29 August 2009

Tobin Tax & Ethical Currency

From The Guardian (UK), via Share The World's Resources, August 2009

'For decades economists have rejected James Tobin's proposal to protect national economies from speculators by taxing foreign currency transactions. Yet the global financial crisis has generated new support amongst policy makers for Tobin's transaction tax brainchild, says Larry Elliott...

Tobin, who was born in 1918 and died in 2002, outlined his proposal in 1972, just after the break-up of the Bretton Woods fixed-exchange-rate system. The idea was simple: there should be a tax on foreign currency transactions that would allow national governments to stop their economies being at the mercy of speculators...

The first line of attack for the authorities will be higher capital requirements to prevent financial institutions from speculating so wildly during booms.

But Turner [chairman of the Financial Services Authority] adds: "If increased capital requirements are insufficient I am happy to consider taxes on financial transactions – Tobin taxes. Such taxes have long been the dream of the development economists and those who care about climate change – a nice sensible revenue source for funding global public goods."

Turner says that the sheer scale of the crisis means nothing should be ruled out. "What has occurred has imposed huge economic harm throughout the world and so we really do have to work out how to stop it happening again in five or ten years' time," he said in today's interview. "And that requires a very major reconstruct of the global financial system."...

But not everyone is waiting for regulators to start taxing City profits. Today, Ethical Currency will become the first foreign exchange broker in the world to voluntarily ringfence 0.005% of all its transactions into a single pot that will go to the Global Fund, set up to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

Founded by foreign exchange trader Alastair Constance, Ethical Currency has been warmly received by campaigners. The timing of its launch, they say, comes as the financial crisis is having an adverse effect on poor nations. Oxfam estimates the number of people facing chronic hunger will rise to 1 billion. And the Global Fund, which buys life-saving drugs and distributes them to poor countries, is facing severe shortfalls in funding.'

Community Innovation Framework

From Nuopolis, August 2009

'Communities—cities, towns, villages, regions—can create the conditions that stimulate social innovators to transform the performance of local systems like education, economic development, health care, and more. But in most places, civic leaders don't know enough about how to do this and often shortchange their efforts or bog down in traps that could be avoided.

...By community innovation we mean changes in a local system that generate dramatic, not just incremental, boosts in the system's performance. For example, a change that reduces the education system's dropout rate from 50%—the big city average—to 10% or that reduces the transportation system's energy consumption and greenhouse gas production by 30%.

...Community innovation is a process whose effectiveness depends on a set of capacities in the community.

The process involves a progression through “stage gates”—simply put, moving from concept to prototype to launch to scaling up—with the innovation’s feasibility, sustainability, and potential impact assessed at each stage. It is a complex, managed process that requires ideas, knowledge, skills, investment, testing, assessment, and, eventually, some degree of local support and acceptance.

Innovation developers - the idea generators - use their expertise and passion to develop and implement an innovation or set of innovations for a particular local system. They have deep understanding of how a system works and focus their energy on ideas for improvement; they may be working inside the system or outside the system as an independent innovation developer. But innovators don’t usually conduct the innovation process by themselves; they play an indispensable role, but so do three other types of players in the community.

  • Civic innovation brokers see the need for broad change in the community and use their standing, connections, assets, and other resources to help prepare the local environment for change in general and to support particular innovations. Civic brokers are likely to be well connected, independent actors often working behind the scenes with a vision of community betterment.

  • System change agents have authority or standing in a particular local system (education, land use planning, business retailing) and decide to champion changes in the system. System change agents focus on the complex system they run; usually they are professionals with experience at balancing the many and often competing interests at work in the system and preparing the system for change.

  • Innovation investors provide risk capital for innovation development, and may attract other investors to innovation projects. Innovation investors typically work in philanthropic organizations and, more rarely, in government agencies. Sometimes a local business or high-wealth individual will invest in innovation development. An essential skill for investor success is the ability to run rigorous “due diligence” on proposed innovation investments.
...elements of a local innovation infrastructure:
  • Innovation Incubating. Provide technical assistance to local innovators, giving them access to consultants (from inside or outside the community) with expertise in the field relevant to the innovation and with experience in developing concepts and prototypes, implementation, and scaling up. This support could involve rigorous review of the innovator’s ideas; help designing prototypes and planning implementation; development of strategies to obtain investment; and more. There are many ways to deliver this assistance:

    • a venture forum in which innovators pitch their ideas to panels of experts and investors;
    • a more traditional client-consultant process;
    • a peer-to-peer exchange in which innovators critique each other’s ideas;
    • a prize process that has innovators apply for resources through a process that assesses multiple innovation plans and selects the best for support.

    What matters is that innovators experience an in-depth examination—“tough love,” no holds barred—of their ideas and work that leads them to develop strong plans for the next stage of the innovation development process.

  • Innovation Importing. Aggressively seek to identify the “edge of innovation” in fields of importance for community change. Whatever the quality and quantity of locally developed potential innovations, communities should know what the state-of-the-art of innovation is in a field and should be open to bringing high-potential ideas into the community. Importing starts with scanning for innovations in selected fields and then considering what local adaptations may be needed to make particular innovations work. Multiple communities can team up to conduct importing activities, since they don’t have to feel proprietary about innovations from elsewhere.

  • Innovator Networks. Using meetings, events, Web sites, projects, and other tools, connect innovators to each other—to share their war stories and zeal; to coach each other and enter into promising collaborations. Connect innovators to the community’s civic innovation brokers, system change agents, and investors. Connect them to potential mentors in the community. In short, build relationships among innovators so they know, support, and work with each other more easily and more often. At the same time, honor innovator effort and success through awards and other recognition. Through recognition and connections, strengthen a “culture of innovation” in the community.

  • Innovation Funding. Bring together investors—from philanthropy, government, and business organizations, and individuals—to assess the availability of innovation capital; explore ways to coordinate their investment strategies and transactions; and to consider adopting and implementing high standards for due diligence on innovation proposals.

  • Innovation Stimulus. Conduct serious review of the performance of key systems serving the community and identify the “brutal facts” of performance that community members should know and system leaders should be accountable for improving. Increasing pressure on local systems to boost performance helps to increase demand for innovations and creates more “room” for innovators to do their work.'

Robin Hood Tax on Banks

From the new economics foundation 'Triple Crunch' blog, via The Times (UK) August 2009

Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, an influential figure in the reform of banking rules in London and beyond, said that the City had grown “beyond a socially reasonable size”, accounting for too much of national output and sucking in too many of Britain’s brightest graduates.

“I think some of it is socially useless activity,” he said, adding that the financial sector had “swollen beyond its socially useful size” and seemed to make excessively large profits.

'...nef has been long been proposing that regulators curb the power of the financial sector with taxes, and using the revenue generated to finance more socially beneficial schemes. Back in 2001, when the current recession was just a glint in the speculator’s eye, we wrote a report with War on Want in which we proposed a “Robin Hood Tax” or Tobin Tax to divert funds away from the global currency market into funds for peace and international development.

When the report was released, nef Policy Director Andrew Simms argued that a tax of this kind would be “an automatic and politically painless way to help pay for international targets on sustainable development”. Today, when the voting public are still furious about continued bonuses and profiteering in the City, the tax would not only be politically painless, but politically therapeutic.'

Procurers Urged to Add Social Clauses

From Social Enterprise Live, August 2009

'Local authorities and health trusts will be urged to introduce social clauses into contracts as part of a new programme, launched in Scotland next week.

Scottish social enterprise support organisation CEiS, Senscot and Social Firms Scotland have joined forces to develop Ready For Business, a programme that aims to bring together social enterprises and contract-awarding bodies.'

Four Smart Steps to Social Intrapreneurship

From Greenbiz, August 2009

'In "Making Your Impact at Work: A Practical Guide to Saving the World from Inside Any Company" (PDF), Net Impact outlines why social intrapreneurship makes sense for you and your company even in the current economic climate. As an employee, you can gain valuable leadership skills, advance your career, and find ways to bring your ideals to work by producing concrete social, environmental and economic benefits for your organization. Companies, in turn, can gain from increased employee engagement, new market opportunities, reduced costs and waste, enhanced recruitment and retention, and a host of other benefits that come from having active social intrapreneurs amidst their ranks...

...sometimes even after an initial trial period, your coworkers might still be throwing recyclables in the trash bin. When this happens, as it inevitably will, be persistent. There are times when a lack of management support, low volunteer sign-ups, and diminished budgets confront every social intrapreneur. Expect these challenges and keep moving forward.

Staying resilient and committed pays off in the end. Take it from Lisa Neuberger-Fernandez at Accenture, who eventually received an offer for a full-time sustainability position based on her work coordinating internal green teams: " Who says that your work cannot further your personal passion and commitments? If you are creative, driven, and flexible, you will be able to find a way for your interests to converge with your job."...

Not everyone in your company is going to be as concerned about or motivated by sustainability as you are. And many in your company may not even think that social and environmental principles apply to their work at all.

For that reason, Suzanne Henricksen of Clorox advises that "education is crucially important, so don't just surround yourself with like-minded people…bring people along for the ride by talking with them about your vision, not at them."'

The Tourist & The Fisherman

...I've always loved this parable!

An American tourist was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.

Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The tourist complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The tourist then asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?"

The Mexican said, "With this I have more than enough to support my family's needs."

The tourist then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life."

The tourist scoffed, " I can help you. You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats.

Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery.

You would control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you could run your ever-expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?"

The tourist replied, "15 to 20 years."

"But what then?" asked the Mexican.

The tourist laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions?...Then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos..."

The Surprising Science of Motivation

Autonomy - Mastery - Purpose

TED Talks, August 2009

'Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don't: Traditional rewards aren't always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories -- and maybe, a way forward.'

What Does a City Without Advertising Look Like?

Oh, the aesthetic joy of less visual clutter!

From Worldwatch's
'Transforming Cultures' Blog, August 2009

'What would happen if a city banned outdoor advertising? The city of São Paulo did that back in 2006. Looking to see if the ban was still in effect today turned up this little video on the blog The Pop-Up City. Take a look to see how different São Paulo looks now that it isn’t blanketed by shells, golden arches, and other corporate logos.'

28 August 2009

Kick It Over Manifesto

From Adbusters

"We, the undersigned, make this accusation: that you, the teachers of neoclassical economics and the students that you graduate, have perpetuated a gigantic fraud upon the world.

You claim to work in a pure science of formula and law, but yours is a social science, with all the fragility and uncertainty that this entails.

We accuse you of pretending to be what you are not.

You hide in your offices, protected by your mathematical jargon, while in the real world, forests vanish, species perish and human lives are callously destroyed. We accuse you of gross negligence in the management of our planetary household.

You have known since its inception that one of your measures of economic progress, the Gross Domestic Product, is fundamentally flawed and incomplete, and yet you have allowed it to become a global standard, reported day in, day out in every form of media. We accuse you of recklessly projecting an illusion of progress.

You have done great harm, but your time is coming to a close. Your systems are crumbling, your flaws increasingly laid bare.

An economic revolution has begun, as hopeful and determined as any in history. We will have our clash of economic paradigms, we will have our moment of truth, and out of each will come a new economics – open, holistic, human‑scale.

On campus after campus, we will chase you old goats out of power.

Then, in the months and years that follow, we will begin the work of reprogramming your doomsday machine."

Sign the manifesto at

Better Than Shopping

From The Ecologist, August 2009

'Avoid buying pointless stuff and start saving cash - here are some cheap, fun and interesting things to do

We all have to shop, and sometimes it can be fun. But we live in an age where shopping is one of the most popular leisure activities, and surely there must be more interesting, useful and enjoyable things to do than go shopping? Also, times are tight and many of us are having to reduce our spending. So what are some of the cheap things we can do that are better than shopping?

1. Play Playing is great. Remember when you were young and used to do it all the time? As we get older it's easy to forget how good it is to play, so why not remind yourself by having a muck about? Play a game, play some sport, do some exercise, play with the dog, or just generally mess about.

2. Connect It sometimes feels like we never spend enough time with the people we care about. Instead of shopping, you could spend some time with your friends, visit your family, meet your neighbours, get in touch with old friends or even just stroke your cat.

3. Explore It always used to be fun to explore when we were kids, And there's no reason we should stop as adults. You could explore your local area and see id there are things you're not discovered or noticed before, visit somewhere new or go on a mystery tour by catching the next bus and seeing where it takes you!

4. Read Reading can help you relax and learn as well as open up new places, ideas and opportunities. But it's easy to not find the time for it. So, instead of going shopping, curl up with a book and a cup of tea.

5. Learn Learning shouldn't be something that we stop doing when we leave school. There's always something interesting and useful to learn - for example, learn about the world around you, research your family tree, visit a museum or art gallery or try a new language.'

A Textbook Insurgency!

...a must-read for anyone interested in tackling causes as well as symptoms...

From Adbusters'
Thought Control in Economics issue, Sept/Oct 2009


Natural capital: Why are we selling it off and calling it income?
Overshoot: What is the cost of a dying planet?
Progress: Does anyone know if we’re moving forwards or backwards?
True Cost: Why aren’t the prices of products telling the ecological truth?
Happiness: What does it have to do with our curriculums?


When the Going Gets Tough: Post-meltdown, economists unleash a deafening silence.

Flawed Foundations: Neoclassical ideology is built on an obsolete science.

Confessions of a Radical Economics Professor: Students are baffled when Julie Matthaei advances radical debate in her classroom.

Econophysics: Today’s globalized economy can learn a few lessons from modern physics.

Can Economists Improve the Human Condition? Neoclassical ideology is wholly indifferent to the complexity of life.

Whirlpools and Turbulent Flows: Economics can no longer deny chaos theory or the interconnectedness of nature.

Meet the Mavericks

Renegade thinkers like Frederick Soddy, Paul Samuelson, Lourdes Benería, George Akerlof, Joseph Stiglitz, Herman Daly and Evo Morales are some of the inspiring people who are catalyzing a monumental mind shift in economics.

Your Place in the Revolution

At critical times throughout history, university students have sparked massive protests, calling their leaders on their lies and steering their nations in brave new directions. Learn some of the ways you can help bring down neoclassical economics.

The Oldest Profession

From www.steadystate.org

A surgeon, an engineer and an economist were arguing which was the oldest profession.

The surgeon said, "On the seventh day of creation, God removed a rib from Adam's body to create Eve. This is obviously surgery, so my profession is the oldest."

The engineer argued, "But on the first day of creation, God built the universe out of chaos. This is a magnificent engineering task, so my profession is the oldest."

Then the economist asked, "And who do you believe created the chaos in the first place?"

Hempcrete - Carbon Negative Hemp Walls

...will forever have people asking 'what would happen if it burned down?!'

Inhabitat, 2009

'Buildings account for thirty-eight percent of the CO2 emissions in the U.S., according to the U.S. Green Building Council, and demand for carbon neutral and/or zero footprint buildings is at an all-time high. Now there is a new building material that is not just carbon neutral, but is actually carbon negative'.

26 August 2009

Social Media Revolution

Where the eyeballs are...

Intolerable Beauty - Chris Jordan

Clip from Greener Gadgets - love your work, Chris

The Consumption Paradox

Although we are more materially well off than at any previous time in history, we are, on the whole, less satisfied and experiencing higher levels of anxiety and other impacts on our wellbeing.

We have more time saving devices than ever, but are somehow also still time poor. We work ever harder to make things easier for ourselves and our families. And debt is no longer a restraint, but an enabler of consumption...

Waste Management Association of Australia
Conference Presentation

Adelaide, July 2008

'Avoid' is the most preferable layer of the waste hierarchy, and can be defined as avoiding the need to produce materials or products that will become waste.

Avoid also means that in order to give full effect to the zero waste ethos, there needs to be a focus on consumption, as well as materials efficiency and recycling.

All of us are consumers - people who have credit cards are consumers. People who live in non-monetary economies, and who derive their living from subsistence farming are consumers, although nowhere as prolific as those who can wield plastic. All human beings want and need material resources both to survive and to enhance our lives.

The ABC recently screened a series called ‘Stuff’ which inquired into the relationship Australians have with their material possessions. Wendy Harmer, writer and presenter of the series, stated:

‘I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the many books, newspaper columns and documentaries that finger-wag about the way we consume. We consume, they say, because we’re “greedy”, “unthinking”, to “show off” to “have power over others”.’ [1]

This humorous and insightful series questioned the contemporary notion that we have too much stuff, and that stuff doesn’t make us happy, noting that we all have possessions that are precious to us, that embody memories and sentiment (especially if they were gifts), and that give us pleasure.

Stuff means different things to different people, and we must be careful not to judge someone’s consumption by our own standards. I have a lot of books that I treasure, but to my sister – who would have read less than five books in her life – they don’t hold the same value.

Similarly, this person’s love of Nintendo toys seems at first glance to be an example of excessive consumption. But is it any better or worse than my books in terms of the enjoyment experienced by the consumer? Are my books a more noble use of financial and physical resources? Who says? And does the planet care to which end its resources are used?

It is true that we need to consume to survive, to meet our needs, to fulfil our wants and to enjoy our lives. There is nothing inherently bad about consumption. But if consumption is an end in itself - if it is the main focus of individuals or government policy - it can threaten the well-being of people and the environment.

As consumers and as citizens, we have a responsibility to ask - is there a point at which consumption can become pathological? Where is that point for ourselves as individuals, as a nation, as a species? What are the consequences? And what can we do about them?

In light of such a question, two of the dictionary definitions of consumption are intriguing:

con*sump*tion –noun [kuhn-suhmp-shuhn]
- the act of consuming, as by use, decay, or destruction
- pathology - progressive wasting of the body

In a few short decades since the end of World War II, the OECD nations have evolved consumer societies unprecedented in human history, powered by the availability of cheap fossil fuels and an abundance of resources.

In doing so, we have become the most effective species in the history of this planet in modifying landscapes to deliver the resources we need and want.

Although some gains have been made with recycling and resource efficient manufacturing approaches, the materials life cycle in human economies today is still largely based on a linear flow of resources and energy, the ‘take-make-waste’ model.

There is currently a great deal of concern about climate change, carbon targets, emissions trading and so on. But we have yet to make the link that possibly apart from electricity for lighting and heating, we are not burning the calorific legacy of fossil fuels as an end in itself.

We burn fossil fuels to grow, harvest, mine, transport, manufacture, use and dispose of stuff.

If we are going to successfully address both climate change and zero waste, we must focus on the link between greenhouse emissions, climate change, and addressing the higher half of the waste hierarchy.

And if we are going to do this, then we need to understand what the drives the ability and the desire to consume.

Because We Can…And Because Its Fun!

One of the reasons we consume beyond our needs is simply because we can - the average serf of the 15th century, farmer of the 17th century or factory worker of the 19th century could only dream of the material standard of living many of us enjoy today. If we have the means to consume – why wouldn’t we?

A close relative of ‘because we can’ is ‘because its fun’ – it is pleasurable to buy and have things, have a comfortable material standard of living, to be able to give to others, and to express our identity.

Humanity has done spectacularly well in fulfilling its material requirements and wants – although many people today still lack their basic needs, there is also an unprecedented number of people whose material living standards are higher than those of an average citizen at any previous time in history.

Planned Obsolescence: Made to Break

The concept of planned obsolescence means products are designed to either be disposable, superseded or break down and need replacing, thereby ensuring a future market.

Planned obsolescence is evident everywhere in our throwaway society. It is frustratingly apparent every time we are told it is cheaper to buy a new one than it would be to repair our current one, and when technology is superseded – remember buying the CDs of all the records you already had? DVDs to replace your video tapes? Sure, the technology improves, but it still drives demand for resources and generates waste. In five years, analogue television will no longer be available, requiring millions of set top boxes, and rendering millions of TV sets useless.

What about ‘green’ products? Can we shop our way out of the ecological crisis we now face, which is a crisis of not only peak oil, but ‘peak everything’ – species extinction, declining water supplies, climate change?

Personal consumption decisions may create some practical change, and the impact of a lot of personal consumption decisions may influence supply chains to respond to their markets. However to leave this change-making to the purchasing power of the individual, who may have neither the time, the inclination or the ability to buy anything other than the cheapest product – let alone critically interpret media messages - is nothing short of negligent.

UK journalist and commentator George Monbiot stated:

‘Green consumerism is a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.’ [2]

Perceived Obsolescence: Selling Dissatisfaction

Perceived obsolescence is the discarding of a product not because it has reached the end of its life, but because it is no longer the latest and most fashionable, or no longer satisfies in some way.

This approach was thrust on an unsuspecting public as a deliberate strategy as far back as World War II, when retailing analyst Victor Lebow famously articulated:

‘Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.’ [3]

Marketing and advertising is of course no longer just about promoting a product.

In many cases, its about selling an identity, a lifestyle and ensuring people are kept dissatisfied with what they have, so that they continue to consume more - the newest, the bigger, the better. It is critical to understand that waste is a psychological and social issue, not an engineering problem.

The anxiety and dissatisfaction generated by the gap between the actual self and the desired self, as constructed through the media and advertising, must be maintained to sustain this kind of consumption.

The advertising industry has been successful in keeping consumers in the richest societies in history feeling perpetually deprived.

Hooked on Credit, aka ‘Debt’

Debt - also known as credit - is now itself a consumer good, and is marketed by an increasing number and variety of lenders.

Debt has facilitated the emergence of consumer societies. Offers such as interest free periods, no deposit and no repayments for twelve months allow consumers to ‘fast forward’ the consumption for which they might have had to wait.

Debt enables us to not only consume more, but to do so at a faster rate, and allows us to yield to the constant pressures driven by the strategy of perceived obsolescence.

Debt does not restrict an individual’s consumption as it has done through most of human history – debt now enables more consumption.

Hard Wired to Acquire?

Through the ages, the game for most of humanity (and for many people still today) has been to increase their material standard of living. For generations, acquisitiveness has meant increasing one’s position of power, and survival during lean times. Arguably, our collective conditioning has hard wired us to acquire.

Our elders who lived through the Depression and War years hoarded everything, because things were hard to get, or expensive.

Now there are people who make a living from teaching us how to manage or let go of our clutter. Today in the United States, there is now over 2 billion square feet of storage space (excluding space in private homes), a total of 80 square miles, an area equivalent to three Manhattan Islands.

In a recent survey of over 1,000 Australians, 20% of respondents (who had self-identified as having problems with clutter), said they had built a shed or garage to keep or store things, and one in eight had moved house to accommodate their superfluous ‘stuff’.

One in five people said that the clutter was a source of conflict with their partner or family. Another survey revealed that the average Australian household spent just over $1,200 a year on items that were purchased but never used. Extrapolated nationally, this equates to $10.5 billion, the amount that Australian governments spent on universities and roads combined in the same period. [4]

Cultural Myths

Although high levels of personal debt are an increasing concern for those in debt and the nation as a whole, the associated consumption adds to GDP and makes the economy look good, an overriding concern for governments of all flavours.

However GDP is an indicator that simply adds up the throughput of the economy – counting every car accident, heart attack and break-in as ‘growth’, and omitting the significant and crucial contributions of volunteer and domestic work. It has been described as a ‘Mad Hatter’s’ accounting system.

In a recent survey, 1,000 Australians were asked to respond to the statement ‘A government’s prime objective should be achieving the greatest happiness of the people, not the greatest wealth’. The percentage of people who agreed with this statement was between 73% and 93% in every group when split by both household income and by political affiliation. [5]

Numerous studies show that, above a certain level, increases in income show little or no effect on well-being, yet the pursuit of more may come at the cost of personal relationships, social cohesion, job security and the quality of the environment, all of which do add to personal and national happiness. [6]

It is true that the story of human history has been one of trying to satisfy basic needs, and that ‘…we built up considerable velocity trying to escape the gravitational pull of poverty.’ [7]

But why are we persisting with something that doesn’t seem to be working once material living standards reach a certain point, and certainly won’t work with billions of people who aspire to improve their material living standard on a finite planet?

Modern industrial society believes it is no longer bound by myth, because we equate myth with superstition and the unscientific beliefs of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples. However myth-making is universal to all societies, and plays a role in the stories of every culture.

‘All our great cultural stories - our myths – are…concoctions of fact, belief, and shared-illusion, shaped and polished by frequent repetition and ritualistic affirmation.’ [8]

We love to hold on to our cherished myths, because they have worked for us, and we find it hard to let go when circumstances change.

We have, up until very recently in the human journey, been able to prosper with frontier economics in a world abundant with natural resources. But the world is getting smaller, and more and more people want a share of a shrinking pie.

Drowning in Debt

Financial debt is the most evident, direct cost of consumption.

The personal debt of Australians (excluding housing debt) doubled between 2001 and 2004, and has increased fourfold since 1996. The proportion of people filing for bankruptcy who cite excessive use of credit doubled to 21% between 1999 and 2004. And in the decade to 2002, the ratio of average household debt to income rose from 56% to 125%. [9]

In addition to the direct financial costs in our own society, it must be remembered that some of the costs are also borne by other people along the supply chains.

Consuming the Earth

Consumption impacts on our natural as well as financial capital. All of our consumption patterns generate demand for resources. Even in a service economy, equipment, infrastructure and supplies are still needed to provide the service – and the people providing the service still need to eat.

Wherever our resources come from, we must always remember that highly complex, specialised societies can only evolve and be maintained by the availability of an agricultural surplus.

Population is one element of consumption globally - there are currently just over 6 billion people on the planet, approximately 1.7 billion of whom belong to the ‘global consumer class’, which includes the more affluent citizens of developing nations. Even optimistic projections by the United Nations shows the Earth will have a population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Affluence and technology are equally critical elements influencing consumption, as both enable us to access more of nature’s capacity, and at a faster rate.

There are increasingly loud warnings not only from climate scientists in relation to global warming, but from biologists about species loss and ecosystem collapse, and from resource economists concerning increasing scarcity of everything from coltan to copper.

Most of the global consumer class live in urban areas and can buy in resources from around the world. We are both physically and psychologically divorced from daily dependence on nature, and are not faced with the immediate consequences of our actions.

However if we assume we can continue on our present course - that our consumption patterns can be replicated by the billions of people who are justifiably aspiring to increased material standards of living - we may find ourselves added to the long list of collapsed civilisations that litter history, although this time it could be on a global scale.

Time Consuming

Ironically, part of the reason consumer societies are increasingly time-poor is their stuff. High levels of consumption not only require a lot of money (or debt), but also a lot of time. The ‘joy-to-stuff’ ratio is the time a person has to enjoy life versus the time a person spends accumulating material goods. [10]

Beyond a certain number, things steal time…(they) must be chosen, bought, set up, used, experienced, maintained, tidied away, dusted, repaired, stored, and disposed of. They unavoidably gnaw away at the most restricted of all resources: time. The number of possibilities has exploded in affluent societies, but the day…continues to have only 24 hours. Shortage of time is the nemesis, the revenge, of affluence.[11]

Is there a correlation between high levels of consumer debt and people being increasingly time-poor?

what are you doing to save time?

We have equated more, bigger and faster with ‘good’, and less, smaller and slower with ‘bad’. It could well be our biggest delusion.

The emergence of ‘slow food’, ideas of downshifting, and work-life balance indicates that people are yearning for a gentler pace, and more connectedness to their place and the people in their lives.

Consuming Health & Wellbeing

There is a direct correlation between the volume and type food we consume, sedentary lifestyles where we don’t have time to exercise, and concerns with levels of obesity in our society.

According to 2005 National Health Survey data, 7.4 million Australians are overweight, with 30% of this group categorised as obese. [12] The proportion of adults classified as overweight or obese increased by 10% over the last ten years. [13]

It is no coincidence that the explosion in the rate of obesity has occurred at a time when food, particularly the calorie dense, nutritionally deficient kind – is available 24/7 and continuously marketed.

Financial debt and time poverty associated with high levels of material consumption also take a toll on the mental and emotional health of individuals, families and society.

Research into the incidence of modern day psychological and mental health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression has unearthed a range of predisposing factors.

These include being unemployed, impoverished or living in a dysfunctional family, along with broader social changes such as geographic mobility, urbanisation, changes in family structure. But the foremost factor and common denominator is social isolation.[14]

Consumption promotes the definition of individual identity and focuses our attention on what we are doing to maximise our consumption and generating the income to sustain it.

While people are busy concentrating on the pursuit of individual lifestyles, there is a corresponding retreat from involvement in civic and community life, and a weakening of the social cohesion that has been part of life for centuries.

A 2001 OECD study noted that formal membership and levels of participation in organisations in industrialised countries is waning, particularly in the US and Australia. There is also a decline in informal social interaction, especially with neighbours.[15]

A prominent US social researcher has identified three features of American society which in total may account for at least half of this decline and which have a close link to consumption[16]:
  • time pressures, which are partly or largely associated with working longer hours to support consumption habits
  • urban sprawl, which is a product of car dependence and the desire for larger homes (also related to time pressures of commuting; an hour commute each way is two hours’ less time for other activities each day)
  • extensive television viewing, which promotes consumption through exposure to advertising
In addition, a range of goods and services have been commodified - we now have to pay for things that used to occur as a transaction of trust and friendship, from how we entertain ourselves to how we care for children. Often these commodities – such as child care and fast food - are bought because people are time-pressed from working longer hours.

In a profound departure from the integrated community life, spontaneous social contact and support of extended family, friends and neighbours that has characterised human lifestyles thorough the generations, more affluent societies have begun leading lives that are increasingly privatised and segregated.

The Consumption Paradox

The consumption paradox has many facets – although we are more materially well off than at any previous time in history, we are, on the whole, less satisfied and experiencing higher levels of anxiety and other impacts on our wellbeing.

We have more time saving devices than ever, but are somehow also still time poor.

We work ever harder to make things easier for ourselves and our families.

And debt is no longer a restraint, but an enabler of consumption.

Resolving the consumption paradox will not be easy - our society promotes and celebrates consumption through both our economic system and social constructs.

Here are a couple of approaches we could consider.

The Whole Story

Our key indicators, on which so much decision making is based, are not telling us the whole story. There are numerous indicators on all sorts of issues, but they do not have the pre-eminence our major economic indicators are afforded.

We don’t see the nation’s suicide statistics, the number of households who had their homes repossessed, or how many people helped out with Meals on Wheels this week on the news in between the sport and weather. We see the price of gold and the exchange rate and what the stock market is doing today.

We never see the whole picture, only selected parts. What if we made other important concerns – such as the social and environmental costs of consumption - as visible?

We can get a truer picture of national well-being by adjusting the GDP to include a value on those activities that add to well-being (such as voluntary work) and those which detract (such as the costs of illness, crime, environmental degradation).

There has already been some work done on this, both in Australia and overseas. The government of Bhutan has established an indicator called ‘Gross National Happiness’,[17] which would seem to respond more to the concerns of Australians than GDP.

We can track our use of the resources we consume using indicators such as the Ecological Footprint.

It is critical that our indicators are not leaving us tunnel-visioned, that we are not solving one problem and unwittingly creating another.

Built to Last

We can shift our approach from a culture of quantity and disposability to one focussed on a culture of quality and durability.

In terms of the built environment, the infrastructure we build today can determine levels of consumption for generations to come. We are building today’s resource consumption profile right now.

Palm Jumeirah, Dubai

We need to ensure that we are not building resource traps for ourselves and our children, and that what we build will stand the test of time.

Applied to products, durable design can also help reduce waste, increase resource efficiency, and ensure materials have a longer useful life.

In 2005, a new product was launched every 3.5 minutes, (and) 80 per cent of the environmental impact of a product, service or system is determined at the design stage…[18]

It has been estimated that only 1% of materials flowing through the US economy are still in use within the year of manufacture. [19]

We could also consider how to make design ‘emotionally durable’ – how to design objects we want to keep rather than discard.

Why is it that we can keep a childhood teddy bear or a favourite pair of old jeans, but discard toasters and mobile phones without a second thought?

The latter has been characterised as ‘adulterous consumption’ - making a commitment to one product, and then quickly becoming distracted by a newer model. Perhaps this is because:

‘For most of human history we had an intimate relationship with the objects we used or treasured. Often we made them ourselves, or family members passed them on to us. For more specialist objects, we relied on expert manufacturers living close by, whom we would know personally. All this gave objects a history - a "narrative" - and an emotional connection that today's mass-produced goods cannot possibly match.’ [20]

For effective durable design, it is important to discover how people relate to objects, what causes people to develop empathy with them, how to embed them with meaning.


Ultimately, we could also ask ourselves ‘what is enough’? According to this graph, it’s not too far over on the x axis, and somewhere between comfort and luxury on the y axis.

We can also ask what there is to gain from diverting some of our energy from the pursuit of material consumption to other sources of fulfillment and a quality of life.


Reining in excessive consumption does not mean sacrifice or a step backward – in fact, we may find greater wealth in an improved quality of life. We can choose to make a good material standard of living one part of the overall picture.

We invented the economic and social systems in which we operate, and we can change them so that they better meet the needs of all human beings, so that they enhance our quality of life, and so our demand on nature’s goods and services is within the scope of our planet’s ability to provide them.

We can re-emerge first and foremost as citizens again, not consumers, not rational economic man, if there ever was such a creature.

How to do this is perhaps the most complex challenge human beings have ever faced. We need the awareness, the will and the creative energy of each sector of society, each nation, each individual, to bring about this change.

Sharon Ede

‘One step ahead, one step behind/Now you got to run to get even...'

'...the more things you get, the more you want/Just trade in one for another

Working so hard to make it easy/Got to turn this thing around...’

'Right Now', Van Halen (1992)

[1] www.abc.net.au/stuff
[2] www.monbiot.com
[3] Victor Lebow, Journal of Retailing, 1944
[4] ‘Stuff Happens – Unused Things Cluttering Up Our Homes’ (2008) Josh Fear www.tai.org.au
[5] ‘The Attitudes of Australians to Happiness and Social Well-being’ (2006) Clive Hamilton & Emma Rush www.tai.org.au
[6] ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ (2003) Michael Bond, New Scientist www.newscientist.com/article/mg18024155.100-the-pursuit-of-happiness.html; Growth Fetish (2003) Clive Hamilton
[7] Deep Economy (2008) Bill McKibben www.billmckibben.com
[8] ‘Is Humanity Fatally Successful?’ (2002) Dr William Rees, Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis
[9] Reserve Bank of Australia in Affluenza (2005) Clive Hamilton & Richard Denniss
[10] www.wordspy.com
[11] ‘Sustainable Germany: A Contribution To Sustainable Global Development’ http://wtp.org/archive/papers/sustainable_ger.html
[12] ‘AIHW Urges Caution on ‘Fattest Nation in the World’ Claims (2008) Media Release www.aihw.gov.au/mediacentre/2008/mr20080624b.cfm
[13] 2004-05 National Health Survey: Summary of Results (2006) Australian Bureau of Statistics, Cat 4364.0 www.ausstats.abs.gov.au
[14] Growth Fetish (2003) Clive Hamilton
[15] The Well Being of Nations: The Role of Human and Social Capital (2001) OECD www.oecd.org/dataoecd/48/22/1870573.pdf
[16] Putnam in State of the World: Progress Towards a Sustainable Society (2004) Worldwatch Institute; Robert Putnam is Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_national_happiness
[18] ‘Better By Design: Battling the Throwaway Culture (2007) Ed Douglas New Scientist
[19] Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution (1999) Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & L Hunter Lovins www.natcap.org
[20] ‘Better By Design: Battling the Throwaway Culture (2007) Ed Douglas New Scientist

Doing Business in a Postgrowth Society

Excerpt from James Gustave Speth's article in Harvard Business Review, September 2009

'Corporate leaders by and large seem to assume that economic activity in affluent countries can (indeed, must) continue to expand, the more the better—despite mounting evidence of growth’s negative effects on the environment and much more. They need to get used to the idea of a postgrowth society.

Just as unlimited population expansion is untenable, so is unlimited GDP growth. Yet the open-ended commitment to economic growth persists, and it is now creating more problems than it is solving. It undermines jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, and even mental health. It fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources, and it rests on a consumerism that is manufactured by marketers and failing to meet the deepest human needs.

Soon, developed countries will begin the move to a postgrowth world where working life, the natural environment, communities, and the public sector will no longer be sacrificed for the sake of mere GDP growth, and where the illusory promise of ever more expansion will no longer provide an excuse for ignoring compelling social needs. A postgrowth society will involve less consumerism and higher prices; quality of life will improve in ways too long neglected.

The economic crisis is already teaching us to live more simply. Being less focused on getting and spending (in part because there is less to spend) is helping consumers rediscover that the truly important things in life are not at the mall or, in fact, for sale anywhere. Materialism, we now know, is toxic to happiness.

...Of course, it is abundantly clear that even in a postgrowth society, many things do need to grow, such as the number of good jobs; the incomes of the poor; the deployment of climate-friendly and other green technologies; the availability of health care; security against the risks of job displacement, old age, and disability; and investment in public infrastructure and environmental amenity. We need targeted government policies to address such objectives. Of particular importance are policies that temper growth while improving social and environmental well-being—policies establishing, for instance, shorter workweeks and longer vacations; greater labor protections, job security, and benefits; restrictions on advertising; a new design for the twenty-first-century corporation, one that embraces rechartering and stakeholder primacy rather than shareholder primacy; rigorous environmental, health, and consumer protection; greater economic and social equality; heavy spending on public services; and initiatives to address population growth at home and abroad.

...A great imperative countries will face in the years ahead is building a new, sustaining economy. Sustaining people, communities, and nature must henceforth be seen as the core goals of economic activity, not the hoped-for by-products of GDP growth, market success, and modest regulation. The challenge will be to reinvent the economy, not merely restore it.'

Japanese Ministry of the Environment to develop Principles for Environmental Finance

From Japan for Sustainability, 18 August 2009

'The Japanese Ministry of the Environment is now planning to formulate a set of principles for environmental finance, with the aim to increase eco-conscious investments and environmental finance practices. The principles are to be prepared as part of the Ministry's program to promote environmental finance in Japan.

Such principles already exist in global financial markets; for example, the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) developed under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Finance Initiative. The PRI calls on institutional investors to integrate environmental, social, and corporate governance considerations into their investment activities.

The Ministry intends to develop the Japanese version based on the UNEP Principles for Responsible Investment.'

YIMBY - 21st Century Lexicon from The Word Spy

From The Word Spy:

n. A person who favors a project that would add a dangerous or unpleasant feature to his or her neighborhood. [Acronym from the phrase yes in my back yard.] —YIMBYist n. —YIMBYism n.

Open Letter to the Queen

From Abundancy Partners via Energy Bulletin, posting this one in full...signed by a range of eminent thinkers, activists, academics and businesspeople...

'Your Majesty,

We, the undersigned, noted with interest the letter to Your Majesty of 22nd July 2009 from the British Academy in which they respond to your question about how the current economic meltdown was missed. They talked of a "failure of the collective imagination of many bright people" and a "psychology of denial".

The Academy wrote "It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris." You will be aware of HRH The Prince of Wales's speech on 9th July 2009 in which His Royal Highness focused on far more serious examples of wishful thinking and hubris. We are writing to you because we are concerned that the British Academy's letter focuses on one particular aspect of current insecurity, namely financial, failing to address the wider context of more serious macro issues facing mankind. We are also writing to the Academy to invite them to debate these issues with us.

Symptoms of a much greater systemic failure

We live in tumultuous times. Many developed world citizens are losing their livelihoods. The effects on the world's poorest will, as ever, be dreadful. However we are surprised that the Academy has not addressed anything outside the narrow remit their letter covered. Far greater insecurities threaten the world's poorest due to our effects on the natural world.

The letter ignores the physical constraints which are central to this bubble and indeed most bubbles. It speaks of "the bigger picture" and of "individual risks being small" and "the system as a whole being vast", yet, for us has a limited horizon.

Our premise is that our current economic malaise is symptomatic of a far more serious systemic failure to acknowledge what Archbishop Rowan Williams has identified in saying "It has been said that 'the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment'. The earth itself is what ultimately controls economic activity because it is the source of the materials upon which economic activity works".

Energy underlies everything – Scylla and Charybdis of peak oil and climate change. The underlying cause of the current economic meltdown is a multi-generational debt-binge inextricably linked to a concomitant multi-generational energy-binge. The Academy's letter focuses on some "imbalances in the global economy". However, the key to addressing our current situation is to recognise the far more serious imbalances between our insatiable hunger for energy, its finite nature and the environmental pollution in its use.

Energy is the lifeblood of any economy. Our exponential debt-based money system is in turn based on exponentially increasing energy supplies. It is therefore clear that the supply of that energy deserves our very highest attention. That this attention doesn't appear in the Academy's analysis is deeply worrying.

The impending peaking of production of oil and other hydrocarbons, along with the resulting peak in food production and everything on which oil relies, is now widely accepted. Leading UK companies including Arup, Scottish and Southern Energy, Solarcentury and Virgin have warned that a peak in cheap, easily available oil production is likely to hit by 2013, posing a grave risk to the economy. On 2nd August 2009, the International Energy Association's Chief Economist, Dr Fatih Birol, warned of an oil crisis in 2010.

The letter refers to the "overheating economy" but gives no mention of the effect and cause of the overheating of planet Earth. Climate change is now recognised by the world's scientists, political and business leaders as the most serious threat to mankind and is described by Sir Nicholas Stern as "the greatest market failure of our times". On an almost daily basis we get increasingly urgent signals that unstoppable, runaway climate chaos is almost upon us.

Members of The Prince of Wales's UK Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change, including AXA, Shell, Tesco, Unilever and Vodafone, have now repeatedly asked politicians for more urgent action on climate change.

Growth versus prosperity

The Academy's letter mentions unprecedented global economic growth - yet it fails to mention the rapidly escalating environmental destruction caused by this insatiable growth. It also mentions the poor of the developing world who have been brought out of poverty to 'prosperity'; but not the far greater numbers condemned to an increasingly inequitable world and the ravages of peak-food and climate change.

Not just for ourselves, but also for the poor and disenfranchised, we in the rich world must now seek to redefine 'prosperity' and shift away from blind growth to an economic development fit for our damaged world. The distinction between quantitative 'growth' and qualitative 'development' is key.

A reverse gear for atmospheric carbon is needed and energy use must be radically reduced and redirected where it is most needed – into investments in a radical transition to a zero-carbon economy and the alleviation of poverty. However, the current Marshall-plan, to pump yet more economic growth, with a green veneer, risks plunging us headlong back into climate chaos.

As Professor Tim Jackson, author of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report 'Prosperity Without Growth?' says: "Faced with the current recession, it is understandable that many leaders at the G20 Summit will be anxious to restore business as usual. But governments really need to take a long, hard look at the effects of our single-minded devotion to growth - effects which include the recession itself..... The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods".

The letter talks of a "general feel-good factor", but doesn't address the fact that, in the developed world, general wellbeing long ago ceased to be linked with GDP growth. In July, The Prince of Wales called for an end to the "consumerist society where growth is an end in itself." His Royal Highness also said that "progress has come at a price" and that it "depends on how you define both 'growth' and prosperity’...in our modern situation these 'ends' have become dangerously confused with the 'means', to the point where, now, wealth, innovation and growth have become the final goals."

The debate is changing

Sir Jonathon Porritt says in his recent report Living Within our Means : "In their bones, world leaders know that if the global economy keeps growing at around 5% per annum (as it has done over the last couple of decades), then its game over for human civilisation as we know it." Adair Turner, past head of the CBI and now Chair of the FSA and Climate Change Committee, says in Do Good Live Have to Cost the Earth that we need to "dethrone growth'.

Despite the sclerotic nature of our politics, a notable few political figures are beginning to engage with the 'progress beyond growth' debate. These include President Horst Köhler, President Barroso, EU Environment Commissioner Dimas, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria, David Cameron, the Swedish centre-right and President Sarkozy's Stiglitz Commission.

Beyond rhetoric there has been little deeper debate in politics about these issues. As the Sustainable Development Commission puts it, "We see [today] a society and a Government whose primary objective is still the achievement of economic growth as conventionally understood and measured, with as much social justice and environmental protection as can be reconciled with that central goal. We envisage a society whose primary goal should be the wellbeing of society itself and of the planetary resources and environment that sustains us all, with economic objectives shaped to support that central goal rather than the other way around."

Yes we can

Things can change. Harvard Professor John Quelch’s 2008 study Too Much Stuff says: "The mass consumption of the 1990s is fast fading in the rearview mirror."

Our current form of corporate-consumer-capitalism has been shown to be what many of us knew it was: a fundamentally flawed system which badly needs updating. Jeremy Paxman has asked if we are seeing the "end of capitalism". Martin Wolf of the FT has said that "the dream of global free market capitalism is dead". Bank of England Chair Sir Mervyn King has agreed saying Wolf's comment "strikes a chord."

Thomas Freidman said recently in the New York Times "Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it's telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: 'No more'."

Thankfully there is a vibrant debate in civil society on these issues. Groups like Transition Towns, described by Jeremy Leggett as 'scalable microcosms of hope', and digital democracy Moveon.org, Getup.org, Dosomethingaboutit.org.uk, Localeyes.org and 38degrees.org.uk are giving individual citizens and collectives a new voice and real power in politics of change.

An invitation

It would appear from the British Academy's letter that they are not aware of the rapidly growing and vibrant debate around these issues. We agree with them about the need for "authorities with the power to act" and for appropriate levels of regulation fit for the task in hand. Their prescription is to consider how they "might develop a new, shared horizon-scanning capability". We will invite the Academy to join with us in a public dialogue about these issues and ask them to consider how this 'new capability' can make its primary horizon the the issues we raise in this letter.

We will of course report findings of such debate to Your Majesty.'

Yours faithfully

Phillip Blond, CEO, ResPublica; Alain de Botton, Philosopher; Tom Burke CBE, co-founder E3G; Professor Herman Daly, Maryland University; Geraint Talfan Davies, Chairman, Institute of Welsh Affairs; Professor Lord Anthony Giddens; Stephen Hale, CEO Green Alliance; Andy Hobsbawm, Chair Agency.com, Founder dothegreenthing.com; Rob Hopkins, Founder of Transition Towns; Prof Tim Jackson, SDC; Tony Juniper, Author and ex Executive Director, Friends of the Earth; Professor Melissa Lane, Princeton University; Neal Lawson, Chair, Compass; Jeremy Leggett, Chair, Solar Century; Peter Lipman, Chair, Transition Network; Jules Peck, Partner, Abundancy Partners; Robert Phillips, Co-author, Citizen Renaissance; Sir Jonathon Porritt OBE, ex Chair, SDC; Mike Robinson, CEO, Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Chair, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland; John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace; Anthony Seldon, Master, Wellington College; Matthew Taylor, CEO, the RSA; Professor Peter Victor; York University, Canada.