Freakishly Lucky

InequalityDo you ever think how freakishly lucky you are ?

We often tell ourselves that most of what we’ve achieved in life is down to our hard work and good choices, and while up to a point that’s obviously true (work hard at school kids), there’s also no getting away from the fact that stupid random luck is even more significant.

Now I obviously don’t know how educated, wealthy, safe or healthy you are . . . but if you’re able to read this, are doing so on some kind of computer connected to the internet, have time to think about these things rather than safeguarding your family or scraping enough money together to eat tomorrow, and aren’t distracted by the problems that come from lack of healthcare or clean water, then it’s safe to say you’re doing better than most people on the planet.

There are seven billion of us going about our daily lives today.

Around 0.8 billion of us are chronically undernourished (that means hungry)

Around 1 billion of us have insufficient access to clean drinking water

Around 1.5 billion of us don’t have access to electricity

Around 2.5 billion of us lack access to basic sanitation (that means toilets)

Around 3 billion of us survive on less than $2.50 a day

Around 5.2 billion of us survive on less than $10.00 a day (net income of $3,650/y)

If you’re lucky enough to be earning the UK average national wage (£26,500) you’re earning more than 99.3% of the people on the planet. Welcome to the global elite !

If things had turned out differently. If you’d been born into circumstances without clean water, toilets, immunisation, doctors, sufficient food, electricity, education, safety and security, how different would your life have been ? How different would your attitudes be as a result ?

I saw the film Elysium a couple of weeks ago.

In many respects it’s a fairly entertaining science fiction romp with spaceships, robots and futeristic firepower, with a hero saving the day, defeating the evil villain against all the odds.

But there’s something else going on.

It’s set between an overpopulated and polluted Earth, where everyone lives in grinding poverty, with little healthcare, education or prospects – and the gleaming hi-tech orbiting space colony home of the world’s super-rich, who exploit the labour of the billions of desperate poor, and will do anything in order to protect themselves, and their belongings, from them.

Queue existential angst as we wonder whether we identify more with the poor hero, or the rich villains!


The film’s South African director Neill Blomkamp is quoted as saying: “People ask me if this is my prediction for the future. I say no, this isn’t science fiction, this is now, this is today. It’s about the third world trying to get into the first world”.

The fact that the dystopian setting for much of the film was shot on one of the world’s largest landfill sites in Mexico City, where thousands of real people spent their working lives, scavenging the waste for recyclables to sell, until it’s recent closure, makes it hard to dismiss his view.

It seems as if the lives of the rich and poor have never been so starkly different. We’ve certainly never been so acutely aware of it.

Barack Obama has described inequality as the defining issue of our time.

It’s not wrong to be lucky.

But is it wrong to be lucky, but do nothing to help our less lucky neighbours around the world ?

“The main reason many are so poor, is that a few of us are so rich”

Something to ponder as you watch the inequality videos below.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]

Photo by May S Young (creative commons), via Flickr

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The Shape of Things to Come

172 - Things to ComeHG Wells wrote his prediction for the next 150 years or so of history as The Shape of Things to Come in 1933. He predicted the second world war, the collapse of the world economy, a global pandemic, the global use of English, the collapse of the nation state and the rise of a benign ‘dictatorship of the air’. . . it would be generous to award him half-marks.

The Shape of Things to Come is far from a great novel, but along with Brave New World and 1984, it does now provide an interesting historical example of the ‘futurology’ of its time.

Futurology, the tricky art of predicting what will happen next, is an interesting career path or pastime, as it inevitably tends to end in failure.

But perhaps that’s a little too simplistic ?

The real value of predictions isn’t only that they allow us to make plans for the supposed future, but also that they also enable us to take action in the here and now either to help bring that particular future into existence, or stop it from coming true.

Presenting visions, which we can either support or oppose, affects how we act in the present.

This is true both for our own personal futures – perhaps we might have a 65% chance of coronary heart disease by the time we’re 60 (if we don’t loose some weight), and for society as a whole - perhaps there will be 1.8 billion people living with absolute water scarcity by 2025 (if we don’t change how we manage water resources).

Both of these examples are typical of the warnings we’ve become used to hearing – we must ‘change our ways’ to reduce our risk of diabetes, risk of cancer, risk of food shortages, risk of energy shortages, risk of habitat destruction, risk of species extinction, risk of global warming . . . but I’d humbly suggest we also need to change our ways to avoid the risk of be overwhelmed by too many negative messages.

One of the criticisms often leveled at the environmental movement (fairly in my opinion) is that it tends to focus far too much on negative concerns and behaviors, and do comparatively little to promote a positive alternate vision for how we should live. It’s all too easy for detractors to present environmentalists as ‘crazy tree-hugging kill joys’ who want everyone (except the very rich) to stop flying, using our cars, heating our homes, buying cheap (non-fairtrade or non-organic) food, buying new electronic gadgets etc.

We need a more attractive vision of a sustainable future.

Another criticism (again, probably fairly in my view) is that the vision that is on offer, can seem very focused on those of us who are middle-class and middle-income, living in the developed economies of the world. This is perhaps understandable – but the world, in fact, looks pretty different to this.

Last year global population passed the 7 billion point, with another 2 or 3 billion or so predicted to arrive during the next 50 years – mostly in the already sprawling mega-cities of Asia and Africa.

We need a more global vision of a sustainable future.

If we’re to have the positive and sustainable future we all no doubt want, both for us and our children, it seems likely it will have to incorporate both technological and societal change:

More use of personal devices and smart systems to improve efficiency and coordinate resources. A greatly expanded digital and virtual economy, both to replace physical things, but also to provide work opportunities and reduce transport needs. A more comprehensive ‘circular economy’, reusing and recycling materials as a matter of course. More use of biotechnology in everything from farming to medicine. Much more focus on resource efficiency – whether water, food, land or energy. In addition it’s unavoidable were going to need a quite a lot more of each, if we’re going to allow most of the people in the world an improved standard of living.

At the same time it seems to me we’re going to have to change both our personal mind-sets and some of our economic models. We will need to stop exploiting cheap labour in the developing world for the benefit of the rich world. We will need to stop and possibly reverse the destruction and loss of natural habitats and the oceans. We will need to rebalance our economies to take account of the massive shifts towards an aging population in the developed world, and a far younger population elsewhere. We’ll need to do all this in a way that avoids conflict, whether over competition for resources, alternate ideologies, or due to tensions between the world’s haves and have-nots  (both between and within nation states). We’re also going to have to find governments that can deliver all this in an acceptably accountable way!

It’s going to be hard.

There are difficult questions to answer:

- How can we decouple economic growth from consumption ?

- Does fracking have a place as a transition energy source, if it displaces coal emissions ?

- Do GM crop varieties have a role in maximising food production ?

- Does the developed world need to get used to eating less meat ?

- Does nuclear energy have a future as a global low-carbon energy source ?

- Do we need to refocus our economies away from a ‘work-money-consumption’ model ? To what ?

- How can we create a more equal society, while not disenfranchising those either at the top or the bottom ?

If you want something to read or watch while pondering the answer to these questions, the internet abounds with futurology resources, try: twitter, reddit, TED or the Economist,

In the meantime, I’d suggest, those of us working to create and promote a fairer, more sustainable future for us all, would probably do well to turn down the volume on our ‘doom and gloom – don’t do that’ messages, and turn up the volume on our ‘enviro-optimist – it could be like this’ messages . . .

I’d be interested to know your thoughts ?

Photo by NASARobonaught, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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Have a Documentary Party

Why not get together a few friends sometime over the next month and have a documentary party ? Some food, some drinks and a conversation about the issues covered in the film. Here are a few possible suggestions for you.


A film simply about dirt, that is also about the future of life. Narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, Dirt! shows the importance and fragility of fertile soil to all life on earth. Yet fertile soil is something our societies tend to take for granted, and often abuse – sterilizing it with pesticides, chemically blasting it with nitrogen fertilizers and exposing it to erosion and crusting through industrial farming practices. Dirt! goes on to describe what actions we can take to begin to recover the situation, from better farming practices, to reducing soil sealing by hard-surfaces in our urban areas.



A film challenging the Christian church to respond to global poverty – arguing ‘we have everything we need, will we now do everything it takes ?’. The film 58 contrasts and connects the poverty of rural Ethiopia, the squalor of Nairobi’s slums, the violence of Brazil’s ganglands and inter-generational slavery in India with the affluent and consumerist, but often unhappy lives of the US and the UK. Describing itself as ‘not a call to slacktivism’, 58 is supported by several international aid organisations, advocating a range of personal responses including donations, campaigning and moving to a less-consuming lifestyle.



A film portrait of the 75 year old Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, as he tries to pass on what he’s learned over his life in a ‘last lecture’. The film follows his life from his origins in WWII, through his career in science, activism in the civil rights movement and campaigning work for environmental protection, climate change and sustainability. A mix of environmentalism and personal history, the film does a good job of capturing David’s essentially optimistic views of the future.


Photo by Vancouver Film School, via Flickr

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5 Talking Heads

A few interesting ideas and musings from the talking heads from The Big Think

1 – We Should Act Less and Think More

Slavoj Zizek : Philosopher and cultural critic

2 – Have Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor ?

Cornel West : Philosopher, activist and author

3 - What’s the Biggest Challenge in the Coming Decade ?

Jim Wallis : Christian writer and political activist

4 - What’s the Best Way to do Philanthropy ?

Michael Porter : Harvard Business School Consultant and Author

5 - Can Technology Solve Our Problems ?

Charles Vest : President of Massachuset’s Institute of Technology

Photo from Drflet via Wikimedia (new image format, to display better on mobile devices)

RELATED ARTICLES – 10 Ideas for the New Week

We Don’t Want to Believe What We Know

In the words of The Doors, People Are Strange.

Take the phrase; ’face the facts.

We probably wouldn’t need a phrase for it, if there wasn’t any choice about it. Hard to imagine Star Trek’s logical Vulcan Mr Spock, or Lt Data ever choosing to do anything other than ‘facing the facts’. But we humans are strange.

It turns out that very often, we do exactly that – simply refusing to accept the facts. Rather than change our actions and behaviours in response to new information, we change our beliefs instead.

In 1954 the social psychologist Leon Festinger and a colleague infiltrated The Seekers, a small Chicago cult, which believed the end of the world was imminent. He wanted to document what happened when, presumably, the end of the world didn’t take place on December 21st 1954 as they had predicted. Expecting the disillusionment and fragmentation of the group, what actually happened surprised Leon and his colleagues – almost all the group changed their beliefs, deciding instead that the actions of their group had actually saved the world from destruction. Rather than accept their view of the world was wrong, they changed their beliefs to accommodate the ‘new facts’.

In his subsequent book ‘When Prophecy Fails‘, Leon coined the phrase Cognitive Dissonance to describe this process of the mind becoming aware that it holds two contradictory views at the same time, naturally wanting to resolve this ‘dissonance’, and so tending to modify the ‘less strongly held belief’ so it no longer contradicts the other – and very often this might mean refusing to accept new information that challenges a particularly strongly held belief.

We all do it.

- We don’t want to believe that eating junk food and not exercising will make us unhealthy, so we convince ourselves that there’s not that many calories in chocolate or wine, and anyway they has lots of other good health benefits.

- We don’t want to accept our holiday to our dream destination actually turned out a bit rubbish, so we focus on the positives, ignore the negatives and tell everyone how great it was.

- We don’t want to accept that we didn’t study enough for the test, so we tell ourselves the exam was particularly hard this year.

Leon wrote: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

It’s not that we ignore logic, just that our emotions work faster than our reason, so it’s our emotions that control our initial responses, and we just don’t like to admit to ourselves we were wrong . . .

It’s not hard to see how this applies to many of the world’s problems today – a couple of recent examples stand out:

- A group of climate sceptics in New Zealand have been legally challenging temperature records that show a warming trend.

- And in North Carolina legislators voted to ignore predictions of coastal impacts from sea level rise in planning decisions.

I can’t imagine there are too many climate sceptics who regularly read Next Starfish, and the rest of us might find it easy to scorn and laugh at stories like these, but perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so quick to judge.

Spend ninety minutes watching Yann Arthus Bernard’s exceptional HD film Home below (you’ll need to open it in new browser), and then ask yourself – is my lifestyle really in tune with my beliefs ?

Cognitive dissonance affects us all, to a greater or lesser extent – it’s part of the human condition.

The good news is ‘we all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for ?’


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Photo from NASA