If no one is leading in the environment, maybe I’ll have to

After my disillusioning visit and presentation to the scientists at Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, I attended a presentation of a couple NYU researchers who study and teach about our garbage and waste.
One studied and documented the amount of waste hospitals create, which is more than you’d expect. The other described how New York City developed its Department of Sanitation, how that department cleaned the city, and some of how it handles the city’s garbage today.
The talks were engaging and their results clear and informative, but I felt they missed the point, like they were measuring and documenting the size of the hole in the Titanic’s hull but not acting on it.
Of course learning more detail is useful. I support continued study, but we know enough to act. For example, after studying one U.S. hospital’s waste, that researcher studied a hospital in India which had comparable health results but wasted around 10% the waste (I forget the number).
Whatever the value of knowing the American hospital’s practices, since another hospital gets better results with less waste—the less wasteful hospital should be studied, to emulate it.
So they were sharing somewhat useful information but not acting on it. What’s the value of the information? If their goal was to help people waste less, information doesn’t often change behavior, effective leadership does.
I asked during the question period if they knew about people leading in this area. I’ve asked about leadership on the environment a lot lately. Nobody has suggested anyone remotely as effective as the Koch brothers or Donald Trump who is for conservation.
And their models for leadership seem to revolve around

  • Convincing people
  • Sharing information
  • Passing laws

I believe these strategies are counterproductive in leadership. Convincing motivates many people to dig in their heels and argue back. Sharing information rarely leads to changing behavior on its own. Passing laws without public support first seems authoritarian, which tends to motivate people to undermine your attempts at leadership.

What I believe we should do

I believe we need to change how billions of people behave to limit and slow global warming. Changing how billions of people behave means leadership, beyond science, which we’ve already done enough of to know it’s time to act.
I believe we need at least one person to step up to lead what could become a cultural shift to polluting less and having fewer children. That person might become like a Martin Luther King Junior for pollution and cleaning it up.
Why is nobody stepping up or rising to the top?
I suspect the role might need someone experienced in science, innovation, leadership, education, and business and that not many people have that combination.
I wish someone would step up, but seeing that I have those skills and am experienced in these areas—possibly one of a handful—I wonder if I should step up, instead of wishing or waiting. I’m passionate about it. It’s a daunting thought since the position could become well-known.
Do I want to choose to take that lead, not that I know how or if it could succeed? Not to convince. King didn’t get people to do what he wanted them to. He got them to do what they wanted to do but didn’t know how. With nonviolent civil disobedience, he showed them how they could succeed.
I don’t see how nonviolent civil disobedience would work with the environment, but I believe that nearly everyone wants to pollute less, they just don’t know how to see any change of theirs as meaningful and purposeful. My leadership style makes tasks meaningful. It could work to lead people to pollute less for themselves, not for others, out of guilt, or however else people are now trying to motivate.
So I wonder if I might be one of a small number of people who could speak knowledgeably and effectively. I’m not eager to take on a role that could have national or even global results. But I feel responsible to act on what I consider important and immediate, especially if few others could.
We’re not doing anything on the scale we need to change billions of people’s behavior. And our tactics of spreading information, shaming, and so on won’t work.
Hmm… Do I want to do this?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Casey Baker

    The thing I love about this post is the line “Information doesn’t often change behavior, effective leadership does.” Everyone knows that cigarettes are bad for them and exercise is good, but how many people still smoke and don’t exercise?
    In answer to your more general question, I would respond if not you then who? I’ve only just recently starting reading through your stuff, but one thing is very clear – you are working to inspire great (and potentially global) change. The technology for sustainability is out there, but the innovation and leadership to create powerful inspiration towards this change is rare. I work with large renewable energy developers everyday and I will tell you that even they are “inspired” by the same humdrum things as “return on investment” and “tax incentive policy.” Your assessment of the situation is correct, the desire to fix environmental degradation is out there, but there are few galvanizing people actually leading the charge.
    You clearly have all the tools: https://www.inc.com/joshua-spodek/there-are-2-kinds-of-inspiration-if-you-want-to-inspire-better-know-both.html
    Why not use them?

    1. Joshua

      To be candid, since I don’t know all the middle steps, I’m afraid of the unknown, of failure, and of people not taking me seriously when I suggest I’m thinking of becoming the Martin Luther King Junior or Nelson Mandela of pollution. Actually, even bigger. My experience tells me changing global behavior in the time limit set by rising sea levels, though it doesn’t necessarily have to come from one person.
      I believe people want to pollute less and not overpopulate the world, with rare exception. My experience polluting less has improved my life beyond any other changes and I’m not special in this regard, so others can too.
      MLK had nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy that worked that he could adopt. I don’t know of any similar strategy that could apply here. The solutions to the tragedy of the commons, overproduction, and so on haven’t worked on a global scale.
      Nonetheless, my leadership style of connecting people’s passions to the task (oversimplifying) is the most likely to work that I can think of, certainly more than teaching facts, foretelling doom, guilt, passing laws without popular support, or the other techniques I see people using, consciously or not, so I feel compelled to act anyway.
      This post and a few recent conversations have been my first forays into this crazy notion of becoming the MLK of pollution, to see if I’m making any disastrous mistakes. So far, people have responded with support, which I was kind of worried about.
      I’ll keep moving forward until I see someone achieving results more effectively, I hit a wall I can’t overcome, or I solve the problem, I guess. If I embarrass myself in the process, at least I tried.

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