Leadership, Paris, the Environment, and You
This is our opportunity to lead, as citizens. Will we take up the charge?
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Are you, like Elon Musk, outraged at President Trump pulling out of the Paris climate accord? Do you, like the CEOs of General Electric and Goldman Sachs, believe the decision will hurt America's economy?
Putting aside your feelings and beliefs, look at your behavior:
Do you produce less greenhouse emissions than the Paris agreement calls for?
For comparison, one round-trip flight across the country flying coach uses up three-quarters of one person's annual allotment in a few hours (source):
I suspect most Americans reading this column are over their limit and the year isn't half over. A round-trip flight from New York to Shanghai first class, puts you at 7 times the Paris agreement allotment:
Where do you stand?
Political Leadership in a Democracy
In democracies, political "leaders" rarely lead, but follow voters' behavior--not voters' wishes or desires, but behavior. What they do.
In countries whose populations have reduced their emissions, political leaders could follow its citizens' behavior. Americans haven't done so. They may wish they did, but we're talking about what they do. Watch the Story of Stuff, or many similar documentaries, to see what we do.
In countries that aren't democracies, their political leaders can act independent of their citizens.
In the United States, the population President Trump represents emits more greenhouse gases per capita than almost anywhere.
We citizens are not leading.
United States Citizens' Behavior
As a physicist (PhD, Columbia '99), entrepreneur, and professor of leadership at NYU, I have spoken on leadership and the environment before a lot of people, inspired by finding the science compelling and President Trump's policies counterproductive.
I've asked many Americans if their emissions are below Paris. Most don't know.
I've asked them if they've reduced their emissions. The responses of nearly everyone--hundreds, maybe thousands of people--is the same:
They haven't, but they think others should.
They want to, but personal reasons compel them to keep driving, keep flying, eating more meat than almost anyone in history, and so on.
For those who have reduced their emissions, if you look at the numbers, their reductions are nowhere near the scale necessary for them as individuals to go below Paris's allotment.
Few Americans are leading themselves to where they want their political leaders to go.
This is an opportunity for everyone who pollutes like average Americans do to lead--ourselves and our political leaders. If you pollute like an affluent American, you can lead all the more.
My talk on Leadership and the Environment is a work in progress, but I've put the slide show online for those who don't mind a not-yet-professionally-produced slide show:
Most Americans See Reducing Emissions As Sacrifice and Deprivation
The greenhouse effect responds to your actual emissions, not what you wish they were or what they would be if your excuses to fly more, eat more, drive more, and so on didn't keep you flying, eating, and driving as much as you did.
Few want to be the chump who doesn't get to vacation overseas or enjoy steak if everyone else is. They see avoiding those things as sacrifice and deprivation.
For context, I had lunch with the greatest leader in America the other day, Frances Hesselbein, and asked her about World War 2. Did people see serving and supporting those who served as deprivation and sacrifice?
She said every man in her life served--son, husband, father, grandfather, and more. She supported them in the military.
I asked if people considered serving sacrifice.
It's what you did.
No question or second thought: it's what you did.
She wasn't talking about meatless Mondays, a staycation instead of visiting Rome, or carpooling. She was talking about risking their lives.
She told me about her ancestors at the time of the Civil War. In a family of six sons, each enlisted. She told me of her ancestors' letters that she read, of their wives going to sleep hungry, when the food had to support the troops.
Having taught at West Point, she told me that she researched and found that in America's times of bloodiest battles, enrollment at the Academy never reduced.
Yet today, the overwhelming majority of people I spoke to saw flying less as too much sacrifice.
Leadership and Changing Behavior
Change in accordance to your values isn't sacrifice at all.
Leaders find and create meaning and purpose by connecting people's wishes and values with behavior, even when it appears hard.
If you are like most Americans, you wish you emitted and polluted less but you haven't changed. You value clean air, clean water, and climate stability, but you view personal change as sacrifice and deprivation.
You wish a leader would give the change meaning and purpose, to make you feel that you weren't acting alone but as part of a community.
President Trump isn't giving that leadership, but is instead following Americans' polluting behavior.
This is a leadership vacuum you can fill. If you believe the science that led to the Paris agreement then you can lead yourself. Putting aside everyone else's behavior, only you can choose your behavior and only you are responsible for your emissions.
I'm doing my best to fill that vacuum, as the video above describes.
Over a year ago, when I learned how much pollution flying caused, I chose to avoid flying for a year. It was as difficult a challenge for me as it would be for any Inc. reader.
It turns out my life didn't end. On the contrary, choosing to live by my values led me to grow. I see the change as one of my life's great improvements. I'm in my fifteenth month and going.
Over a year ago I chose to avoid food with packaging. I didn't know how to avoid it, but did it anyway. Again, I learned more about myself as a result than I ever could have expected.
Leading Yourself by Your Values Gives Meaning and Purpose, Even When Hard
What looks like deprivation and sacrifice, when following your deepest values, becomes the most meaningful and purposeful parts of your life.
Are you ready to lead yourself, and thereby your community and president?
Are you ready to look at the challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, even the ones that seem impossible?