03 February 2010

The Plot To Stop Airport Expansion

Reposted in full from Greenpeace UK

'We've bought a piece of land slap bang in the middle of the proposed third runway site at Heathrow. We're not going to let the runway get built and we need your help.

The government plans to go ahead with airport expansion across the country even though this means we'll have no hope of meeting our climate emission targets. At full capacity, Heathrow would become the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the whole country. We can't let this happen if we are serious about tackling climate change.

We've bought the plot at Heathrow to make sure that climate change cannot be ignored. We will challenge the proposals every step of the way. We will give evidence at the planning inquiry, resist the compulsory purchase of the land, we will campaign during the national election and final, if necessary, we will stand with the community of Sipson and stop the bulldozers.

The village of Sipson, including 700 homes, businesses, the local school and several local pubs, will be flattened to make way for the third runway.

We have four legal owners on the deeds: Oscar winning actress Emma Thompson, comedian Alistair McGowan and prospective Tory parliamentary candidate Zac Goldsmith and Greenpeace UK. That's the maximum number of owners we can put on the deeds, but we're inviting everyone to join the plot as a beneficial owner and stand beside us to resist all attempts to build the runway.

You'll be joining others who've already signed-up to be beneficial owners, including local Labour MP John McDonnell, Tory frontbench spokeswoman Justine Greening, Lib Dem MP Susan Kramer, environmentalist George Monbiot and acclaimed climate scientist and Royal Society Research Fellow Dr Simon Lewis.

We'll be depending on thousands of people to join the Airplot community in the coming months and years to put pressure on your MPs, write letters to local media, join us at events, tell friends, and come up with your own ideas to make sure that everyone in the country know that we must stop airport expansion if we are going to stop runaway climate change.

The government says that we need the third runway to create jobs in these tough economic times. But building a runway in 10 years time will do nothing to stop a recession now. And the benefits to the economy have been completely overblown by the government. In fact an independent study commissioned by WWF suggests that the true cost of a third runway would lead to a £5 billion loss.

In truth the government has few allies outside the aviation industry on this issue. Scientists including the government's former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King, the head of the environment agency, Chris Smith, cabinet ministers Ed Miliband and Hillary Benn, all major opposition parties, and an increasing number of Labour MPs have all spoken out against the plans to build a third runway at Heathrow.'

Poor Neighbourhoods Can Kill

How poverty and social disadvantage and associated stress affects health and well-being...

Excerpt from the New Scientist, 13 January 2010

'...Across the US, death rates among black women diagnosed with breast cancer are 37 per cent higher than for whites, but in Chicago the difference is an astonishing 68 per cent (Cancer Causes & Control, vol 18, p 323). Something about this heaving metropolis is sending black women to an early grave.

Poor access to screening and therapy is clearly an important factor. But according to a novel collaboration between sociologists and biologists, the strain of living in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in the US may cause biological changes that lead directly to earlier deaths.

Results from the collaboration indicate that social isolation and a fear of crime cause an overload of stress hormones that can change cell biology, sending tumours into overdrive. "We're showing that your social environment can affect your health directly," says Suzanne Conzen of the University of Chicago. "It goes into gene expression. That concept is really new."

Crucially, this insidious influence is felt most by Chicago's African American women, who are far more likely to live in the city's deprived areas than their white counterparts.

The provocative hypothesis highlights the need for new ways of fighting breast cancer in black women in Chicago specifically, including via social interventions. More broadly, other health researchers are hailing the union of biology and sociology as a model for future studies into a whole range of health disparities. "It's a great example of the kind of direction in which I can see us heading," says Tim Rebbeck, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There are already hints that stress and social deprivation could have similar effects on diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

To get a handle on how tough life in Chicago can get, a good place to start is the neighbourhood of Englewood in the city's South Side. Poverty in Englewood is grinding, crime is endemic and amenities that the mostly white residents of comfortable suburbs like Clearing take for granted are long gone. "Even churches have moved out," says Sarah Gehlert of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, lead sociologist on the project.

New Scientist got a taste of conditions on a tour of the South Side with members of Gehlert's research team. At vacant lots strewn with beer bottles and other debris, I'm told to watch my step. A previous visitor stumbled on a bag of urine and other medical waste. Along one Englewood street, we pass three burnt-out houses. On this winter morning, the gang activity that blights the area has yet to ramp up for the day. But the grilles on the windows of the Simon Guggenheim Elementary School are a testament to the crime that stalks these streets. You wouldn't want to be here after dark, says Charles Mininger, a graduate student on the project...'

Lab Experiment - Atomic Dogs

Change agents need to be students of what causes people to forward articles, videos and ideas that 'go viral' - but what makes this? The New Scientist created its own experiment...the video itself is not the most riveting, and how one could measure an increase in scientific understanding after watching it I don't know...but who could resist golden retrievers?!

Excerpt from The New Scientist, 28 December 2009

'It is a cold November evening and I am perched atop a tall stepladder in a village hall outside London. On the floor, 16 golden retrievers stare up at me bemused. They are arranged in a square, four by four. I watch through the viewfinder of my video camera. This, I think to myself, could make me famous.

It all came about at the behest of my editor. We want you to write about viral videos, he had told me a couple of weeks earlier. Go and find out why some videos go viral. What makes people share them? It sounded straightforward enough. He sent me a link to Charlie Bit My Finger, a video of a baby biting a toddler. It is currently YouTube's most watched video of all time.

"I want you to make your own viral and become internet famous," he said.

"If this can get 135 million hits, you can do it too." Without wanting to spoil the ending, I can reveal that Charlie's record remains intact. Still, despite my worst fears, my video turned out to be a surprising success.

Watch the average homemade viral video of, say, a skateboarding dog, and you could be forgiven for thinking that going viral is easy. In fact, the odds are stacked against you. Approximately 1 million new videos are uploaded to the web daily, according to some estimates. Up to half of those are on YouTube, which claims 20 hours of footage are posted every minute.

The vast majority bomb. Less than 10 per cent of YouTube videos show any sign of viral behaviour, according to Riley Crane of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studied around 5 million of them. In most cases, the only hits they receive are those you would expect from family and friends plus a handful of people stumbling across them at random, he says.

To better understand what makes people share videos, I turned to Judith Donath of MIT, who studies online social networks. She argues that the factors driving people to share stuff over the web are not that different from the reasons apes pick bugs out of each other's fur: it's a way of establishing social bonds. Other researchers have argued that in human societies, language - especially gossip - has taken on the social function of such grooming. Sharing videos via email or within social networks is just the next step, Donath argues. "Sharing online is equivalent to small talk," she says. "It's a little gift of information. It shows 'I'm thinking of you'."

Video sharing is also a way of making a statement. "People use videos as a way of showing their position in the 'information ecology'," she says. "A video reflects on the person who sends it." In other words, people will pass on a video if they think it's cool - because it makes them look cool too...

Eventually, we hit upon a winning idea. I called it Pets Teach Science. The aim, as stated on our web page (youtube.com/user/PetsTeachScience), is "to demonstrate tricky scientific concepts ranging from quantum physics to chemical structure with the help of man's best friend and other furry companions". It was fun and had the potential to be copied by others to become an "internet meme".

The next question was what to film for the first episode. According to Bernardo Hubermann of HP Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, aspiring viral makers should throw everything they have into their initial effort. When he and his colleague Fang Wu analysed the performance of 10 million videos, they found that the probability of a video succeeding plummets if it is a user's second or third effort - even though the quality of the later videos is generally higher. "If you don't make it in your first submission, you probably won't make it," says Hubermann.

For what I had in mind, a degree of canine discipline was required, so I contacted a group of dog trainers called the Southern Golden Retriever Society Display Team based in Kent, UK. They agreed to help, and last month we made a film using 16 of their dogs to illustrate the structure of the atom. Some of the animals acted as the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, while the rest circulated to mimic the electron cloud...

A few days of shamelessly begging all my friends and family to disseminate the video garnered fewer than 1000 hits...

The big breakthrough came after a tip from Michael Wesch, an anthropologist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who studies the behaviour of visitors to YouTube. He does so using the methods his peers apply to studying remote tribes - by participating. His own videos have attracted more than 10 million views.

One of the key bits of advice he gave me was to send the video to a so-called "sneezer" - a media outlet or blogger that can quickly disseminate your video to a large number of people. "Almost every viral has a catalyst moment at which it has a big leap of, say, 100,000 viewers at once," he says. For the massive videos, that sneeze can be anything from a TV appearance to a tweet by a popular Twitterer, such as movie actor Ashton Kutcher to his several million followers. This catapults the video onto YouTube's daily "most popular" lists, and the chain reaction begins. Even if only 1 in 10 people continue to share the video, you have succeeded.

The sneezer hypothesis is backed up by Crane's statistical analysis. Though around a third of viral videos appear to spread gradually by word of mouth alone, the rest receive some kind of external plug that boosts their popularity.

My own sneeze came after I sent a link to the free London newspaper Metro. The paper gave Pets Teach Science an enthusiastic write-up, and the video's views surged by about 8000 within a few hours. It soon appeared on YouTube's "pets and animals" page. In the following days, The Huffington Post picked it up, providing another surge, and a link from the ├╝ber-blog Boing Boing almost doubled my hits overnight to more than 50,000.

As this article went to press, the video had been viewed more than 110,000 times, proving that with a little cunning, and some cute pets, anyone can make a video go viral...'

How to Start a Revolution

Excerpt from The Tipping Point - The Net Version, a paraphrasing of the main ideas in Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point by Robert Paterson

'The Tipping Point is: That one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once. The moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point, a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is a certainty.

Epidemics tip because of the extraordinary efforts of a few select carriers. But they also sometimes tip when something happens to transform the epidemic agent itself.

Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.

Are another example of geometric progression: when a virus spreads through a population, it doubles and doubles again into infinity.

Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating:
  • they (Epidemics) have clear examples of contagious behavior
  • they both have little changes that make big effect
  • it takes only the smallest of changes to shatter an epidemic's equilibrium
  • they happen in a hurry
This is the most important trait, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does.

...In order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first. Contagiousness is in larger part a function of the messenger. Stickiness is primarily a property of the message.

The Law of the Few

There are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. With an epidemic, a tiny majority of the people do the work. Once critical factor in epidemics is the nature of the messenger. Messengers make something spread.

Word of mouth is still the most important form of human communication. Rumors are the most contagious of all social messages.


  • people with a special gift for bringing the world together, people specialists
  • know lots of people
  • have an extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances, making social connections
  • have mastered the "weak tie"; a friendly, yet casual social connection
  • manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches
  • by having a foot in so many different worlds, they have the effect of bringing them all together
  • acquaintances represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are
  • social glue: they spread the message


  • information specialists
  • once they figure out how to get that great deal, they want to tell you about it too.
  • solves his/her own problems, his/her own emotional needs, by solving other people's problems; have knowledge and the social skills to start word-of-mouth epidemics.
  • a teacher and a student
  • in a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks; they provide the message.


  • have the skills to persuade when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing
  • little things can make as much of a difference as big things
  • gives nonverbal clues that are more important than verbal clues...

The Stickiness Factor

There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible/sticky and compels a person into action. All you have to do is find it. In order to be capable of sparking epidemics, ideas have to be memorable and move us into action. Content of the message matters too.
  • what is needed is a subtle but significant change in presentation to make most messages stick
  • the elements that make an idea sticky turn out to be small and trivial
  • 'clutter' has made it harder and harder to get any one message to stick
  • the information age has created a stickiness problem
  • pay careful attention to the structure and format of your material, and you can dramatically enhance stickiness
  • can tip a message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas

The Power of Context

We don't necessarily appreciate that our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances. We are more than just sensitive to changes in context. We're exquisitely sensitive to them. And the kinds of contextual changes that are capable of tipping an epidemic are very different than we might ordinarily suspect. The impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not coming from a certain kind of person but from a feature of the environment.
  • small changes in context can be just as important in tipping epidemics...
  • what really matters is little things - 'Broken Windows Theory': in a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes (Rudy Gulliani's belief)
  • an epidemic can be reversed/tipped by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment
  • there are specific situations so powerful that they can overwhelm our inherent predispositions
  • human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context. We are a lot more attuned to personal cues than contextual cues
  • character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstances and context
  • the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions then the immediate context of your behavior...


First Lesson of the Tipping Point

Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas. Your resources ought to be solely concentrated on the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Second Lesson of the Tipping Point

The world does not accord with our intuition. Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right. They deliberately test their intuitions.

Important Conclusion

What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push; just in the right place; it can be tipped.


Diffusion model: a detailed, academic way of looking at how a contagious idea or "product" or innovation moves through a population.
  • Innovators: the adventurous ones, visionaries
  • Connectors, mavens, and salesmen make it possible for innovations to connect with the early adopters. They are translators: they make ideas and information from a highly specialized world and translate them into a language the rest of us can understand. They drop extraneous details and exaggerate other details so that the message itself acquires a deeper meaning'
  • Early adopters: the slightly larger group that is infected by the innovators. Visionaries.
  • Early Majority: the deliberate and the skeptical mass, who would never try anything until the most respected of this group try it first'
  • Late Majority Laggards: the most traditional group that see no urgent reason to change'

This Is Indexed

Jessica Hagy has been blogging these sorts of diagrams for a while, now has turned them into a book! Here are a few that relate to sustainability:


Australian Centre for Social Innovation - Adelaide

Reposted in full from the Adelaide Review, 28 January 2010

'The Australian Centre for Social Innovation is the latest in a series of institutions that aim to provide both the city of Adelaide and the state of South Australia with guidance in creatively addressing a raft of current and potential social problems. The Adelaide Review spoke with newly appointed CEO Brenton Caffin.

With strong support from the Premier and South Australian government, the idea for the development of an Australian Centre for Social Innovation, headquartered in Adelaide, came from a key recommendation from former Thinker in Residence, Geoff Mulgan. Mulgan argued for the role of such institutions in developing methods for social innovation and better matching the supply of good ideas to the demand of current and future social problems, of which there are no shortage.

Following Mulgan’s recommendation, the State Government agreed to provide seed funding to establish the Centre and recruited a national Board, chaired by Phillip Adams, to oversee the Centre’s development. New CEO Brenton Caffin joined the Centre in October last year and has since been working with the Board on both the business plan and program of work for 2010.

Social innovation, lest it be thought a rather woolly term, could be best described as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals”. Geoff Mulgan has succinctly described social innovation as “new ways to address unmet social needs”.

South Australia has a strong tradition of social innovation, from the early development of the Torrens title, legislation to enable women to run for parliament, the establishment of the South Australian Housing Trust back in the 1930s, environmental legislation such as the container deposit and more recently the plastic bag ban and alternative accommodation initiatives such as Common Ground. Meanwhile, global examples range from the Grameen Bank’s development of micro-finance in Bangladesh through to new ways of online collaboration such as WikiPedia.

A social innovation can be a product, production process, or technology (much like innovation in general), but it can also be a principle, an idea, a piece of legislation, a social movement, an intervention, or some combination of them.

“Social innovation can take place within government, within traditional companies, or within the non-profit or third sector, but is increasingly seen to happen most effectively in the space between the three sectors,” comments Caffin.

“We will definitely be drawing lessons from a range of models, while putting our own flavour on what we do here. The Young Foundation (where Mulgan is Director), which builds on the 50 year legacy of social entrepreneur Michael Young, has been extremely supportive to date in sharing their thoughts and experiences. There are some other excellent examples, such as MindLab in Copenhagen and KennisLand (or KnowledgeLand) in Amsterdam, that I recently had the privilege to visit.

“From the White House (Obama has established an Office for Social Innovation) through to Singapore and New Zealand, there is a growing movement for institutions like ours to contribute to achieving positive social change through innovation. Collaboration with these institutions will be key to developing our methods and ideas further.”

A primary task will be simply raising awareness of social innovation in Australia – identifying, supporting and promoting the best social innovations across the country and getting involved on projects that will see a social impact here. And while ultimately the goal is to be a national centre of excellence in the field of social innovation and some initiatives will be pitched at a national audience, much of the Centre’s initial work will start in South Australia.

March 2010 will see the launch of Bold Ideas, Better Lives, Australia’s Social Innovation Challenge, where individuals, communities and organisations across Australia can submit their ideas to the Centre. Working closely with a shortlist of entrants, ideas will be developed into feasible projects and in the final stage up to 10 projects will be supported both financially – there is $1m on the table – as well as with capacity-building to implement their ideas.

The Centre is also looking to explore the potential of using design-thinking approaches to radically redesign social services.

“The design community, as exemplified in the work and writings of Tim Brown and the team at IDEO, is rediscovering its role in not just designing better products, but in making better lives. At the same time, constraints on public spending are forcing the public sector to think creatively about how to achieve policy outcomes in more cost-effective ways. We are keen to bring these two worlds together to experiment with and develop new ways of working and new models of service delivery,” adds Caffin.

There will be an emphasis on collaboration.

“One of the first questions we ask when conceiving a new project is “who can we work with on this?” We recognise that there is a huge range of expertise, interest and passion out there and we want to harness that power and enthusiasm and avoid reinventing the wheel. So we’ll be partnering with institutions, communities and individuals to make sure we’re finding the best way forward to achieve positive change in our society.

“Ultimately, the Centre has been set up to contribute to a more inclusive and just society for all Australians by being an incubator for socially innovative ideas and a safe space for experimentation. The pace, scale and complexity of challenges that are emerging, from climate change adaptation to the consequences of an ageing society, means that we have our work cut out. Staying relevant means addressing existing social problems while recognising and responding to new and emerging challenges. Ultimately, we will be judged on the value of the contribution we make.”

In this respect, Caffin urges the public to become directly involved: “Talk to us. Write to us. Come to our events. Dream up an idea and let us know. Is something affecting your community? Tell us your story and what you want to see changed (even better, tell us how you think you can change it). People lie at the heart of social innovation so we will be actively looking for ways to get people involved.”

For more information, visit www.tacsi.org.au or write to: info@tacsi.org.au

Vote for the Ignoble Prize for Economics

Reposted in full from real world economics, 1 February 2010

The Ignoble Prize for Economics, to be awarded to the three economists who contributed most to enabling the Global Financial Collapse (GFC).

Vote for three. The ballot itself can be accessed at


'Short List of Nominees for the Ignoble Prize for Economics

Fischer Black and Myron Scholes

They jointly developed the Black-Scholes model which led to the explosive growth of financial derivatives. The importance given to their hypothetical calculation of derivative prices was baneful not just because it was bogus, but also because it meant that relevant and often urgent real-world economic research was widely neglected by the profession.

Eugene Fama

His “efficient market theory” provided the moral umbrella for all sorts of greed, predatory behaviour and incompetent corporate management. It also provided the rationale for deregulation. And his theory’s widespread acceptance meant that “discussion of investor irrationality, of bubbles, of destructive speculation had virtually disappeared from academic discourse.” In these three ways Fama’s work created the environment which made possible the GFC.

Milton Friedman

He propagated the delusion, through his misunderstanding of the scientific method, that an economy can be accurately modeled using counterfactual propositions about its nature. This, together with his simplistic model of money, encouraged the development of the financial theories with unrealistic assumptions that facilitated the GFC. In short, he opened the door for everyone subsequently to theorize without fear of having to be attached to reality.

Alan Greenspan

As Chairman of the Federal Reserve System from 1987 to 2006, he both led the over expansion of money and credit that created the bubble that burst and aggressively promoted the view that financial markets are naturally efficient and in no need of regulation. Before a Congressional committee on 28 October 2008 Greenspan confessed that his theoretical beliefs of 40 years were now proven to be without foundation, hence his total confusion and failure at his job.

Assar Lindbeck

By working to make the Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences (“Nobel Prize in Economics”) almost exclusively a prize for neoclassical economists, this Swedish economist has contributed significantly to the conversion of the economics profession and of world public opinion to market fundamentalism.

Robert Lucas

His development of the rational expectations hypothesis, which defined rationality as the capacity to accurately predict the future, both served to maintain Friedman’s proposition that monetary factors do not affect the real economy and, in the name of “rigor”, distanced economics even further from reality than Friedman had thought possible.

Richard Portes

As Secretary-General of the Royal Economic Society from 1992-2008, he helped suppress worries expressed by non-mainstream economists about developments in the financial sector. In 2007 he wrote a Report for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce giving a clean bill of health to Icelandic banks only a few months before they collapsed. When investigators called attention to the real state of Icelandic banking, he wrote a series of letters to the Financial Times defending the soundness of Icelandic banks and imputing professional incompetence to those who doubted it.

Edward Prescott and Finn Kydland

For jointly developing and popularizing “Real Business Cycle” theory, which by omitting the role of credit greatly diminished the economics profession’s understanding of dynamic macroeconomic processes.

Paul Samuelson

Through his textbook Economics: An Introductory Analysis (19 English language editions and translated into 40 languages), he popularized neoclassical economics, contributing more than any other economist to its diffusion and thereby to the deregulation of financial markets which made possible the GFC.

Larry Summers

As US Secretary of the Treasury (formerly an economist at Harvard and the World Bank), he worked successfully for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which since the Great Crash of 1929 had kept deposit banking separate from casino banking. He also worked with Greenspan and Wall Street interests to torpedo efforts to regulate derivatives.


The voting is being conducted using PollDaddy. Its system uses cookies to prevent repeat voting. A voting box showing the short-listed candidates and a link to their dossiers will remain till voting closes near the top of the right-hand column on the home page of the Real-World Economics Review Blog. Voting is open to all interested parties. Each voter can vote for up to three of the listed candidates. The ballots are secret. Voting will remain open for several weeks. No results will be announced before closing the poll.'

31 January 2010

The Best Things In Life Are Free

Excerpt from Sharing the World's Resources, 15 January 2010

'Rebuilding a socially useful financial system requires a fundamental rethink of our relationship with money. To commence this change, we should recognise the already vast non-monetary economy - often based on sharing and bartering...

This is what happened in 2009: a small group in society takes a huge gamble with the entire economy to earn large bonuses for itself, inflicts lasting damage on everyone else, expects the public to pick up the bill and then carries on as if nothing much happened, while displaying an extraordinary sense of entitlement and arrogant disregard for the rest of society...

If 2009 was spent rescuing the financial system, the year ahead should be spent remaking it, and to do that we need to fashion a fundamentally different relationship with money.

The main lesson of the crisis this past year is that money has become a capricious and overbearing ruler of our lives - by turns threatening to discipline us, only to offer us liberation, on its own terms. Instead of hoping for a return to easy credit and rising property prices, we should put money in its proper place by reducing its footprint in society, limiting its reach, promoting alternative ways to account for what we value and finding less socially destructive ways to save and invest, lend and borrow. We need to see money less as a mystical religion or a drug and more as a tool.

In the 1950s, dull, respectable Britain was not obsessed with money. There were limited opportunities to make money and fewer to spend it in a time before shopping malls. Modesty and thrift, repair and reuse, were the watchwords of the day. It was in the late 1970s that politics started to revolve around how money could bring dynamism and disorder to society.

Thatcherism started life as monetarism, a critique of how Keynesianism had allowed government to become financially incontinent. Thatcher's original crusade was to restore respect for the value of money through strict control of the money supply. This discipline did not last for long, however. From the mid-1980s, with monetarism cast aside, Thatcherism's mission was to let money loose. Money was no longer a source of discipline, but an elixir, a source of liberation, freeing people to make their choices in the commercial democracy of the open market. Easier credit allowed a culture of debt and desire to overtake deferred gratification and modest self-sufficiency.

The City embodied Thatcherism's monetary schizophrenia. One the one hand global financial markets were meant to be unforgiving: companies had to deliver returns to shareholders who could shift their funds wherever they liked at the flick of a switch.

Yet, just as the capital markets were making our livelihoods more insecure, they offered their own escape plan. The City began to multiply and regenerate money in startling ways. On taking out a mortgage, people were ushered in to a casino in which ever more complex gambling games were being created the whole time. With one hand, money disciplined us, keeping wages in check. With the other, it set us free, with seemingly limitless credit bridging the gap between what we wanted and what we could afford. If we really want a more stable future we need to put this abusive and dependent relationship with money behind us. That demands going back to understand what we really value and what money is for.

What we most value - love, dignity, good conduct, pride, trust, friendship, care - does not come from money. If we were to try to use money to buy any of these things most people would think we were mad. Imagine for example asking, "How much do I owe you for that?" after your first kiss with a lover. Those aspects of our lives that we really value are things that cannot be priced and could not be sold: what makes them so valuable is precisely that they are beyond price. You cannot change a nappy with a credit default obligation derivative. Poets do not write for stock options. Good relationships do not need insurance policies. Few people would care more for another person if there were a bonus attached.

Not surprisingly, most utopias - starting with Thomas More's - planned to do without money. Yet societies that do without money entirely invariably end up failing. Cities have done without money, but usually only under siege, when gold, ammunition and, most of all, food becomes the currency. Pol Pot's Cambodia did without money. Closer to home, experiments such as time banks, which seek to use time as a currency, and local economic trading schemes are more talked about than used.

The trouble is that what we value in itself and what we put a price on are often inextricably linked. My wife and I fell in love over a series of lunches in London restaurants - yet you will not find "Falling in love" listed on the bill, just after the fizzy water. The paid-for meals were a vehicle for the expression of love which is beyond price. The value something has in itself is often "hidden" behind the entrance ticket we buy to make it possible. The cover price of a great book never captures its value.

When the money side of this relationship becomes too strong - as it has done in the past two decades in Britain - life becomes unbalanced. We focus too much on the surface value, price, and not enough on the hidden value, which lies behind it. To live flourishing lives we need something to lie behind the surface world of buy and sell. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, his history of how religious belief adapts to the society around it:

"The individual pursuit of happiness as defined by consumer culture still absorbs much of our time and energy, or else the threat of being shut out of this pursuit through poverty, unemployment, incapacity galvanises our efforts . . . and yet the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably."

The something "more" that Taylor is talking about tends to be those experiences that give us a different perspective on life. They have a lasting impact if only because they are memorable experiences, which move, touch and so stay with us. They make us feel authentic, as if we have found ourselves - for example, through travel - rather than having ourselves defined by humdrum work. They invariably involve relationships, bringing people together: friends, families, lovers, fans and believers.

The objects in our lives that we really value - the stuff we cannot bear to throw away - mark out relationships that we value - a memento from holiday, a photograph from a wedding, a collection built up with a partner, toys kept from childhood. That is one reason we are so fascinated and consumed by homes, because they sustain relationships. It is also why we pay to be part of huge social gatherings - festivals, carnivals, raves, sporting events: mass shows of emotion that give us a sense of being caught up in something more than ourselves.

When money serves a "something more", then consumption has a point. When the link is broken, modern, money-driven society loses its anchor. The challenge for politics ought to be to turn that insight into policy and politics by putting money in a more subordinate position in society.

A cornerstone of this would be to recognise the already vast non-monetary economy on which most of life depends. Most of the work of caring for children and elderly parents is done for free, mainly by women. A society that wants to age well should promote the non-monetary values of volunteering and relationships. Consumerism is not a good training for later life. Helping people to participate and contribute, to remain active and independent for as long as possible, is.

The young are also fostering non-monetary economies through the web's growing culture of mass barter and sharing. The CouchSurfing community, in which browsers, most of them young, arrange to sleep for free on one another's sofas when visiting a city, has more than a million members. Car pools and lift-sharing schemes organised on the web, such as Zipcar and GoLoco, are thriving across the world. Freecycling, in which people give away things they don't want to others who need them, has hundreds of thousands of participants globally...

We should also encourage financial innovation that works in society's interests rather than serving the self-interest of bankers. The 1990s were not just the era of ultra-complex debt products. At the other end of the social spectrum, the Grameen Bank found ways to get millions of small loans to poor farmers and villagers to allow them to do the most basic things - such as put tin roofs over their huts. Kiva, an exchange that allows people in the developed world to invest directly in enterprises in the developing world, handled loans of $3.8m in just one month four years after being established.

Zopa, the online peer-to-peer banking exchange that directly matches lenders with borrowers, is lending more than £2.5m ($4) a month. In Africa new microbanking systems are emerging, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, which uses mobile phones as its infrastructure and phone credits as its currency. M-Pesa launched in March 2007 and now has more than six million members in Kenya. We need more financial innovations such as Zopa, M-Pesa and Grameen, which are simple and clearly socially useful.

That should be combined with more open, social regulation of the money machine. Science is increasingly opening itself up to public scrutiny as it develops complex new fields such as nanotechnology. It is time we had a similarly open approach in finance, so that innovations could be scrutinised by ordinary lenders and borrowers before they are approved.

Reforms of this kind, combined with tighter regulation, more socially responsible bonus systems and taxation regimes designed to promote greater stability, such as the Tobin tax, might give us a money machine that serves society, rather than what we have: a dysfunctional system, hosted by a society that seems to have little control over its behaviour.

Money does not make the world go round - not all the time, and never on its own. Money really brings meaning to our lives only when it helps us in our search for something more. If, as a society, we do not start that search for something more, money will rise to rule us again, to our ruin.'

How to Share The World's Resources: A Proposal

Excerpt from Sharing The World's Resources, 24 September 2007

'A comprehensive proposal for how a system of economic sharing could function within a reformed world economy and the effect it would have on corporate trade, international finance and aid mechanisms:

A growing body of progressives within the global justice movement, including environmentalists, economists and policy makers, broadly agree that a significant overhaul of the world’s economic and political systems is long overdue, and that without significant restructuring our most pressing problems will never be tackled.

Whilst financial wealth soars to new heights for the few, the majority world are growing relatively poorer in the face of unfair trade, debt-based finance and grossly insufficient international aid. At the same time, developing countries have to endure the harsh environmental consequences of the industrial growth that fuels the skewed generation of wealth. Instead of being given the tools to end poverty they find themselves forced to systematically abdicate democratic control over their economies and resources to economically dominant countries and corporations.

Whilst economists and policy makers of the G8 nations remain comfortable in their runaway train of neo-liberal policies, we cannot rely on governments to instigate change until after the train collides. Their systematic prioritization of competition, self-interest, market forces, economic growth and the blatant subsidizing of corporate activity has created an unsustainable, commercialized society and has distorted the very meaning and function of economics. In a world where 2.7 billion people live on less than two-dollars-a-day and 50,000 people die as a result of poverty each day, economic practice can no longer claim to ensure the efficient distribution of resources for all, but rather the maximization of wealth generation without regard for consequence.

It is clear to many that the rogue train is on a collision course with environmental devastation and global economic and financial instability . If that isn’t enough, old Cold War divisions from renewed competition over resources and resentment from marginalized communities throughout the world present themselves as security threats, which are potentially catastrophic in a nuclear age.

It is time for a significant re-evaluation of global economic and political values and the creation of an economy that serves the needs of the global community as a whole, within our environmental limitations. It may seem a vein hope that policy makers will wake-up before the collision, but we can at least be sure that they will take heed once they emerge from the wreck.

The question arises - along what lines should a sustainable economy be based? To answer this, it is useful to outline the key problems:

  • A rapidly globalizing market-based economy with self-interest and competition at its heart, prioritizing profit over people.
  • The privatization of resources for the sake of security and profit, and the propagation of economic growth as the panacea for development.
  • A corrupt and unstable global financial architecture based largely on speculation and bearing no relevance to the lives of most people.
  • The monopolizing power and influence of multinational corporations and the welfare they receive to propagate economic growth and shape the ideals of society.
  • Inefficient and damaging export-oriented trade and agricultural practices that prioritize profit over food security.
  • Grave environmental neglect and climate change as a result of overconsumption and excessive commercialization.
  • The neglect of mass poverty and growing inequality by policy makers who mistakenly leave the provision of basic human rights to commerce, market forces and the so called ‘trickle down’ effect.
  • The minimization of true democratic institutions and influence.
  • Political and economic competition between nations and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
  • The commercialization and homogenization of our values and cultures.

The list could be extended but is sufficiently comprehensive for the purposes of this analysis. On the other hand, a just and sustainable economy must:

  • Secure basic human rights and needs for all people everywhere as a priority.
  • Create effective and interdependent local economies that co-exist harmoniously within a stable world financial system.
  • Create democratic and representative global and local institutions to regulate economic activity and to guarantee social and economic rights.
  • Ensure that corporate enterprise serves the public good and is rooted locally where possible.
  • Ensure that all economic activity occurs with ecological limits and within a strict framework for emission reductions.

An effective and uniting global framework for economic and political activity must supersede the restrictive and often divisive prescriptions of socialism, communism and capitalism. Once we overcome such ideologies, many comprehensive and inclusive solutions to these problems present themselves through the work of individuals and institutions around the world. Proposals by ‘green economists’, the International Forum on Globalization, proponents of ‘localization’ and others propose generally to root economic activity in local communities as a way of reducing CO2 emissions, reducing corporate power and reinforcing participatory democracy.

What is missing from these and other proposals, which have at times been interpreted as protectionist and regressive, is an overarching concept for how the global community can continue to operate in an interdependent and globalised capacity, in line with the observable cultural shift towards international unity. The more basic question is how can the outdated values of privatization, self-interest and competition - which drive economic globalization - be fundamentally transformed to reflect principles that more accurately embody our humane nature?'