The New Yorker profiled my living off the grid

January 9, 2023 by Joshua
in Leadership, Nature, Stories

My letter to the New Yorker’s editor in September led to a reporter, Zach Helfand, visiting and writing a story on me. They published it today (including spotlighting it, see below): Off the Grid in the Big City:

It begins, “Josh Spodek disconnected the circuit breaker in his apartment, and now—thanks to solar-powered vegan stew—his carbon footprint is about that of three house cats.

Along with the New Yorker piece, I recommend the pieces I wrote with more detail:

Zach spent an afternoon and we covered a lot, including his talking to three executives, two from major fossil fuel companies (one ExxonMobil, the other has to remain unnamed) and one from a major consulting company, Boston Consulting Group. We went to the roof to place the solar panels. I made some of my famous no-packaging vegan solar-powered stew.

He learned a lot of my background. It’s fun to see what makes it or not. I liked that he captured the spontaneity, “He just disconnected the circuit breaker, and now his carbon footprint is about that of three average-sized house cats.” I didn’t have to wait for my coop board, new legislation, or my own analysis and planning.

That I helped build a satellite, a company valued at thirty million dollars operating on four continents, creating jobs and satisfied customers didn’t make the cut, or swam across the Hudson River twice didn’t make the cut. That I was a dating coach did. Go figure. He mentioned “For dessert, how about some slightly past-their-prime blackberries?” To clarify: I rescued the blackberries in my volunteering bringing food that stores throw away to a community center for poor people to take for free. Still, I’m glad he liked the stew and “apple kombuchas and beet and orange chutneys (peels included), which are pleasantly zingy”.

For more on the muggings the article mentioned, read my posts Growing up in a bad part of town and The five times I got mugged growing up. Here’s more on the nightshade berries: Food poisoning and burpees nearly as hard as after a marathon. The Ferrari observation resulted from a friend who read The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, on sexual selection. You may know that female selection leads to men buying Ferraris. More generally, my friend said the book said that sexual selection leads to wasteful behavior in both sexes, since it implies abundance of genetic fitness.

Miller wrote, “Nature shaped animals for exhausting sexual competition that may be of little benefit to the species as a whole,” which he called “runaway sexual selection.” We may be exhibiting it on a planetary scale; “of little benefit to the species” indeed.

You can contrast the profile on me with the issue’s main profile, on a Netflix executive who “says success is about ‘recognizing that people like having more'” and starts by saying she “follows a similar routine whether she’s visiting Mumbai or Berlin or Seoul or Stockholm or any of the company’s twenty-six foreign outposts. A black car brings her from the airport to a luxury hotel, perhaps the Four Seasons . . . she often stays ‘in country’ for only a day or two at a time” and later “a private jet ride to the Netflix offices in Madrid”.

I read that article as describing addiction and entitlement, of her, Netflix, American culture, and global culture. Look at her problems, which suggest our disconnect from sustainability:

“You don’t have Sauvignon Blanc?” she said. “Do you have anything like a Sauvignon Blanc? Maybe a rosé?”

The flight attendant suggested a very dry Chardonnay, and Bajaria wrinkled her nose. “O.K., I’ll try it,” she said. Then she turned to me and added, “If you write this part, you have to say that I drank the Sauvignon Blanc, because it cannot be my reputation that I drank Chardonnay.”

This conversation occurred on the private jet. Pardon my nausea.

On a related note, they put the story in their Brave New World category. When I clicked the link to that category, the story before mine was on Sam Bankman-Fried. A few months ago he was exalted as a young billionaire. Now he’s being tried for many counts of fraud and is blamed for losing billions of dollars.

Why don’t we exalt people who lead the world on acting with integrity and polluting less? I suspect if we did, we wouldn’t have to retract our misplaced admiration so often.

Why I’m Doing It

I’m doing this experiment to enable leading people in the most polluting and most influential places. As the article reported, I’m leading people from Exxon, the unnamed major oil company, and BCG, as well as Trump supporters (Rob Harper and Andrew C.), evangelicals (like Jonathan Hardesty, Michael Carlino, Scott Hardin-Nieri, Reverend Doctor Ambrose Carroll, Sr., and others), the military (Col Mark Read and Col Everett Spain at West Point, General Kip Ward, Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper USMC, Navy SEAL Larry Yatch, and others), and other communities many environmentalists consider opponents. I can because I’m living the values I’m leading on, not just talking. Especially not doing CCCSC: convincing, cajoling, coercing, and seeking compliance.

I’m inspired by Nelson Mandela learning Afrikaans in prison. Many questioned his learning the language of his oppressors, but he didn’t see other people as his opponents, but others caught in the system he was too. That’s how he became President of a once-Apartheid nation, sharing the Nobel Prize with de Klerk.

The big picture why I’m doing it: as a leadership exercise and as a role model for others. You can’t lead others to live by values you live the opposite of. We learn skills through experience. If we want the world to live sustainably, we have to learn to live sustainably, every single one of us. It’s crazy to realize I am one of the first in this entire country’s urban population to go first, though credit to Colin Beavan aka “No Impact Man” and Lauren Singer who inspired me, though I’m not sure if they stopped flying.

But if we want to restore to our culture the values we’ve abandoned regarding the environment of Do Unto Others What You Would Have Them Do Unto You (the Golden Rule), Live and Let Live (Common Decency), and Leave It Better Than You Found It (Stewardship), someone has to go first.

My great, surprising discovery is that the results of restoring the Golden Rule, Common Decency, and Stewardship is a better life. If the blackberries I enjoy, saved from a landfill, are slightly past their prime, but I restore these values, that trade is worth it every time.

Here are a couple more screen shots:

and in the Spotlight section:

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I just finished my morning meditation and it’s time for me to do my morning burpee-based calisthenics, eat some stew, take the solar panels and battery to the roof, and start my day.

solar roof empire state building

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