I want to tell two stories that helped guide my environmental behavior, rather one story, a personal one, and one illustration. The first story is back when I played Ultimate Frisbee in college. A guy threw me a pass and it was out of my reach. So I watched the disco by because I couldn’t make a play for it, I couldn’t catch it. At the end of the point I’m coming off a field and one of my teammates, Juno, comes up and says, “Why did you let that one go by? Why didn’t you try for it?” I said, “It was out of my reach.” And he looks at me and goes, “At least try.” Ever since then I’ve always felt “at least try” and when I watch athletes play and when a baseball gets hit for homerun the outfielder still chases it down knowing that he’s not going to able to make a play on it. At least try. And by the way, I should say the rest of the team they felt the same way. And before that play I never really thought about it to try for every single pass as best I could. And it made a big impression on me. The consequences are that I try. I played nationals and I played worlds. I never reached the level of being a captain or one of the better players on one of these teams. I made the teams but I played with players who won them multiple times. Looking back, I regret not reaching their level in sports but it still rubbed off on me.
There’s no special skills required to do lots of burpees or not getting on an airplane. You just have to simply do it. If you choose to do them, you can do as many burpees as you want. I’m up over a hundred thousand but I don’t do them all at once. I’ve done them over the course of, I don’t know, close to a decade. Same with not getting on an airplane. It’s not that hard not to do. You just have to make it happen. You have to try. Juno’s words were a big lesson there.
Actually, Larry Bird said something very similar. There’s a poster from back in the ‘80s, back when he played, “It makes me sick when I see a guy just watching it go out of bounds.” That’s the story. The illustration is that if you put molten chocolate cake or some indulgent gluttonous dessert in front of someone who’s struggling with their diet no matter how resolved they were beforehand, most will eventually logic themselves into what I call specious fatuous self-serving non-logic. Something like, “By eating some now they’ll eat less later.” or “They’ve worked so hard. They deserve it.” Or somehow that it’s healthy in some way. After they eat it, they regret it. Actually, before arriving in the situation if you ask them would they eat it, they’d say no, they’d be full of resolve and they never accept logic like that. But in the moment that they put the gooey stuff in their mouth it seems like it’s logical.
I hope that in your life you’ve paid attention to your thoughts as such justifications arise in you because they arise in me. It’s a human thing, it’s not a diet thing. To learn that the mainstream view that we logically conclude what to do it doesn’t happen that way. It’s not that we decide logically, “This is what I’m going to do.” and that we drive the emotions. Our emotional system chooses what to do and then another part of our mind justifies why doing so is right. If you pay attention to your thoughts you can see this happening or you can sense this happening. If you look up Jonathan Haidt, he was a guest on this podcast and I recommend listening to the Jonathan Haidt interview. If you look up his rider and elephant metaphor from his book The Happiness Hypothesis, it’s an effective illustration. In brief, he says the intellect is not like many people describe. A lot of people say it’s like a chariot here guiding horses, with a chariot here is more intelligent and the horses are relatively obedient. In his view, it’s more like the emotional system is like an elephant. It’s pretty intelligent and the intellect is more like a rider that gets pulled along most of the time. And then once the elephant decides where it’s going to go, the rider justifies the way the elephant is going is why I wanted to go in the first place and here’s why. So all I’m saying about doing what you think is right and understanding how you choose it’s about environmental behavior. That’s what I’m getting at here.
When environmentalists see Al Gore needlessly flying if they themselves fly a lot instead of holding him accountable, which would benefit the environment more in the long run, their elephant decides because they want to keep flying they should justify why Al Gore can fly because that justifies why they can fly. They’re like the dieter with a molten chocolate cake. The non-logic seems perfect while they’re making the choice but it’s just to justify the result their emotional system wants. What their emotional system wants would be fine if it weren’t that that emotional system, the emotional system that we all share, is guiding us to extinctions, into Florida under water, to desertification, to all the things you read on the front page.
Here’s another illustration. When a gorilla defeats an alpha gorilla to become a new alpha, he often kills babies from the old alpha. I looked it up on some website. Here’s a quote, “Silverbacks have been observed to deliberately kill babies, especially in mountain gorillas. Usually this is the case after a female transferred to another male together with her baby or if a new leading male takes over. This behavior called infanticide is interpreted as a means to shorten the time until the baby’s mother becomes fertile again and the new male can sire his own offspring with her.” Evolutionarily this is effective behavior when all babies have a good chance of living. But gorillas are becoming endangered and every baby may matter. It may be more advantageous for the gorilla to let the babies live because at least some genes are passed on.
Anyway, the gorillas don’t consciously think this as far as we know. They just act on their evolved behavior and so do we. Well, we can think but we back justify it like the chocolate cake. Our emotional system is our evolved behaviors. It’s guiding us to polluting, heating the planet, causing mass extinctions and everything you read about on the front page. Americans and much of the world, we aren’t changing our behaviors despite knowing these results, despite knowing they were causing these results. We’re back justifying the packaged food, the flying, the air conditioning, the SUVs and everything that we keep doing knowing what the problem is. We look at the result and act as if we’re not doing it and we are. And if you’re an American, it’s like something like 100 times more per capita having an effect than people in the third world. Other people will be doing it more, you’re doing it, we’re doing it. When we say change is hard or impossible, we are justifying the same emotional choice of the diet or with the cake, however watertight the non-logic feels in the moment. Out of the moment the feeling goes away. If you have no gluttonous food around you now and you want to lose fat, whatever resolve you have will at least weaken when your senses create incentives for your emotional system that is when you see or smell or taste something that’s gooey and delicious but still fattening.
People call me extreme with avoiding packaging but I ask you which do you think is an easier way to stay healthy – never trying heroin or using heroin sometimes? Because it seems to be a lot easier never try heroin. But nobody calls me extreme in my non-heroin use and a much more extreme in that than I am on the not packaging. It’s just easier not to start than to start and stop. The longer I go without ice cream, cake and things like that the less it’s in my world and the less I want it and the more delicious apples and oranges and fresh fruit. I can’t believe how delicious fresh fruit tastes much more than ice cream used to. You have to let the taste buds recover but when you do, I can’t describe it. When you take flying as a given, you crave many places to visit, you just crave going to all these places. It’s been long enough that I stopped craving these things. When you reached the realization that you can’t see everything and therefore the best strategy you can have in life for travel is to enjoy where you are maximally. You replace the craving for elsewhere with community and neighbors, with connection, with volunteering and so on. Before long you ask yourself What did I hate so much about where I lived? What did I hate so much about my neighbors that I felt compelled to leave them so often? You find that you can joy yourself more than before unmolested by having to save up for flying, invasive airport pat downs, days lost to transit, disconnection from your community and things like that. You stop seeing not flying as privileged. People level that one at me all the time. They call me privileged for not flying. You’ll start seeing an activity that a couple of percent of the population can do and yet 100 percent of the population and all future generations have to pay for those trips with their comfort and sometimes with their lives. You will see it as an indulgent choice with consequences that you force on others, the pollution. And a way out of the specious fatuous self-serving logic non-logic is to consider every choice that you make that affects others as one that affects your team not to let it go by.
At least try. At least try to imagine a world where you don’t have to fly every single time that you now think you do. We don’t have to get every Big Mac. How do I know that people like Big Mac so much? Because of the profits, the profitability McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and Monsanto and so forth. We keep getting the stuff and we don’t have to. Yes, I support legislation. Yes, I support lots of things. But we can make these choices ourselves and then legislation will come faster when we make these choices ourselves. Before long it will make you sick to see someone letting opportunities to save the ball pass. What does saving the ball mean in the context of the environment? Saying no to the plastic bag. Saying no the packaging, going to the farmer’s market, joining the CSA. After you do it a few times, after you develop the skills on the simple things, even if that’s just giving up straws for a little while, then the less simple things become easier and you can start doing them. You’ll stop giving up on even long shots and you’ll start seeing the best of life in these things, in non-packaged food, in vegetables that you make from scratch, in staying home and volunteering with people who could use your help instead of going off all around the world all the time. At least try. Being a champion here doesn’t mean winning a game. It means maintaining human culture. That’s what we stand to lose and what we stand to gain is integrity, is knowing that you’ve tried, you’ve put everything you had into it and everything you do does matter. It may be that we can’t stop all the predictions from happening but we can stop some of them and there’s differences between total utter disaster and things going pretty badly. And you can be a part of saving the ball from going out of bounds. You can be a part of at least trying. It’s worth it and in my opinion, a much better life attainable to everyone.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees