167: Amy Aussieker, part 1: Can we transform an American City? (transcript)

April 12, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Amy Aussieker

We’ve all sat in a car in traffic and thought, “If only there was another lane here, this traffic would go away and I wouldn’t have to sit in traffic anymore.” We all think, “LEDs are more efficient than incandescents. We should switch to LEDs. Then we’ll use less electricity.” Well, it turns out that everyone thought that Uber was going to ease traffic but it turns out to increase congestion. And it turns out that LEDs so far we’re still in a stage where it’s lowering our total power usage but we’re on track to use more electricity than ever on lighting even though LEDs on a single use are more efficient than incandescents. As it turns out when it gets more efficient it becomes cheaper and then we like more things and we light things more. It turns out that efficiency alone without intentionally reducing leads to polluting more efficiently. It’s a subtle point but it makes sense when you look back. Incandescents are more efficient than using whale oil to light but use a lot more incandescents than we ever used for whale oil. As for cars we’re stuck with roads that were built based on that idea that more roads meant less traffic bringing roads that are cementing in our behavior literally in suburbs and driving around and being disconnected from our neighbors for centuries, maybe longer.

So saying that small changes may lead to big ones may simply continue this multi century trend going back since at least the Industrial Revolution. Since one of the early cases of this that I’ve written about and spoken about was the Watt steam engine. It used coal more efficiently than any before but the use of coal didn’t go down. It went up because they used the engines for more things and they used each engine more. It may be that we need qualitative differences that efficiency however important never leads to. Businesses based on an economic system that promotes growth loves the idea of the so-called circular economy and they love recycling because it promotes more, using more, producing more but it may keep us on track to unsustainability, global warming, more plastic and so on even though each individual use may use less. Overall, we may use more. You have to look not at the individual use but by the new users it gets enabled by, by looking at the demand curve and in economic speak.

So I don’t know the answer to how we make quality changes like that but the city of Charlotte contacted me about their Envision Charlotte program. It’s a program to reduce emissions, reduce waste, circular economy, things like that. I told them I’m cautiously optimistic but I’m not sure that what they’re doing is in the long run helpful. They put me in touch with Amy Aussieker, their executive director and we had a great first conversation where I said what I just talked about and she was game for recording conversation for this podcast. So here this is the first time that I’m challenging someone on these issues. I’m not sure where it’s going to go but I appreciate her openness and thoughtfulness and playing along. So let’s hear how it went.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Amy Aussieker. Amy, how are you?

Amy: I’m great. How are you?

Joshua: I’m very good and I hope that… You know we had this great conversation before and I entered that conversation concerned that it was going to be a difficult one for me because when Envision Charlotte contacted me I was kind of torn between people who… There’s a lot of people out there who intend to do well and really want to make things better by their standards. And then there’s a lot of people, or organizations more commonly, that by not understanding these issues actually aren’t really doing things but they make it look like it’s nice. And I wasn’t sure if that was the case here. And so with a bit of trepidation I contacted that I responded because, “Is this going to be a case where people know what they’re doing or not or what?” And then when I spoke to you I found that my perspective was that you have a lot going on that I didn’t think about and I didn’t know about and I learned a lot from that conversation. I hope that this one augments that one and we bring to the listeners a new perspective of how urban change… Well, you can describe what you’re doing better. I just wanted to give the context of the challenge for me of wanting to support change, improvements but also skeptical sometimes of what happened so maybe to start off if you could describe yourself and what Envision Charlotte is about.

Amy: Sure. OK. So I have been the executive director of Envision Charlotte since 2013 and it was an organization that was actually started by a community leader [unintelligible] Charlotte at Duke Energy our mayor Anthony Fox at the time went on to be transportation secretary, our downtown associations, center city partners and they created this nonprofit to look at sustainability issues for the city. And the first one that they looked at was energy efficiency obviously with Duke being headquartered here in Charlotte. And so they started by looking at reducing energy use in the largest commercial buildings uptown. And I think to your point like there’s a lot of cities who make these proclamations of what they’re going to do but they don’t track it, they just say it, they might put a few programs here and there. But what we did is we put shadow meters in sixty-one of the sixty-four largest buildings in town. All of those buildings signed energy pledges to reduce their energy use. We partnered with UNC Charlotte so that the students could actually look at that data and analyze it and track our results. And so over a four- to five-year period we started implementing programs and drove energy use down in those 61 buildings an aggregate 19 percent which was a savings of twenty-six million dollars and a reduction of about 11000 cars off the road and CO2 equivalent. So it was a very successful program and it was tracked and we could prove and we had papers and all that kind of good stuff to show that we actually were able to obtain this.

Now, of course, it wasn’t perfect. I could go through some of the problems and some of the gaps that I think in hindsight we could have filled better but since then we’ve done other initiatives in kind of the four traditional pillars – air, water, energy and waste. And so over this last year we’ve kind of focused on two projects. One is turning Charlotte into the number one place for the circular economy in the US and then the other one was to develop what’s called the SEAP, the Strategic Energy Action Plan for the city that was in alignment with our resolution that we did earlier this year around our commitment to clean energy. So this basically helps each of the departments within the city identify their opportunities to get to more clean energy whether it’s you know electric cars or electric fleets or solar panels on some of the government buildings. So we did that. But the big project I think that we’re working on and the one that can be very transformational both individually and for our city is really looking at the circular economy and how a city of Charlotte size can embrace something like that and make true change around sustainability being that we’re diverting from the landfill using our natural resources better and then also creating jobs in innovation within our city.

Joshua: I have a bunch of things to follow up on and I think the biggest curiosity for me is what got it started because you talked about OK, it’s been around I guess now a little over five years. Something prompted it that people didn’t have to. And yet how did it get started? What was before it formed?

Amy: I actually think [unintelligible] is Jim Rogers who was the ex CEO of Duke Energy. He just recently passed away but he was a visionary in Charlotte. And so he was really looking at how could you do energy efficiency and make it a win for both the utility and for the individual and looking at it in his hometown. It started as a behavioral how can individuals make a difference on energy efficiency in kind of that business setting. And so that’s what his I think was the impetus. And then Charlotte has a really rich history of that public-private I like to say plus partnership bringing the utility and the university to really make something happen. So I think that’s where the conversation started is how could he do something that would benefit both the utility and the community. And it did. So he actually, the way Duke set it up is that if they could show that energy saving or energy efficiency they could get recovery. In other words, they would not lose their money as they were losing money on selling energy. So it’s kind of a win-win.

Joshua: If a power company makes money on selling power and people use less power, then there’s recovery… Can you clarify that?

Amy: Well, it depends on different markets. So in North Carolina we’re a regulated market. So in other words, we can only buy power from Duke Energy. So if you think about it, it’s a really interesting challenge. And this is a challenge that I think frustrates me more than anything is obviously Duke needs to sell energy to make money. So how do they drive efficiency and not lose money? So what they have done with the regulators is that if they can prove through their programs of energy efficiency, then they get what’s called recovery which basically means they can in essence raise the rates across everywhere to make up for that loss.

Joshua: So they increase their margins but lower their volume. Is that…?

Amy: Correct. OK. Basically. That’s a basic yes. It’s much more complicated than that but at its root form, yes, that’s what they do.

Joshua: OK. And then somehow the money that they’re getting is it a subsidy? Something’s coming from some other place that presumably is being diverted from…

Amy: No. This is going to get into technicalities I don’t understand. So I think it’s more that they can take the recovery and that they increase rates over their entire footprint.

Joshua: OK. So there’s complications in there but it works out and it went through some process with oversight and fairness and democracy and so it wasn’t like just some trickster stuff. OK.

Amy: And honestly if you think about it, it has to be some kind of model there. Or there’s no incentive for the utility to push energy efficiency if it’s just literally them pushing less money to them because they have the data, they have the information, they know what works to drive efficiency. I mean better than anyone. That’s their business. So there’s got to be a win-win for them to be able to recover if they’re pushing to sell less product.

Joshua: OK. Now that would be Duke Energy’s interest. Now everybody else they’re on board because they see cost savings… I mean I guess it’s mostly buildings in the downtown area or uptown. Is that the name for it there?

Amy: Yeah. Uptown.

Joshua: In the uptown area. Then they’re saving costs. And Duke spurring them on is something that they wouldn’t have done it otherwise but now once someone took the lead now they can follow and be like, “Oh, we’re saving money and presumably our employees are happier, our air is cleaner.” Things like that.

Amy: Yeah. So what’s cool about it if you think about it it was an economic development play. So if it costs less to do business in Charlotte, so if your energy bill is less in our corporate buildings uptown, more businesses are going to factor that in when they’re looking to relocate or move. So the buildings are saving money. The businesses who are coming here are saving money. And then when you engage individuals… So we had lots of games that we played like one of them was [unintelligible] you know it’s crabs move towards the light. So we would give crabs to individuals and buildings and if their co-worker left a light on, they would get crabbed, they’d get a crab left on their desk and then they would want to crab somebody else.

And I’ve actually a very funny story about this. So the government senator loved this game. I mean I’m not kidding. They had more crabs than any other building. And everyone was crabbing everyone and they were really getting into this. And so someone came up to one of the leaders in this group and said, “You know maybe instead of punishing people for not turning off their lights we could do something to reward people.” So they came up with this award called The Biggest Flipper. So if you left your lights off, you would get a flip flop as the biggest flipper. It was a complete bomb. Nobody played it. Nobody did anything with that game. So they kind of came to the conclusion that people really like to punish their co-workers instead of rewarding them. So they went back to the crab thing.

Joshua: That’s funny. And I’m doing everything I can not to make jokes about the crabs that I’m sure you guys you did a lot of jokes before but it does remind me when I was in college… Actually, when I was in graduate school I played Ultimate Frisbee and the deal was if you got a layout D block so diving to block it, then there was a skirt and I was on the men’s team so it was like this kind of raggedy skirt and you would get to wear it. And it’s funny because the people who wear it are always the best players. And so it’s like it’s shredded. It’s kind of like a playful thing more like a tutu or something. And it’s funny that, men don’t to wear a skirt but on the other hand you want to have the skirt because it’s the status of it. You made me think of that. So I wore it I think only once but it felt very good to wear it.

Amy: But you loved it, right?

Joshua: Yes. OK. So it’s driving behavioral change and it didn’t have to necessarily work but it did work and it started spreading and became playful because a lot of people… This is a big thing for me. From a leadership perspective leadership is not just about the numbers but it’s also about the emotions and the feelings and the culture.

And a lot of people think about saving energy or reducing consumption as deprivation, sacrifice or it’s a drop in the bucket or in the ocean. But if it’s fun, then people do it, people like it and people often want to do more. And one of the big things on this podcast is to get people shifting from “Well, if I act but no one else does, then what I do doesn’t matter.” to “Now that I do this, I wish I’d done it earlier.” And it sounds like you’re getting a bunch of that.

Amy: Yeah. I mean what was interesting is you have the individuals who want to do it because they care about the environment. You have the other individuals who are doing it because their neighbors are doing it. The other thing that they did was teach the building operators how to manage their building better in a changing set point and things like that. I think one of the biggest issues that we have in Charlotte to make change like you’re talking about on a community basis our energy is really cheap here comparatively speaking, compared to California. So if you turn off all your lights in your house or like I have an ecobee it’s not really that drastically influence like it’s not a huge savings for me. Same with water. Our water is plentiful. It’s cheap. So being more water efficient it’s hard to get people to make a change if they don’t see any value to them or monetary value. So yeah how do you get people to care on a broader scale about those? I think that’s depending on where you live that can be a bigger challenge than others. You know in California you don’t have water it makes you think about you know drinking less water. In Charlotte you know they still give you the biggest cup of water ever on your table and you know half the people don’t drink any of it. So I think it makes them more challenging when you don’t have pressing issues like that or the burning platform.

Joshua: Yeah. I guess for a lot of people the idea of most of Florida being submerged within our lifetimes is not… Well, there’s debate on that so they can say, “Well, maybe that’s not going to happen.” And in any case it’s not a burning platform.

Amy: But you live there and on a Tuesday and it’s sunny and all of a sudden your streets are flooded, you’re much more conscious of your behaviors. If you’re not experienced like in Charlotte… Does it really flood at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday? Yes, it does with the sun shining.

Joshua: And so what’s happening is that people are doing it partly because you’re creating a culture of “We want to pollute less.” And so a burning platform is one way to motivate people. It’s a scary way to motivate people. One of the people on this podcast Sandy Reisky, I’m not sure if you’ve come in contact with him, but his companies he started or played a role in starting were responsible for something like 10 percent of the increase in wind power I think in 2016 and 2017. And he said the biggest predictor of people putting solar on their houses is not how much money they have or how much money they’re going to save or their politics, it’s how many people in the zip code already have solar. So it’s not really a burning platform issue for them. I’s just like, “Oh, everyone’s doing it. It’s not just me. This is what’s happening. Everyone’s doing this. I don’t want to be the last one on board.” And then after that then they start seeing the savings and so forth and it starts fitting in with their lifestyle and so forth.

Amy: Right. Yeah. I mean everyone’s motivated by a variety of issues. I was looking at, I’m not going to be able to recall the name right now but there’s a company out of California marketing company and you take this quiz VALS, V-A-L-S I think it is, and it basically what motivates you. So how would you target me, Amy, to get me to change or to get me to buy something? And mine is completely different than my neighbors. You know maybe for me I am environmentally conscious and I am much more educated and you know read more whatever. And that’s what’s going to motivate me where someone else it’s fear. So it’s really interesting you taking this test and looking at everyone responds differently. So you have to create multiple messages I think to hit different people to motivate them to do what you want them to do ultimately.

Joshua: So it sounds like things are really working well. I mean it’s growing. So people who wouldn’t have heard about it or cared about it before are probably now participating in it and people who it wasn’t even on their horizon it’s getting into their horizons.

Amy: Yes.

Joshua: So really cool. So now there’s some things that have brought some questions for me. The first was when I went to the page all the people that I saw on the team when I clicked on the page of like Who We Are all came from business. And that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem but I didn’t see anyone coming from an environmental background or coming from a sustainability background. And that is not necessarily a problem but I’m curious about are you bringing in anyone who’s worked on sustainability, who’s worked on environmental things. Or maybe I just didn’t see that and it was already there.

Amy: Yeah. So well if you look at the website for example yes, you’re going to see it’s mostly business leaders and that is who funds the different initiatives that we do. They’re also the ones who have the leadership to push the muscle behind it. But if you look at one of our biggest projects that we’re working on right now which is the circular economy, we hire consultants who are experts. So Metabolic is our consultant. They’re the ones who did all of the analysis of our waste stream, what we have in there, where the opportunities for businesses business cases. And so we usually the way we’ve sort of worked it is we bring in the experts from literally around the world. One of the things I try to do is I take business leaders on international trips to look for expertise in different areas and I will tell you just on a tangent here I find that very frustrating that politicians or citizens get upset when their leaders travel they think they’re boondoggles to other countries. I find it some of the most valuable experiences because you’re learning from other people who are doing things right and who have different challenges like the EU doesn’t have the land that the US has so they don’t throw everything into a landfill. And so looking to see what they’re doing differently and bringing that back is immensely beneficial to our city. So that’s when you don’t see… Maybe I should do a better job on the website of highlighting some of the consultants that we bring in. But Metabolic has been our partner in this project. And we also joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a city 100 cities so we get a lot of resources from that. So we do have that expertise that brings it to Charlotte but I would say the leadership you see on our website in the projects is more funders and who can actually make those changes within our city.

Joshua: So part of me is like okay cool to bring this in and I saw actually just before starting this recording, I think there’s a video of Metabolic speaking because I saw a video and I was like, “I don’t have time to watch this before speaking to you.”

Amy: Yeah. Eva, the CEO of that company she speaks a lot and she’s fantastic. She’s one of the most impressive people I have ever met in this industry.

Joshua: So OK, so let the listeners know that there’s a video online. I haven’t seen it yet so now I want to check it out. And although still consultancy is not the same as being there. So to me I feel like it would be cool to see not that you would take direction from me but someone being on that page would be interesting, not just on the page but you know playing that role. But again, I’m on the outside I don’t know [unintelligible].

Amy: Let me ask you what role would you have them play, for example as an employee, as a staff person, as a…?

Joshua: At a very high level, I mean what’s driving me is what I’ve learned over and over again in life and when I read about it in papers from people study it is that diverse teams make better decisions than non-diverse teams. There’s a cost to that which is that there’s a lot of discussion, sometimes people get annoyed at each other and puts a big onus on leadership to be able to resolve conflict and make sure voices are heard but that it’s to increase the diversity of the team where the diversity isn’t like skin color, gender, whatever but it’s different backgrounds and they might be there that I didn’t see. But it’s to play devil’s advocate would be the role? I’m not sure. Something like that but to probably bring in perspectives that others didn’t have.

Amy: So interesting you say that. Again because like my job is bringing all these different partnerships and so I love hearing diverse views or challenging and trying to figure out like “How can that benefit? How can we add it?”. So on the circular economy the innovation barn that we’re building it’s basically going to be ground zero for the circular economy, it’s kind of a restaurant bar, event space, innovation space, aquaponics garden, hydroponic garden, composting, soldier fly, organic composting and so on that level I have experts in every one of those industries on my team. So Johnson C. Smith, Dr. O over there leads their sustainability efforts. He’s got a hydroponic and aquaponics garden and they’re consulting with us on how do we plan for it, how do we want to grow it, how do we want to manage it, maintain it, do we want their students. So I have, interesting you say that, very specific experts on different components on this project and maybe one of the things I ought to do as we go forward is highlight those more because not only just for my benefit. I mean when I meet with these people I’m just in awe. I learn so much every day about… I mean a year ago I knew nothing about an aquaponics garden. Now you know I know how many fish and know how often you have to change out the fish and how you have to filter the water so it’s you know I’ve got a lot of those experts but I haven’t… You’re right they’re not as highlighted on our website.

Joshua: And I have to… Of all the things you said I can’t help but comment first on that joy that happens, I read it as something positive for you of learning about not just the details of a hydroponic system in general but like there’s fish involved and there are doing stuff and like learning, connecting with nature in some way even if it’s through some kind of… Hydroponic sounds kind of techie but it’s still natural systems and that’s something that I think over and over again I see people really like is for me it’s really about… Since a lot of my change came through food it’s tasting fresh vegetables, going to the farm, digging stuff out of the ground myself and getting my hands dirty and go to the farmer’s market. And saving energy is cool and getting your hands dirty that’s really cool too. Yeah it’s something that really… Actually, maybe that’s something else like having that of like what are we going to, not just saving money or you guys have lots of positives on there, lots of things you’re going to but also just like kids playing in the grass more and in my experience people who go through these changes their relationships with their spouses and kids get better, their relationship with their communities, the schools and so forth around them tends to improve in ways that they couldn’t predicted and if they’d known that earlier, they would’ve changed earlier. Like it dwarfs the mere financial changes.

Amy: Yeah and you know I think you’re right. And what we’re trying to do with this barn to me is I want people to come and be like, “Oh my God. That is so cool. Those are the coolest gardens and look at that living wall of lettuce that you’re going to go pick and we’re going to eat in the restaurant over there. Oh, the stuff that we don’t finish on our plate is going to go into that soldier fly exhibit.” That is just you know kids love that stuff. I took my son, he volunteered for me. My kids have to volunteer for everything I do. So I’m sure they are overall my you know crazies but we took them to listen to the ambassador from the Netherlands talk about circular economy. He was a junior in high school and he borrowed a pen and was writing notes on his hand about understanding the circular economy and because it was so new and interesting for him he loved it. And he went back to school and he was telling everyone about you know how Philips Lighting is doing this new where they’re releasing lighting systems rather than selling light bulbs. And as he’s thinking about his career it was such a new and exciting and innovative approach. And just looking at nature and nature is the perfect circular economy and how can we apply that. And I think what I want to do with this barn is really give kids and people just really interesting like eye candy that then makes you excited and want to do things differently, not just because it’s the right thing but it’s really cool and it kind of just gets us back like you said to the whole nature of everything.

Joshua: Yeah. So that’s really fun. And for me all of my environmental changes in my life that I’ve done on a personal level it all comes back to delicious because avoiding packaged food was my first big change. I thought I was just going to reduce my pollution but it turns out that once your taste buds adjust which doesn’t take that long and you learned how to cook or I didn’t know how to cook from scratch then I mean an eggplant tastes so much better than a Twinkie but it’s not if you’ve just eaten a Twinkie. And cabbage taste better than Doritos. But if you if you really eat a lot of Doritos, you can’t taste… The cabbage’s just… But after a while and you know what to do with it then it’s really good.

Now another thing when I hear the term circular economy almost always it comes from big polluters and it’s almost always driving larger growth. And it’s kind of challenging. I think almost everyone who sat in traffic and thought to themselves, “Man, there’s so much traffic here. If they just widen this road or put on a second road, the traffic would go away.” And if they do that, it does and then it comes back stronger than ever when people adjust to the new situation. And anyone who’s had an incandescent bulb and said, “Oh, I am going to replace this with the LED.”, they know that that particular use is going to go down and it feels like that’s going to lower the use overall. But as we know with the cars I think this has been pretty well established that when you put the extra lane the traffic comes back more.

Uber was supposed to lower traffic but it’s actually increasing congestion and LEDs we’re still in the period where we’re using less energy but we’re on track to using more energy than ever because when things get more efficient the cost goes down. People start lighting things that they didn’t like before and things that they did like they like more. And it’s pretty obvious when you look back that when we were letting things of whale oil not many things were lit and incandescents were much more efficient than whale oil. And of course we go in like much more than ever and we use a lot more energy than we did.

And so a lot of circular economy people talk about reusing and recycling and reducing gets dropped. I mean there was something I read on your [unintelligible] page. I had it here somewhere. There’s one sentence and I was like… It said both things. So it said. “Successfully achieving this transition is not simply about product reuse and recycling.” I thought, “That’s it. They are talking about reusing and recycling but not reducing.” And business people are generally about reusing and recycling because it promotes more use. But then you say, “It means a systems change that requires a new mindset.” I thought well, if the system is really driven by growth, then you do want to reduce. So I wasn’t sure that that perspective of as long as we have systems that are driven by growth and externalizing costs, then if we make that system more efficient, we’ll often achieve growth and externalizing costs more efficiently and that often means more pollution overall even though each individual use is less polluting and that’s a very subtle point that is difficult to get for almost everyone. I mean it took a long time for people to realize that the pattern with traffic and it took long enough that American cities are stuck with roads for centuries, maybe longer that were built at a time when we thought, “Well, let’s just keep building more roads. That’ll decrease traffic. Now, of course roads are important so it’s not to have no roads and it’s not to have no new stuff. I don’t know the balance. I don’t live in Charlotte but that reduce is often lost in the “Hey, look at all this recycling and all this efficiency stuff.”

Amy: Right. That’s like the 64-million-dollar question? So how do…

Joshua: I mean I didn’t really give you a question. So I didn’t give you something easy to answer there.

Amy: I know exactly what you’re saying but for me I’m right with you that you can over… If you start really thinking about it like if you change what I would say is I hear what you’re saying and I know you didn’t ask the question and I agree with what you’re saying but I have to simplify it like I have to just take it down to like what are some of the smaller changes that we can start with that then hopefully grow to being bigger changes that we can address in the long term. But you got to start somewhere.

Joshua: Yeah. This is like one of the biggest things is that if we don’t change the system and if we have a system that pollutes and we keep making more efficient, then that’s what we’ve been doing for since… I mean certainly since the Watt steam engine. The Watt steam engine was more efficient than any before and it was an [unintelligible] talk about, Jevons paradox or rebound effects, anyway and geeks like me know about it and it pointed out that coal use went up after the engines got more efficient because people started using engines in new places and kept using the ones that they were using more and the result is the world we have today. And a lot of people look at it and say, “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.” or they say, “Well, you can’t push too hard. We got to access it somehow”. And it’s possible that if we move a little bit, then we’ll eventually get there. But it’s also possible that we just keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past several hundred years and it’s not that it’s a matter of magnitude of change but if we keep looking at efficiency, efficiency is important because inefficiency pollutes more than inefficiency but without systemic change of the goals of the system. That’s my perspective. I can’t say that this is absolutely the case but it seems to me that if we don’t change the goals of the system, then we can change the elements of the system all we want and we will never exit what we’re doing. And so it’s possible that saying these little changes actually don’t do anything. Although if I look at my life, I would not have come to this conclusion had I not made those changes myself. So I don’t know the answer either.

I’m not coming on to criticize. I’m coming on to like ask and find out… Part of the reason for this whole podcast is for me to learn and I haven’t tried or been involved with a citywide change of the scale that you’re talking about. So maybe I’m totally out of my element or maybe I’m bringing in some view that is what I’m talking about is missing but maybe it’s not missing. I don’t know that’s why I’m talking to you.

Amy: Well you know, OK, I’ll give you an example of what you’re talking about. So when people first started recycling you know you threw away glass, plastic, maybe cardboard. Well, I heard the best term the other day on a panel I was on and the guy said, “People engage in aspirational recycling. I feel like this should be able to be recycled so therefore I’m going to put it in the recycling.”

Joshua: Oh, man. Yeah.

Amy: Right. And so what’s happened is actually because more people are recycling our recycling has gotten worse because it’s contaminated. People put stuff in there that shouldn’t be put in there and there’s other factors with China and all that but part of it is because what we’re recycling isn’t as good. And so that’s a perfect example of what you said. You know the more you do that actually it’s not as beneficial. So one of the things that we’re talking about in Charlotte is should we go back and just have all of the citizens only recycle plastic bottles for one year. Nothing else. Don’t put anything else in your recycling bin. Just plastic bottles. And then maybe the next year we add cardboard back and because the problem is we’re getting too much contamination in the recycling and maybe it’s three things, maybe you just go back to three things or whatever it is or do we have drop off places. How do you get back to the pure stream of some of these products when we have you know sealed airs here in town and they’ve made some bold you know goals over the next few years around how much recycled material they’re going to bring in but they need that material to bring in and it’s got to be purer than what we’re putting into the streams right now. So there’s a perfect example of what you said. And so it’s how do we rethink the whole system of it instead of like I said aspirational recycling.

Joshua: Yeah it’s a great term. As soon as you described it I was like, “Oh, there we go.” Yeah, that happens all the time. And there’s also this feeling of, “I’m doing my part, I’m separating as best I can. It’s their fault for not making it easier.” or something like that. It’s very easy to offload the problems to someone else. “I don’t want to pollute. They should make solar powered planes. If they did, then I wouldn’t be polluting. But you can’t fault me for them not having invented it. So I’m just going to fly they’re responsible for it.” which is like very specious self-serving logic. It’s like it recalls that statement of like it’s hard to get someone understand something when their paycheck relies on them not understanding it. I think [unintelligible] said that or something like it.

Now the top level thing my response there is I think what you’re doing is action leads to awareness more than awareness leads to action. So thinking things through without acting will almost always result in things taking longer than acting. And so you guys revealed a latent problem that has to get solved. I think you’re going to get to a solution that fits everyone faster by revealing that than by trying to think it through and thinking some perfect solution. And it might be that I’m not sure what the solution would be, I’m not there, but you know another big thing I think that works is getting more action, giving people small things where they learn how to do it and then applying on a bigger scale. So the possibility of just doing some recycling but not all recycling sounds like it could work. I’m kind of thinking about it now. But I can’t talk and problem-solve it at the same time.

But I do know that a strategy of this podcast is to address leaders… So there’s a lot of a lot of changes coming from bottom up. Certainly any place that’s hiring today people coming out of school they’re facing a lot more of their lifetimes than I faced of dealing with climate change and plastic choking the oceans and mercury in the fish, things like that. And so it’s more pointed for them and places that don’t have plans… They’re going to lose people to Patagonia and places that do have plans and are doing things. So there’s a lot of bottom up change of young people wanting to make things happen. Less so from the top down. I think possibly because the decision makers tend of gray hair and they tend to make the calculation that I make which is when I hear something like there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish in 2050 I think… Let’s see I was born in 1970, 2050 I’ll be 80 something. That’s a big problem for someone but not me. And so it’s harder for them to make that decision. And I try to get people who are leaders that are in everyone’s community to act on their environmental values in a way that they like and then share their experience. And I think that overall downhill as well as anything else and that people will see their leaders as being authentic and changing and also when they have to face these problems they can share solutions.

For example, when you talk about buildings saving energy one of the big problems I don’t really know how to solve like at NYU, any corporation, it’s often the case it’s 90 degrees outside in the summer, it’s 50 degrees inside or maybe 60 degrees inside because the air conditioner’s on so high. Some people have heaters under their desks and no one knows how to solve it because the building people say, “Well, there’s some corner of the building that if we don’t turn up to a certain level, then it’s too hot there and those people complain. But you can always put on a sweater and they can’t.” Whatever. And I’ve gone back and forth on that one and I can’t get anywhere and that to me tells says it’s a leadership issue. And then the president university could step in on that one or someone could step in on that one but they don’t. As long as they don’t, everyone can point out their fingers and nothing happens. I wonder if that’s an issue that you guys have solved in any cases.

Amy: Well, so one of my most favorite things to do is like I love puzzles just any kind of puzzle you put in front of me. I love puzzles. And I think that exactly what you said is a puzzle. So you’re right. The people, the city leadership is not as concerned about recycling and our community and climate change as the younger people. But what do they care about? They care about jobs. They care about you know people moving to Charlotte. They care about innovation. They care about image. So whenever I put these projects together to me it’s like I have a war room. And I look through and it’s just like I’ve always been in sales and fundraising and it’s coming up with what are the wins for everyone. And so I’m OK with the fact that you may not be an environmentalist and you don’t really care about CO2 or you don’t believe in climate change or whatever but if you’re still going to do it because it’s going to create jobs, I’m fine with that. Like I don’t need you to be a believer. I just need you to do it. So I think the way that we are approaching the circular economy and I think that the words even the name of it is good for the corporate leadership because it’s not as fuzzy as the sustainability by the way is so overused now that people don’t even know what you’re referring to is it the longevity of a company or is it what you mean like the environment or… And I think that the circular economy it’s got a good name that it can get corporate leaders around it without being too green or too you know tree-huggerish. But you can also have the benefits of like I said we’re looking at it as how many jobs is this going to create and how can we implement some innovations, how can we take some of this trash out landfill and create new companies you know whether it’s recycling concrete and using glass that is not being recycled in the U.S. right now because it’s only one recycler. So taking that glass and you know sanding it down and making it as an aggregate for concrete you know we when there’s a leaky pipe for Charlotte water they dig up all these sidewalks. Well, couldn’t we have an onsite recycling where you take that concrete, you put it in the glass, you remake it and you put it right back down? I mean that’s going to create like I said companies, jobs, innovations, we’re going to have a culture of that here in Charlotte. So to me I look at how can you make it a win and they don’t all have to be the same wins and that’s how we get by and in Charlotte, that’s how we did it for the project up town. Some people don’t care that we’re saving CO2 but they sure care that their building costs less to manage or they got less complaints from the people on the different floors because they put in controls. And like you just said the floor isn’t 60 degrees over here and 90 degrees over there.

Joshua: It’s a really subtle thing that no politician anywhere, probably everyone in the history of democracy, got elected by against growth. And you know a lot of people say you know when you throw stuff away there’s no away. I mean it used to be that there was planet left to colonize but we basically covered it by now and there is no more away. But to not create as much stuff in the first place, not just to… I mean the biggest polluters are the biggest supporters of circular economy and probably because they want to keep producing more and then someone else can deal with what happens to it. I’m not saying this to criticize it, I’m saying it’s just a view that I’ve come to realize and not just me alone. I mean I didn’t make this stuff up. I didn’t realize this on my own but it’s very rare that a business person will say, “Let’s reduce our production.” and if we don’t, it seems to me that you can make things as circular as you can but that will never stop that… That’s mitigating a problem but not stopping the problem.

Amy: Right. I can’t imagine everyone switching over to being minimalist. I look at it as “What’s the best you can get to with the reality of where you’re at? So yes, Coca-Cola is not going to want to stop selling less Coke and therefore less bottles. But maybe they can figure out a way to use those bottles more circular and that’s at least a step in the right direction.

Joshua: It might be. I mean it’s necessary but it’s also risks… This is me. This opinion. This is not fact but I believe it’s based… Actually, it’s a conclusion based on the patterns that I’ve seen. But that would justify switching to Uber but it turns out it makes more congestion even if fewer people drive their cars. And it’s a really subtle point and I’m not saying you should have the answer or that anyone should have the answer but making things more efficient can make the problem bigger. I think that’s what’s been happening for the past several hundred years certainly since the Watt steam engine. I’m not talking to you like to criticize… This whole podcast is for me to learn and also to spread people acting on their environmental values because I think people can learn from it and then listeners can feel like, “It’s not just me. Other people are doing this.” and they can hear that people enjoy it.

Amy: Yeah


Joshua: So I’m going to transition to… You don’t have to work on the environment and… What does the environment mean to you? What’s motivating you on this? Because I mean I’m sure you’re going to get paid for it but you don’t have to care about it. It sounds like you do.

Amy: Yes. I absolutely care about it. I think you know I didn’t go to school for this. This was not my background. My background was communications. Like I said I’ve always been in sales and marketing and fundraising and that sort of thing. And when they hired me five and half years ago it was because I can raise money and so I’ve had a five-year master’s degree in sustainability and it’s been to me it’s a couple of things. I mean I love nature. I love being outside. I’m always outside so I want to preserve the outside for my kids. And so if you look at it just from you know having clean air and blue skies and I’m just an outdoor person so that is important. But having learned over the last five and a half years to me there is an opportunity to make significant changes in a positive way for the planet and people. And that’s probably what gets me most excited about… If we, let’s say when we pull off some of these initiatives that we’re doing here it’s going to transform Charlotte. It’s a game changer and then it’s going to transform other cities around this country. And that is so exciting to be a part of something like that that’s going to not just benefit I think me in my lifetime but my kids and they can pick up that and they can move forward and continue this work on. So you know probably my environmentalness comes from my love of being outdoors. So if I could have a convertible house, I would buy. [unintelligible] convertible car, and it’s always my top is always down. People laugh at me they’re like really [unintelligible] it’s 45 degrees like that’s what a heater and mittens are for. I’m good. I want to be outside.

Joshua: So that outdoorsness… I heard a couple of things. One is the outdoorsness and if it was just that, that would be probably enough but then it sounds like there’s this other big piece of it which is you know I always point out to people Leadership and the Environment – they always hear environment, they don’t hear leadership. Leadership is about meaning and passion and joy and learning and growth, personal growth, discovery and it sounds like that emotional component is a big piece of it to you. The change is exciting and you’re in the forefront. I mean you anticipate that… Charlotte is not the largest city in the country but it’s the first city in the country doing this, right? I saw first on several places on the web pages and so now there’s other cities going to come to you and be like, “How can we do this? What works for you, guys?” And that sounds really exciting.

Amy: Yeah. I mean I love being a leader but I’d say in addition to being a leader I love making big changes like I don’t want incremental changes. I don’t want tiny little things. You know I want to be a part of big bold projects and I’ve always been that way. And so if you combined my love of the outdoors with doing big bold projects, I’m in the sweet spot right now. Like I could not be more happy professionally where I am. I’m at my happiest right now. It is so exciting to say that when you love what you do, you love where you’re at, you love the changes that you’re making. I mean it’s you know I’m lucky I guess because not everyone feels this way.

Joshua: I think anyone who’s listening to this is like, “I want that.” I can’t imagine they’re not. Unless they’re yet happier. You know I’m all for businesses making decisions based on the bottom line. But I think the bigger issue is things like morale and not just morale of their employees but of their clients and the customers, the suppliers, their community members. And I think that this is bigger. And I think ultimately if you want to hire great people today, you’ve got to have this part of your business independent of the numbers, of the cost benefit. Of course, that will work out but I still think, I personally think that you got to put your customers and your employees that morale I think is the biggest thing. Anyway. So what I ask my guests based on what you talked about, about the outdoors, about the magnitude of change, about change happening, about being in the forefront, about leading, I invite you at your option to act on these values to do something that you weren’t already doing.

And this is not like to save the world. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems for ourselves overnight but to do something measurable that you weren’t already doing and not like telling other people to do. Most people have something that usually it’s in the back of their head that they’ve been like, “I’ve been meaning to do that for a while.” Sometimes it takes a little back and forth to figure out something and you don’t have to do it but I wonder if you’d be game for doing something that you weren’t already doing to act on those values.

Amy: Of course.

Joshua: That was like, “Josh, didn’t you listen to what I just said?” So yeah. Because I don’t like to come up with it because it’s usually people have something already and I want listeners to… I think a lot of listeners have stuff in their minds already and when they hear others come up with it then it helps them to find something that they didn’t realize it was already there themselves.

Amy: OK. So I have an idea. I hadn’t thought about it until you just said that and I was like, “Yeah, this has been in the back of my mind.” So every year whenever the elections come up because I’m always very politically involved I have like 10 friends who will text me, “All right. Who are we voting for? Give me the rundown. Like what do I need to know? Do we vote “yes” for the school bonds?” If we don’t, why?” [unintelligible] blah-blah-blah. So I always come up with like a little user guide to my friends who want to know who to vote for. Actually, like if you’re cleaning out your house you know there’s this new TV show everyone’s talking about like simplifying your life or whatever and get rid of all your clothes and stuff is coming up with a guide. You think we have this in Charlotte but we don’t like take your batteries here, take your plastic bags here, take your paint cans here, take your trees here, you know that information is not easy to find because it’s different places, different things would be coming up me being better about taking the things to the best place to take them and then doing a little guide that I could give to other people because they would be thrilled with this. Literally like Where do you take your batteries? or Where do you take your plastic bags? Like do you take your plastic bags to the grocery store? Is that the best place or is there actually a better place? And I don’t even know all the answers but I’d have to do some research and I’d like to put that little thing together.

Joshua: So pardon me to ask if you might not be biting off more than you could chew but you already do things like this anyway so maybe you have skills and experience in this that I don’t because I’d be like “It sounds kind of complicated.” But also the voting thing would be complicated for me too. But you do the voting thing.

Amy: I don’t know that it’s going to be the easiest thing but at least I know where to find all the answers.

Joshua: And it’s also possible you would make version 1 and then it would evolve over time as more things became possible and people find out more details and maybe not like Wikipedia but something like where people could contribute to, it might evolve into something bigger or more comprehensive after you. And part of me says, “Is this actually you telling others what to do or you’re doing something yourself?”

Amy: Well, me because like I said I have all these paint cans in my garage right now and I haven’t put them anywhere, I don’t know where to put them and so I’ve been in my mind like, “I need to think through like the stuff I want to get rid of like where’s the best place to take it. Like what should I be doing with this stuff?” So for me it would be a very good exercise to start with What do I do with all this stuff? What is the best options I have available? I mean I know what I can put in my recycling bin but I mean beyond that it would be really good to go through my house and figure that out.

Joshua: Okay so you’d actually… So it’d be you make this thing and you would use it yourself.

Amy: Oh, no. I do it for myself but other people would be thrilled that I did it.

Joshua: Ok. Then that feels like it hits on everything that I look for in this. And how long would it take you to make something like this?

Amy: Let’s see. What do I have…? I bet it would take me about 30 days to really come up with a comprehensive of the stuff that’s in my house that it needs to go somewhere and the best places to take it. I identify everything I have and then I need to do the research on where do I take everything.

Joshua: So would you be game for scheduling a second conversation about 30 days from now, maybe a little bit after five weeks or something like that to share the experience of how it went?

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. That’ll be fun. Plus, it holds me accountable. I like goals.

Joshua: Yeah and I’d like that you say it’ll be fun. It’s interesting that something that is kind of… I think some people might look at as a hassle but you just said it would be fun.

Amy: Because it’s a puzzle. I love puzzles.

Joshua: I think that this tends to happen. It’s like people generally have something they’re like, “I want to do that.” And then until they do it it’s kind of a bother. But when they do it, it becomes in your case fun because it’s a puzzle. And with other people would be their thing. You know their values are not your values but their values. If they do something based on theirs, they’ll get that positive feeling of some sort. Well, cool. Then let’s pick up here next time. And I like to ask at the end. Is there anything I didn’t think to ask that’s important to bring up?

Amy: No, not that I can think of right now.

Joshua: OK. Is there anything to say to the listeners directly?

Amy: Well, you know what I would say is that you know watch Charlotte, watch this space because I think it’s going to be really interesting to see where we are a year from now with the plans that we have and what worked and what didn’t. Because you know there are going to be things that don’t work but what really worked. So that’s what I would ask for people just to see how this goes. Come on the journey with us.

Joshua: Now should they just look at the web page? I mean it is this also about tourism? Should people come to Charlotte or…

Amy: Oh, well, they absolutely should come to Charlotte because it’s a fantastic city. Blue skies. Let me just point out the reason I live here is because of the blue skies and I am two hours from the beach and an hour and a half from the mountains. Hello? So that’s fantastic. We also by the way have a 46 percent tree canopy cover here in Charlotte with a goal to be 50 percent. And so we have this huge tree initiative so we’re really into our trees. So it’s cool to come see all of our trees but yeah. So to watch it from afar and then come visit it and come to the innovation center in you know nine months when it’s open.

Joshua: So the sky’s slightly bluer than they would have been without this initiative.

Amy: Correct. Exactly.

Joshua: Amy thank you very much. I’ll talk to you again after the challenge.

Amy: All right. Well, thank you.


I heard myself a somewhat awkward and bringing up these issues for the first time with someone on the podcast of the circular economy versus reducing consumption. I think these are subtle points I don’t have the answers for myself yet. Part of what this podcast is for is discovering these things by practicing and seeing what happens. Nonetheless, she sounds enthusiastic about her commitment. It sounds like there’s lots of stuff I really love going on in Charlotte. I predict that her commitment will lead beyond her enjoyment to influencing Envision Charlotte beyond what she expects so let’s see. And I also predict that by a year from now my awkwardness in bringing up the subtle change, the subtle difference will evolve into concrete effective way to lead more through it.

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