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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Happy Shopping

174 - PackagesIn the September of 1880, County Mayo, Ireland, something different happened.

The harvest had been poor and the tenant farmers were struggling to be able to pay their rents and still feed their families. They asked for a 25% reduction, but the landlord refused, offering only 10%. When the tenants refused to pay the job of evicting them fell to the landlord’s agent, the unpopular English Magistrate Captain Charles Boycott.

But rather than fight back, the farmers collectively decided to shun Captain Boycott. His farm labourers stopped harvesting the crops on his farm. His servants left his house and stables, leaving no one to wash his laundry, cook or shoe his horses. Local stores and businesses refused to sell to him, and the postman even refused to deliver his mail.

It didn’t take long for Captain Boycott to admit defeat and three months later he had to be escorted out of Ireland by the 19th Hussars for his own safety. The army also had to provide the driver for the carriage because no one else would do it, and by Christmas the British press were already using the word ‘boycott’ to mean organised ostracism.

Have you ever Boycotted anything ?

It’s a depressing truth that most of us will probably affect the world more, for good or ill, by how we choose to spend our money, than by anything else we do. Freely choosing not to financially support a particular individual, group or company because you disagree with some aspect of their behaviour seems to me entirely reasonable, as is publicising your cause and attempting to convince others to join you. Of course others may feel your boycott is unfair or uninformed, and perhaps organise some form of counter boycott or protest – such is life in a free society.

But in general I’m not a big fan of organised Boycotts.

It’s not that I’m opposed to boycotts in principle – it’s just that they all too often seem to provoke unnecessary venom and hatred between the protagonists. They can often also seem very indiscriminate to me – is it really right to boycott everything grown in Israel because of how their government treats Palestinians, or refuse to buy anything French because of nuclear testing in the Pacific two decades ago ? In addition many boycotts strike me as simply one-sided, unfair or overly simplistic – after all what about the poor treatment of other minorities or nationalities by other countries, or everyone else’s nuclear testing ?

I also find that very often the most vocal critics of particular companies or organisations are perfectly happy to buy and use products from other companies with equally questionable records. After all it is difficult, if every purchase we made was 100% consistent with our ethical views life would become very hard. There are many policies of the Chinese, US and for that matter the UK government I don’t agree with – but my phones made in China, I rely on Google to organise my life, and I also advocate buying local wherever reasonably possible. Being an ethical consumer is complicated ?

Though I’m suspicious of organised boycotts (though there are several I DO support), I do think we all need to engage with the consequences of how we spend our money, both by educating ourselves, and by having the character to make principled decisions as a result.

The magazine Ethical Consumer have recently been running a boycott Amazon campaign, in protest at the very small amount of tax paid by Amazon in the UK compared to its profits – according to their website Amazon currently pay tax at a rate of 0.1%.

My views on this are typically conflicted.

Not paying a fair rate of tax is essentially the rich keeping wealth for themselves instead of distributing it with wider society. I know this is simplistic, that certainly not all public spending is directed at the poor and what is ‘fair’ is ultimately subjective, but many would broadly agree with this sentiment.

On the other hand I know that’s not Amazon’s fault. Governments are responsible for designing the tax system, and they simply haven’t found a good way to regulate an increasingly global and digital economy. Companies in fact have a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders – why would they voluntarily pay a national government more tax than they were required to ?

Lately the UK government, along with many others, have been talking tough on the topic of tax avoidance – but little seems to have actually changed, and in the meantime individual choice, though important, is no substitute for proper regulation.

So what to do . . . ?

Regular visitors to Nextstarfish might have noticed that the site now looks a little different . The Amazon links for books and DVDs have now disappeared. While I’m not exactly boycotting Amazon, I don’t feel comfortable engaging with them to sell through my site anymore. I’ve also removed my Amazon store links and am in the process of closing them down. On a personal level I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime and Amazon MP3 memberships, though if I’m honest I didn’t really use them all that much anyway, and probably should have done it a while ago just to save myself some money. I probably will still order from Amazon from time to time, but will also try harder to find things elsewhere first.

Most importantly I’ve sent the Government an email urging quicker action on fair tax reform.

So am I boycotting Amazon ?

No, not exactly – but I think I can make some better choices, more in line with my beliefs.

I’m not advocating anyone else blindly do the same, we all have to decide these things for ourselves – but if we want to ‘do more good’ with our lives I do think it’s important we keep ourselves informed about the companies and organisations we give our money to and the consequences that result.

We should also try to find time to wrestle with the personal ethical challenges that emerge.

Happy shopping.

 

(Agree, disagree, want to ask a question or share a story ? Please post a comment – all polite, open debate is welcome)

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Photo by Mark Falardeau (creative commons), via Flickr

Fix What’s Broken

170 - BagThink for a moment about all the ‘stuff’ you’ve ever brought.

From when you were a kid, to the age you are now – the clothes, the books, the home items, the magazines, the shoes, the electrical goods, the furniture, the carpets, the crockery, the mobile phones, the computer games, the cushions, the kettles, the deckchairs, the cars . . . everything.

Where are they now ?

Assuming you’re home isn’t some vast Indiana Jones like warehouse full of everything you’ve ever owned (how disconcerting would that be?), it’s safe to assume the vast majority of the things you’ve bought you eventually threw away.

Why ?

All those raw materials, all that energy used in manufacture and transport, all the water used to grow the wood or cotton etc, all the chemicals, all the packaging? None of it really thrown ‘away’ of course, there’s no such place, but landfilled in some home in the ground – several hundred tons of your own personal waste.

Why ?

Sometimes we just get bored or tired of things, sometimes things go out of style, sometimes we’ve just no further use for something, but it’s more than likely that a large percentage of the stuff you’ve thrown away, you got rid of because it was broken.

Just a couple of generations ago many of these broken things would have been repaired, once, twice or even over and over again – whether tables, clothes, shoes or tools. This attitude of scarcity, of material things being limited and valuable, is now largely history. In our throwaway society stuff is cheap – it usually costs less to buy a new one than it would to fix the old one, and certainly it’s a lot less hassle. Who has time to fix stuff these days ?

But taking the time and effort to repair things is making something of a comeback – from Amsterdam’s Repair Cafes (which are now popping-up further afield), to increasing numbers of writers and bloggers discussing it – check out My Make Do and Mend Year or The Case for Working with your Hands.

Some of this is down to austerity of course – we’re all having to get by on less money than before, and so feel more inclined to patch up our coat, or re-screw the table leg, than use the excuse to buy something new. But some of the popularity stems from an increasing awareness of the connection between our own wasteful, consumerist lifestyles, and the environmental and social damage being done elsewhere in the world to support them. We increasingly understand it’s hypocritical to bemoan global warming while buying endless replacement gadgets and stuff made in Chinese coal powered factories, or to feel appalled about poor working conditions or workplace disasters elsewhere in the world, while buying endless £3 T-shirts on the High Street.

Just to be clear – I’m as much a hypocrite as anyone else – consumption is so deeply woven into our society it’s not an easy thing to avoid.

This isn’t just a personal problem – we’ve built our whole economies on a model of never ending consumption. We need to maintain ‘consumer confidence’ or GDP takes a bit of a hit. The phrase ‘planned obsolescence‘, you might be interested to learn, was first used in 1932, in a plan to help end the depression by ensuring all manufacturers produced goods that were designed to quickly break – in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumer demand! They realised even then, that if we all simply stop buying new stuff we’re going to have to face some rather difficult consequences.

On the other hand the phrase ‘waste not want not‘ dates back to at least the 1700s, and suggests that if we were to waste less in the present, then we’d have more left for ourselves in the future.

Solving this dilemma – by ensuring resources are used not just effectively, but also efficiently, but without collapsing the economy, is one of the key challenges of sustainability. To achieve it we’ll need to develop a much more circular economy, making it easier to use and reuse materials – while at the same time decoupling economic growth from consumption.

In the meantime, as policy makers and economists wrestle with how to do this, I’ll keep fixing my 10 year old bag . . . buy less, mend more.

 

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Slaying My Enoughasaurus for Lent

166 - CoinsWhat was the last thing you bought ?

And the thing before that ?

And before that ?

We could all go on, but for most of us sat reading this in the first world, it’s a list that very quickly becomes very long – snacks, clothes, gadgets, books, gifts, coffee, trips, fuel, entertainment, meals out, apps, toiletries, drinks, stuff for home, stuff for the kids, stuff for ourselves . . . It’s not that buying things in itself is bad, it’s just that we all consume so much.

Although it probably doesn’t seem like it, we’re among the richest people that have ever lived, and if you’re reading this online, somewhere warm and dry, with a full stomach and a drink that won’t give you a disease, you’re already one of the richest twenty five percent of people in the world. If you earn the average UK wage of £26,500 a year, you’re in the top 1% !

Drop in on the website How Rich am I to use their calculator and see how you measure up.

We know it’s a big world out there and we know there are millions and billions of people living in poverty while we have so much, but it’s somehow too much to comprehend, too distant, their lives are too different to ours – we can’t relate to it, so we don’t see ourselves as rich. This disconnect is entirely normal and natural, but it means we’re left comparing our lives and our stuff with the society around us . . . along with all the advertising, streets filled with shops and a focus on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, we’re easily left with the sense of wanting more in order to be happy.

US writer Jeff Yeager talks about ‘Slaying our Enoughasaurus’ – deciding that ‘enough is enough’ and conditioning ourselves to spend less and to be content doing so. He’s one of many now advocating a more frugal but happier life.

I’ve written several times about consumerism and simpler lifestyles but the truth is I’m as guilty as anyone else – it’s very hard not to be a hypocrite.

This Lent I’ll be doing a money diet – and reducing my spending as low as I can.

It’s obviously not a total ban on spending money – I’ll still be paying the bills, putting petrol in the car and food on the table, but the aim is not too much else. No takeaways, meals out, purchased lunches, drinks in the pub, clothes, books, games, music, apps, gadgets or anything else – well almost. I’ve decided to make a few exceptions: I’ve got two social commitments (a meal and a film) with friends that I’m going to honour, but I’ll be doing so very much at the frugal end of things. I’m also going to continue with the sport and exercise I do, but apart from this (and a trip to the dentist) I should be ‘consumption free’ until Easter . . . we’ll see what happens.

Six weeks doesn’t actually seem that long. Robin MacArthur went for a year without buying anything new (almost).

So why am I doing this ?

Well the idea is to teach myself a little more self-control and resilience – freedom from desire etc, but also to see how easy it would be to reduce our spending longer term. Having lower overheads, fewer commitments and more money in the bank seem generally very sensible things to do in these uncertain, austere times.

I’m also hoping giving up spending for Lent will encourage me to spend a bit more time in the garden . . . it definitely needs it !

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Photo by Tax Credits, via Flickr

Bogota’s Mime Police

Yes, you did read the title correctly – Bogota, the capital of Columbia and home to over 8 million people, employs mimes as police.

What ?

Like all good stories it’s best to start at the beginning.

In the early 1990′s Bogota was widely regarded as an incredibly violent city, in 1993 it had a murder rate of 81 per 100,000 inhabitants, leading to it’s being considered the ‘homicide capital of the world’.

In addition it was rife with corruption – in politics, the police, and almost all sections of society. Columbia and Bogota had plenty of laws prohibiting corruption, it was just that no one paid any attention to them, and the same applied to everything else, from littering and jaywalking, to muggings and murder.

During this time the President of the National University of Columbia was the mathematician and philosopher Antanas Mockus. Battling his own problems of student riots and demonstrations on campus he vented his frustration on a group of protesters by mooning them in a crowded lecture hall. Afterwards he said “Innovative behavior can be useful when you run out of words”.

Although he subsequently lost his job he gained enough popularity to run as an independent to be Mayor of Bogota in 1995 – which he won. His independence meant he was able to put in place a non-political cabinet, without the usual corruption and nepotism, and removed various corrupt individuals and organisations, including sacking almost the entire Transport Police.

Mockus recognized that there were significant differences between what the law said, and what people did, which wouldn’t be fixed simply by creating new laws. He realised that ‘the rules’ governing society were partly due to the regulations and threat of punishment, but mostly due to what people had come to view as normal. Litter was thrown on the streets because it was deemed morally acceptable. People committed crimes because they believed they would not be punished for them.

He was convinced that what was needed was to recreate a culture of good governance and respect for ‘the rules’ and his solution was unusual.

He replaced the Traffic Police with 420 mimes – who followed and shamed jaywalkers and poor drivers by publicly mocking them. Amazingly pedestrian traffic compliance increased from 26% to 75% within 2 months, and traffic fatalities fell by 50% over a longer period.

He didn’t stop there.

He created 7,000 voluntary community security groups to supplement the corrupt Police Force. He introduced a Women’s Night, encouraging men to stay home in the evening, looking after the children and allowing women to go out feeling safer. He dressed-up in a spandex super hero costume to promote litter collection and promoted water conservation by showering in a TV commercial. He also distributed 350,000 cards with a ‘thumbs-up’ on one side and a ‘thumbs-down’ on the other, that people could use to indicate their (peaceful) displeasure at someone else’s actions.

Of course there were a variety of other important reforms, including stricter gun control and licensing laws, anti-violence education and reform of prisons and the police.

Overall he was successful in his two (non-consecutive) terms as Mayor in reducing crime (2007 murder rate was down from 81 to 19 per 100,000 inhabitants), corruption, and increasing clean water and sewerage provision by almost 80%.

In his own words:

“There is a tendency to be dependent on individual leaders. To me, it is important to develop collective leadership. I don’t like to get credit for all that we achieved. Millions of people contributed to the results that we achieved … I like more egalitarian relationships. I especially like to orient people to learn.

The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

 

Photo by Scott Clark, via Flickr

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