Learning About the Environment and People

  May 15, 2008


As I prepare for my third trip to Mexico to interview leaders this year, I wanted to highlight another interview from one of my favorite men. I met Victor Lichtinger in 2004, as you will hear. One of his contributions to making this a slightly better world flows from his interest in the environment and economics.  He had the job as the minister of the environment for President Fox. Among other things he has found his special way of enabling governments to cooperate a bit here and there, preventing some of the escalating harm to the habitat and the future generations of humans.  Of course there is always more to be done.


Since the seventies I have been following these kinds of issues due to my interest in how the increasing population introduces strain and stress on both human behavior and the eco system. I still believe we can learn from the past about overcoming our emotional blindness to change.  


For the big picture I have gotten the most out of reading Jared Diamond view points.  His book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed notes that not every collapse has an environmental origin, but it is often the main catalyst, of course collapse is combined with society’s response to the threat of a coming disaster. 


Another of Dimond’s books, The Third Chimpanzee is, in many ways, a prequel to his prize wining book Guns, Germs, and Steel. While Guns examines “the fates of human societies,” this work considers the entire course of human evolution. 


In Diamond’s view, the current global ecological crisis isn’t due to modern technology per se, but to basic weaknesses in human nature. But, he says, “I’m cautiously optimistic. If we will learn from our past that I have traced, our own future may yet prove brighter than that of the other two chimpanzees.”


I hope you will enjoy this interview demonstrating what one person has done to make a difference and just how his family adds to his ability to operate on principle and to see the big picture. 






AMS- I met you in 2004 and you made an impression on me as a very open man who was a long-term thinker. I also found you were a youngest in your family of origin which is an interesting position for a leader. The youngest has a different view of the family. They often take a non-traditional approach.  Sometimes the youngest is the prince, sometimes they bring joy to the family and sometimes they do not think that the family is all that important.  


I wanted to interview you when we met but it’s taken this long for it to happen.  I have had good contact over these years with your wife, Mely. I am grateful to her for organizing the time for the interview.  Mely has been very helpful to Maria Bustos, who brought me to Mexico, and her work with the Endometriosis Society.


I am interested in your perception of the relationship forces that shaped you as a leader.


VL- We will start with the family. I am the youngest of 4 brothers. You are entirely right; I was the prince of the family. I was protected by my parents. The education I received was much more flexible than the one my brothers received. My parents were more mature and wiser and knew how to deal with things. They had all ready dealt with everything from my 3 brothers. So I am much freer than my brothers and more liberal in terms of believing that freedom and choice are the most important things that you can have.


My family was very happy, and both of my parents were very intelligent. My father was a doctor, very clear thinking and principled. He is respected as a doctor and as a human being.  He saw his patients as human beings, not as objects. When he retired I was shocked when I went to other doctors (he was my doctor when I was young) and they were so different.


My father is now 86 and he lives in another area.  Even thought I am somewhat famous as a politician, many people know me more as the son of my father.  When we meet they ask if I am the son of Dr. Lichtinger. I am very happy with that.


Perhaps you have forgotten as you also come from a partially immigrant family. But it is more important for the first generation to do well.


AMS- You also come from an immigrant family, when did your family come to Mexico.


VL- My father came in 1929.   He was born in 1921 and his family left Poland due to economic and political discrimination.  His family thought Mexico was still part of the Americas and so it was easy to come here first. They immediately come to Mexico City.


My grandfather was a salesman who went from town to town selling everything. He came to Latin America three or four years before my father and grandmother came. He liked it and saved his money and brought his family here.


My father was an incredible inspiration to me. He was an only child and very close to his mother.


My mother is a fanatic for knowledge. She studied to be a teacher after high school.  She was born in Mexico and was also from a Polish Mexican family. She was always unsatisfied as she wanted to know more.  When I started to go to kindergarten she started to study and now has earned two PhD’s in literature and philosophy. 


At 9:00 to 9:30 at night she would read us classical novels, and fun books,  Shakespeare and Don Quixote. She read us the story of the boy who travels thorough time. She wanted us to be open minded. She wanted us to be cultured and knowledgeable and have many points of view.


I was so lucky to have these incredible parents. We would take these great trips in this big Buick and we would be fighting and shouting as we traveled along.


 I also learned a lot from my bothers. I have three great brothers. One is very intelligent and others more human. 


AMS – Darwin was right we have to have variation.


 VL – I also learned from seeing their lives.  One married very young and not with the right woman. Another studied something he did not like. In that way I was able to learn things from them that also influenced my actions.


What else would you like to know?


AMS – I was thinking about how your family was capable of long term thinking. Some families that immigrate have a special ability to take a risk and make a better life when they see the conditions changing.  It took three of four years before the rest of your family could follow our grandfather. One of the family values and themes are the ability to take a risk when you see that things are changing.  You knew that you could take a risk and make a better life.  


VL – Yes, people who are not satisfied have many choices. There are those that made the choice to stay in the terrible conditions.  Others were willing to take the risk to leave. Some of these people died.  All of the people in my family are risk takers.  We also have self esteem and we know that we can do it.  We have an incredible belief that if we make the sacrifices we know we can be successful.


One of the important things about leadership is that you believe in yourself, that you can make a difference. One of the important values is to want to change things to make a difference to improve other peoples’ lives. 


My mother became very left. We became left together with my mother.  I was 16 or 17. She was 40. She became very dissatisfied and frustrated with politics. She became left but not the radical left.  She wanted to improve the well being of people and was willing to fight against injustice.  I had that feeling strongly too. Over time I have changed my political opinion about the various parties.


AMS- Are you saying your values might be maintained but your strategies change as to how you fit in with the various political parties.


VL – I must tell you I feel that I do not fit. 


AMS – Is that an advantage?



VL – It might have to do with my rebelliousness and having ideas and strategies to do what I believe in but not feel that others represent me.


I have always felt a bit alone. Because I feel most people are very hypocritical.  I have lived an intense life for over fifty years with very strong values.  When I was in politics and back when I was in school I felt that way.  I still feel that way.


So the few people I think who have very deep principles are my best friends.  I have a lot of people who know me but very few friends.  I pick them very well.


I have never joined a party.  That is a mixture of feeling strongly that I don’t fit with a mixture of strategy as well.


 I feel that most parties here lost their good intentions and objectives. They have lost their way. They have become out of focus for what they need to do.  They want power for power’s sake. Then when they arrive and have power they become very corrupt.


AMS –  I am thinking about wht you are saying in terms of the mindful compass that I developed.  You have hit on all the major points for being mindful of your direction within an emotional system composed of human beings. 


Family systems theory has nine concepts to use to understand families. I thought it was too many to communicate to the general public.  My daughter challenged me to reduce it to two concepts. I figured I could do it in four points. The last point was the capacity to be alone. People tell me that I should change this point on the compass because being alone as a needed state for a leader will not sell.



VL – Having power is being alone. You can be wrong in your decisions but they are yours.  People are always telling you one thing and then another. I feel very good about being alone.  For me it’s kind of like a privilege.


I was a popular kid in school but I did not need people and I always looked for ways of being alone. 


AMS – Do you mediate? 


VL – No I do not in the formal sense. One of my brothers is very knowledgeable in this area.  When you are alone your brain can come up with great ideas.


AMS – How do you communicate your ideas into a team if you are alone?


VL – I was a water polo player. I was passing the ball and sharing the opportunity and I loved the idea that we were building something.  If you are a team player and you are not sure of your ideas and yourself you can not support your team mates.


AMS – They feel your anxiety.


VL – Yes, the anxiety and the uncertainty. Also I am a social and extraverted person and I enjoy being with people.


AMS – How about school?  When did you decide about school, etc.?


VL – I decided that I wanted to go to public college. I was in the small Catholic high school and I felt that they were trying to tell me wht to do and to brain wash me. They told me all the things I did were wrong.


I wanted to open up to the world and see all the different kinds of people. I went to a very good school and decided to study economics.


My father was worried as I did not like anything but philosophy but I did not want to starve as a philosopher.   So my father started to introduce me to his friends, one of whom was an economist.  He said,  “You are listening to engineers, etc., but what the economy is doing is important in each of these areas.  If you are interested in the well being of people then study economics.”


My father’s career was not for me. He worked hard and woke up in the middle of the night and was not with his family all that much.


I started to study economics. First there were camps and they put you in cages. You are a Marxist[1]  or you are a Keynesian.[2]


Keynes said in the long term you are dead. Yes, but I still wanted to know how our action now will influence the future.


I did this based on the fact that people change in the long term not in the short term.


Realistically, you can only make things slightly different than the way they were before.  For good and bad you make things different in slow steps until you cross some threshold. Then it seems like everything happened in a moment.


When it came to the environment, I cared about the long term.  We defend things for the long term and for the all people, not just one person. 


After going to Stanford, I went to Africa and tried to help people in Mozambique.[3]  Then I got a chance to work for the UN as an economic counselor. It was 1987 and the environment was just beginning to be seen as important. A lot of things happened then.  The Berlin wall fell. During the cold war things were in an unproductive balance.  After the war a great deal more change was possible. The human rights movement gained momentum for woman, gays and the environment. These were the human rights needed to be granted after the French revolution. (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). [4]


In 1987 I was not knowledgeable about the environment and may have been the least knowledgeable of the people at the UN.


A Swedish man, who I took as my guru, developed an interest in me. He said, “I see you are a leader, you are very passionate”.   He was the Swedish Ambassador to Mexico, Ambassador Bo, and he invited me to Sweden.   He also took representatives from Indian, Venezuela and two other countries.  He showed us how the destruction of the environment caused the people to continue to suffer with no way out. We went to Sierra Leon. Rwanda and the Congo. Then in Sweden we looked  at theory and how things worked. The prime minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland was was also important in my learning.    She was a wonderful woman. (Norwegian Minister for Environmental Affairs 1974-79, and became Norway’s first – and to date only – female Prime Minister February – October 1981)  I also saw Al Gore as a congressman. He was there taking notes. I really respect him and the work he continues to do.


This was the first year of discussing the environment.


I realized that Mexico was a mess on the environment. I was working in the economic affairs department of the Mexican government. You could not see the buildings in Mexico City due to the air pollution. The gas had lead in it in the late eighties and early nineties.


I started to really care and began to work with NGOs to solve these problems.  Because of this work I was picked as the coordinator for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992).  I had to negotiate with the political people about how to clean rivers and how to keep water safe and the atmosphere as clean as possible.


After this work I resigned to form a consulting firm. I had been working for the government for 2 years.  I thought I could do more outside then inside the government.  But it was difficult to form this consulting firm so I joined with an American firm and we began to do some very good work.


Then in 1994 I was asked to be the representative from Mexico to work on the NAFTA environmental commission for the US, Canada and Mexico.  I was not appointed by the Mexican government, the commissioners themselves asked for me to be appointed.  I came to Canada and they said to me,  “Here is some money.  Now just make this commission function.”


We assembled a great team of fifty people.   One of the important issues was that DDT was still being used until 1997. We found the technology to measure how the isotopes of DDT traveled. We also proved that they were even to be found in the artic regions and that they would persist there for a hundred years.


In 1998 the government changed and I had no job.   I knew that the bigger the needed change the bigger the resistance to it. 


Again, I went back to consulting. This time it was easier. Mr. Fox was elected and he approached me about becoming the Minister for the Environment.  My wife warned me it would not be easy and that I should not take the job.  But I knew that I might be able to make a difference in this position and so I went in with a lot of optimism.  I thought that President Fox would support my ideas. 


The first month there I got rid of lot of people and brought in new people who had never been in the government.  There were 35,000 people in this one agency. My mission was to be honest and hold open meetings for the big group every week. Many had never even seen a minister much less had the chance to hear and see one. 


I told them I would hold these big open meetings to give a message of pride, hope and the need for strength. My door would always be open for people to talk with me. For one hour after these big meetings anyone could come and talk to me.  I focused on what do you do with problems and how can I help solve problems. After one year people were clear about what their functions were.


However after the first month I went to Fox and asked for his support to bring more cooperation between the different ministries in order to focus on sustainable development. He said, “no,” he was not going to go in that direction. He thought that focusing on job creation alone would be his way of going.


After that meeting I wanted to quit but my wife said NO you took the job and now you have to stay with it. 


I stayed with the ideas of sustainable development. My goal was to develop and grow without impacting negatively the environment and the people’s long term future.


After three years I left and the next president of Mexico, Calderon, took my place as the minister of the environment.  I had the opportunity to reinvent myself.  My three criteria for what I will do are:

1) Passion will lead me to work in areas where I will be successful

2) I must be knowledgeable about what I want to do

3)  I want to have a positive impact on a lot of lives.


AMS_ Thank you so much for your time and the energy and for your life focus. I am sure that we will hear interesting things about what you are doing in the not too distant future.




(1)  The ability to define a vision: Early on in Victor Lichtinger’s life he became aware of the impact of values on others.  He witnessed his father’s life as a humanitarian, and heard his mother passion about helping others.  These experiences plus the plight of his grandparents in leaving a country, where there was a gross lack of human rights, formed the reasons and passions for his future vision.  The deep values of helping improve people’s lives and to enable programs which will sustainable life on our planet arose from his families life experiences and take form in his actions. 


I have found that the more people’s vision is grounded in a positive relationship with family values the easier it is to sustain those values during difficult time.  It’s like the values have deep roots.  And we certainly see this in the story of his life. 





(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: The most challenging thing about resistance is its ability to turn people critical about others. This leads to negative and often harmful energy.  It can also promote emotional cutoff from individuals or even groups of people.


 One of the things in the story of working for President Fox is how fabulous it was that his wife refused to go along with his initial reaction to the news that his vision would not be supported in the way he had hoped. By listening to his wife and forcing himself to reconsider and to rethink the advantages of staying in his job, he was able to make a large impact on the environmental program and in the department itself.


The importance of managing negative reactions to people can not be overstated.  Building a sustainable network came to be a significant factor in building a sustainable economy or a sustainable environment.  It has to be done with look at the future and the ability to be aware of and also to manage ones internal feeling states.


(3)The ability to connect and use systems knowledge: One of the interesting things was how his father taught him about the power of networking by example.  His father introduced him to other people in order to allow him to think more carefully about his future profession.


Often it’s hard for children to think under direct pressure from a parent. It is far easier to think without the emotional push of important others.


By widening the group of resourceful people his father began a trend that would be useful to Victory Lichtinger’s life in the future.  Creating a larger group to learn from has sustained his vision into and out of various enterprises.


(4)The ability to be separate:  Once again we can see how crucial the ability to be separate is in determining one’s values. If one deeply believes in their values as Victor Lichtinger does, then it is far easier to deliver a profound and trustable message to people.


Victor Lichtinger’s notes: It might have to do with my rebelliousness and having ideas and strategies to do what I believe in but not feel that others represent me.


I have always felt a bit alone. Because I fell most people are very hypocritical.  I have lived an intense life for over fifty years with very strong values.  When I was in politics and back when I was in school I felt that way.  I still feel that way.


For those who are sensitive to and need love and approval the negative tide of reactions can often not be stemmed.


The willingness to go along with the social group is not just a problem for teenagers. The ability to experience being separate and being OK with that gut level feeling of loneliness is crucial to taking responsibility for difficult decision, and for staying in relationship with others when the opposition arises, as it will.
















[1] Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818March 14, 1883) was a 19th century philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary. Often called the father of communism, Marx was both a scholar and a political activist. He addressed a wide range of political as well as social issues, but is best known for his analysis of history, summed up in the opening line of the Communist Manifesto (1848): “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. Marx believed that capitalism, like previous socioeconomic systems, will produce internal tensions which will lead to its destruction. Just as capitalism replaced feudalism, capitalism itself will be displaced by communism, a classless society which emerges after a transitional period in which the state would be nothing else but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.[1][2][3]

On the one hand, Marx argued for a systemic understanding of socioeconomic change. On this model, it is the structural contradictions within capitalism which necessitate its end, giving way to communism:


[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keynesian_economics Keynesian economics derives from John Maynard Keynes, in particular his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), which ushered in contemporary macroeconomics as a distinct field. Keynes attempted to explain in broad theoretical detail why high labour-market unemployment might not be self-correcting due to low “effective demand” and why even price flexibility and monetary policy might be unavailing. Such terms as “revolutionary” have been applied to the book in its impact on economic analysis.

[4] The French Revolution (1789–1799) was a period of political and social upheaval in the political history of France and Europe as a whole, during which the French governmental structure, previously an absolute monarchy with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy, underwent radical change to forms based on Enlightenment principles of nationalism, citizenship, and inalienable rights.

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