Category Archives: Future

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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Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man

That’s a quote from an ad man called Howard Luck Gossage (great name; great quote) and is the title of a new biography about him.

He ran his own agency in San Francisco back the 1960s when all the action was taking place in New York (Bill Bernback, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves).  He had, what seemed at the time and perhaps still now, some pretty crazy ideas about the way advertising should work, which now that I no longer work in an agency, seem exceedingly sensible.  From the book, they include:

Didn’t believe that it was all about growth and the money.  It was about maintaining the quality of the creative work and the culture of the agency.  The agency never grew to be more than 15 people.

He thought about the point of advertising.  As he put it “there is precious little awareness, and no real enquiry into the economic, sociologic or philosophic bases of advertising”.  I would say that this is still the case. I was raised to believe that the point of advertising is to make money for the agency and make money for the client.  No sociologic or philosophic enquiry there.

He believed that pumping out advertising with no real sense of who was receiving it and how it was being received was not only wasteful but unethical.  He said: “I will go further and say that it is not only wrong to attempt to influence an audience without involving it but it is unethical and dishonest”.  Strong words, but this kind of accounts for, at a guess, more than 50% of advertising these days.

He had a theory of the way things work (cybernetics, via Norbert Weiner) which could be applied to advertising.  Cybernetics (roughly) is about recognising that there are feedback loops in the natural world.  So for Gossage, he saw the creation of information loops as beneficial and indeed a life-enhancing way of making people respect others and accept responsibility for their actions.  So, his ads featured ways to engage the audience so that they could help create the next round of work.  No feedback, change the ads.  By involving the consumer and getting their input into the campaign, it was evident that they were enjoying the work and more work would evolve that encouraged further feedback.

In this “he viewed advertising less as a commercial bludgeon and more as a conversation between equals”.  And “people like to be treated as human beings rather than consumers and they react very well to it”.  ‘Go Compare’ anyone?

He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, anti-billboards because he believed that no media owner had the right to sell that media because a billboard interrupted a view that belonged to the people.

One of Gossage’s ads that stopped the Grand Canyon getting flooded

He ended up working on saving the Grand Canyon from getting flooded (via an ad campaign), then helped make the Sierra Club famous before using his skills to launch Friends of the Earth.  To him, this is what advertising should be for: “advertising was too valuable an instrument to waste on commercial products…it justified its existence only when it was used for social purposes”.

So, he said all this, but was also well ahead of his time in terms of thinking about social media, PR-generated stunts and interactive.  What’s interesting is that the back cover of the book is full of modern-day advertising greats talking about how great Gossage was.  For example, Jeff Goodby says “The best of Gossage is the best of advertising ever done, and what’s really amazing is the the work he did foretold what’s happening on the internet and social media right now”.   To me, it’s more interesting to take his thinking in the round – to consider the points that I’ve highlighted above, not just the interactive/social media bit.  It would make for a very different, more purposeful industry, where that purpose is beyond just trying to make money and sell stuff.  Maybe one day more of his ideas will come to pass.  I hope so.

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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.


The Size of the Challenge? Challenging.

Met up with a few people over the festive period who I haven’t seen for a while and in-between the turkey and mince pies have been explaining what I’m up to and what my thoughts are.  I find it a bit of a struggle sometimes to explain the nature of the change that I’m going through, but it does start to make a bit more sense when I frame it in the context of the Size of the Challenge.  What follows might not make for easy reading, but having a point of view on the what the task is at least enables one to identify what you need to do about it:

Okay then, I’ve arrived at the use of a metaphor as the best way to describe what’s going on, what needs to happen and how likely we are to make that change.  The metaphor is that the change that needs to happen for us all to live sustainably on the planet is equivalent to the change that happened when we moved from fully believing in God and religion as the answer to all questions to believing that science holds the answers.

What do I mean by that?  I’m not a big history reader, but my understanding is that in the past (pre-Enlightenment) the prevailing belief was that God created in the world in 6 days, the Earth was at the Centre of the Universe and we were special (i.e. not related to animals).  Then along came science and through the likes of Galileo and Darwin, they introduced ‘laws’ and proof and rationality to disprove many of the religious beliefs.  So, now, we not only have a prevailing wind that science can hold the answers (or rather if you can’t ‘prove it’ it doesn’t exist), but that the economic system is the way that world works, man can control nature and consumerism and individualism is king.  These beliefs, I would contend, are as strongly held as those religious beliefs that existed before science came along and the systems that hold those beliefs are as strong as the church was (and in some places still is – i.e. for half of the USA).

So, if we are to move to a more sustainable future, then why is the change as big as the change from ‘religion’ to ‘science’?  Because, I think just like back then, it requires an entire re-calibration of the way you think that the way the world works, or more importantly how you relate to the world.  So, rather than being disconnected from nature and seeing nature as ‘other’ we, as a species, have to understand that we are interconnected to it, want to live in harmony with it, indeed, that we are interconnected to everything else.  Don’t we already do that?  Doesn’t the internet let us do that?  No.  If we believed that then we would run the global economy with no environmental impact.  We’d understand that there are things that are more important that our individual needs.  We’d be thinking about what our actions mean for people living generations ahead of us and acting in their best interests, not just ours today.

If this is right (or in the ballpark) then the question then becomes ‘Can we change to think and act in a way that will allow us to live sustainably on the planet?’  Reframe that question as ‘Has mankind ever given up the prevailing system and the values it promotes without great suffering?’  I’m thinking slavery, Suffragettes, American Civil War, Apartheid, Arab Spring.  But, there might be some examples where that hasn’t happened.  Further, if you think about the amount of tension in the system before the system changed (read that as a lot of people dying and getting beaten up who wanted the change to happen) then we’re a long, long way off that.  A few thousand people involved in the Occupy Movement is hardly Tahrir Square or Sharpeville.

So, in my mind it’s a race.  On the positive, we as a species evolve fast enough to care about nature and each other.  There is a sort of ‘rising global consciousness’ and somehow we understand, intuitively, that we’re all interconnected.  Big business and governments change accordingly.  On the more dramatic, there is a grass roots, global movement that puts an insurmountable of pressure on those that currently run the system and again Big Business and governments change accordingly.  The race is that either (or both) of those things need to happen before we heat up the planet beyond acceptable levels (and the bio-diversity loss point).  If that doesn’t happen then we, as a species, are in deep shit.

The last question then becomes ‘Are you an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist?’

How to get more people to act sustainably? Don’t talk about sustainability.

Here’s a very good, clear articulation of how to get more people act in a more sustainable way.

Caroline Fiennes of GlobalCool breaks people into three groups (called Value Modes) based on their broad motivations:

First group. People who care about things that are quite proximate to them.   Their primary concern is the safety and security of myself, family and nation.  Like rules and big into community.

Second group.  Primarily driven by the esteem and respect of others and therefore need to demonstrate their success.  So, big into fashion and social networks.

Third group.  Primarily interested in their intellectual and ethical imprint.  Interested in ideas and others even if they’ve never met them or are never likely to meet them.

So, who does the existing sustainability narrative talk to?  The third group and the third group only, of course.  It’s effectively missing out two-thirds of the population.  Talking about glaciers melting and people on the other side of the world just doesn’t connect those in the other two groups based on what they value.  They don’t really listen.  So, what to do?  She goes onto to give a couple of great examples of health advertising – e.g. communicating that you shouldn’t take Crystal Meth because it ruins your teeth is more appealing for people for whom appearance is important (the second group) than talking about how addictive it is.

Her point, which is obvious but very well made, is that you need to talk to people about what they care about in a way that engages with them as a means to do what you want (the obliquity strategy).  The health people don’t care what they need to say in order to get you to not take Crystal Meth, just that you don’t start taking it.  They’re happy not to talk about health in order to get people to be more healthy.  As she puts it – the important thing isn’t why you act in the way they what you, just that you do act.

Taking this to sustainability  an example of an ‘Accidental Environmentalists’ are kids who want to go to school on their micro-scooters because this is more fun than being in a car.  This has lead to an appreciable drop in car journeys in some areas of London.  You would never say to them that what they are doing is ‘green’.  But it is.

Commercial marketers have known this forever – they never talk about their agenda (we want to make more money) they just talk about your agenda – ‘You want to be popular?  Buy our product’.  And in doing so, we make more money.

She gives a bunch more examples and there’s loads more good stuff on their website, but in summary – to get more people to act sustainably, don’t talk about sustainability.  Simple really.

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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How long does it take to go sustainable? (part 2)

In this previous post I came to the conclusion that it takes a minimum of a year for someone to ‘go sustainable’.  This is because this is how long it’s taken me and I would regard myself as highly-motivated to do so – I’m doing the MSc and have LOTS of conversations about it.

It’s a fairly demoralising realisation – as that seems a long time in our short-termist society, but knowing the scale of the task is a great thing to know.

Further evidence for the this One Year Hypothesis come via a great conversation I had with Morag Watson at WWF. She talked about the excellent Natural Change programme that they’ve run in Scotland.  They describe it as follows:

The Natural Change Project was developed by WWF Scotland as a new and innovative response to the challenge of sustainability and to the growing evidence that current environmental campaigns are not resulting in the depth of behaviour change necessary to address this challenge. The project drew together seven diverse individuals from the business, charitable, arts, public, health and education sectors in Scotland. All were selected on the basis of being excellent communicators who were influential in their sector, but not particularly environmentally aware.  The purpose of the project was to encourage this group to think deeply about sustainability, to communicate through their social and professional networks and to share the changes in their thoughts and attitudes more widely through the forum of internet blogging.

They spent a total of 16 days together over the course of a year or so, a year that included a lot of shared conversations and thinking all grounded in trips to the wonderful area of Knoydart.  The group experienced some  some dramatic changes in the values and behaviours of the group.

Relating this to how you can communicate (or ‘engage’) with people, you broadly have 2 polar opposite options ‘Shallow and Many’ (mass advertising) or ‘Deep and Few’ (group therapy, for example).  Natural Change provides me with additional evidence to my own experience that the ‘Deep and Few’ option is the ONLY option that will work in order to make the necessary societal change to get people to change to be more sustainable – a deep, lengthy process in involving small groups of people.  This is because I agree with the Common Cause work in that the consumerist mindset and the extrinsic values associated with it are instilled in our society and within us from the day we’re born.  To get people to ‘go sustainable’ requires that they recognise and value intrinsic values instead of extrinsic.  This is obviously a big deal because it requires a basic rewiring in people’s heads as to what’s important – this sort of change is best done when supported by people undergoing the same transformation.

This all gets me to believe that getting people to turn down their heating or recycle their rubbish will have very little real, lasting effect in encouraging people to become wholly sustainable.  They are just mere actions that have virtually no impact on a person’s values.  An interesting question would be if you could get someone to turn their heating down, recycle more, buy organic, save water, drive less, go vegetarian, not to take foreign holidays etc etc., would they end up having intrinsic values?  Intuitively, I don’t think so – these actions are a multitude of ‘shallow’ and I don’t think all of that would add up to ‘deep’.

So, much more to think on with this, but if I continue down this way of thinking, then at least the challenge is clear – how do you do ‘Deep AND Many’?

The Parable of St Matthew Island

The true story of what happens when you introduce 29 reindeer to an isolated island of natural resources (via Boing Boing). 

It’s Climate Change for kids (and adults), comic book style.  What’s not to like?  (Except for that ‘collapse’ bit at the end):


Quote of the week (and Big Picture shit pt.3)

Last one was from Darwin, this time it’s another Great Man, Churchill:

“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see”

Look back a bit and you can have an opinion about the rise and fall of civilisations in the future (what we’ve seeing with the West and East).  Look back a bit further and you can have an opinion on the rise and fall of species (what we might see with humans and climate change).


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