06 May 2011

The Rise of Collaborative Consumption

Sourced from YouTube, 31 May 2010

Rachel Botsman, co-author of "What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption", at TEDx Sydney, 2010

Excerpt from Grist, 4 May 2011

'Lots of the most interesting changes in the direction of sustainability are happening outside green politics (ie. the stuff I'm always writing about). One that's always fascinated me is the spread of sharing economies, or "collaborative consumption." Grist had Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, authors of What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, in to visit the office a while back and they got me fired up about it all over again.

Now there's a big feature piece in Fast Company, "The Sharing Economy," in which Botsman and others discuss a dazzling variety of new start-ups based on peer-to-peer sharing of things, spaces, and services. They're popping up like dandelions in my backyard...

The key to this extraordinary surge is information technology, which has lowered transaction costs by orders of magnitude. It has become incredibly cheap to connect people so they can coordinate and exchange information. When I was a kid, growing up in Ancient Times, if I wanted to sell my old banana-seat bike and get a bike with gears, I had to call the newspaper, dictate a for-sale ad, and mail them a check. Or tack up flyers around public places. I might have found a buyer, but the time and effort required would have been substantial. And I would have had no way to pinpoint the real market value of the bike, ie. how much the person who wanted it most would pay.

Today, I can post a quick ad on Craigslist, sift through email responses (effectively an ad hoc auction), and arrange for someone to arrive at my door with money for the bike, and it costs me virtually nothing, maybe a half-hour of work. As these tools get easier and easier to use, bikes will circulate more. They will be used for more of their productive lives, instead of rotting in garages and landfills. Fewer new bikes will be needed than would otherwise have been the case. That's the idea, anyway.

The same is true for cars. The average car in the U.S. spends about 90 percent of the time just sitting there, taking up space. Now, there are more and more services that allow peer-to-peer car rental and ride sharing, which means, over time, existing cars will get used more often and fewer new ones will be needed. (Again: hopefully!) The same goes for other "underutilized assets" like tools (the average power drill is used 15 minutes over its lifetime) and sports equipment.

Another underutilized asset? Space: guest rooms, unused garage or shed storage, vacant apartments, summer homes, hotels during off seasons, etc. It's becoming easier for those with idle space to connect to people who happen to need it. Again: as existing spaces are utilized more fully, fewer new ones will be needed...or so goes the hope...

From an environmental perspective, it's a way for that fond and long-held hope, dematerialization, to start getting real traction. It turns out the ownership model, in and of itself, builds in a huge amount of resource inefficiency. We buy things that, by definition, as individuals, we cannot utilize fully, and they spend most of their time simply being owned (think of all your books and CDs, if you still have them). Now the ownership model is beginning to give way to the access model, wherein what's prized is access to services and experiences.

From a sustainability perspective, the crucial thing about an access model is that efficiency and durability are baked in; the profit incentive is naturally oriented toward getting the maximum number of human use-hours from the minimum amount of stuff. Just where we want the incentive to be! So greens have direct stake it seeing sharing models spread and flourish.

From an economic perspective, this puts real stress on the conventional ways of assessing an economy's performance. As sharing spreads, more and more socially productive activity will be "off the books" - no money will exchange hands, or if it does, it will be be a direct exchange, which, if it can be tracked at all, will basically count as a gift. Enterprises like Wikipedia, YouTube, and open-source software, which are based on the coordination of distributed, voluntary efforts ("social production"), add hugely to consumer welfare but do not produce much if any in the way of profits.

John Quiggin, in a great piece on this subject, notes one of the implications: "if monetary returns are weakly, or even negatively correlated with the value of social production, there's no reason to expect capital markets to do a good job in allocating resources to supporting innovation." If venture capitalists systematically underinvest in social production innovations, there's a good argument for government intervention.

Quiggin also notes another implication: "If improvements in welfare are increasingly independent of the market, it would make sense to shift resources out of market production, for example by reducing working hours." (Matt Yglesias also discusses this.) If jobs can be shared, just like things and spaces, then people will have more free time to engage in non-market but value-added activities, on what amounts to a hobbyist basis.

All this socially productive activity will not count toward GDP and will not be captured as value by traditional economic models. Eventually, it will militate in favor of alternative economic measures like nef's Happy Planet Index or Bhutan's gross national happiness, which try to capture well-being directly.

From a social perspective, it seems to me sharing models answer a deep need among those in rich developing nations (particularly the US) for an increased sense of connection and community. We tried retreating to our well-appointed redoubts in the exurbs and accumulating stuff, and it's not working. We're getting richer but not any happier - widening inequality and social distance are hurting us more than increased consumer power is helping us. People yearn to be knit into networks of trust and support. Peer-to-peer sharing is one way to start building that kind of social capital...'

HOME Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Sourced from YouTube, 13 January 2011

'We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth's climate. The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being. For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film. HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet.'

05 May 2011

How to Share in a Dialogue Despite Differences

Reposted in full from Shareable, 2 May 2011

'“I’ve witnessed people change before my very eyes and they are softened by the experience of being heard and listening,” says Kris Miner, executive director St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program. Miner’s program, launched in 2001 to serve communities in western Wisconsin, facilitates dialogues between victims and perpetrators, disruptive teens and community members, drunk drivers and families they’ve harmed – people who would normally have no desire to see, no less speak, to one another.

To be sure, if you’re looking for ways to cross difficult divides, the 30-year-old practice of “restorative justice” is a good place to start. Borrowing, among other sources, from ancient Maori tribal rituals for settling disputes, RJ has proven effective in legal systems, communities, and schools throughout the world. It is an example of what psychologist Kenneth Gergen calls transformative dialogue – practices that harness the power of relationship to affect change. Others include The Compassionate Listening Project, The Public Conversation Project, The Seeds of Peace Camp, and The Deep Democracy Institute.

These new practices honor relationship as a crucible of change. They open people’s minds rather than change them. And they encourage the kind of conversation that allows participants to feel safe, which makes it more likely that they’ll override their biases and hard-wired reactions.

Ask, don’t assume. First impressions and snap judgments are automatic, emotional, and barely conscious. But by being open and mindful, “you have more control over your unconscious,” according to Todd Kashdan, PhD., author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. When conversing with someone different, keep reminding yourself, “There’s something interesting I can learn here.” Ask questions that help you understand how he or she came to think that way. The Collaboration Project, for example, begins sessions with questions, such as, “How did you get involved with this issue? What's your personal relationship, or personal history, with it?”

If the other person says something offensive, be curious. Miner recalls saying to a woman who “hated” Native Americans, “Please, tell me the story of how you came to that conclusion.” Miner had more compassion for the woman after learning that when she was a teenager, a group of Native Americans in a park had threatened her with a broken bottle.

Kashdan also suggests turning curiosity inward: “We need to question the values, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that affect our everyday conversations. Be reflective. Remind yourself, ‘This is what I bring to the table.’”

Tell stories, not facts. People are notoriously bad listeners, and are especially resistant to dry facts and figures. Personal accounts go right to a listener’s heart.

“Stories inspire empathy, even if you don’t agree with the person’s viewpoint,” says life coach Barbara Biziou, who gives corporate seminars in communication. Stories engender connection and transform us from cardboard figures into complex beings. Research has shown that in every context – business, communities, conflict resolution – stories resonate on a profound human level and allow us to cross boundaries.

Collaborative conversation is mutual storytelling. You tell your truth and, at the same time, accept that it’s not the only truth. But if it’s your experience, then no one can say, “You are wrong."

Listen to understand. In restorative justice “circles,” participants pass around a ‘talking piece,' be it a stone, bean bag, or stick. “When I have it, it’s my opportunity to speak from the heart, and speak until I feel understood,” explains Miner. “But when someone else is talking, my job is to listen to understand. That’s different from listening to figure out whether the other person is right or wrong, in which case you either interrupt or bite your tongue.” When a person feels heard, he allows himself to be more open and, in turn, both parties are more apt to find common ground.

Listening to understand also decreases the likelihood that you will, as a Buddhist teacher would say, “argue with reality.” When differences can’t be breached, if you look at the whole person, you might not feel a need to disconnect. “I try to remember that there’s a lot more to him than his politics,” says Judy, whose ultra-conservative husband purposely makes extreme statements in the presence of her liberal friends. “I concentrate on his good traits.”

Go for connection, not conversion. Whether it’s for one conversation or longer-term engagement, focus on creating a relationship with the other person, rather than trying to convince them. Make how you talk more important than what you say. And don’t expect or reveal too much too soon. Relationships unfold in stages. In the initiating stage, we size up the stranger, put our best foot forward, and try to find out the basics like her background, values, details of her daily life – the “safe” stuff. We then segue into the experimenting stage where the “breadth” of disclosure expands. We talk about a greater variety of subjects and, possibly, increase the “depth” of disclosure, revealing more about ourselves. (“I’ve been brought up to believe....” or “In my country, we....”) With each successive conversation, we take one step forward, then pause to get our bearings. If we feel too vulnerable, we take one step back. As you get to know each other, you can begin to see a fuller, more complex person who will seem very different from your first impression.

Reassess and adapt, if necessary. Sue, a direct and highly creative manager, was constantly frustrated by her new boss: “She values work by how much she can assign, and I by how much I can accomplish.” After several months of seeing her ideas and reports “shelved,” Sue realized, “My boss was probably just as frustrated as me.” Sue had to modulate her communication style without compromising her own values. She now piggybacks her suggestions onto topics her boss brings up. “That makes her more relaxed and happier which, in turn, makes her more willing to listen.”

Research bears out Sue’s experience. In a series of studies, psychologist Claire Ashton James demonstrated that when joyful or somber music was played prior to interactions with a stranger, or when participants' moods were manipulated by making them hold a pen in their teeth (which forced a smile) or lips (a frown), the quality of conversation differs. When an upbeat state was induced, both European and Asian volunteers were more open. Primed in the opposite direction, however, they fell back on traditional cultural stereotypes and constrained their interactions.

Pull back to see the bigger picture. A web of relationships is like a traffic jam. Only by pulling back – positioning yourself above the fray – can you see the interrelationships of the various people involved. In order to untangle “complexities that are not easily grasped,” Eva Schiffer http://netmap.wordpress.com/personal-profile gave the 17 members of White Volta Basin Board, each who had a different perspective of their situation, an aerial view. Adapting principles of social network analysis, she helped them chart what she calls a “net map.” It is built around four basic questions: Who is involved? How are the players linked? What are their goals? and How influential is each one? You can explore such questions in one-on-one conversations, as well. “The activity of sitting together and trying to grasp what this whole network looked like,” recalls Schiffer, allows conversation partners (or members of a group) “to express their views, to talk about their previous experiences, and to figure out how they can put it all together.”

Practice in low-stakes situations. According to Jennifer Richeson’s research, being thrust into situations with people who are different can exact an emotional and cognitive price. As an alternative, Richeson suggests, “approach behavior,” which involves “intercultural learning, friendship development, and honest dialogue in the service of mutual understanding.”

That’s the goal of many experiments in collaboration and cooperation, such as Eat With Locals, a website founded by Vicki Edmunds of South Wales. The idea was inspired by “home swapping” in Slovenia: “My daughter was intrigued by the spices in the cupboard, and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could sit down to a meal with this family.” Today, EWL attracts members from all over the world who are curious about unfamiliar cultures and eager to meet strangers.

When divergent realities are shared, we get a glimpse of our common humanity.

Although we have been programmed to take care of Number One, if we can see conversation as a collaborative activity – a sharing of minds – we begin to interact as relational beings. And every social encounter becomes not only a way to enrich our own lives, but to build bridges across seemingly impossible divides and to set the stage for a mindset that truly allows us to share this small planet.'

04 May 2011

UN Sees Rise For the World To 10.1 Billion

Reposted in full from the
New York Times, 3 May 2011

'The population of the world, long expected to stabilize just above 9 billion in the middle of the century, will instead keep growing and may hit 10.1 billion by the year 2100, the United Nations projected in a report released Tuesday.

Growth in Africa remains so high that the population there could more than triple in this century, rising from today’s one billion to 3.6 billion, the report said — a sobering forecast for a continent already struggling to provide food and water for its people.

The new report comes just ahead of a demographic milestone, with the world population expected to pass 7 billion in late October, only a dozen years after it surpassed 6 billion. Demographers called the new projections a reminder that a problem that helped define global politics in the 20th century, the population explosion, is far from solved in the 21st.

“Every billion more people makes life more difficult for everybody — it’s as simple as that,” said John Bongaarts, a demographer at the Population Council, a research group in New York. “Is it the end of the world? No. Can we feed 10 billion people? Probably. But we obviously would be better off with a smaller population.”

The projections were made by the United Nations population division, which has a track record of fairly accurate forecasts. In the new report, the division raised its forecast for the year 2050, estimating that the world would most likely have 9.3 billion people then, an increase of 156 million over the previous estimate for that year, published in 2008.

Among the factors behind the upward revisions is that fertility is not declining as rapidly as expected in some poor countries, and has shown a slight increase in many wealthier countries, including the United States, Britain and Denmark.

The director of the United Nations population division, Hania Zlotnik, said the world’s fastest-growing countries, and the wealthy Western nations that help finance their development, face a choice about whether to renew their emphasis on programs that encourage family planning.

Though they were a major focus of development policy in the 1970s and 1980s, such programs have stagnated in many countries, caught up in ideological battles over abortion, sex education and the role of women in society. Conservatives have attacked such programs as government meddling in private decisions, and in some countries, Catholic groups fought widespread availability of birth control. And some feminists called for less focus on population control and more on empowering women.

Over the past decade, foreign aid to pay for contraceptives — $238 million in 2009 — has barely budged, according to United Nations estimates. The United States has long been the biggest donor, but the budget compromise in Congress last month cut international family planning programs by 5 percent.

“The need has grown, but the availability of family planning services has not,” said Rachel Nugent, an economist at the Center for Global Development in Washington, a research group.

Dr. Zlotnik said in an interview that the revised numbers were based on new forecasting methods and the latest demographic trends. But she cautioned that any forecast looking 90 years into the future comes with a slew of caveats.

That is particularly so for some fast-growing countries whose populations are projected to skyrocket over the next century. For instance, Yemen, a country whose population has quintupled since 1950, to 25 million, would see its numbers quadruple again, to 100 million, by century’s end, if the projections prove accurate. Yemen already depends on food imports and faces critical water shortages.

In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, the report projects that population will rise from today’s 162 million to 730 million by 2100. Malawi, a country of 15 million today, could grow to 129 million, the report projected.

The implicit, and possibly questionable, assumption behind these numbers is that food and water will be available for the billions yet unborn, and that potential catastrophes ranging from climate change to wars to epidemics will not serve as a brake on population growth. “It is quite possible for several of these countries that are smallish and have fewer resources, these numbers are just not sustainable,” Dr. Zlotnik said.

Well-designed programs can bring down growth rates even in the poorest countries. Provided with information and voluntary access to birth-control methods, women have chosen to have fewer children in societies as diverse as Bangladesh, Iran, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

One message from the new report is that the AIDS epidemic, devastating as it has been, has not been the demographic disaster that was once predicted. Prevalence estimates and projections for the human immunodeficiency virus made for Africa in the 1990s turned out to be too high, and in many populations, treatment with new drug regimens has cut the death rate from the disease.

But the survival of millions of people with AIDS who would have died without treatment, and falling rates of infant and child mortality — both heartening trends — also mean that fertility rates for women need to fall faster to curb population growth, demographers said.

Other factors have slowed change in Africa, experts said, including women’s lack of power in their relationships with men, traditions like early marriage and polygamy, and a dearth of political leadership. While about three-quarters of married American women use a modern contraceptive, the comparable proportions are a quarter of women in East Africa, one in 10 in West Africa, and a mere 7 percent in Central Africa, according to United Nations statistics.

“West and central Africa are the two big regions of the world where the fertility transition is happening, but at a snail’s pace,” said John F. May, a World Bank demographer.

Some studies suggest that providing easy, affordable access to contraceptives is not always sufficient. A trial by Harvard researchers in Lusaka, Zambia, found that only when women had greater autonomy to decide whether to use contraceptives did they have significantly fewer children. Other studies have found that general education for girls plays a critical role, in that literate young women are more likely to understand that family size is a choice.

The new report suggests that China, which has for decades enforced restrictive population policies, could soon enter the ranks of countries with declining populations, peaking at 1.4 billion in the next couple of decades, then falling to 941 million by 2100.

The United States is growing faster than many rich countries, largely because of high immigration and higher fertility among Hispanic immigrants. The new report projects that the United States population will rise from today’s 311 million to 478 million by 2100.'

15 Things They Don't Tell You About Money

Dire Straits were right!

Sourced from Positive Money, 29 April 2011

'Inspired by Ha Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Capitalism (2010) where you learn for example that the Nobel Prize for Economics is not really a Nobel Prize: it is awarded by the Swedish Central Bank.

1. Governments in full sovereign control of their currencies can create sufficient money to ensure full employment and to finance all their activities. There is no limit to money creation and to say that ‘there is no money left’ is as absurd as it is untrue.

2. Governments with sovereign power do not need to borrow either from private financial institutions or the IMF. That they borrow and then have to ‘appease financial markets’ is a self-imposed constraint, rather like tying your shoelaces together and claiming that you can’t walk (see Warren Mosler below).

3. Governments do not control the money supply but instead have chosen to subcontract the provision of the public money supply to private banks.

4. Governments voluntarily forego the substantial public revenue of money creation called seigniorage. In the UK this amounts to a subsidy to private banks of the order of £100 bn a year

5. Money is not a ‘ thing’ but a legal relationship, a creation of the State. It is a token (these days electronic) system which establishes claims over resources.

6. Money is not wealth. Wealth is land, natural resources and the products of human labour. Money is only a claim on wealth.

7. Real wealth comes from the production of socially useful goods and services and investment in infrastructure and skills. Property or share price speculation and the promotion of pyramid schemes (the process called ‘financial liberalisation’ or ‘deregulation’) are predatory and extractive activities which do not create wealth.

8. Banks are offspring of the State. They have a virtual monopoly of money creation and the legal privileges and protections of corporate personhood and limited liability. They pretend to be independent and self reliant but like spoilt teenagers, at the first sign of trouble, they run home crying and demanding unlimited handouts.

9. Banks do not lend anything. They create money as credit out of nothing and charge interest on something which costs nothing to produce. Credit creates an additional debt overhead in the form of interest which adds to costs in the economy but, as no additional money is issued to cover it, there is never enough money in circulation to enable debt to be repaid, causing bankruptcies, recessions and unemployment.

10. Bank credit does not go into productive investment but into asset price speculation and ‘loans’ to other banks. When commentators refer to the banking crisis they are referring to the ongoing collapse of this classic pyramid or Ponzi scheme.

11. Banks expand and contract the money supply creating booms and asset price bubbles which collapse into recessions. This is called ‘the business cycle’ but there is nothing inevitable about it.

12. There must always be a deficit in the private or public sectors for the money system to function – someone somewhere has always to be spending more than they are earning.

13. There are only two ways that money can enter the economy: credit issued by private banks or government spending. If credit dries up, only government can make good the shortfall or else there is a recession.

14. If you think that you have ‘money in the bank’, think again. Bank accounts are only accounting entries representing the bank’s promise to pay, not real money.

15. Expanding the money supply by government-issued money is not inflationary except in conditions of full employment. Unlike bank credit, there is nothing intrinsically inflationary about government-issued money. Money issuance can always be controlled by taxation.'

The Beginners Guide to Carbon (Rogue) Trading

Sourced from The Ecologist, 3 May 2011

'The Environmental Investigation Agency's animated film highlighting how the global trade in carbon credits is open to abuse and exploitation...

As the debate over carbon trading intensifies, the real life eco-spooks have released this unique video to highlight the dangers of the current 'carbon rush'. For more info: www.eia-international.org'

01 May 2011

Stepping Back to Civilize Ourselves

Excerpt from the New Internationalist, 29 April 2011

Spring is in the air. But that’s not why everyone’s so happy in Sunny England this week!The weather is more mid-summer than spring, really, with blazing sun and not a cloud in sight. The weather cheers people up enormously, no doubt. But the thing that seems to make everyone smile is the fact that they’ve all had four days off, a three-day working week for heaven’s sake with Easter Week and the Bank Holidays. Folks have gone back to work on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then have Friday off for the Royal Wedding. I’ve honestly never seen everyone look so perky in this country before...

Someone said, ‘Everyone really should have a three-day week. It’s perfect.’ And looking at the happy faces around I wondered, why ever not? The artificial work cycle as we know it came with the Industrial Revolution. Till then, most people followed the natural agricultural cycle. They worked hard when it was ploughing, sowing, reaping or harvest time and then they relaxed when it was all over. There was a natural rhythm to life...

As we sail through the 21st century, I watch with dismay as hard-won labour laws stop being effective. I see unions lose control completely and people go back to working long exploitative hours for fear of losing their jobs in a man-made recession which allows corrupt city sharks to swallow up pensioners’ hard-earned money, while the bankers responsible walk away with million dollar bonuses. I see young people fritter away their youth and their lives for a few dollars more, with little time to stop and stare, enjoy the spring, smell the flowers or just be young and silly. Their companies don’t allow them to. They seem to own their souls.

I’m not just talking about the factory worker who is exploited. I’m looking at the young, up and coming ‘professional’, young bankers, Wall Street yuppies, IT professionals. They are as owned by the company as the miners in the 1950s song ‘I owe my soul to the company store’. Its velvet gloved but the principle is the same. They don’t own their souls anymore.

In some circles, people are trying to reclaim the lost art of living by opting for a three day week. This allows other people to have jobs, while it gives them time to breathe again. They will be dismissed as lacking in ambition, not getting to the top of the ladder, etc. etc. But they’ve chosen to opt out of the rat race. They are actually getting a life.

May their tribe increase. If by some miracle they manage to make their point of view mainstream, we’d be taking a step back to becoming civilized again!'