In our conversation with rock climber Alex Honnold, he discusses how he prioritizes his passions, how the Honnold Foundation helps people meet their basic needs, and about how you can broaden your impact. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It mixes conversation between Honnold and Paddy Harrington with editorial interjections, marked by italics, from Harrington about the episode’s—and the podcast’s—broader themes.Episode Transcript
Alex Honnold: As a kid, I hated steamed spinach, and it was like, “This is so disgusting.” But now, as an adult, I love fresh spinach in salads, in my smoothies … there are a lot of great ways to eat spinach. Rather than force the disgusting one, why not embrace the delicious ones? I think that’s true for environmental ideas. The environmental movement has tried to force the disgusting versions a few times. Let’s frame it in the positive way—let’s eat the delicious ones.
Paddy Harrington: Often I’ve found that the moments in life we most remember are the ones filled with emotion. Something that hits us hard in the gut sticks with us. It changes how we think and even, sometimes, how we act. Alex Honnold is a climber. His meticulous approach to his craft is impressive in itself. Watching his thorough planning of the pathways he’ll take on ascents inspires awe; each and every move is so carefully laid out. Even hundreds of meters off the ground [those movements] are automatic. In the documentary Free Solo, which follows his ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, he describes that feeling. It’s amazing to think that he’s undertaken the climb so many times in his mind that it’s become simply a sequence of little steps rather than a death-defying feat that only one human being has been capable of in all of human history.
It’s not the rational, logical thought process that sticks with us as we watch him plan and complete his climb. Instead, it’s a feeling. We’re terrified as we look through the lens at Alex so high up. It’s a visceral sensation, and it sticks with us.
In many ways, First Things First is a show about feelings. It’s a show that suggests that if we want to change things for the better, we have to do more than think through the problem we’re dealing with, we have to find a solution that inspires us. This season, First Things First is taking a new angle. Interviews are still a focus, and we’ve got some great guests lined up. But each episode focuses on the idea that inspiration is the key to change. The environmental movement did a few things. In America, it sparked the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The results are profound. After decades of pollution through industrial dumping and waste, America’s air, lakes, and rivers recovered mightily.
But at the same time, the world has gotten dirtier during these same decades. Humankind’s voracious consumption has accelerated. There’s no question that great steps have been taken to address the issues, but there is so much more to be done. Millions of people are working to make change and move us toward a more sustainable future. But there are billions who don’t feel that same urgency. They may be preoccupied with basic concerns like food, shelter, and safety. But, on the other hand, almost half of Americans agree that humans have something to do with climate change, but almost two in ten believe human activity plays little to no role at all.
We’re not moving fast enough to deal with the challenges at hand, but we can’t force people to change their minds. It’s time for a new approach. We talk about ecological approaches to climate change, but we need to rely on more than just logic. Emotions drive change, so we need a new word. Maybe it’s time to take an eco-emotional approach to the challenge. We need to inspire people to change through emotion, not just logic.
When Tesla set out to tackle sustainable mobility, they did so by making an electric car that didn’t look or work like anything before it. They made it the most exciting driving experience imaginable. They led with emotion and inspiration. We need people to inspire us to change in ways like this. This podcast is about those people. The ones who take on difficult issues and inspire others to see things in a new way.
Today we’re starting with an unexpected perspective, [that of] Alex Honnold. Alex began his career by choosing to climb rock faces the vast majority of us would never dream of attempting. But as his career progressed, his passion has grown to include the greater context of his craft. The Honnold Foundation is dedicated to promoting solar energy for a more equitable world. It brings resources to global projects that champion solar power as an alternative energy source. It’s clear through this conversation that Alex sees the big picture. It’s fascinating to see someone whose mastery of a specific craft allows them to better understand how it can address broader issues: in this case, sustainable energy. There’s a meticulousness in the foundation’s philosophy and activities that reflects his approach to climbing. And it’s this dedication and passion that’s so inspiring.
But climbing is where it started, so let’s start there.
Honnold: For me, it’s been pretty easy to make climbing [my] first [priority] because I have so few other responsibilities. Basically I had an easy enough upbringing, I have no family that I have to support, I don’t have to caretake; basically, no one depends upon me. So I’ve been able to pursue my passion, which is climbing. I know not that many people are lucky enough to be in that position. It’s easy to be totally carefree when you actually have no responsibilities. Then, on the other hand, it’s also a kind of life-design issue. I haven’t been paying anything off my whole life, I have no debt. I have no obligation to work. My life could have been designed in a different way. I could have finished a degree at university, had a ton of student loans, felt obligated to pay them off, taken a random job, and pushed the climbing to the side because I was trying to jump through society’s hoops. On the one hand, I designed my life this way. On the other hand, I’m just incredibly fortunate that I had the opportunity to do that.
Harrington: When Alex talked about the sacrifices he made to climb, it struck a chord with me. A big part of what we’re told about sustainability is that it involves sacrifice: we have to accept less in order to do more. But is that necessarily the case? Or, more specifically, is this the right framing of the question? What if it’s not so much about accepting less as it is about doing what we need to do in order to have, in a larger sense, more? The conventional wisdom is that we need to have more in order to live better. But why do we think that way? By what logic did we determine that a better life is one that gives us more square footage to live in and more stuff?
Alex chose a different life early on. He saw his decisions not as choices to settle for less, but as opportunities to focus on what mattered most to him. It’s not all sacrifice. And, eventually, he did buy a house. But those early days show us a different take on what it means to do more with less.
Honnold: Just to be clear, I am living in a house in Las Vegas now. I’ve been mostly based out of this house for the past couple of years. But I lived out of my ProMaster and I lived out of a smaller van for over a decade. I never saw it as a sacrifice. I saw it as an intentional choice that enabled me to do the things I wanted to do: climb full-time and travel between climbing areas. So even though I love houses—I like having wi-fi, or a shower, you know, the comforts of a home—I preferred having the ability to travel nonstop and to climb nonstop. The low overhead helped; it’s not like I was making a lot of money. Living out of the car was the perfect way to do exactly what I wanted to do every single day. I never saw it as a sacrifice.
I think one of the biggest benefits of living in a van is the way it focuses your life on exactly what you’re trying to do. I notice that because now, living in a house, it’s easy for me to wake up, putter around, clean things up, take your dishes out and put them away … your day can kind of disappear into mundane household things. But when you’re living in a car, you wake up in the location you planned to be in and then you immediately do the thing that you’re there to do. There’s very little maintenance. There is way less puttering around. And you’re in such a small space that it forces you to get out and do things. You wind up adventuring in nature more, and doing the other things you intended to do.
Harrington: As we go through life, our priorities change. We can’t be single-minded forever. Once we become entangled in the relationships that define our lives, we adjust to the needs of those around us. That recognition forces us to think bigger. It challenges the core of what we believe.
For Honnold, this moment began to unfold as he became a world-famous climber. That ascent, if you will, led to a shift in focus. It’s a question of balancing what you love for yourself and doing more for the world around you.
Honnold: I think that’s a common path for people. When you’re young and hungry, you’re just kind of charging ahead, doing your thing. Then, once you achieve a certain degree of success, it’s easier to look around and realize, “I probably should be doing something that’s a little more helpful.” It’s not really appropriate to charge ahead blindly forever.
When I started the foundation, I was basically searching the internet—and searching the world—for environmental projects that also improved the standard of living, that helped human populations in some ways. Basically, I cared about the environment, but also, having gone on certain expeditions, I realized that, in some communities in the world, people will cut down the last tree on earth if it means boiling water for their families. And that’s totally appropriate; it makes sense that people will always meet their basic needs first. So I felt like any kind of environmental protection also had to help people meet their basic needs. There are so many people living with hardship in the world. They’re never going to care about the environment until living is easier for them.
I kept looking for projects that fit those two criteria, and they wound up almost always being solar projects, energy-access projects. After several years of gravitating toward these solar projects, we just explicitly made it our mission.
Harrington: There is always the conversation about the global versus the local, and you definitely have a global focus. What is the relationship between those two things for you?
Honnold: I wouldn’t say we have a global focus … or, rather, I guess we’re open to anything. Over the years, our work was half domestic and half [undertaken] abroad. I like doing domestic projects, working in my local communities, and doing things close to home. It’s nice to physically go to a project and see how it’s implemented and meet the people that it affects. It’s nice to know you’ve helped your local community. But, at the same time, money goes much further abroad. You can have a much greater impact, especially in terms of human lives affected, abroad. I felt like that was important. I personally see human lives as all the same. We’re all human, we all have the same desires and essential potential. So I felt like, in doing projects abroad, I would be able to help many more people. That was important to me as well.
A foundation like mine is perhaps most useful as inspiration; it shows people that it’s possible to have a personal impact and encourages them to try and do that in their own ways.
Harrington: Now you’re actively working with organizations around the world on, as you said, whatever [opportunities] make sense. Some of the language you use describes them as “bold and ethical organizations that are driving innovation in the solar industry.” I know it’s like picking a favorite child, but can you tell us about a couple of those? Are there a few that stand out for you right now, in this moment, as projects that are working?
Honnold: My favorite child, so to speak, is a domestic organization called Grid Alternatives. I’ve been supporting them since the very beginning, and now we’ve committed multi-year grants to both Grid Alternatives and Grid Tribal, which works with tribal nations within the US. Grids has a win/win/win model wherein they’re putting solar in low-income communities, which is good for the environment, good for the community, and good for the homeowners. It’s mostly home PV systems—putting photovoltaic panels on someone’s home and tying them into the grid—which is pretty straightforward. But then they also have a job-training component; one of our annual grants was used to support an Americorps project they had that taught kids who needed job training to install solar panels on the homes of people who need help paying utility bills. In a project like that, the people who need jobs are doing the right kind of work to make the world a better place.
I’ve done a handful of grid installs. I was doing them in North Valley, which is my local community around Sacramento, California. I think that the homeowner I was helping was a widowed former priest—someone who was living on a fixed income and for whom it really mattered to no longer have a utility bill. He’s not making a lot of money and it helps to not pay a power bill. I did the project and thought, “This has a big impact on his life, it’s slowly greening the grid … everything about it is pretty sweet.”
Harrington: I think what gets me so excited about what you’re doing is that you did something that most people don’t understand—your sport—and yet they’ve been inspired by you, you’ve moved them. Then you’ve parlayed that into a platform that draws attention to an issue and a way to connect that inspiration or energy into projects that are actually making a tangible positive change. For you, what’s the role of inspiration in trying to deal with environmental and social justice issues?
Honnold: I think it’s important, for sure. Part of the reason my foundation is public is because I recognize that it is helpful to have some inspiration. I considered doing all my donating privately, keeping it under wraps. In a lot of ways, that’s simpler. I wouldn’t have to run a foundation and, in theory, could still be doing the same amount of good work with my money. But I realized I have this opportunity to do it publicly, make it a bigger thing, and hopefully draw in more money and create a bigger impact. I felt obligated to do that. If I had the potential to do more, to have a bigger positive effect, by being public, then that was the obvious choice for me.
In some ways, a foundation like mine is probably most useful because it’s inspirational, because it shows people that it’s possible to have a personal impact and that they could be trying to do that in their own ways. I don’t want to overstate the importance of a thing like that, but realistically I believe that one of [the foundation’s] impacts is to show people, “You can do something like this as well.” And, frankly, you should be doing something like this, within your own capacities.
Harrington: Jumping back to the person you were helping in Sacramento, is that what you mean when you talk about solar energy creating equity?
Honnold: Yes, for sure. That’s a perfect example of energy access being an equity issue. Normally, in the US, when you think about solar you think of rich people; most people think of solar as relatively expensive, even as the price has been dropping exponentially. [And you might think] that is fundamentally unfair: the people who need the economic benefit the least are the ones who are receiving it. Like so many things in life, if you have access to capital you can invest in your home with something like solar, which has a great return over the years. You wind up saving a lot of money, even though you didn’t need to at the outset. That’s always the thing in life: if you already have money, it’s easy to keep making more. But if you don’t have money, it’s pretty hard.
The real role of individual action isn’t so much that you can save the world, but rather that through individual action you can empower yourself to take on bigger issues. It’s like training for sport.
Harrington: How do you connect the need, at an individual level .… Obviously, a not-for-profit can come in and look for opportunities where individuals of need could be provided with solutions that work toward some level of equity. On the other hand, when we’re talking about systemic change, there are government players, corporate players. How do you feel those pieces have to move or work together if we’re going to scale these solutions to reach more people and, ideally, create more equity?
Honnold: If I knew that, I’d be running for president or something.
Harrington: I’m sitting here in Canada, where you turn on the TV and see America. Everything comes from America. From here it’s, frankly, a mindf**k to see a lot of what’s happening there, in terms of politics and the connection between “corporate greed” and government corruption. It feels like we’re depending on systemic change when [the system is] a dumpster fire. It feels like we can’t leave it to the “adults,” to the parents, anymore. Back to your point about starting at an individual, grassroots level … it seems like you’re managing to tap into and pull together things in some ways that make actual, on-the-ground change.
Honnold: I think that’s true, and I think [on-the-ground change] is inspiring. When I hear about an individual having an impact, [I get inspired]. But the reality is that if I summed up the total of all the work I’ve done through the foundation, all the money I’ve donated, it’s still trivial in the face of climate change and related issues facing humanity. That’s a little depressing, I guess, but it brings us back again to [the idea of] systemic change. I’ve got a whole list of things that I feel an individual can do to try to minimize their environmental impact, to minimize their harm to the world.
But when we’re talking about design, about systems design, I think the burden really shouldn’t be on the individual. That’s exactly what you mean about how it’s so hard for the individual to do the right thing. I think the emphasis on individual actions has been largely put upon us by people who don’t want systemic change. A company like ExxonMobil might say, “If you turn your air conditioner down a little bit, then you can save the world.” That’s because they want to stay in business doing exactly what they do for as long as possible. I’m not saying individuals shouldn’t do what they can, shouldn’t try to have an impact on the world. But I do think solutions have to be way bigger than that.
I’m starting to think that the real role of individual action isn’t so much that you can save the world, but rather that through individual action you can empower yourself to take on the bigger issues. I think of it like training for sport, since I’ve been an athlete for my whole life. You start with the small steps, train, and build yourself up. By taking these individual actions [on behalf of the environment], you’re empowering yourself.
Harrington: That idea, of the balance between a need for systemic and individual change, was, when I came to it in my own life, an important insight. I’d been thinking of change as an individual, that if we could inspire individuals to change, then big shifts would follow. But Alex is right. We need both systemic change and individual change. We can’t expect everyone to take individual action on climate change if their basic needs aren’t being met. Those with greater access to resources must lead. It’s our job to take responsibility for our actions. But the hope in what he said, for me, is inspiring: that small steps can add up, so long as we have a vision of our overall goal. When it comes down to it, climbing an impossible mountain is really nothing more than a bunch of small finger holes. So that’s where to start.
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