east coast just because you can or not even realizing that you can have just as much fun at home, maybe even more for not having all that travel.

David: Yeah, that’s a good point. I don’t see too many signs of that being you know getting into the public consciousness quickly yet but hopefully on all these fronts that there’s a tipping point where the progress might be pretty slow for a long time and then suddenly it’s going to really cascade and just almost overnight a norm out there will be different.

Joshua: I hope so. All right. So I’m going to ask you something now that I think is maybe more challenging for you than most because I ask people to take on a personal challenge based on a value of theirs or multiple values of theirs. And I made a rule for myself earlier before doing any of these interviews that it had to be something new that someone wasn’t already doing before. And that’s what’s going to make it hard for you because you probably have been doing this for years adopting, finding things that were inconsistent with your behaviors or inconsistent with your values. Correct me if I’m misstating it but finding behaviors are inconsistent with your values and changing behavior to be consistent with your values, or I suppose possibly change your values. And are you up for taking on a personal challenge that you haven’t taken on before that would make a difference? It doesn’t have to solve everything overnight but that you want to take on.

David: I’m looking forward to it and I’m actually thankful to have a little extra external stimulus to really make sure that I stay committed to this. I mentioned before that I’m on a journey that I didn’t just overnight become the person with the perfect footprint. I think my values are pretty well aligned but I know I have so much further to go in lightening my load on the planet. So there’s something that’s been really kind of eating at me for a few years really and I haven’t done anything about it mostly because I’ve been on this treadmill of my own. You know I got off the treadmill in service to see more of everything and making lots of money and demonstrating that I have lots of money and that that’s my metric for success. I got off that treadmill but when I got under this new one which was we got a planet to save and there’s a lot of work to be done and so I tended to over schedule myself and so I don’t have enough time in my life to slow down and some of the things that skinny up your life work a little better when you’re not rushing through life. And I think that’s another side benefit. So for me I’ve known that I really need to drive, I really want to and need to drive even less than I already do. I need to stay out of the car and when I go meet someone for coffee, when I go to the gym, when I go to a meeting downtown, I should be getting on a bicycle and I haven’t done that. I’ve been dragging my feet on making that change because I’m always cramming too much into a day and I’m going to be late even if I jump in the car and drive to a meeting I’m going to be late.

So I haven’t done anything about it. But your project here has inspired me to say OK, it’s time, I had to actually go and purchase a bicycle because I haven’t owned a bicycle since I got out of college. So I’m sad to say. I was never that crazy about them but I remember enjoying thoroughly the freedom as a kid of hopping on a bike and just zipping all over the neighborhood and I’m looking forward to getting that back. But you’re motivating me to finally make that leap.

Joshua: All right. Well, I’m very pleasantly surprised to find that someone who’s done a lot of things already to the point of making a movie to the point of running for office. You look forward to taking on more challenges and I’m glad to have something that connects with something of a childhood thing.  Actually, you know, a lot of people connect environmental things to childhood. It’s a natural connection. It’s just hit me that it’s hitting a lot of people their relationships with their parents, their childhood. Interesting. I have to pursue that a little bit more.

David: Good point. Good point.

Joshua: And thank you for making it hit me. So I want to make a SMART goal so something specific and measurable… Let’s put it this way. What’s a good timeframe to have our second conversation to talk about what’s happened and what specifically will we talk about? Is it like a certain number of trips or not using the car at all or…? What works for you?

David: Oh, gosh, I haven’t really thought about that. It’s going to be… One of the particular challenges for me is that I live on a really steep hill and so riding my bicycle back home is going to… I’m not even going to be able to stay on the bike first. I’m going to have to get off and rest or walk a little bit. So one goal might be to just get to ride enough that I’m in good enough shape to actually stay on the bike all the way up to the house. That could be an interesting measurement. I don’t know how long that would take. Maybe another one might be to maybe have spent a certain number of weeks never once driving to the gym but always getting on my bicycle when I go to the gym. Do either of those sound good to you?

Joshua: Yeah, either or both. I mean the second one sounded like it was easier to attach something to because if you set a certain amount of time in a certain specific use then we can make that work and then if along the way the other one comes up in conversation of you know going up that steep hill… So how long… I don’t know how often you go to the gym or what would be a good amount of time – a day, a week, a month, a year…?

David: I think I will feel like I’m really underway and that this isn’t some kind of a passing fancy. If I have gone three weeks or more riding to the gym, let’s say every trip to the gym is on the bicycle unless I happen to be on my way somewhere else and just stop at the gym. My problems are going to be that I’m going to be…The next three weeks I’m not going to be here so I won’t have access to my bicycle or the gym so I won’t even be able to start until three weeks from today.

Joshua: Okay, so then if we did three weeks from then looking at my calendar, that would be the beginning of October. Six weeks from now would be October 6, the Friday.

David: That sounds about right. Yeah.

Joshua: Okay how about scheduling… So if it was Friday, I was about to say the same time but I am scheduled then. Do you have your calendar handy?

David: You know I don’t have it up because I turned off my browser so that it wouldn’t interfere with my computing power but I can bring it up real quick. Yeah. Thank you for holding my toes to the fire, you know making me accountable.

Joshua: Yeah. I feel it it’s supporting the person that I’m leading and that the easier I can make it for them on the stuff that’s not the core part, the more that they can focus on the core part which is them and their personal challenge.

David: OK, very good. I’m wide open on Friday, October 6 if you want to do that but I don’t really have a lot on the calendar on adjacent days so…

Joshua: All right. Then I’ll propose 2:00 PM my time which I guess would be noon your time, I think.

David: Yeah.

Joshua: All right. So I will schedule that and I’ll send a calendar invitation that you’ll get after we hang up.

David: Sounds great.

Joshua: And then I’ll wrap up there. Or I’ll ask you is there anything I didn’t think to bring up that’s worth bringing up to cover before wrapping up?

David: Oh, gosh. I don’t know. There’s always a million, a million things that we don’t get a chance to talk about. I guess you know there’s one thing that I also because I know you’re a leadership guru. So I want to try to be consistent with a theme of environmental leadership, sustainability leadership and one way or another way I’m trying to lead is that I developed small family stickers. You know you see those stick figure families….

Joshua: Yeah, on the back of the cars.

David: And I thought you know if I want to make it… People today unfortunately almost brag about how big their family is with all those little stick figures on the back of their suburban and I thought I really want to make it cool. I want to give people a chance to have some pride in the fact that they chose to have fewer children. I did. I had vasectomy right after my second child because [unintelligible] the population bomb I had read and it really made an impact on me. So I developed these stickers that have stick figure family but they also brag a little bit. So I have a sticker that says, “Stopped at one.” I have one that says, “Stopped at two.” And I have one that says, “Stopped at zero.” With the appropriate number of adults and kids and at the growthbusters.org website people can order those and my hope is eventually they’ll blanket the world and people will see them. So far they’re not all that widespread but I actually have heard from someone who said that they were driving along in Loveland, Colorado and saw that sticker on the back of a car and they went home and googled it and ordered one because they thought that was such a cool idea.

Joshua: Awesome. So where do they go to get it and where else should they find all of your message?

David: Well, probably the good central place to go would be growthbusters.org. If you click on our store at growthbusters.org, then that’ll take you to where those stickers are and a few other little growth busting tools. And also hopefully at the website you know a lot of we try to make that as much of a central repository of thinking. I’ve got blog posts and links to our YouTube channel. You know we’ve produced a real fun little video about the Think Small family stickers so you could even Google Think Small family stickers on YouTube and find out. But growthbusters.org is probably the best central place to go.

Joshua: OK. I’ve really enjoyed reading and watching your things. I guess I just think that you interviewing people around your neighborhood of their views on these things. And people have changed more than I thought and I was like, “He is not going to get any results here at all.” But people are really thinking differently.

David: Yeah. That’s one of the most recent videos on our YouTube channel. Pretty surprising, wasn’t it?

Joshua: Yeah. I’m really pleased to see stuff like that. So if you’re listening to this and thinking it’s like hardship and stuff, there’s fun and joy and you’re playful about this stuff but still thoughtful. So I encourage everyone to go there. It’s really a breath of fresh air.

David: Thanks for appreciating that.

Joshua: So I am going to wrap this up. A lot of times in podcast people… And then the two people talk a little bit afterward. But I want the listeners to get everything so when we hang, we’re actually going to hang up.

David: Okay.

Joshua: I’m sure we’ll be in touch between now and six weeks from now but at least for this conversation… The next time we’ll pick up this conversation will be in six weeks and I look forward to hearing how the biking is going.

David: I hope I have a great report for you, Joshua, and I want to really wish you great success with this podcast. I think it’s a great idea and a great way to lead in this movement.

Joshua: Thank you. I will definitely back to you for promotion and stuff like that.

David: Okay, great.

Joshua: Alright. I’ll talk to you again soon.

David: All right. Take care. Bye.


David is taking on one of the biggest sacred cows out there. Few will touch it. But it has nothing to do with a [unintelligible] people usually replace it with. It’s probably the most important sacred cow too. Of course, there are many places to work in systemic change. But population growth and GDP growth are among the most important levers affecting the environment, society, culture, everything. I see David’s focus as the future, just as Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s work. He has a dream. Like him I believe that one day we can have a stable population and a steady state economy with stability and abundance for everybody. Now that could be either because nature imposed a crash on us meaning actually a smaller population or we could be out of our own choice which could mean abundance for everyone. David’s moving us closer to an abundant, lovely future.

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