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The rapid technological evolution brings rapid progress in our daily lives. At the same time, it also results in eco-anxiety. Where are we actually going? How much damage are we doing with our digital advancement? Can humans and the entire planet keep up with these changes? Lee Schneider aims to address this feeling of dread in his novel, Surrender. Joining Corinna Bellizzi, he explains how telling a story about a dystopian future can shed light on the double-edge sword of collective progress. Lee talks about using AI bots with extreme cautiousness and why they can never replace actual human jobs. He also delves into how technology could be causing social anxiety issues and tech bro companies turning people into mere fuels for the engine of commerce.
About Lee Schneider
Lee Schneider is the author of screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, short stories, and audio drama podcasts. He has been a writer, producer, and director for television networks and movie studios. He is the founder of Red Cup Agency, an award-winning podcast production agency, and he is the Artistic Director of FutureX, a platform for futurist projects. His first published novel is titled Surrender, a science fiction story that takes place in 2050. He lives in Santa Monica, CA with his family.
Guest LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/in/docuguy
Guest Website: https://futurex.studio
Additional Resources Mentioned: https://bookshop.org/p/books/surrender/19597535
Show Notes: – Edited Audio
5:48 Facing the consequences of our actions
11:06 The rise of AI bots
20:43 How technology leads to social anxiety
26:10 Understanding futurist projects
29:59 Addressing our carbon footprint
36:32 Less technology and more power of connection
47:48 The problem with tech bro companies
49:46 Wrapping up and closing thoughts
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Surrender Your Eco-Anxiety With Lee Schneider, Author, Podcaster, Producer And Director
We are going on a journey to the not-too-distant future when global warming has resulted in certain catastrophic effects, and when advances in technology provide us with solutions that may presently seem more sci-fi than reality, and yet how close that future could be. I’m thrilled to introduce you to an author of screenplays, stage plays, short stories, and audio dramas, also known as story format podcasts. His name is Lee Schneider, and he has worked as a writer, producer, and director for TV networks and movie studios.
He’s the Founder of Red Cup Agency, an award-winning podcast production agency, and serves as the artistic director of FutureX, a platform for futurist projects. His first published novel is called Surrender, a science fiction story that takes place in 2050, and is available as of February 15th, 2023. Lee lives in Santa Monica, California with his family. Lee, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me on.
It’s so nice to have you here. I understand as I unpack Surrender and began reading into it that you undertook this book specifically as a response to your own eco-anxiety. I imagine also the need for a creative outlet that you could feel you owned, but I’d love for you to share your story and talk about how that eco-anxiety gave birth to Surrender.
Writing a novel is a long process. It’s a marathon, so you better pick something, and I realized I needed to pick something that would be a motor to keep going. I’d written all kinds of stuff, as you mentioned, in my introduction. I’d had this book in a gestating state in various written notebooks and such for years, but it hadn’t connected.
As you experienced also, we started getting the fires here North of us, but enough so we couldn’t go outside. We couldn’t breathe. We have air purifiers running sometimes in our place. We live in Southern California. It took away a big part of Southern California’s life. Suddenly, I realized, “What if you couldn’t go outside? What if there wasn’t enough water?” It brought it home for me. That became the motor that made me want to commit to this marathon of writing a long-form story like this.
I have to say the overall of what I have gleaned thus far, and I’m less than 100 pages in, so I still have another 200 or so pages to read. As it stands, it almost starts from this disconnected feeling. I feel like the characters are disconnected. You talk about people being modded or modified, which is also on the horizon. I don’t know if it will be here by 2050, but it creates this dystopian effect, which comes right down to the cover.
The way you’ve constructed the cover reminded me of what we considered futuristic back when the film first started to take off with Metropolis, for example. it’s that art deco/futurist perspective. I’d love for you to talk about how you constructed the book, why you constructed it this way, and perhaps the unlikely protagonist at the center of the story as it unfolds in the beginning.
Dystopia is easy, and utopia is hard. This is part of a three-part series. This is the first part. I’m working on part two now. In a narrative like this, I don’t think you can start with people who are simple. You have to start with people who are wrong about things. Some people are wrong about things, and some people are right about things. Every book is a game.
Part of the game of the book is eventually figuring out who is on the wrong side of history and who is more likely to be on the right side of history. You are at that early part of the book where I’m playing around with that a bit. I’m having some ethereal fun with that where I may be sucking the reader into liking a more technical solution or somebody who’s doing something that seems like an easy fix, but the people who are struggling with answers, the people who don’t know what to do, those are the people that we need to pay attention to because they are more like us.
We are the people in that book who don’t know what to do yet, but we are figuring it out. One of the major goals of writing such a long story is to show somebody to figure it out. There’s nothing more exciting to me in a movie or a book or anything where you get to see people, the light bulb comes on, and they start to figure out how to address this.
That answers part one. Part two is the modding. This has been around since Samuel Delaney wrote about it in 1966 in a book called Babel-17. There’s no doubt in my mind that the tinkering that we have engaged in with the world, this tinkering is going to extend farther and farther into our own psyches and into our own bodies, and it’s not always going to be so great.
Like the tinkering with agriculture, the tinkering with cities, and everything we have done in the name of progress. It’s a double-edged sword. There’s been great progress. There’s been a great engine of prosperity. There are been many good things, but there’s also been a lot of negatives that we are starting to come to terms with now. The book is about that.Everything humans have done in the name of progress is a double-edged sword. There have been many good things, but there are a lot of negatives that we are starting to come to terms now. Click To Tweet
It’s the unforeseen consequences of our actions. We didn’t understand when we first started drilling for oil that we would be in this spot now. Your book is interesting. I’m in it. I want to read it. I also have two young kids who are chomping at my heels a lot, so finding time to focus and read is sometimes hard.
I also don’t think that there are very many coincidences. I wanted to share something that came as a surprise to me. I was walking the kids to school. As I walked back up the hill to my home, I was scrolling through my phone. I went over to Chrome, and this article automatically popped up on my screen. It’s from the South China Morning Post. It says, “Respect them.” Says He Jiankui, creator of the world’s first gene-edited humans.
He’s gone to prison for this. He’s in jail. He’s not likely to be out anytime soon. He says, “Scientists still question the ethics of an experiment that the scientist went to jail for. I did it too quickly.” He now hopes to develop therapies for inherited diseases. These three gene-edited babies were born in 2018 and 2019. He’s quoted, as saying, “They have a normal, peaceful, and undisturbed life. This is their wish, and we should respect them. The happiness of the children and their families should come first.”
He’s basically saying, “Leave them alone. Don’t include them in experiments or things like that. Let them be.” He also goes on to say like any father, he has high expectations of them but also has huge unease. I felt like this was such an interesting unhappy coincidence. I don’t know what to call it but it came into my feed, and it got me thinking about a couple of things. One is that as an author, you are the father of this book, and you will see whether or not people want to read it.
As we are digging into the book itself, you have one character who is somehow responsible for creating the reality that they are presently living in, and another character who is now passed on that is also responsible for creating a portion of the social reality that we now live in in this 2050 landscape. I’m already saying we. I’m in it. We are talking now about two things, these unintended consequences of coping with that, and also, the ethics of some of these technological choices and how we confront them.
Is it with skepticism? Do we welcome them? Do we stress-test them more before we decide to go ahead and implement them? One of the things that come to mind is the fact that we are transitioning so much of our use of oil, which is a limited resource. It’s obviously degrading our environment by pumping it out of the ground and using yesterday’s energy to warm ourselves today and to create energy today, or cool ourselves today and create energy today to create plastics and does all these things that are degrading our environment, but then we also, at the same time, are having an increased need for all these rare earth minerals.
We are drilling into the permafrost. We are drilling into sea beds or their bids now to drill into sea beds to get at certain rare earth minerals, which can degrade ecosystems and have other unintended consequences. I don’t know, in some cases, if we are robbing Peter to pay Paul to borrow that old adage. I feel like we almost need more of this novel-style exploration and creative thinking to get us to a space where we are thinking about the long-term effect of our actions beyond what we can see in the immediate future. I’m not convinced that as a species, we are good at doing that yet.
It’s definitely not, but this is the problem right there. There are a lot of species on this planet. We are one of them, and there’s that human arrogance of, “If we do this, it will be fine,” without looking at the repercussions and reverberations for all these other species and the planet itself. When we think about gene-edited babies, chatbots, or any number of technological advances that are in progress, we have to question, “Should we do it because we can? Should we?”
There’s a lot of the gee-whiz factor to technology that has crossed a threshold into, “Wait a minute. Do we want to do that right now? Is that what we should be focusing on?” What we need to be focusing on is learning how to love this planet. It’s a very individual planet. There’s probably not another one out there like it exactly. There could be, but not exactly, and we are extremely fortunate to have things working until we came along so well on this planet.
Also, if there can be any purpose to these narratives, novels, or anything like that. We are a narrative species. We love to tell stories. If we could tell stories that got people more in alignment with like, “This is a pretty amazing planet. Let’s try to love this planet. Let’s try to make a decision based on other species besides ourselves because all of us are on this planet,” that would be a big leap in thinking for many people and certainly for people who are technologically driven.
One of the themes of your book is artificial intelligence has impacted our lives in a variety of ways. I had on this show in September of 2021, Mo Gawdat. He was the Chief Business Officer at Google X for a number of years and led their more extreme projects and AI and other things. He wrote a book called Scary Smart. It was all about our responsibility to teach AI through our actions because AI is already observing us all the time. Make it kinder and be less critical of one another. Don’t tell it that we want to see more workout videos or artificially augmented visuals of people tell it instead that we care about people, that we care about the planet, and that we care about each other that it’s not always criticism like the Twitter firestorms that you see.
I don’t know if we are going to be capable to emerge from that reality with any grace because so many of us are consumed by our own vanity. I will admit. I’m scrolling through TikTok these days and going, “We are so much closer to this dystopian world,” than I even understood for quite a while. I’m seeing echoes of the Expanse TV show in my feed.
It’s the way people are choosing to interact live with their audiences and doing extreme things, and even, in some cases, not just doing them mundane, but then there’s an audience of people sitting there glued to their screen watching and commenting on it. I’m like, “What are we doing?” This is a connection through a screen but disconnecting from one another. I am not confident that is a path forward to saving humanity, the planet, ourselves, or the other beautiful species that live on this blue dot in the universe.
It probably isn’t a great way to save all that. People need to think about AI as not in isolation. There’s AI, and then there’s what the AI trains, which is on the backs of humans. Those are chatbots like ChatGPT and others. They have learned from the massive stuff that we humans have placed on the internet. There’s DALL E 2 and the other illustrator AIs where they are sucking in all the human effort from images that we humans have put out there.
It’s not like they are coming from nothing. They are working from our collective knowledge and essentially colonizing it. The other side is it’s not like the terminator. It’s not like an out-of-control AI that’s running itself. These are created by companies that want to make money. Google invested $10 billion or something like that in a chatbot.
Dropping the bucket to them.
No, it’s true. It’s nothing, but these are run by people, and we have a tendency, unfortunately, to say, “It’s an AI. It’s telling me what to do. I like that or I don’t like that, but wait a minute. It’s a person. It’s a company. It’s an investor.” If that AI wasn’t making money, we wouldn’t see that AI anymore if it didn’t have potential or it didn’t have evaluation. We have more control than we think. It’s what I want to say.
I have seen some interesting applications and being that you are also in the world of developing podcasts. You’ll find this interesting. I listened to a six-minute podcast that was put out into my social feed by another person in a podcasting group I’m a member of on Facebook. In the first few minutes, they set the positioning of the show and they said that this was going to be an exploration of an AI-generated script, also reading, and the individual’s voice.
They were going to tell you all about the core elements of what would be needed to develop an AI-written and voiced podcast. I was thinking. I was listening to it. I’m like, “The sounds boring. There’s not the right inflection. It didn’t sound very natural.” I was getting at the point where I was tuning out, and I’m like, “I am pretty sure that this is the AI right now.” That’s what’s happening.
The host came on and said, “I bet you didn’t know that was X, Y, and Z.” If I didn’t already have the positioning of knowing that it was about how you could use AI to write a podcast, I might not have guessed it. I might have thought it was a rather boring show and turned out. AI will get a lot better pretty quickly. That could potentially replace screenwriters like yourself and podcasters like me who are creating stories and giving vernacular and commentary on the current state of the world. What do you see in the future in that regard? Do you see it starting to erode some of the work that we are presently doing on the creative side?
Most certainly, but some of that work as someone wrote in a blog, “Some of that work deserves to die.” It’s junk. There’s stuff that has no soul. Writing is a soul transfer process. It’s my soul digging into me, digging into my soul, trying to do some soul transfer out to you, the reader. That’s never going away because it’s part of being human unless it’s writing meeting minutes or writing marketing copies.Writing is a soul-transfer process. It is never going away because it is part of being human. Click To Tweet
I want to beat my head against a brick wall on some of that.
Even in the audio world, I have done two podcasts where a lot of the characters were bots. They were AI bots written from scripts that I wrote. It was a text-to-speech, and real actors were interacting with AI bots. I have even done a couple of podcasts where there was a missing piece like the characters were in an airport, and we didn’t have the announcement. “United Flight 47 is leaving in ten minutes.” I made an AI bot that said that. I looked up all the details, like what flight number and when would it go. We treated it like it sounded like it was in an airport. I could have hired an actor and have done that before too, but we used an AI bot to make that voice because it was part of the story, and it was real.
They mostly sound robotic anyway, so you need that to make it sound authentic.
It was a perfect fit. When I have used bots in things like podcasts, they are playing bots. I’m not pretending that they’re people. I have taught a class while at USC, a media-making class, and some of the students have started using bots to read the narration of their short films. Some of them are because they are very shy. Some of them are because there were language challenges and they could write a script in English that was pretty tight but saying that script was a big challenge because English is not their first language, so they used an AI bot. Not bad. That’s a pretty good use of it in that case.
I have used Descript to do some video editing of some of the work that I do. Primarily these days, I use it for transcription because I like to transcribe episodes that I do solo casts that I don’t send for production and edit myself. I will use it for that. They have a tool within Descript where you can train the voice which I have done and replace certain words with correct words.
Let’s say I don’t know why I’m having a tongue jumble, but I can’t say this string of words that I normally would be able to say. I type it in, and it says it in my inflection pretty well-trained. If I didn’t know in those cases that it was created by that particular bot, I probably wouldn’t have known. My readers wouldn’t have, except for the mouth matching if they are watching it on video.
I don’t think that’s bad. You take the example of there are people who say, “I use a paper dictionary. I use a typewriter. I write by hand.” Great. I have tried writing with a typewriter, and it’s horrible. I bought a $300 old typewriter and started writing stories on it, and I said, “You must be crazy. It’s so much easier on a computer.”
I spell check and grammar check and even have Siri read copy for me. Those are writing partners for me. I use apps all the time that have some soft AI capabilities to organize writing. That’s all great, but it’s not replacing. There’s been a couple of interesting blogs about journalism, two paths forward for AI journalism. One is where AI helps writers, and the other is where it replaces them. Both are rather bad outcomes, and they are all about efficiencies to save the publisher money. They are not done because it would be better for writing or something like that. It’s easier to create SEO-friendly clickbaity stories if you give them to a bot to write.
It can absorb all of what’s working on Google now at this minute because it changes. They shift the algorithm constantly, and the bot can get smart on those things a lot more quickly than you or I could.
Some things are deservedly going to get botified, and maybe that will be okay. Maybe that would be fine. Other things will never be taken away from our humanness unless we allow them to. If we do that, that’s a long slippery slope down.
There are a couple of things that are merging for me. I’m a listener of the show Omnibus, which I’m not sure if you have heard, but they cover all sorts of different topics in the light of keeping it for posterity for future links. They covered an episode in which they are talking about hikikomori. It’s these Japanese men who are disassociated from common life.
They don’t leave the home much. They are more shut-ins. They still live at home with their parents, and some of them are now in their 40s. They essentially have rented friends that come and serve them. They will go with a sister and hang out at a coffee shop, have time together, have a conversation, get to know one another, and get them out of the house.
It’s almost like a rent-a-girlfriend but without the more girlfriend-oriented stuff. I find myself wondering in these cases. Is it that technology is moving us in a direction where we get more disassociated from one another when we might have some social anxiety issue and technology has made it easier for us to separate with time than might otherwise be healthy? Are there going to be tech solutions for this? Are more people going to disassociate and have a harder time in social systems? I’m just thinking.
I would say yes, unfortunately, and probably, but there’s a movement among younger people now to get rid of cell phones. It’s not a big movement. You had a guest who’s living in an intentional community. People are starting to think more about how we have more social connections with real people. That’s going to be a real thing.
I have noticed that there are podcast events now where they perform a podcast live as a theater piece essentially with a live audience. It’s very gratifying and great. It’s an up-to-us question. How do we look at these things? It’s easy to do what we are doing right now, and it’s wonderful. We get to talk to each other, and people can appreciate it, and I wouldn’t want to not do this. It’s also connecting with other people.
It’s what helps us connect with the world. That gets back to something David said in the podcast. “We haven’t done a very good job as a species of figuring out how to fit in here. We have gone our own way.” Especially with the added octane of technology, we have tried to separate ourselves from the rest of the world and the other species that live here.
It looked like it was going to work out for a while, but those things catch up with you. This is not new, and that’s something that I bring into the book. We may think of ourselves as a superior species, especially with our technology, but eventually, these things catch up with you, and you have a planet that is not livable.
You’ve had a bunch of very interesting guests who have looked at technical solutions and tech solutions for the ills of the world. Some of those were involved in decarbonization. We have a lot of gas stoves. You had a fellow on who wants to get rid of those gas stoves and do something else. It makes sense to me. You had a Ukrainian fellow who was talking about doing eBikes.
Why do Americans not use a bicycle the way Europeans do? Often the complaints are, “It’s going to take me longer. I live on a very steep hill. Going to the grocery store and back to my home up that hill carrying sacks of groceries would be very challenging.” An eBike might solve that, especially one that has a 240-mile range and can go 50 miles an hour. I’m laughing, but it’s insane what we can do now.
It’s great. All of those technical solutions strike me. They have the potential to be great as long as we can look at them through the filter of, “Is this going to help us live more wisely on this planet? Is this going to address the real problems of power generation or the way we have organized cities?” Those are big back away problems, but those are the problems.
If we could start at home with a gas stove, or we could start with driving less or flying less, those are small incremental things admittedly, but they start to think differently. They start to think about how they could fit in with this world, “I don’t necessarily have to do all these things that could damage the world,” even thinking about things that, “Could this do damage? I wonder if I did another way of doing this. Would that be better?” The old shop in a farmer’s market, instead of going to a Big Box grocery store, you are benefiting farmers. It’s all of those things, but to get people thinking about that, even thinking about it, is a small thing that everybody can do.
I do agree. We can let eco-anxiety take over. We can work to be part of a solution or at least try to minimize our own personal footprints and carry forward these ideas to other individuals. In your bio at the beginning, I mentioned that you were involved in futurist projects. I want to unpack this. People may not understand what that means. They might think they know, but I’d love to hear your thoughts about what a futurist project is and whether they can provide real solutions.
They can’t provide solutions. There was an era in science fiction writing, the Asimov era and other eras, where those writers were actively trying to figure out what a robot consciousness would be like. There were people who were writing about going to the moon before we went to the moon. There’s a fascinating Washington Post podcast called Moonrise that takes as its thesis that science fiction writers built a pathway for people to start thinking about going to the moon.
We have to be able to envision something before we can realize it. The fastest runner now is far faster than the fastest runner many years ago. Why? How? It’s not purely because they are superhuman. It’s because we could envision it, construct better training systems, and get better nutrition, not be eating what everyone else was eating and looking at overall performance.
Are you getting enough sleep? Are you hydrated? What is your muscle carry level of water? It’s all of it. We can essentially get to a space where we can achieve more, build new solutions, and do something like create an airplane that flies in the sky. There was a time when that was the furthest from reality, or building a wheel in order to be able to create a pulley to then one day build the pyramids or Stonehenge, which before the moment that existed, there was nothing before. Did it start as an idea? It probably had to. It’s had to start as a story first.
A famous example is Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing pictures of helicopters. Someone visualizes these things, but I think what becomes most interesting for us and most relevant for us now is looking forward and looking back. In other words, be a good ancestor. What does that mean? When our descendants look back to us, are they going to look at us and say, “They saved their existence by changing things with the dependence on fossil fuels,” or, “Those are the people that got this thing going downhill?” That’s something to think about.
In other words, futurism or utopian thinking is forward-thinking and backward-thinking. It’s simultaneous. There’s a great book called The Good Ancestor, which borrows a lot from first nations, indigenous peoples, and Native American thinking where we try to think ahead and try to think back. What will people think of us if they look back at us? That’s going to be increasingly relevant now. It filters my thinking all the time.
This is the same perspective I have heard from history teachers and professors my entire life. They study history because they think about it from that present-day perspective too. They are always saying things like if you do not know what has happened historically, then we are going to be the victim of repeating our same mistakes.
We’ll create new mistakes, frankly. We are good at creating new things, but we’ll also make a lot of mistakes that you can see are connected. For instance, reaping one particular resource from an environment like oil, and then shifting to cobalt, a rare earth mineral needed to create some of these high-functioning batteries.
What are the conditions of the workers that are mining for that cobalt? We can have some pretty deep conversations about these things. I want to leave that there because I wouldn’t have thought about this before our connection, but essentially, this show is a futurist show. This show is about getting people to think more deeply about the present-day environment, what we are doing, and how we can create a better future.
It’s an invitation for people to think more about how they are leading their present lives or even how life for us in this present society is constructed because there are some things that we can’t avoid. Even homeless people living on the street unsheltered have a carbon footprint. The reality of that is amazing, astounding, unbelievable, or hard to parse, but it’s been calculated. The fact is you can measure all these things now. It’s pretty amazing.
I don’t think we can go back. You could start a kibbutz or an intentional community and get some cows and grow things. You could do that, but most people are not going to do that because, as flawed as it is, we have come to a technical world. I’m not even advocating that people get rid of technology, but I’m asking for context.
Often science, for example, is pursued by us as just, “If we can do it, let’s do it.” It’s adding to the knowledge of humanity, but what about the moral implications? What about the connective tissue? What about context? If you are going to think a lot about how to make a more efficient internal combustion engine, what about not having an internal combustion engine?
You have to think outside the limitations of efficiency to solve the problems that we are in now. The keyword there is context and connection. There’s a homeless or unhoused person with a carbon footprint, but what gave rise to that person? Is that the way we build our cities? Is that the way our economy is built to exclude certain people and they get stuck like that?
It’s still less than someone living in a house like mine. However, it’s very difficult to exist in the modern world without leaving a negative carbon footprint behind. Carbon has been villainized, even talking about carbon in this way. Wanting to be carbon negative or sequester carbon is probably a better way to talk about it, but ultimately, something that Paul Hawken says is bringing carbon home.
We are all made of carbon. We are carbon-based creatures. Every single being on this planet is carbon-based. We need to bring it back to Earth, and how we can do that is through photosynthesis. Methane is more problematic by something like 80 times because we can’t draw it down because it takes so much more time to come back to Earth through the power of gravity, air circulation, and everything else.
What do we need to do to limit that? We need to change our farming operations. We need to change how we dispose of things so that we are not creating septic dumps that create a lot of methane when we dispose of our garbage. Now, there are more efforts to take all your bio waste and turn that into something new.
I got the chance to interview Chris O’Brien of Hungry Giant Recycling, and they are working with restaurants and eventually looking to come into people’s homes. Restaurants and food production facilities take their food waste and bio-dehydrate it in a closed system that uses energy, but hopefully green energy, and then they can take that food waste.
The bacteria’s been killed, any negative bacteria that might be in there, especially if it came from somebody’s plate because you don’t want it spreading disease. It still can be used as soil augmentation because that has the NPK, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium that are needed to help soil get the nutrients that plants need to thrive, and then the microbes can integrate into it and everything can be healthy.
They can also take that same stuff and create dog and cat kibble out of it. It’s healthier than the stuff that you would see on the store shelves because it’s real food that’s been dehydrated. These advents and leaps are where we need to go. I was reminded when I learned about this, and I didn’t say this at the time because I wasn’t sure.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone, but there’s one moment in that film that I found funny. There’s one character. He’s inside this robot, and the robot is going down this hallway. It says, “Eat recycled food. It’s good for the environment.” It’s okay for you, and then he comes spilling out of it. It’s a comic relief moment.
We can get to a space where our food waste can still become food and can live a second life. We can be in a space where we are wasting less because there is so very much waste in the food environment overall. Grocery stores throw away a ton of food, and many of them lock their dumpsters and don’t ever think twice about it.
Food waste is a big factor in this, and this gets back to the eco-anxiety theme. There are a lot of very smart people working on this, like Paul Hawken and others. They have big solutions, but as an individual, what am I going to do about that? There’s a book called One Green Thing by Heather White, which it’s basically that.
You pick the 1 or 2 things that you can reasonably do, and it does a very good job of helping you understand what type of person you are and how you might fit into this bigger picture. Are you a broadcaster, influencer, or sage? Do you love nature? Are you a leader? It gives you a persona to package up what you might do.
For me, it meant riding a bike. It meant doing more of my own cooking. It meant being aware of recycling. I know these are all very small things in the huge complexity of carbon, but they are very big things for me, and I’m one person, but it’s shifting my view about how I could fit in better on this planet. You have the Margaret Mead quote in your email signature where, “It takes one committed person to begin a movement.”
This is where we are at with this now. If enough people are nodding and saying, “Maybe I should look at that.” It will create a thought shift, an idea that would eventually, people couldn’t even conceive of going to the moon or flying in a helicopter, but someone had to conceive of those things. We are those conceptual people right now. We could do that as a group or as a species.
You point to Margaret Mead, the signature in my email. It’s there for more than one reason. First, I’m an anthropologist. I’m an archeologist. That was my schooling. I was ready to go to grad school. I have done digs around the world. I have observed cultures and people for my entire existence. I find people to be incredibly curious beings.
As it stands, that has led me to this point where I’m curious whether we can create solutions that come from technology. This is big or that I ponder often. We need to get to a more simple life, which is less technology-focused and more powerful of connection, real wood fibers, things made from cotton and wool, and working within our environment as opposed to creating another silicon chip that can go into a device that can make our lives technologically a little better.
I think about these things, like the cultures that have risen and fallen. Why did Egypt happen the way it did? If you look at Mesopotamia, an entire continent of people essentially getting to a certain point and then all fades into the background. The serious question I continue to ask myself is whether all of this will become part of the archeological record and whether there will be another human similar to us in 10,000 years looking up at this curiosity of devices, including my Zoom PodTrack P4 here and my microphone, scratching their head about how we lived because it’s possible. It happened before.
Yes, it has. Technology is not an inoculation against our own demise. Technology is not going to save us. What will help is when you talk about appreciating the earth, appreciating as simple as good food, real fabrics, or a real place to live that feels like it’s connected with the Earth, to be able to look outside, to be able to go outside, and there’s not a fire that’s bringing smoke in, to not be evacuated, and to be able to live in your home. Those are all very powerful things that connect us with the Earth.
Also, to not have PTSD when there’s another lightning storm. I have experienced two incredible lightning storms in my life and probably more than that. The first was when I was at almost 10,000 feet elevation staying at my dad’s cabin in Colorado. They are so high up. When the lightning strikes and it strikes close to you, it was amazing. It was a display of the power of nature.
To be here back in September of 2020, the CZU firestorm came through. It was lightning at the end of a very dry year. It struck several trees near my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz. I still live near there and my entire town was evacuated. I had friends who lost their homes, and it was still nothing in comparison to what has happened in Wine Country in the past, but still, this is a new reality we are in.
We go from fire to flood. My office here flooded because our ground got so saturated that the cement pad sucked the moisture up through the earth. I had to replace the flooring with something temporary for now to make sure that I have solved the problem before I put a more permanent solution in. The reality of this new world that we are living in is that we will start to see the negative effects of our actions many years ago and with increasing severity for a while.
That’s not very heartening for some people. That brings the eco-anxiety right back up. Given that you’ve now written this work and maybe it’s been partially your treatment for this eco-anxiety, what have you learned, and what do you think people can take from both reading this book and from your own toolbox shed? What would you share with people to get rid of that eco-anxiety?
As I said earlier, dystopia is easy, and utopia is hard. We have to be optimists or utopians, in some sense. Utopia can come piece by piece. It’s not, “I’m going to throw away my cell phone and trash the computer. I’m going to live off the land,” because I like GPS. I like being able to get in the car and get navigated someplace. I’m not giving up on all of those things.
Do I own a hybrid now? Yes. Will I be getting an electric car as soon as I can get one that we like? Yes. Lots of small steps add up to big cultural shifts. What we are looking at here is a cultural shift of people opening their arms and hearts and saying, “We have to make some changes here.” We can’t immediately stop everything that’s going on, but we don’t have to own stock in ExxonMobil anymore. We don’t have to support banks that give loans to fossil fuel companies. We don’t have to do that. That’s a choice.
Most do, but you do what you can. If you have a portfolio, you look at that portfolio. I have gone from talking to financial people. Several years ago, they would say, “What are you talking about now?” Now, they say, “We have lots of clients who don’t want to own stock in those companies that are destroying the planet.” Fine. We do something better. There are even stock funds that you can invest in that are positive.
I have even interviewed a group that has since gone public doing a similar thing where they are making ecologically friendly 401(k) retirement plans.
Part of being a futurist and forward-looking is being smart about those things and thinking about how we could better fit in with all the other species here.
As we have touched on this topic a bit throughout, a lot of the solutions that are being prosed in the technology space are frankly led by Silicon Valley flat rum dudes who might be called tech bros in some cultures. There are some that are pretty concerned about that culture overall leading some of these initiatives. I’m hoping that you can comment on whether you think these concerns are justified. Are we moving in a better, more cohesive, and inclusive direction or not?
There’s a lot of work to be done because the VC-backed tech bro-ish company has been part of the problem. It’s about profit over people, creating products, and using our own consciousness or our own selves to feed the engine of commerce. Meaning when we contribute to TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook, we are giving a little bit of ourselves up for their platform.
It benefits us because we get to talk to each other, but it benefits them a lot more. Meaning the owners of these platforms. I would say that there’s a mindset that comes with the tech bro culture that is time to be rid of. It’s not as simple as saying, “There should be more female-run companies.” I can point to Meredith Whittaker who used to work for Google and now runs an AI initiative and a bunch of other people who are often former Googlers trying to look at things in a different and more inclusive way.
We haven’t touched on that much. It’s too big of a topic to get into now. The climate disaster is a problem with race. It is a problem with social injustice. The people who are bearing the brunt are in the global South. The people who are benefiting the most from doing things the way we are in the North and mostly America and countries like that. That’s time for a change that it brings in more diverse viewpoints, which would be a fix. It’s a slow fix but a very effective one if it can be done.The climate disaster is a problem with race and social injustice. Bringing more diverse viewpoints is a slow yet effective fix. Click To Tweet
What are your thoughts about accountability and holding some of these bad actors accountable? I think specifically of Monsanto. They make a great example. That company name has since dissolved because Bayer bought them and killed the name Roundup and Monsanto and refer to it instead as Bayer, “We’ll create a new name for that,” like another pharmaceutical company might come up with another name for something.
We are dealing with glyphosate in our water tables. That is unavoidable. That is causing diseases in people that are impacting our metabolic systems, which is degrading the health in a documented way of people all over the globe at this point. Is there a way or path to holding these giants that have made a lot of money off of the backs of other people accountable and resolve some of those challenges and inequities?
Whoever controls the archive controls the future. What that means is if you erase the name Monsanto, if people don’t know what that product glyphosate is, you are erasing a past that we need to know about. There’s been a great podcast called Drilled, and a few others. People have made a real effort to preserve the past specifically oil companies that knew about what they were doing and did it anyway.
They literally have it in their shareholder reports, private messages, and things like that. Some of this is public, and then they go out and they lie about it. It’s insane.
We need to know about that, and the people who are cataloging that are heroes. That’s helping everybody understand better that this has been going on for a long time. It’s not something that someone discovered now. The accountability is huge.
I’m sitting here. How else do I get this show to people by promoting it on social channels? I go on Clubhouse and talk about it, or I will put a post out there on any variety of platforms. I tried to advertise this show on the Meta platform for a long time, but my ads almost always get squashed. My post started to be squashed too as a result because I use words like climate, sustainability, activism, or social issue.
Because of the fact that I’m communicating about challenges we face, they are considered social issues, and Facebook won’t promote them. They will say, “You can go ahead and become a verified person and do it.” I do the verified person where I have to send them a picture of me holding my ID right next to my face that they then verify on a screen share with somebody that’s a physical body out there in Menlo Park to make sure I’m me and still won’t let me run the ads. I can’t have this show episode have a little feature go out there if anything that remotely even touches on the topics we are talking about goes out into that space. I’m censored.
You are well-documented. You are not alone.
It’s infuriating. Let me create this tool, and the only way you can use it is organic. Even to be organic, I am going to go ahead and quash the number of people that see your content because it’s considered activistic.
I wish I had an answer to this. I don’t because this is the bleeding edge of where we are right now. Facebook Meta is desperate to make even more money and be even more profitable. They are turning to these turn-the-screws tactics. Twitter is a prime example of a very public meltdown of a once-useful platform that is now not useful at all.
Some people are turning to Mastodon which is a very, at the moment, fraction but millions of people are on Mastodon now. As Dan Sinker wrote, who’s a blogger, “It’s time to try new things.” When we see for the first time and maybe fifteen years or so, these platforms that we have depended on start to crumble or start to become polluted or not useful, we have to do what we did at the beginning of the internet and try new things. We can’t go back to the same old places. It’s confusing and chaotic, but something good will come out of it in the end because people will build new pathways that are more inclusive.
I hope you are right about that. The resounding theme through our conversation here is you believe that we as individuals can exact change and we can make a difference, each of us, in our own even small ways. I often advocate for people to choose one thing to get started that is not overwhelming and you can feel good about the change that you are making.
I chose composting as an early avenue because I don’t like throwing away food. I’d rather it becomes soil. That’s something that I’m actively doing in my home. I also pushed locally for our waste management system to integrate composting in our green waste program, and they now do that. It’s a feather in the cap.
You don’t have to be perfect at everything. If you are passionate about fashion, maybe you choose fast fashion as a thing that you want to put into the toilet and say, “I’m going to make durable purchases and secondhand purchases my new pathway forward for my household.” These are things that you can choose.
One of the books that I like to do this is Regeneration by Paul Hawken because he breaks it down into such beautiful chapters. You can inform yourself about specific categories that you might affect. You can learn about the industrial complex of poverty even, why that exists, and how we are building wealth off of the back of other people.
Educating yourself about these things is critical. I also want to point people to your show, the Future of Food. You have three seasons out. You hosted two of them. I have listened to a few episodes in the past. I’d even sent you a note at one point to see if I could be a guest on the show and talk about everything omega-3s, but I don’t think you were recording episodes at that point.
Thanks for listening to that show. That’s been a valuable experience. I met so many great people. It’s been a fun show to do, and I hope to bring it back for another season.
That’s fantastic. If there’s a question that I haven’t asked that you wish I had, what might it be? If you have one, you could ask and answer it, or you could leave us with a closing thought.
I’d like to leave with a closing thought because I’m so grateful for how well you prepared for this and how much thought you’ve given to this. The idea is that we don’t have to be depressed about this and that we can be optimists. We can look at the future from going forward and going back to be good ancestors. That bidirectional futurism is if we all started doing that, we are going to make it. It’s going to be okay.Look at the future from going forward and going back to be good ancestors. If everyone starts doing that, humankind will make it. Click To Tweet
You’ve mentioned a few books. As a writer, I imagine you also read a lot. What I would like to ask you to do is a favor for me and for this entire community of readers or watchers, those on YouTube. I would love for you to create your preferred reading list so I could include it with a blog, so people can inform themselves a little bit better. I’m sure that we would include One Green Thing by Heather White as well as a few others. Give 3 to 5 books that you think are great for any would-be environmentalists or climate activists to fuel you and help you educate yourself further.
I’m happy to do it.
Thank you so much for joining me.
It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
To learn more about Lee and his work, visit FutureX.studio. This is linked from all podcast platforms and our YouTube page as well, so you can get straight there. One last thing, if you did enjoy this conversation, and I certainly hope you did if you got this far, please subscribe and write us a review on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you tune in.
Think of this like payment for the show. We do it for free, but it does help us reach more people and more people discover the show. Thank you, readers, now and always for being a part of this show and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more, we can be better, and we can even surrender our eco-anxiety and build back better. Thank you.
- Red Cup Agency
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- Scary Smart
- The Good Ancestor
- Chris O’Brien – Food Waste Recycling: Give Table Scraps A Second Life with Chris O’Brien, Founder of Hungry Giant Recycling
- Future of Food
- YouTube – Care More Be Better
- Spotify – Care More Be Better
- Apple Podcasts – Care More Be Better
Lee’s suggested reading list
- Surrender A novel by Lee Schneider
- One Green Thing: Discover Your Hidden Power to Help Save the Planet By Heather White
- Stop Saving the Planet!: An Environmentalist Manifesto By Jenny Price
- Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation By Paul Hawken
- Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming Edited by Paul Hawken
- The Climate Optimist Handbook: How to Shift the Narrative on Climate Change and Find the Courage to Choose Change By Anne Therese Gennari