Category Archives: capitalism

Too early to tell

Been mildly obsessed with not watching the news given recent events with, for example, Jimmy Savile and the Newtown shootings.  This desire to step out of the constant news cycle has been guided by thoughts from Adam Curtis in this interview and Will Self in this great example from the fantastic Point of View series on BBC Radio.  They both suggest that the need for the news industry to always have something to say distorts our understanding and perception of the world.  That ‘now’ is the most important thing no … hold on … here’s another story that’s now more important.  This constant presence that the latest thing is always the most important thing with little or no analysis or context as to why or for the story being told is similar in many ways to Twitter and blogging (ahem).  This way of seeing the world can clearly be seen as extending out into consumerism with ever shortening fashion cycles and technology updates (soft and hard).

The latest is all you need to be concerned with.

So, it was refreshing to come across two different stories recently.


The first was about a supposed conversation, in 1972, between Richard Nixon and the then Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai.  When Tricky Dicky asked En Lai what he thought of the historic impact of the French Revolution, he apparently replied ‘Too early to tell’.

Ishmael_book cover

The second is an excellent novel – Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (thanks Chris).  It’s about a telepathic conversation between a man and a gorilla.  In it, the gorilla provides a time-line of humanity and suggests that the beginning and root of mans unsustainable attitudes and behaviour began with the Agricultural Revolution c.12,000 years ago.  This is when we decided to override the natural balance and take control of our own food supply thus beginning the chain of events which has seen us override the natural balance into the precarious environmental state that we see today.

This lack of seeing the longer view is really fascinating. We seem to see things on a shorter and shorter time horizon, arguably with less and less understanding of the context from which those events arise from.   Maybe we should be listening to the gorilla and asking about the impact of events 12,000 years ago?  But I think the answer to that might be ‘it’s too early to tell’.

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Loop to Loop

How does systemic change happen?  That’s a big question but fortunately, here’s a very simple and powerful explanation.  It’s the Two Loops model from the Berkana Institute:

I think it’s excellent because it at least gives a clear model to start from and think about.  It’s also easy to see interesting examples of this happening in lots of categories.  So, she talks about energy and education and then there’s also finance with the Finance Innovation Lab.

However, there’s a very big gap between the existing loop and the new one.  In thinking about it, I don’t think that’s quite right.  This is because I don’t think if we go from the current loop to a more sustainable one then its going to take the outright collapse of the existing system to give birth to the new one.  The way its drawn is that there is no link and carryover.  I don’t think this is right because, given the nature of business, there are people in business (in the existing loop) that are evolving and already trying out more sustainable ways of doing business that can easily work in the new loop.

So, if the existing system collapses and with it, the idea of the publicly-listed business then it’s likely that co-operatives can be a new way to do business in the new loop.  (Loads of assumptions in here, obv.)  But, John Lewis, the Co-operative are already doing this successfully in the existing loop.  Does this mean that they will not survive the collapse?  Or should they be re-framed as examples of how businesses can successfully work in the new loop?  To be seen a ‘loop-crossers’ or similar?  Similarly, charity shops, freecycle and ebay can be seen as businesses that work very well in the current loop and would be likely to be ‘loop-crossers’ as well.

So, business has always been about creative destruction and it just so happens that some current businesses have evolved in such a way that they’ll do well if we transition to a different loop sometime in the future.  So, if Berkana are right (and it makes a lot of sense to me), then I think that it’s okay to not be as pessimistic as the gap between the two loops suggest.

If you want to get pessimistic you also have to accept that the new loop could be anything, not just a more sustainable one.  Say fascism for example.  Like what happened in Germany when their existing loop collapsed in the 1920/30s.  Just saying.

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Children for Sale

Should you be able to buy and sell babies?  Should you be able to buy and sell votes?

These are the sort of questions posed in the excellent ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits to Markets’ by Michael Sandel.  His basic premise is that we’ve moved from a market economy to a market society.  That the Rules of Economics rule.

He covers lots of themes within the book raised by this basic premise – like the coercive and corruptive nature of money and the issue of democracy.  One area is the use of incentives.  Economics say that incentives are a good thing because if you put a price on something then it encourages people to act in the ways you want.  So, paying children to read a book, or the offer of money to work hard to get a high grade.

What this does, which he eloquently points out is that by incentivising something, you run the risk of ‘crowding out’ the social norm that currently exists, to the detriment of society.

So, in America, like here in the UK, people donate blood.  They did this because they saw it as their civic duty.  It was then realised you could make money buying and selling blood.  So, you can now either get paid to give blood (typically done by poor people who are being coerced into doing so because they have little money) or donate blood.  What’s happened is that fewer people donate blood.  As he says “Commercialisation and profit in blood has been driving out the voluntary donor” and that “once people begin to view blood as a commodity that is routinely bought and sold, they are less likely to feel a moral responsibility to donate it”.  Further, “it is likely that a decline in the spirit of altruism on one sphere of human activities will be accompanied by similar changes in attitudes, motives and relationships in other spheres”.

That last statement sounds like a leap, but he’s got 203 pages of why that may well be true.

Another example is nuclear waste in Switzerland.  The government did their research and found out that the most appropriate place to build the waste site was near the small mountain village of Wolfenschiessen (pop. 2,100).  51% of residents said that they would accept it.  The economists added a sweetner to try and get the % up.  They offered money of an annual monetary payment.  The result?  The financial incentive cut the rate of acceptance in half to 25%.  Why?  In the world of economics, increasing the incentive should have increased demand.  So, why did it go down?  “For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit – a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere.  If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden.  Against this backdrop of civic commitment, the offer of case felt like a bribe – an effort to buy their vote.”

Sandel uses example after example to drive home the point that we should examine the line where economic thinking is impacting on our sense of civic duty and the ideals of democracy: paying to jump the queue, executive boxes at sports stadiums, paying to be late to pick up your kids, bribes to lose weight, carbon offset, paying to kill endangered species, life insurance, corporate naming rights in sports stadiums, advertising in schools etc. etc.

We decided that buying and selling people (slavery) was morally incorrect, yet there seems to be little to no public debate about what else should or shouldn’t be bought or sold.  So, you may well be able to go into a store soon and say “I’d like to buy two children” although Madonna and Branjelina may have already passed that line.

A very timely book.

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“It’s just the beginning….”

Errr, another one of those ‘we’re in for a very bumpy ride’ posts.  This time it’s a radio interview with Australian Economist Steve Keen.

He predicted the 2008 crash, continues to run the numbers and his outlook is not good.  Especially for the UK.  He reckons that Britain is about a third of the way through the crisis (i.e. a lot of pain to go) and so we’d better get prepared for things to get a whole lot worse.

He’s pretty punchy and has some interesting thoughts as to why he doesn’t get listened to more.  However, off the back of this I’m reviewing my finances.  Meeting next week.


Free to go shopping?

Been thinking about this a lot recently and finding it very hard to describe and articulate, but here’s a go:

When it comes to what’s actually important and what makes us happy, do we really know?  I’m not entirely sure that we do.  I’ve decided this as a result of thinking about shopping and consumerism.  It seems to me that integral part of what Western society deems as important is to shop and buy things.  Either more things than you’ve currently got or better things that you’ve currently got.  And in buying those things you will be happier.  Having stuff – more stuff or better stuff – is a way to feel better.

To buy that new shirt to continue to be fashionable and feel good when you’re in the pub, or a magazine to know what’s fashionable or a new phone because it’s better at letting you stay in touch with your friends and feel connected.  It’s even called Retail Therapy because therapy is a way (apparently) to feel better about yourself.

So, buying things is correlated to feeling better.  I would suggest that we accept, blindly, that having more stuff is the natural thing.  It’s not even talked about.  It’s an unspoken narrative in our society.  It doesn’t need to be said or even discussed because everyone understands it and believes it.  Like the sun coming up in the morning.

And to a degree that is, of course, true.  Having a new thing can be great.  You go to the shop, you get to choose what you want, pay for it, take it home and use it.

But, what happens if you don’t buy anything new?  You don’t buy more or better stuff?  Typically this means you don’t have the means.  So, you’re either poor or unemployed.  Both of which are socially undesirable.  Or if you have got money and don’t buy more and better stuff then you’re a bit weird for not doing what everyone else does.

So, putting myself in the unemployed and ‘have the money to buy not buying category’, I currently haven’t bought any new clothes (except for some socks) or electronic equipment or just basically ‘stuff’ for about a year.  Still buy food, drink, travel and some second hand things, but no ‘more or better’ new stuff.

How does that feel?  Well, pretty good.  Which isn’t supposed to be the case.  Right?  If the narrative of shopping is that if I buy more and better stuff then I’ll feel happier, then the converse – not buying any new or better stuff should be that I feel worse.  Right?  I should, in some way, feel deprived, or left out, or somehow ‘lesser’ shouldn’t I?

Absolutely not.


So, what do I feel about not buying stuff?  Unburdened by the need to.  Not having to spend (waste?) time engaging in deciding what to buy and then buying it.  Getting to enjoy, use and appreciate the stuff that I have got.  Finding interesting ways to use the stuff I have got to do new and different jobs that I might have previously bought something new to do.  Glad that I don’t have that occasional moment when I look at something and say ‘why did I buy that?’

But, perhaps the most interesting feeling that’s come up as a result of not buying more stuff is around freedom.

 Yes, I’m lucky enough to live in a democracy, get to vote and speak my mind, but when it comes to shopping, am I free?  The easy answer to that is ‘of course!’  I can go to any shop that I want and buy whatever I want (as long as I have the money).  However, the freedom that I feel is about the choice as to whether I want to shop or not, rather than the freedom to buy what I want when I go shopping.

This is vitally important distinction.

So, there is absolutely freedom around shopping.  But the freedom is around which of the many products that are available, is the one that I want?  I am free to choose the blue one or the red one.  Nike or adidas.  Apple or Sony.  Toyota or Honda.  And it takes a lot of tine energy to decide which is the best one to go for.

Buy to make you happy.  I’m free to choose which one I do buy.

However, I’m not free to decide whether or not I want to buy in the first place.  Will buying more stuff or better stuff make me happier?

This is not a question that is posed by our society.  At all.  Consider the evidence.  All the advertising and marketing spend, all the packaging, all the window displays.  They all are suggesting that we should buy them and in many instances, that what they are offering is in someway superior or different from the other available options.  The Ultimate Driving Machine.  Washes Whiter.  Refreshes the Parts Other Beers can not Reach.  They are all pushing the same thing.  That buying them is a good thing and will make you happier.

Where is any communication, from anyone, as to whether either buying more or better stuff or not buying more or better stuff is going to make you happier?

I can’t think of any.

So, I’m talking about a different sort of freedom.  If we were really free then we would be free to make that decision. Wouldn’t we?

I would contend that because there is no debate on this – one that stimulates a discussion so people can weigh up whether buying more and better stuff or not buying more or better stuff makes them happy – means that we are not free.  We don’t have the freedom to choose because we are only ever presented with one option.  Buy to make you happy.

I’m not saying that buying nothing makes you happiest.  That would be stupid.  Maybe a smart phone really does make you happier.  But does that sixth pair of jeans?  It’s not about absolutes, it’s about having a conversation about the principle and people deciding for themselves.

I think this is really fascinating.  We spend so much time shopping, talking about buying more or better stuff and spending money in the process in the belief that it makes us happier and we don’t even discuss whether it actually does.

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How long does it take to go sustainable (part 3)

This is now becoming a recurrent theme.  What does it take to encourage someone to ‘Go sustainable’?  The last time I posted about this I said that it was about a year.   I think that might actually be bit optimistic (i.e more like 2 years), but then that’s because I now have a better idea of what I think needs to happen in that year (or two) based on a conversation with people from the Finance Lab at WWF and the System Innovation work I’m helping Forum with.

What you get if you put 'system change' into Google Images (pt1)

What needs to happen is for a person to undergo a ‘personal transformation’.  And the reason for this is because the ‘system’ needs to be transformed.  (By ‘system’ I mean the current economic and social system which is geared for unsustainable growth.  A new ‘system’ would be a brand new thing that enabled 7 billion of us to live sustainably on the planet.)

This direct link between personal and system transformation makes intuitive sense to me.  The current system is bound by inertia and ‘the way things have always been done’.  It therefore takes a great effort to change this.  As a result, it’s fairly naive to expect people to go against the grain of the prevailing ‘system’ and be motivated to change  unless they themselves have changed.  They will have had to have changed so much that they are not only able to see the limits of the current system and their place within it, but also able to see what changes are required and able to affect those changes.  This requires a dramatic shift in values, identity and motivation.  Noting short of a ‘personal transformation’.

What you get if you put 'system change into Google Images (pt2)

Now, maybe you just need 5% of the population to do this?  Or maybe 10%? or 20%?  What’s the minimum number of people who need to undergo a personal transformation in order to actually change the system?  And who are those people?  To talk the language of ‘Occupy’, does it need to include the ‘1%’?  If so, how the heck do you do that because they’re the ones with the most vested interest in keeping the current system just as it is.  Or is that another one of those pesky ‘assumptions’?!

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Occupy St Paul’s (sorry, London)

Went and spent a couple of hours down there last week – never been to a protest before.   It’s a really interesting, well-organised space with the tents and the people who stay in them (not always overnight or so it seems!) and then loads of people milling about – be it tourists or workers on a break.  I ended up having a long conversation with a chap who believed the fundamental issue was Fractional Reserve Lending (something I know a little about from the course and from the remarkable film in this earlier post) as well as a Swedish couple, one of whom had done some work with the IMF.  So, there are high-calibre people are hanging out down there.

As someone from a communications background, the main thing I took from the experience was a lack of understanding of what they want.  You get no clear idea of what ‘success would look like’ (to use that phrase).  For example, one banner says ‘Capitalism IS crisis’, another says ‘This is not an anti-capitalism movement’.  Perhaps the most frequent thing you see is ‘We are the 99%’ – referring to the fact that the other 1% have all the money.  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that?  Now, maybe it’s too difficult to compress what the movement is into a soundbite and to do so is to deny the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in.  But, I would suggest, if they want to engage more people more fully, some sort of clarity of what they stand for/what they want etc would be of benefit.  By doing this, they might be able to garner more support as more of the population will more easily be able to understand that the issues they are protesting about.

As a footnote to this, I stopped by on a couple of days ago and the main banner has changed to ‘What Would Jesus Do?’  Which is kind of better in that they have understood that the protest has a moral edge to it and that they’re right outside St. Paul’s.  BUT, given all the press about whether they should move on and the Dean resigning over this, the ‘Jesus’ banner could easily be construed in the context of whether Jesus would let them stay and protest, rather than what would Jesus do in relation to the inequality in the banking system and economy which I would understand to be closer to the point they are trying to make.

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