Category Archives: Sustainability

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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Responsible for Reality

Been very much off the radar recently as I’ve been putting the finishing touches to my Masters paper, but as part of this, had what I think is a good thought.  Well, I like it.  It goes something like this:

‘What is reality?’ is a question that’s come up ALOT on the course for me, but I’ve come to realise something quite important about it.  ‘Reality’ is what I experience in the moment.  It is what is happening right now as I’m tying this and right now as you’re reading it.  What happened a minute ago is not reality as it’s the past.  What’s going to happen in a minutes time is not reality as that’s the future.  The only definite thing I can be sure about; the only reality that is certain is what is happening in this lived moment.  This precise moment and only this moment is true and real.  As a result I have a responsibility to decide what I want that reality to be.  Do I want it be full of interesting things or boring things?  Do I want it to be relaxing or stressful?  I have to take that responsibility for myself.  A large part of the reality I experience is what I can see and what I can hear – what I get from my senses.  As a result, my surroundings count for a lot when it comes to my reality.  Therefore, what stimulus do I want to be receiving?  Do I want to spend more time seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting things that make me feel good, whether they be things of beauty, uplifting people and good food?  Is that the reality that I want?  Or do I want to spend more time seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting things that make me feel bad?  Like ugly things, people that bring me down or poor food?  Is that the reality that I want?  This is my responsibility.

But more than this, because others affect my reality it is of course true that I affect theirs.  So, what reality do I want to create for them and myself?  I have that responsibility as well.  I believe that everyone has that responsibility.  If I am in people’s lives then I am affect their lived experience.  So, what way do I want to affect their reality?  Do I want to try and make it a more positive experience?  Do I want to say things that I think that they will like and appreciate?  Or do I want to make it an average experience?  Or a negative experience?  Every act has an impact so I need to decide what I want to do.  This isn’t about buying gifts to make things better, this is about how I converse and ‘am’ in the moment.  About being someone I’d want to be around, or someone I might be indifferent to, someone who moans alot or someone that isn’t very pleasant?  It’s pretty simple really.

The interesting thing about this comes to TV and advertising.  People are exposed to lots of TV and advertising – upwards of 4 hours a day.  As a TV company or an advertiser, what is the reality you want to create for people?  What is your point of view on what that experience should be?  Is it about creating content which presents the viewer with someone you know they will compare themselves to?  Is that a good thing?  Is it about watching people trying to beat each other in a reality show?  Is that a good thing?  Is it about people working together to achieve something?  Is that a good thing?  No content is neutral.  Everything affects the nature of people’s reality and so if you’re in the content business you should have an editorial point of view on the nature of reality that you are trying to create.  That is the reality.


Letter from the Future

Since the doom-laden post about the recent Bill McKibben piece in Rolling Stone, it was good to come across a project from Sustainable Wales (thanks Chris).  It’s called Letters from the Future whereby they’ve got writers to ‘send back’ letters from parents to children based on their projections of what life will be like then.

Things will have changed (obv.) but certainly more positive than how McKibben would have us see it.  (That’s not to say that McKibben hasn’t go it more right though of course).

Anyway, it’s good that artists are engaging in this stuff.  Here’s a sample:


2030.  Letter to a son.

By Robert Minhinnick 

You said I was mad but I wanted to show you. So I collected rainwater, then found an oak tree. Not long ago I couldn’t have told you one thing about an oak. But around here oaks used to cover everything. That’s why you see the word deri so often. See, I’m learning from the landscape. And from you.

Then I found the oak tree’s galls, which are blisters on the leaves. I scraped them off and crushed them. Next I added some copper sulphate crystals that were hanging about in the garage – grandad used them to get a better blue from the hydrangeas. Last, I bought some gum arabic from that new art shop where Pound World was. Mixed it up. And I’m writing this down in my own ink.

Okay, I could have sent an attachment zinging round the planet. But I want to show you maybe we can’t rely on electricity forever. You know the ration hours: 7am till 11am, 6pm till 9pm.

But the young adapt quickly. When the government abandoned the Severn Barrage last year, it made us think. All that wasted effort and money, with a gap of only five miles from where they’d started over at Brean Down, and down in Lavernock, our side. But it wouldn’t return the investment. So now there are two enormous concrete piers in the Severn. Everybody calls it a catastrophe. But we can learn from it. The graffiti’ s fantastic they say.

One of my blogging butties calls these days the dangerous here and now. I love that phrase. Because, dangerous or not, this now is the best time of my life.

Yes, it’s different from the past. People say it’s ‘the Emergency’. But somehow it’s more real. I’ve learned to look around and ask what’s here – the land, the weather – and be involved in it all. I think about history and how it made us. Language, even. After all this time Welsh makes sense. Now I know what melin and pandy mean, and why those places are called what they’re called. Melin and pandy and ton and gwaith and nant. How they explain the land and what we do with it. As if words themselves were the landscape. Words like deri.

But you know I’m not one of the new Luddites. Moaning on in sackcloth they’ve woven themselves. Or the smug greenies, saying I-told-you-so. Those tipi villages on the banks of the Taff and the Rhymni? You won’t catch me there. Look, I’m not knocking it because in a way the Jeremiahs were right. But I still have faith in The Web. There’s wisdom there for all to find. Yes, the Web will stop that dog-eat-dog attitude we had before the banking crash. And that attitude is still a threat.

The Web shows we cannot return to the old life before the Emergency. There’ll never be business as usual again. Oil was finite and we wasted it. Then all the alternatives, like ethanol, caused problems.

But there’s a billion bloggers out there with ingenious schemes. And an infinity of practical tips. Where did this ink come from? The Web of course. It’s adapted from a medieval recipe.

Wind? The turbines on Mynydd Maendy are vital now. But the thousands of wind farms will never happen. A windmill is beautiful, turbines big as the Eiffel Tower are scary. As to solar, it’s coming. Ha ha. The government says hang on, it’s almost here. Latest plan is painting solar cells on to houses. I’m not holding my breath. But you’ll see it.

True, I never thought we’d run out of… things. There I was, playing Assassin’s Creed on the Play Station, with a takeaway chicken tikka in a polystyrene tray on the desk, a 35p energy drink in an aluminium can, which I’d crumple and chuck, to wash it down. Your father the eco-criminal.

As to politicians, they were always too late. Politics tried to catch up but events just raced away. Suddenly we were telling schools to teach kids to grow food. And how to cook that food. Because the parents, including me, were clueless. We were brought up on TV dinners, so children like you were in charge.

All down to energy, see. And resources. They realised that energy was too important to waste building another rugby stadium.  The government was screaming about making it a producer society, not a consumer society. Because we’d consumed too much. We’d become locusts. So now we had to learn to produce. And I don’t mean plasma screens and Domino’s pizzas, I mean vegetables and DIY manuals and clean water and, yes, art.

The government came up with was a slogan. They’re good at slogans. Nobody spoke about your carbon footprint any more. It was too late for that. But your ‘intellectual footprint’ was the official phrase now. Make yours as big as possible.

After the National Curriculum was abandoned schools became more independent. And they’re smaller, like the one in our street. Cooking, IT, practical science and DIY before 11.a.m when the power’s on. Then gardening, language, maths and the arts – poetry, painting, music – when it’s off.  Brilliant.

Thinking back, I liked school. But when I left I couldn’t boil an egg, grow spuds, change a plug, a tyre or a ball cock. Result? Grief all my life. Now the children run in, happy to learn. And all these schools have their own windmills.

Libraries too. There’s queues for the books and CDs. I used to think libraries were for old people. That libraries weren’t cool.  Well nobody says cool anymore.  We use love instead. And you know what I love? Reading those haiku things in kitchen candlelight. Just little poems, brilliant things, flickering on the page as the candle flame twists and our shadows conspire. I know some off by heart. Here’s one by this character, Issa. Around the time the ironworks were coming to Dowlais, Issa was wandering around Japan, writing poems. Just like some are doing here.

A bath when you’re born

and a bath when you die.

How stupid.

Why has it taken me fifty years to discover that? How stupid. Then there’s that pub, the Old House, in Llangynwyd. They say the building dates from 1150. Apparently they’ve started these triban writing competitions there again. Harder than haiku. It was the centre for local writers, centuries back, and it’s going great. Too far for us to get to, but good to know about. Cracking website, but they say you can’t beat it live.

I remember 2000, the fuel crisis. A warning we ignored. But suddenly oil became too precious to waste making crisp packets. Biofuel? Another pipe dream. All it meant was using a field to grow a crop to turn into a liquid to put into a petroltank so we could drive to see the Dan yr Ogof dinosaurs. Remember them? Now petrol and ethanol are rationed, and boy, are they expensive.

‘Stay home’ is our new mantra. To grow food. To produce, not consume.  Oh yes, consuming is over. We’re producers now. Got to be. And we look after our water. Here, of course, we’ve ample. But it takes energy to pump and heat it. These water wheels they’re building are fine with me, and Dwr Cymru has used sonar to track the tributaries of the Great Spring of Glamorgan.

No, I’d never heard of it before. But six million gallons of fresh water were coming out at Ewenni every day, the cleanest water you’ll ever taste. From a glacier that melted ten thousand years ago in the Beacons.

What’s also great are the seaweed farms down in Ogmore. They were growing it for biofuel, but people said, no, we’ll eat it. The first man doing it is a hero there. He had a driftwood bonfire going and boiled a ton of the stuff. And gave it away, like a soup kitchen. But this was laverbread and the idea’s taken off.

As I keep saying, any food shortages will be sorted out by the new Genetic Engineering Institute. It’s being built near Chepstow, where the army camp was. No-one can get near, it’s all hush hush.

Yes, there are thousands of great schemes. That’s why they’re calling this period the People’s Renaissance. Creativity is a duty now. It could keep us alive. You won’t remember, but we were going to build the new Hollywood on the opencast at Llanharri. True! Well someone’s planting a sweet chestnut forest there now. Government wants us to eat nuts and bake with nut flour. Why not when it’s so much warmer?

Strange but you see more smoke than before. There’s coal being burned. Illegal yes, but it’s all around us. Gangs go into shafts and opencast craters because of black market prices. Okay, I’ve done it myself. There’s that ton in the back garden, because we can’t trust the gas coming through. Yes, for some the black economy is the only economy. You can get mutton and venison, petrol or bio. But it costs.

Around here we were almost ready for the Emergency. After 200 years, we still had roots in the co-operative movement. So we’re good at working together. And all those time-banking schemes, like Creation in Blaengarw, have really expanded. Credit unions are flourishing, while the local currencies are fine by me. Just don’t end up being paid in Treorci dollars when you live in Troedyrhiw.

Yes, we were ready. And it’s better now. I actually talk to neighbours, and we make sure the oldsters are fine. Funny, I used to think Neighbourhood Watch was consumer paranoia. Middle class people scared of losing their X Boxes. But it’s just about mucking in. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

Hey, real writing’s hard work. I’ll stop now because the neighbours are coming round. Plus your uncle in his latest electric car. Flash git, but he’s bringing his luxury nettle soup. Because Saturday night is story night.  Everybody cooks and we share the booze. Yes, that gooseberry wine. From the south side of the allotment. Like a good Sauvignon Blanc. And we’ll sit in the candlelight, telling our stories. You see, that’s what I’ve learned. That everybody has a story. You have so many already, in so few years. Yet before all this, I never had the chance to tell mine.

Yes, I love story telling. It’s why we’re on the planet. To tell stories about how it was in the past, or what we’re doing in this dangerous here and now. First time when they asked me to join in, I was scared. Didn’t have a clue. But now when I’ve finished telling a tale, and people laugh or slap me on the back, or are quiet for a moment, it seems the most important thing I’ll ever do. Hey, maybe I’ll read this. Maybe I will.

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The simple choice that will determine our future

During the Masters I’ve seen some scary charts and statistics about the speed at which we’re either pumping C02 into the atmosphere or destroying rainforest or the like.  I don’t put these on this blog as they’re just too depressing.

However, I got sent this recently published article from Rolling Stone magazine.  Written by Bill McKibben, it is the most compelling, powerful and scary piece I’ve seen on our predicament.  The reason I’m posting it is because I think it can represent an important moment in whether we, as humans, decide whether we want to act and stop Climate Change.

So, why is it so compelling, powerful and scary?  Because McKibben, to make the things really simple for everyone, has boiled the whole issue down to three numbers.  That’s all you need to know.  Three numbers.

Those numbers are:

2 degrees Celsius:  Scientists agree that this is the upper limit that its safe for us to warm the planet before the wheels start to fall off.  Read that as massive, unpredictable environmental events that will cripple global food supplies, put countries under water, cause water and food wars.  All that stuff and more.  Not good.

565 Gigatons:  This is the amount of carbon dioxide (give or take) that humans can pour into the atmosphere before we reach that 2 degree celsius figure. On current course, we’ll get there mid-century i.e. in about 40 years.

2,795 Gigatons:  This is the amount of carbon contained within the proven oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and fossil-fuel countries (e.g. Saudi or Kuwait).  Yes, 2,795 is roughly five times bigger than 565.   So, the answer is simple, right?  Stop the energy companies and countries from getting it out of the ground and burning it.  However, whilst the reserves are still in the soil, it’s already economically above ground on balance sheets and in government spending plans.  To prevent those companies and countries from getting the reserves out of the ground is to effectively cripple them.  And those companies and countries are amongst the most powerful in the world.  As McKibben puts it:

“If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.”

So, if the fossil-fuel companies and countries keep their reserves in their pants we might all survive.  If they don’t, then we don’t.  It’s that simple.

So here’s the deal.  We, the people, have to act to keep the carbon in the ground.  We have to do it because governments have proven that can’t act collectively (see Copenhagen and Rio+20) and big business want to grow.  So, we have to lobby those companies and countries and/or dramatically lower our own footprints and come to terms considerable changes in lifestyle that will entail.  Life will be different and in some ways harder.  If we fail to make that choice and act then life will become much, much more difficult than if we had acted.

So, the choice is clear.  And if we don’t act, now that we know the risks, then frankly, we kinda deserve what we get.  In about 40 years.  Just sayin’ how it is.  Is this depressing?  Actually, no.  This is about taking control, having agency and having some say in what happens in the future, rather than having that future thrust upon us.  It’s all about how you frame it.

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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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How much is enough?

Following on from my Ethiopia experience, a recurrent question is ‘How much is enough?’

This already sounds really boring and worthy, but curiously, it is quite an interesting question.  If I take ‘media/entertainment’ items and remember what we had in our family home (four people) 25 years ago and compare them to what is in a family home now, I end up with a couple of lists like this:

25 years ago

One television (in the living room)

A couple of radios (in the kitchen and in the bedroom)

A couple of Hi-Fi’s (one in the living room and the other in a bedroom)

A VHS player (in the living room)

Two telephones (one downstairs and one upstairs)

A Walkman (because I was really cool)

So about 9 items

Okay then, was that enough?  Too much?  Not enough?  Does it matter?


Five televisions (living room, kitchen and three bedrooms)

Two landlines (downstairs and upstairs)

Five mobiles (one for everyone plus one more)

Three laptops (family one, one parent and one child)

Two games consoles (Wii and one more)

Two handheld (e.g. DS or PSP)

DVD Player

Sky/Digital TV box

One kindle or ipad

Four ipods

I make that 26

Okay then, is that enough?  Is that too much?  Not enough?  Does it matter?

The number has grown two and half times in 25 years.  If it grew by two and a half times in the next 25 years, that would make it about 70 items in a household.

Is that enough?  Is that too much?  Not enough?  Does it matter?

(70 sounds ridiculous to me, but then I guess saying that everyone is going to have a TV, a phone and a personal music player would have sounded ridiculous 25 years ago.)

This is the bit where it does get annoying (if it hasn’t already) is if I ask if the ‘How much is enough?’ question in relation to other areas of my life and the lives I see of those around me?

One answer this is see how many self-storage places that have sprung up in recent years.  Created to provide space for all the stuff that you don’t use.  What a genius business.

But, more importantly, does anyone have an answer to ‘How much is enough?’  How much economic growth is enough? How much removal of the rainforest is enough?  Perhaps even more importantly, is anyone even asking the question?  All I know is that if you keep on with an unstoppable increase in what you do, it normally doesn’t have a happy ending.

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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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Rotten Apple

Quite a bit in the press recently about Apple and it’s lack of concern about how its products are made.  I think this provides a really fascinating moment in time for consumers to decide what they value.

Many Apple products are made in China.  There’s this chilling article in the New York Times that basically says that Apple are aware of and don’t care about the frankly horrendous conditions that workers making iphones and ipads have to put up with.  Part of this is due to the success of the products that mean that they are forced to make them faster than is safe.  So, for example, those cleaning iphone screens should use alcohol.  But, alcohol takes time to evaporate.  So as the article says:

“Investigations by news organizations revealed that over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis.  Employees said they had been ordered to use n-hexane to clean iPhone screens because it evaporated almost three times as fast as rubbing alcohol. Faster evaporation meant workers could clean more screens each minute.”

As well as this there are suicides, explosions due to aluminium dust that have killed workers as well as the 6 day a week, 12 hour days.  Basically, Apple supports 21st Century Work Houses.

As one former Apple executive puts it: “Most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”

So, what does all of this mean?  To me, what’s interesting is what will consumers do?

At what point, if at all, will consumers make a value judgement?  When will they, if at all, decide that the way the iphone 5 or ipad 3 is made runs against their sense of equality and justice?  Or is the fate and treatment of Chinese factory workers less important than their desire for the kit?

In a way and if you wanted to get all patriotic about it, the Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

 So, if ALL men and created equal (so that includes Chinese factory workers) then given the conditions that Apple are knowingly putting those workers through, Apple don’t support the Declaration.  They don’t seem to be big on Life (if the workers want to commit suicide), Liberty (forced to work 72 hour weeks) and it’s doesn’t seem the sort of conditions you’d chose to pursue Happiness.
Back to the consumers of Apple products.  If they are aware of the conditions of the workers, then, by association are arguably being un-American.

So, this is approaching Apple from one ‘negative’ angle.

What makes Apple even more interesting is fact that Apple products are made to be replaced on a short cycle.  From a sustainability point of view, it would be easy to argue that no other single company is more responsible for contributing to both our never-ending desire for more stuff that we arguably don’t need (we didn’t need a tablet before, but now we do), but also the desire to replace the perfectly workable stuff with new, flashier stuff.  E.g. iphone, iphone 3, iphone 3s, iphone 4, iphone 4s were all introduced in just over 4 years (2007-2011).

Given the amount of rare metals and resources that go into making Apple products, again, at what point, if at all, will consumers decide that the environment is more important than their desire to have the newest, latest kit, some of which they didn’t need before?

Is it possible to join these two points together?

If the mounting evidence of Apple’s business practices aren’t enough to get those people to stop buying Apple, the question becomes ‘How bad would Apple’s behaviour have to be in order to get them to stop buying Apple?’

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When the world’s richest met the world’s poorest

There’s this website where you can put in your salary and compare how much you earn not just to the rest of the UK, but to the rest of the world.  It tells you that if you earn the average wage in the UK or above (>c.£25k) then you’re in the top 1% of global earners.  To be in the top 1% doesn’t require you to drive a Ferrari or own a yacht.  It requires you to work at M&S.

I only remembered the above when I was on the plane back from Ethiopia, where I’ve been for two weeks, doing some work for the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) into what they need to say to farmers to encourage them to adopt new farming practices.  Beyond the specifics of the project, which was fascinating, there was one incident that has had a significant impact on me.  It’s an incident that highlighted the differences between the world’s richest (me) and the world’s poorest (Ethiopian farmers).

We were just outside a town called Soro, about 4 hours south of Addis Ababa.  We had been interviewing farmers all day on their attitudes and uptake of new farming technologies and practices.  We learnt that the farmers grow their crops which, typically, provided them with enough food for their family to eat as well as enough to sell to provide the money to buy seeds and fertiliser for the next season.  If they were lucky, then they had enough excess crop to buy things like clothes or send their children to school.  So, this is ‘less than a dollar a day’ living.  These are some of the poorest people in the world.

At the end of the day two of us, an Addis local and myself, wanted to know if it would be okay to take a peak in one of the farmers huts that we’d seen so many of on the journey to Soro and indeed on other travels around the country.  Indeed, there are 80 million people in Ethiopia and about 85% of them are farmers and I understand that the majority of those live in these type of huts.  That’s a lot of people.

The government Development Agent said that was fine and walked us down the track and introduced us to the family living in a beautiful hut with a painted exterior.

We went inside.

The first thing that stuck me was how dark and cool it was.  It was nearly 6pm, so the sun was going down but inside it was a refreshing change from the heat of the day.  However, if they didn’t light a fire soon, there was going to be no light.  There was no electricity, no gas, no solar lights, no kerosene lamp.  Indeed, there seemed to be nothing that wasn’t made of grass, mud or wood, other than farming implements.

The circular hut had a mud floor with a central pillar (like a mast on a ship).   It had a diameter of about 4 metres so the total floor space was like a studio flat in London.  Similar to a studio flat, there was a space for eating (table and bench seating), cooking (a fire pit) and sleeping (a double bed).  However, this was all in front half of the hut (i.e. half the space).  There was a partition down the centre behind which was an empty floor.

The reason for this became clear when I realised how many people lived in the hut.  There were the two parents with baby twins, three boys under the age of 10 and two elder daughters and a grandfather.  So, that’s ten people.  I guess that the parents slept on the bed with the twins.  This would mean that everybody else slept on the mud floor behind the partition.    However, there was also another slightly sectioned off area inside.  What was this for?  It was for their two oxen that slept in the hut with the family every night.

What to think about all this?  Sad?  Lucky?  Guilty?   Not sure.

My confusion over what to think was compounded when we conducted a focus group of village elders.  These included the mayor of the village and the local judge.  At the end of the group, the judge stood up, made a speech and blessed the meeting.  Someone then bought in a huge round of freshly made bread and some honey as means to close the session and for us to share a meal.

Interestingly, the honey tasted smokey.  “Why does the honey taste smokey?”  I asked.  “Because they had to smoke the bees out of the hive this morning in order to get the honey for us to eat” was the answer.

I have never been thanked by anyone for asking questions before.  Let alone a judge and a mayor.  And never been given a gift for being a guest in someone’s place.  I would always take a gift as the guest, not expect to receive a gift for being the guest.

So, what to think?  What it’s like to meet and spend at least a little time with those at polar opposite of the income spectrum?

I guess my response to that is ‘balance’ in that both lifestyles represent an imbalance.  They have too little and that I have too much.  That I live in a society that’s gone for ‘stuff’, individualism and consumerism and places a reduced emphasis on community.  That they haven’t got enough ‘stuff’ but have a remarkable sense of community and family (by circumstance rather than choice perhaps).

However, I do understand that it’s possible to romanticise that life of a farmer and I would not want to do that.  From the stories that we heard and what we saw, it’s back-breaking, grinding work, generation after generation.  However, I believe it’s equally incorrect to romanticise the Western way of life.  Who says that being in the top 1% of earners is the best place to be?  Just because this is what qualifies as ‘success’ by our Western culture, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the richest life.  Study after study about the deteriorating mental and physical health of those in the West is testament to that.  Now maybe I’m being naïve in saying this.  I’m coming from a position of financial security and I’m making these grand statements as a result of being in Ethiopia for a couple of weeks.  Perhaps that’s a fair point.  However, equally, it could be arrogant thinking of the rich to believe that it’s naïve?  To believe that being financially rich is a key (if not the key) definition of success – GDP growth us the only measure in town – seems remarkably narrow-minded to me.

What does it all mean?  Am I going to try and do more work in Ethiopia?  Perhaps.  Am I going to donate money to the country?  I doubt it.  Have I had my perspective altered about what I should consider important in life?  Definitely.

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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?’