151: What Al Gore Misses (transcript)

March 10, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek

I saw Al Gore speak for the first time in November in person. I’ve seen both of his movies and I guess I’ve seen a lot of him in the news. I’ve been meaning to record this episode since probably November, probably since I saw Inconvenient Sequel. So I confess that I have not interacted with Al Gore personally so I don’t know how he leads in person. I saw him on stage and by the way, the person interviewing him Jaden Smith, was 20 years old. I don’t really think he grasped the situation at the level that Al Gore did so they couldn’t speak on that level. Jaden Smith is Will Smith’s son and he promotes a bottled water brand. Well, that is he sells something nearly free with extraneous packaging which I consider needlessly polluting so I didn’t really see the conversation as being that productive.

So my main interaction with Al Gore is through his movies and reading about him in the media. And I want to say I would love to have him as a guest. This episode is about things that I think he could do differently that I think could make him more effective but I would love to hear him share his history, the history of the movement from his view. He’s won a Nobel prize, he’s got multiple Oscars and more. I could learn incomparably more from him than he could from me. So when I suggest he’s missing something I mean it in the context of his getting much more but I don’t think it’s any big deal to say he’s not perfect or omniscient.

So I love what he’s done to reach where we have but I believe that helping people reach the next step is going to require leaders who live consistently with the values that they recommend to others. People look for any excuse they can find to say, “He’s doing it or she’s doing it so I can too.” As an illustration, if you put in front of someone who’s trying to quit smoking a lit cigarette, no matter how much that person is determined to stop they at least feel motivated to smoke, they’re going to want to pick it up and put it in their mouth. Given enough time I think most people end up putting the cigarette in the mouth and when they do, they will think something justifying the behavior saying in the moment why it’s the right thing to do. It could be that before the moment they said, “I’m not going to do it.” and it could be that they immediately regret it afterward. But in the moment they do it there’s something in their mind saying this is the right thing to do because emotions drive reason more than reason drives emotion however much people fantasize that it goes the other way around.

Now add to the person sitting there, multiple industries spending trillions of dollars to advertise, government subsidies meaning that I’m helping to pay for it even though that I don’t want to, those industries paying people to figure out how to hide the problems, influence the smokers through sophisticated marketing techniques and so on. On top of that, imagine you have a Surgeon General who smokes who makes movies showing himself or herself smoking telling people the dangers of smoking while they themselves are smoking telling other people not to smoke. Now throw in at the family doctor also smokes and the nurse. Imagine everyone tell you not to smoke that they themselves smoke. The same thing would happen to someone trying to quit eating too much salt, sugar, fat with putting a gooey chocolate lava cake in front of them and an obese Surgeon General eating bags of Doritos and family doctors drinking soda while telling people not to eat sugar, salt and fat. Or an alcoholic trying to quit drinking with a Surgeon General holding a bottle of rum and a family doctor with a six pack of beer and so on.

The addictive behavior and self-serving justification that people feel before doing the thing that they’re trying to stop doing sadly closely describes people’s environmental behavior. In my experience when given the choice between comfort and convenience that pollutes or challenging themselves to stop polluting, people will use any excuse to continue the comfort and convenience. We’ve reached the limits of where we can go with a Surgeon General who smokes or environmental leaders who fly all over the place or are overweight or anything like that. The next stage of helping people live by their environmental values is going to have to come I believe from people who are living by those values themselves.

Two days ago I was at an NYU symposium on sustainability. The people there were some big people in sustainability. The event went most of the day starting from noon until… I think it ended at 6:00 followed by wine and hors d’oeuvres and the last several talks before the wine and hors d’oeuvres talked about the problems with single use containers and plastic. They said, “We can do this.” There are places where plastic bags are outlawed and where single use plastics are legal and the people on stage to big applause from people in the audience exhorted them not to use single use plastic. As soon as the speeches ended one of the organizers went up onstage and said, “OK. Now everybody meet. We’ve had a great event. Go have some wine.” And they all went over and drank wine in disposable plastic cups. I didn’t see a single person show any concern not only that they’re using single use plastic but they had just said they weren’t going to do it. And by the way, just after the last person spoke and just before everyone else made it to the wine I asked the bartenders, “Do you have any glass glasses? Do you have any non-disposable?” And they said, “No, we don’t.” So I didn’t have any. No big deal. It’s not such a big deal and in fact it’s exactly the message that they were saying that we want to convey to people is if it’s not by our values, we’re not going to use it. Somehow they all used it.

And my point is that well, I guess for the attendees if there’s no leader showing them that they can do it differently, they’re going to do it the way they used to. Now they could be leaders themselves. That is to say they could lead themselves into not using the plastic cups that they just said that they weren’t going to use and that they just applauded someone suggesting that they don’t use it, or they could lead others but it’s very difficult to lead others when they’re not leading themselves. And so that they may be leaders but they’re also followers. And there are no leaders, virtually none. And the more prominent people get I don’t see leaders doing it publicly displaying behavior that they’re not going to accept and they’re not going to behave in this way. And that’s the next generation of leadership that I think everybody craves, that people want.

People are really big about carbon offsets or in the case of Jaden Smith using bottles that have less packaging but not no packaging, carbon offsets, and there is a whole lot of things that fall in the category of carbon offsets. They’re a nice fantasy but they don’t remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or the ocean. They limit the rate of increase but that’s not decreasing. And the way they motivate people to fly more their net systemic contribution is probably to lead people to pollute more overall. So as I said, what I say about carbon offsets would follow for recycling and many other things that the net effect if you don’t have leaders who are reducing before recycling, choosing not to emit instead of buying carbon offsets, people are going to keep doing what they used to do and find ways to justify it. And I am going to get back to that in a second when I talk about his movies.

My model of leadership is to help people do what they want but haven’t figured out how. It’s not about convincing, seeking compliance, coercion, guilt, blame, doom gloom or anything like that. It starts on early stages helping them identify their values and goals, then to help them achieve them consistent with the leader’s vision. To motivate people to change their behavior a leader must practice the behavior he or she recommends or at least not violate it, not do the opposite. Until environmental leaders do so in the area in the environment if you ask people to do what looks to them like sacrifice and they think that you aren’t doing it, the leader’s greatest contribution may be to create votes for populists who say, “Look, they’re saying to do something that they’re not doing it themselves. You don’t have to do it. Vote for me.” The irony and one of the greatest experiences that I’m trying to share through this podcast is that when it clicks, when the behavior consistent with your values clicks acting by your values isn’t sacrifice – it’s the opposite. It’s joy, it’s discovery, it’s growth, it’s meaning, it’s purpose, it’s values. For that matter it takes less time to click and registers joy, fun and other ways rewarding with each practice that you adopt. The first time is going to be a challenge. The next time a little less so the next time less. And then it doesn’t take long before you anticipate that each change is going to improve your life by your standards.

The crazy missing point is that living by their values would improve their lives and effectiveness, at least by my experience. That includes Al Gore. Now I’m not there. I can’t really say for sure but it looks like that from my perspective. I’ll get back to that in a second. People who say one thing and do another they may think that they’re changing the system but I think that they’re supporting it comparable to a doctor or Surgeon General who smokes or drink soda. Stopping living by the system’s values of growth and externalizing costs and instead living by and promoting values like enjoying what you have and taking responsibility for how your behavior affects others will make environmental leaders more effective and on a personal level happier.

Now I’m not saying anyone has to be a saint or perfect. To be a saint implies morality and what I’m talking about here is not about good, bad, right or wrong but the practical matter of helping people live by their values. He has plenty of followers who share his values. I think nearly everyone on the planet wants clean air, clean water and clean land in some sense. And as for being perfect, well, no one is perfect. I’m not. And you don’t have to be. You only need to show that you’re doing your best.

Now I want to pause for a second here. All of you listeners who are pointing at leaders not living by their values I’m not saying go ahead and abandon your values as a result. On the contrary, you living by your values will help them live by their values just as much. Now they might not know you but we collectively influence them. The sooner that you face and overcome what emissions and challenges stand between you and living by your values, the sooner that you’ll find greater meaning, purpose, value, passion, growth and all the things I know that you value more than the comfort and convenience or whatever you get from your equivalent of smoking, eating junk or drinking. And you can lead. You will lead Al Gore. You’ll lead all the leaders who currently aren’t doing it. You can lead. Do you have kids? Do you have co-workers? Do you have neighbors? You can lead them starting by leading yourself.

So back to Al Gore and wrapping up some things I said I’d get to. I’m not him. I don’t know his community so I could be wrong but I see someone with a lot of behaviors inconsistent with the future that he describes. He and his supporters may say, “Yes, yes. He causes lots of emissions but each use is justified.” They miss two big things. One is that people will follow his behavior. What I talked about before when they see the Surgeon General smoking it allows them to smoke. But it’s more insidious than that because a lot of people watch him and they’ll say, “Yes, it’s OK for him to do that because it’s for a greater purpose.” So now when you have people who see the movie they’ll say something like, “Well, I support the environment. But as he has other priorities, so do I. There are very important. My kids’ health and safety, for example. And it’s simply safer in an accident to be in an SUV than to be in a small car however less that small car pollutes. And so just as he flies in the plane, I will get the SUV.” And so we have a nation full of people with SUV and all the other behaviors and they’re justifying it because they’re behaving consistently with Al Gore in the movie.

The other big thing that they’re missing is that they’re missing out that they could be more effective. Now I could be wrong. I haven’t been there. I’m not really sure. But instead of going places in person it looks to me like he could empower more people to do his role. I see the sort of franchising what he does raising more people up to do what he does. Maybe he’s doing as much as he can. If so, I would think that he could publicize how much he’s polluting and clearly demonstrating how any lower emissions of his would increase emissions globally. But in the absence of being able to show that I think that his next great step will be to live 100 percent by the values that he promotes and still be as effective or even more effective. I believe that thinking otherwise, thinking that he could not be more effective whether that’s by him or by anybody else is a statement of a limitation of that person’s imagination because I think that if they put their minds to it, they will be more effective by living consistently with their values and finding ways around it.

Maybe I’m blinded by my experience that when I stopped eating packaged food my diet got much more delicious, saved more money, got more convenient. When I stopped flying planes I got more adventure in my life, more exotic cuisines, more different cultures. I’m confident that the same will happen with Al Gore and for that matter, any environmental leader who himself or herself is emitting more greenhouse emissions than the IPCC recommends for a person. So I’m confident that challenging himself, yes, it’ll be hard. The first couple times you do it it’s really hard. And then suddenly things open up and I believe that he’ll find greater opportunity to achieve the goals that he’s currently achieving and on top of that influence people more, and on top of that enjoying life more himself. When he does so I predict that he’ll wish he’d done it earlier. If I’m not presuming too much, I believe that being on my podcast would help him and I’d love to have him.

And so I want to wrap up. I believe that the next step for Al Gore and basically every environmental leader I know of is to live by his or her values as much as possible and to publicize that because I believe that it will lead them to getting more of the results that they’re trying to get already, more results on top of that that they don’t anticipate that they can get. And I think that they’ll enjoy it. None of what I’m saying is intended to criticize in what he’s done to get us so far or the techniques he’s done so far. I’m a big fan. I believe that I’m describing the next step of leadership that the world craves.

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