Learning Series | Building a Resilient and Sustainable World with Asher Miller

February 9, 2022

Summary

Asher Miller from Post Carbon Institute discusses how companies and individuals can make changes in order to build a more resilient and sustainable world. Companies can increase engagement and volunteering by promoting sustainable causes.

Interview Transcript

WeHero: All right. Well, Asher nice to have you on today and niceto nice to see you again. So for those who don't know, maybe it would behelpful to start off with a little bit of your background where you are now,and I guess how you got into this environmental space. Sure.
Asher Miller: Yeah. So I am the executive director of a, of a smallnonprofit think tank called the post carbon Institute. I'm a actually based inCorvallis, Oregon, which I know is not too far from your guys' headquarters inbend. And I got into this work. I got into climate work, although I, you know,maybe we'll talk later about what post carbon Institute does. It's a littlebroader than climate, but I got actually first involved in climate work back in2006. Right after my first son was born and I had been running a volunteerprogram, a leadership program for teens, and I took them to see in a convenienttruth. And I knew about climate. My wife was actually a pretty devoutenvironmentalist herself. It was really working a lot of like food issues. Butthat was a big wake up call for me.
Asher Miller: And I think that those two things coinciding having ayoung son and, and really learning about climate and the severity of it got meinvolved in, in climate work. And, and initially I would say I was the way Idescribe it. Sometimes I was swimming in the shallow end of the pool in thesense that I was very focused, like a lot of people, I think at that time timeon lifestyle behavior changes that were pretty in some ways, superficial, youknow, changing light bulbs, bringing canvas back to the grocery store, allthose things, which I think were, you know, important. And but gettinginvolved, you know, being able to study the climate crisis more deeply thinkingmore deeply about kind of climate being a symptom of other issues led me to doled me to post COVID as to in doing the work that I do now.
WeHero: Yeah. Well, it's funny you, you mentioned that cuz I feellike myself and probably a lot of people listening are hanging out in that shallowend, probably transferring towards the deep end as they learn more over time.And so I think it's gonna be interesting and I equally was inspired by, Iwatched a movie that convinced me to stop eating beef and, and you know, redmeat in that, in that capacity. So the power of media is absolutely
Asher Miller: Is, is out there. Storytelling is really important. Yeah,
WeHero: For sure. Yeah. Well maybe talk a little bit about postcarbon and your initiatives and kind of the ultimate goal of the organizationtoo. Yeah.
Asher Miller: So as our name, I think expresses were primarily known forour work looking at, at energy and the role of energy in society. You know, thetransition of our energy system, you know, from one that's largely powered byfossil fuels to one that's powered by renewable energy. And we do see energyas, as kind of the core of society and, and it has been actually the driver ofall societies. It's the, it's the driver of life, right? Without energy,nothing happens. So a lot of our work has been around helping peopleunderstand. We, we all sort of, we live those of us probably listening to thisand you and I live in a world with, with a lot of advanced technology andsystems that that operate really well. So we flick on a light. We go to the gasstation, get in our car, we go to the grocery store or although we are startingto see, I think we're, the veil is being lifted a little bit with COVID andsome supply chain issues that we're we're experiencing right now, but we takethis stuff for granted.
Asher Miller: So part of our work is just to try to help people understand why our world functions, the way it does, how we got here. The rolethat energy has played in that, but, but more deeply E and this is where ourname probably doesn't express what we, what we do sufficiently. It's reallylooking at the larger system dynamic. So we look at the intersection of energyand the economy the connections between those two things and environmentalissues, not just climate, but, but other environmental issues and then issuesaround social equity as well. So we, we, we call them the four E sometimes andwe don't think of them necessarily as like E plus E plus E plus E but more, adynamic of multiplying, you know, they they're multiplying and interacting withone another. So a lot of our work as a think tank is to help educate people,help communicate, not only that big narrative, you know, why we are where weare right right now and where we need to go, but trying to make sense of thingsas they're unfolding.
Asher Miller: And, and I would say we are in a different place rightnow. You talked about maybe a lot of people still being in the shallow underthe pool. I think, I think collectively we're actually getting into deeper anddeeper waters because I think the reality has become more and more evident tous, you know, climate in 2006, I think for a lot of people was still somethingwe thought about for kids or grandkids. Now we think about it for ourselves,you know, and we're starting to realize issues of like, you know, the, the flowof energy in, in an economy and globalized supply chains. And what happens ifyou have a, a, a breakdown in one area maybe because pandemic or something elseand the kind of the knock on effects of that. So we try to also help peoplesort of make sense of what's happening right now. Cause it's so dynamic.
WeHero: Yeah. Yeah. It is so dynamic and I guess the interconnectand the, the four ease multiplying instead of being unique, I guess that's whatwe're starting to see is the interconnect in nature. But I also think that's agood representation of how hard it is to shift away from absolutely the currentworld, because yeah, you can't just shift the energy source. You also have toshift the economy and the implications.
Asher Miller: And one of the challenges I would just say briefly on thisis that we we've done a great job of, of specializing our educational system isbuilt around now, got companies that, that, you know, they have their, theirniche, you know, in, in the market. We reward people for, for specializing inthings we've benefited from people specializing look at what's happened with,with vaccine roll app, for example, I mean, we have we've got, we've benefitedso much from deep expertise in certain areas, but because we don't necessarilythink systemically and holistically, we don't teach people that way. Wesometimes will try to create a solution of problem over here without realizingthat it's actually exacerbating things over there, you know? Yeah. And, andthat's, again, part of our job is hopefully to move people a little bit, tothink more systemically about these challenges.
WeHero: Yeah. The the solution is often completely separate fromthe problem I've found in most things in life. So makes sense, you know, as youlook at everything that's happening with those four E and as it relates tocompanies, those are largely the people listening to this. Yeah. You know,where do you see some really bright spots and where do you see some industriesor companies doing great things? And I guess where do you see as yeah. The,the, the areas that keep you up at night cause they're not changing and notimproving.
Asher Miller: That's a great question and a tough question. I I'm, I'mreally pleased to see, you know a shift that I think we see happening wherecorporations businesses are, are shifting a little bit about their, their owngoals and expectations for themselves. I mean, the B Corp movement is a goodexample of that. The, the effort for a lot of businesses to think about, youknow the triple bottom line, or you can come up with different, you know, waysof, of categorizing or framing it. But, but thinking more than just near termprofits even though obviously that's a key driver, it remains a key driver in a,in a major pressure point. I think that companies are seeing that theiremployees are demanding that and are motivated by more than just that, thatsimple bottom line. And so as a whole, I see that as a, a bright spot.
Asher Miller: I think that there are companies, and again, I don't spendmy time in the world of business so much, but there are companies that I lookat that I think help push. So a company like Patagonia, which I think a lot ofpeople do talk about as a, as a model, the fact that they are thinking abouttheir supply chain a lot, and the fact that they've gone even further to thinkabout like buy less of our stuff. You know what I mean, trying to actuallythink about, you know, shifting what the business model is a little bit, youknow is a great sign and then thinking about companies like, and again, I don'tknow how viable they are, but looking at a company like, like fair phone, youknow, which is trying to break down little bit and thinking about their productwithin a larger system where, you know, how are we sourcing all the materials?
Asher Miller: How are we building this in a way that it could be, youknow, it's not an, a planned obsolescence thing. It's not a situation where youknow, one little part breaks down in this incredibly complex product and thewhole thing has to be thrown away. Those things to me are, are great. I, Ithink indicators beacons maybe for, for where corporations can go, the thingsthat keep me up are a lot. I think, I think it comes back to the system, right?What are the, the systemic pressures on companies? And I think the, the primaryone, and it's not just for companies, but it's for the economy as a whole, isthis, this requirement to grow. And when we have a consumer based economy,which we do and we have an economy that has not shown yet, and I have a lot ofskepticism about its ability to do this in a deep way, an ability to decoupleenergy consumption and material consumption from, you know, this output andfrom profit if, if that's limited, right, and, and companies are required togrow shareholder expectation and thinking about quarterly returns.
Asher Miller: So it's like the short term focus, the demand for growth.And I would say the, the expectation that I, you know, that CEOs and executivesand, and directors feel to meet those expectations is the primary that thethat's their fiduciary, that's their responsibility. I think, sets us in adirection where if we compromise anything, it's always compromising the, theother stuff. Yeah. You know what I mean? Cause we have to prioritize this anduntil we fix that problem and not just with com companies, but with economy asa whole, which again, need needs to grow, you know, right now, you know,structurally in order to function it's a, it's the reason why we're facing theclimate crisis and these other, other issues that we're facing.
WeHero: Yeah. It's interesting. Cause the first, you know, the,the Patagonia example, stop buying our stuff. Yeah. It's such a unique one.And, and I think we see this with companies like their employees are asking forthis to happen at companies. Yeah. But I wouldn't say the leaders are, they'restill in the older generation, if you will. And so it'll be really interestingto see once these, you know, more sustainability and demanding folks becomeleaders of these companies, do they actually put any of this into action? And,and I think that's hopefully they do, but ultimately you need to stop the theIV drip of it. Yeah.
Asher Miller: Well, and it's, it comes from the bottom and the top. Imean, if there's demand on the part of, of customers, then there's demand onthe part of, of a workforce, but there's also the right kinds of policies andconditions set, you know to make a playing field a certain way. This is why Ithink a lot of companies are supportive of putting a price on carbon. Do youknow what I mean? Because they need it to be some somehow an even playingfield. Right. Yeah. And of course there are ones who see themselves aspioneering and they're trying to get into a space early and there's benefits ofdoing that, but to move collectively, I think that we need those things to comefrom both directions. The question is, can we do that fast enough? Really?
WeHero: Yeah. Yeah. It's quantifying the cost. And so then onceyou quantify that they can model it in and
Asher Miller: Right. We've externalized the cost, frankly, let's be on,I mean, they're not part of the cost of, of doing business and they need to beon some level. Yeah,
WeHero: Yeah. It is still hard though, because you know, the, themain challenge you're identifying is the consumer demand has shifted, you know,largely for, you know, premier price things to a more environmental option ingeneral. Yeah. But the main issue is there's still the demand there. Yeah. Andso yeah, it's a, it's a challenging challenging area and it is. Yeah. Yeah.Well, as someone who has been trying to become a B Corp for the last 18 months,I know they have an incredible amount of demand. And so it's great to see thatthat going and we've been fully approved waiting for of the final approval, Ithink for the last six months just cause they're so short staffed.
Asher Miller: Interesting. Yeah. That's I guess a, not a good problemfor you, but a good problem as a whole probably.
WeHero: Yeah, no, great problem. Great problem. And, and happy towait. You know, I guess, you know, knowing your role and to educate people andreally convince them of the importance of this, you know, I often come acrosspeople who, who I don't wanna say are not believers, but yeah. Don't fullyunderstand this, you know, how, how would you think about over a lunchconversation, educating them and, you know, trying to change them even in asmall way to, to make lifestyle changes or to understand the, the issue andwhat they can do about it on a larger scale.
Asher Miller: Yeah. It's such a tough one because I don't know thatthere's like a, a, a, a single, simple sort of way of doing it because I thinkpeople's priorities and the worldviews are so different. I think what is commonis finding the things that people care about and, and taking the time toactually you listen, you know, so, and, and I'm guilty of this. I think a lotof my, my peers and colleagues in the, in the environmental sustainabilityspace, we, we sometimes fall into this trap of, of thinking, well, we have thisinformation that everybody needs to have, and we're right about it. And peopleneed to feel as urgently about it as we do. And we don't take the time to, toput that into context that is relevant for those people. And, and I'll justshare a, a little story.
Asher Miller: That's not my story, but I think is indicative of this.And that is there, there's a story that I heard of one of the organizorganizers of love canal, which is people can look it up. It was one of thefirst sort, sort of really grassroots, environmental efforts organized by mom,sort of concerned about what they're seeing in terms of the impacts ofpollution on their families, on their kids. And she was invited to come talk atan event that this group had been organizing, I think in a, in a borough in NewYork who were opposed to some new plant coming in, and they were worried aboutthe toxics and the, the, the localized pollution of that. And nobody showed upto this event and they were embarrassed and she asked them, they were at a barand she asked them, well, how did you know, what did you do to get the wordout?
Asher Miller: And they kind of explained all the things, and she's like,you didn't figure out what actually matters to people in this neighborhood. Andshe went up to this guy at the bar was watching football game. And she sort ofwas like asking if he knew about it. And he was like, I don't care about thatstuff. And she's like, what do you care about? And he is like, I care abouttraffic. I'm a truck driver. And, you know, on this road, there's like a leftturn light. And you know, there's a left turn. There's no light there and thecars are backed up and I'm stuck. And she's like, well, what do you think thattraffic is gonna be like, once this plane goes in and just that questioncompletely, you know, tipped him. He's like, oh, this impacts me. So it'sreally about finding the things that people care about, things that areimportant to them and making that connection, you know, and sometimes that'splace. Have you seen the climate changes in your own community? What are youobserving? Cause people, if they stop and think about it so that would probablybe my, my sort of main recommendation yeah.
WeHero: Related to them. I mean, yeah, we live in a huge world andwhat we're facing Oregon is very different than what people are facing inFlorida and understanding, you know,
Asher Miller: And back to the systems thing you it's, when you start lookingat the connections is not hard to make a connection to the thing that you careabout with the thing that they care about. Cause they're all connected.
WeHero: Yeah. Very connected. Are there any, when you were sayingthat made me think, I mean, we're, we're talking a lot us focused. Yeah.Obviously some countries are far more advanced in their pricing of carbon, youknow, when you think about Europe. Yeah. You, you know, how far ahead are thosecountries and are you starting to see the changes in those countries that wehope to see, you know, in our own country,
Asher Miller: You know, it's funny, cuz I would say they're ahead, but they're ahead in a particular direction and there's another direction that other countries are much further ahead on. Okay. So yes, they're ahead. I wouldwould say when you think about like, I remember, you know I was born in theNetherlands and spent a lot of time there and lived there for a little whileafter college and you know, they were, you know, you get tax based on the, sortof the weight of your car, like that that's a radical here in the UnitedStates. Can you imagine, you know, trying to do something like that. And thatwas the even sort of like pre climate. It was just for them, it's like, you're,you're doing more wear and tear on the roads and this is like a, this issomething that we collectively, you know, own and, and need to care for.
Asher Miller: So pay your fair share. I would say they're in Europe,Western Europe, they're, they're definitely head on those kinds of things.They're certainly head on infrastructure. A lot of that is frankly, their communities were built before fossil fuels. It's a lot easier to do that. Doyou know what I mean than it is to try to do that in like the Western part of theUnited States, you know or the Midwest. So it, it kind of makes sense at somelevel we also have a very individualistic society in the us. Yep. And and sojust culturally there's, there's some differences. How do you bring thosethings over? I, I think it's partly the more and more evident it is that thingshave to change and the more and more viable alternatives are. I think that sortof combination will, will lead to some of those changes.
Asher Miller: It's tough because when you say, Hey, let's do what theFrench do. You know, people don't necessarily want to hear that. Maybe, maybethey'll hear, Hey, let's do what the Californians do, cuz California's beengreat about a lot of things, not all things. But the more, more models we haveand we actually have models from, you know, the Heartland of the United Statesand other, the communities that have done some really interesting things topoint pointing to those. What I was saying about other countries, doing thingsthat are in a different direction. There are, there are communities that aremuch more connected and recognize the value of ecosystems and nature. And Ithink that's a big shift that we actually need to make, which is we still, andthis is even true in the climate conversation, see ourselves as trying tocontrol nature.
Asher Miller: We're even having a conversation about how to put a priceon nature, the ecosystem services that nature provides and all this stuff. Andit's like all about sort of like how do we control it? You know, and, and indigenous,you know, communities for, for thousands and thousands of years have controllednature on some level, but they also saw themselves as part of an ecosystem, amutually dependent ecosystem. Yeah. And I think if we see that and we recognizethat more so learning from, you know, communities in, you know, in Africa andsouth Erica, the global south, you know, primarily, but even, you know, someindigenous, you know, communities here in the United States or in northAmerica, just that, that different relationship to nature, I think is animportant thing for us to try to internalize it's hard when you live in anurban environment, you know? And not, there are a lot of kids who grow up,never looking at the stars, you know? Yeah. So we have to figure that out, youknow? But I think that's an important piece that we can't forget
WeHero: This. Yeah. It's interesting. You brought that up cuzsomething I always think is we just need to keep going back to what, what usedto be done in a lot of ways. You know, the Europe example of how theystructured cities and then you go even further back to the traditional life,you know, know if you think about in the global south they didn't have anyother options. They had to live in a sustainable way with nature. Yeah.
Asher Miller: Well for 99% of our history as a species, that's what wedid. We actually lived on a solar income. We lived on renewable energy, youknow? Yeah. And we, we had to live with those flows.
WeHero: Yeah. That's yeah. It's it's I had never thought aboutgoing that direction. Cause you always think how it's model ourselves aftercountries that may be 10 years ahead of us in this path, but is that the rightpath to go down?
Asher Miller: Yeah. I mean, God, that's a whole area for debate. I don'tthink people want to go back to you know, this idea of a hard Scrabble life,you know, living on the, the frontier or something. It would be nice if therewas a balance of being able to take advantage of modern comforts andtechnologies. Yeah. But also, so living much more within the means of whatnature provides us on a kind of an annual basis or seasonal basis.
WeHero: Yeah. That makes sense. So if you were to give advice toindividuals who are listening this and wanna make changes in their own life tohelp further kind of all the work that you're doing, getting us closer to, youknow, this more interconnected in a positive way world. Yeah. You know, partfrom, it sounds like the first piece of advice would be stop buying stuff. Whatelse would you be kind of the, the tidbits to, to take away if they want tocontinue to make lifestyle changes?
Asher Miller: I, I would say, you know, two broad buckets here puttingaside, you know, call it just consumers and being thoughtful about what you're,who you're consuming. The first is actually dig into this, try to, andobviously this is my bias because it's part of what we do, right. Is to try tohelp people think more deeply about stuff, but there's something reallyimportant that comes from a mind shift change, you know, and I think we are. Soespecially in this culture now we're so living in the moment, you know, almostnanosecond and nanosecond, but stepping back and thinking from a much biggerpicture about, you know, what society is, what community is, what our role is aspeople in, in the world, what do we want, how do we want to contribute? How dowe fit into that? And, and stepping back and trying to see that big picture andunderstand the big picture, I think is a really important first step, becausethen that helps you understand sort of where, you know, if the whole system ina sense has to change, which in my view, it does, we can, can't all do that.
Asher Miller: We can't all make those changes completely change ourlives a hundred percent. And even if we did do that, the rest of the world'snot falling, right. So it's looking at that and saying, collectively, we needto, we need to go on this course. Where do I move myself? And that's aboutlooking at, so for example, food, I think a lot of people are motivated by thinkingdifferently about their relationship with food. And that's a great place to gothere. There could be other things. But having that context and then findingout the thing that feels most doable for you in your circumstances, or thatyou're most passionate about is really important. And the other piece is whatyou actually touched on a little bit. And that was going back a little bit tomaybe it's not the way that we used to live, but how we used to relate, right.
Asher Miller: And we've created an economy that is so transactional, youknow? And I actually think that we are like it or not. We are going to be facedwith increasing challenges. And we talk about the four E and there arechallenges in all of those four is we've been, I know nobody wants to hear thisbecause we've been going through this slog through this pandemic that feelsendless, and everyone just wants to get back to sort of normal with that. Butwhen you look at what's actually happening in all of these systems, there is nogoing back to normal per se. You know, and I think I, we need to, we need tointernalize that and reckon with that. And we also need to learn how to worktogether with people to, to problem solve those things. Sometimes we talk aboutit as, as coming up with responses to a predicament versus coming up withsolutions to a problem, a problem is something finite and Def definite, and youcan solve it and then go back, you know, is something you're gonna have toreckon with. Right. and so, and that is gonna have to be done collectively. Sogetting into relationship is really key. And I would say, start with yourcommunity now. Not everyone is in a situation where they really ground incommunity, but find community I think is really important. And I think that'sgonna be very, very important in how we get through kind of the challenges thatwe face in, in the future.
WeHero: Yes. It seems like largely educate yourself and understandwhat, you know, once you know, the entire picture, you can understand what'smost relevant to you and then embedding yourself in a community and, and
Asher Miller: Investing in that I can be volunteering in somethingthat's unrelated to climate, but it's, yeah. It's creating those connectionsin, in that feeling of, of mutual aid and reciprocity and all that I think isreally gonna be key for us.
WeHero: Yeah. Yeah. Creates you know, what we like to say is wetry to create a promoter out of everybody. So if we volunteer with someone, canwe create a promoter out of that person so they can go and spread the word.Yeah. Cause ultimately that's, what's gonna shift and these people are fightingfor change at their own companies as well, so, yep. All right. Final question.And this could be the hardest for you. Yeah. Excluding the climate space, yourfavorite nonprofit and why.
Asher Miller: Yeah. God, it's, it's hard to it's hard to come up withwith just one. Maybe I'll, I'll give a very local example. It's my favoritelocal thing. And it gets to what we were just talking about, which is youalmost, you know, it's not even a nonprofit necessarily. It's something that'sbeing fiscally sponsored by another nonprofit in, in my community here. But itwas a, a very good grassroots effort called it's on us Corvallis. I live in the10 called Corvallis and when the pandemic hit initially, and we were all, mostof us in lockdown except for, you know, essential workers restaurants in ourcommunity were really hard hit. There were also people who, you know, were notincome, was not coming in for them. And they were having a hard time trying tofigure out how to make ends, meet how to even feed themselves.
Asher Miller: So this group of people you know, started this projectcalled it's Corvallis and they, they crowdfunded a, you know, money from the communityof people who had the privilege and, you know, the, the the ability to, to giveresources, they used that money and they paid restaurants to keep them viable,to make really good quality meals. This is not a, a food bank thing and nothingagainst food banks, but it's not canned corn or something, really high qualitymeals for people in the community who couldn't afford to pay. And they wouldopen up, you know, these, these restaurants. And I remember one, one day I wentdowntown, there was a line around the block and it was just people going in andpicking up something, no questions asked at all. And people go get a meal, youknow? And and they actually did a survey afterwards to, to ask people andremarkably 60% of the people who contributed money to it's on us also got ameal.
Asher Miller: And what is so wonderful to me about that. And, and alsothen we had fires cl talking about climate. We had fires and, you know, overthe summer and people that were in Eastern part of the state had to be relocated.And they were at the fairgrounds here in, in, in our area. And they it's on uscoordinated to get meals to those folks as well. It's this idea of mutual aidof collectively coming together. Try to try to take care of one another again,no questions asked. Yeah. And when we do that, we see that people are, want togive as much as they take, you know, so sometimes we worry about everyonetrying to take advantage or whatever. I don't think that that's true when we'rein a relationship with one another. So I just, it was very inspirational to me.I and there's lots of examples like that and lots in lots of communities, butthat, that's my local one.
WeHero: I love that. I, I, cuz it's, you're so invested in yourown community, from what I know about cor VALIS, it's a very tight-knitcommunity and you're so invested you you're willing to invest in it as well astake, you know yeah. What is a, what is a fair share and just support thelively out of everyone there, the, the owners, the employees and, and the peoplethat live there. Yep. We need more of that. That community is what I thinkyou're, you're, you're describing. I think
Asher Miller: We're gonna, yes, we are gonna need it and we're gonna getit. Yeah.
WeHero: Well, I really appreciate all the time. Where can peoplefind you we'll link everything in the description, but is there anywhere youwanna lead them to?
Asher Miller: Yeah. I mean, our organizational website is postcarbon.org, but our flagship website is actually called resilience.org. Andthere we publish you know, articles sort of looking at the, these Foree issues.If anyone wants to sort of get that deep dive education, we actually created acourse, an online course. It's about four hours of videos broken up into 22chapters and that's called think resilience. And you could findthat@resilience.org, you can just Google, you know, think resilience and you'llfind it. And we are making it free that course for anybody who wants to takeit. It's our best way, way trying to distill as much as these issues aspossible down into, into not a sound bite, but into a condensed form. So
WeHero: Yeah. Well, that's awesome. Appreciate the time and thankyou again.
Asher Miller: Yeah. Thanks for your work. Take care.

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