Our leadership vacuum on the environment

I hook my audiences easily in my workshops on my podcast, Leadership and the Environment, by saying,

No hands ever go up.

I continue,

Now raise your hand if you lowered your pollution to below American levels.

Again, no hands ever go up.

People look around sheepishly, so I ask,

If you don't want pollution, why do you pollute unnecessarily?

Nobody knows. Some suggest that they can't stop living, eating, and breathing, but I ask about unnecessary pollution. Americans pollute more per capita than almost anyone in history. We are less happy than most of them, so much of our pollution is likely unnecessary and counterproductive.

Some suggest a few half-hearted reasons that no business leader would accept:

  • It's hard
  • No one else is doing it
  • They'll get to it later

People want to change their environmental behavior but they don't. They feel alone and powerless.

We want environmental leadership.

Sadly, instead of leadership, we get more venting based on guilt, blame, doom, and gloom. We get facts and information without meaning--tactics that rarely work. But guilt rarely attracts followers and facts rarely change behavior.

Leadership and the Environment

Leadership depends on self-awareness, responsibility, and accountability. I've never heard a successful leader say that less self-awareness improves leadership.

If you value the environment but don't act on it, your actions conflict with your values, which lowers your self-awareness and your ability to lead everywhere in life.

Leading yourself on the environment develops leadership skills, starting with being honest with yourself.

The lies

When people act in conflict with their values, many suppress and deny the conflict, telling themselves stories. They rarely look at such stories critically since they feel better if they don't. That's unfortunate because they are usually specious, self-serving, and fatuous.

Here are a few.

I offer alternative views, but changing your perspective usually comes from trying new behavior based on new beliefs.

"The plane was going to fly anyway." That's not how supply and demand works. You'd fire a warehouse manager who claimed a full factory was the same as an empty one. No sports team wants to play in a half-empty stadium.

Besides, it ignores personal responsibility. If you buy plane tickets, your money is paying for the jet fuel it burns. You probably burn a lot more fuel than you think. Calculate your most recent flight here to find out.

"Bottled water is cleaner than tap." Most bottled water is tap water. Most tap water is cleaner than most bottled water. Learn more here at The Story of Bottled Water.

"My changing doesn't make much difference." That logic suggests no one ever could achieve much. You can lead others to increase your leverage. You don't have to reach Nelson Mandela or George Washington levels to achieve what many individuals have achieved.

"Economic growth will solve things." Economic growth has solved many problems. The theory sounds nice, but when theory and observation are in conflict, observation is right. Growth has not solved every economic problem and growth is causing environmental problems. Moreover, many cultures with steady-state economies have prospered with populations happier than ours.

"Technology will solve everything." Technology can solve a lot, and it buys us time to solve other problems, but it's one element of a global system. Systemic change rarely arises from changing its elements.

Solving systemic problems generally requires systemic solutions--for example, the beliefs and goals driving the system. Changing all fossil fuel use to renewables, for example, would represent incredible technological change, but would likely lead in the long run to greater overshoot and risk faster collapse.

We'll need technological innovation for the time it buys us to create systemic solutions, but it doesn't solve everything..

"I need to fly to spend time with my family." Flying leads people to spend less time with families by scattering them across the globe. Getting out of the cycle of flying more leading to less time with family leading to flying more leading to less time with family is like breaking an addiction. But like breaking an addiction, the initial struggle gives way to more happiness and independence.

"I need to fly for my job." This claim generates more push back of more emotional intensity than any other so I don't argue with people about it, but when I meet people who make concerted efforts to fly less for work, they always can.

Beyond succeeding at flying less, they tell me reducing travel reduces stress, increases productivity, and improves their lives.

"We need government regulation to act." We may call our elected officials leaders, but in practice they follow votes and money. Your behavior tells them how you'll vote. Your consumption provides their money.

The government will act when we lead it, not the other way around.

"Recycling pollutes a lot less than throwing away." Since 91% of plastic isn't recycled, believing that buying recyclable materials reduces pollution or landfills almost certainly overestimates how much you reduce pollution.

Reducing consumption and waste makes a bigger difference. The Story of Stuff gives more background.

"Electric cars pollute a lot less than gas-powered." Electric cars pollute less, but not a lot less than gas-powered compared to telecommuting, bicycles, walking, electric bicycles, living closer to work, and public transit.

"Little changes add up to big ones." In dozens of interviews on my podcast, I've found that changes depend less on their size than if you act.

If you want to contribute to big changes, and the environment could use big changes from us to recover, the most important thing you can do is start acting now.

Everyone I've seen act environmentally has grown and learned about themselves. Most describe a mindset shift that great leaders describe: that

  • They can make a difference.
  • Living by their values improves their lives.
  • They want to change more.
  • They wish they had changed earlier.
  • When they reflect, they knew they were lying to themselves.
  • Comfort and convenience pale in comparison to living by their values.