Walk Two Moons in Someone Else’s Moccasins

Are you concerned about global poverty, climate change, pollution, peak oil, the rise of consumerism ?

Do you support Fairtrade, human rights, environmental protection and a more equal distribution of wealth and resources ?

The desire to encourage others to engage with these issues is what prompted me to start writing Next Starfish, and if you’re a regular reader the odds are that you share many of the same concerns.

That’s the thing about blogs of course – they largely preach to the converted !

It’s great if anything on this site prompts you to reconsider aspects of your own life, or take action to make a positive difference – but I’m under no illusions – the vast majority of this site’s regular readers are wonderful, caring, empowered people, and would be doing all  these good things anyway !

If we’re really serious about changing things we need to reach a wider audience, and aim to encourage and persuade change. Clearly this isn’t going to be easy – everyone already thinks they are right !

Have you ever had an argument with someone about why they should buy more Fairtrade, reduce their consumerism, recycle more, avoid sweatshop produced clothing, the positive aspects of wind power or why we should continue to give overseas aid ?

How did that argument end up ? Were you able to persuade the other person around to your way of thinking ? I know I’ve rarely been able to.

If we’re to escape what seems to be the increasing polarization of these issues, we need to find ways to develop more constructive conversations and ultimately cultivate areas of common ground with those in society who are not naturally inclined to be sympathetic of the sort of issues I write about on Next Starfish.

It can be incredibly tempting to think these other people are ignorant, or selfish, or fearful, or angry, or distrusting – but of course that’s largely not the case. It’s just that we all have different perspectives about what’s most important to us.

A number of sociologists would suggest that societies across the world can be broadly broken down into thirds :

- A third who are mostly concerned about people or issues proximal to themselves; their families, their town or city, their local neighbourhood or their country. They are concerned about ensuring the safety of these people and things, and seek to keep them secure – whether through strong laws, powerful military, big safe cars or healthy bank balances. They want to ensure the predictable continued operation of society, and place value in its institutions and structures and in everyone abiding by the rules.

- Another third are motivated largely by the approval of others, and demonstrating their own status, success and popularity. They tend to be interested in fashion, popular culture and celebrity lifestyles – and aspire to emulate them by having fashionable and desirable cars, houses, holidays, clothes or partners. They tend to have busy social lives and lots of Facebook friends etc.

- The final third are more motivated by inner mental aspects – being interested in intellectual ideas, ethical and moral issues, philosophy and spirituality. They tend to value issues of principle as being highly important and also tend to more readily engage with abstract or remote concerns, including events, things and people far away with whom they have no direct personal contact or knowledge.

Now of course this is a massive over simplification, but the underlying principle seems reasonable – that our underlying personality is important in determining our interests and opinions.

If we want to influence and affect the views and behaviour of society at large, we are likely to be ineffective if we only argue from our own moral basis.  We should instead attempt to frame things in ways that engage with our intended audience and connects with their values.

For example – rather than trying to convince the first group of the case for solar panels and wind turbines because they will reduce climate change, and make life better for vulnerable people far away, we might do better if we instead highlight the benefits to local jobs, the local economy, local air pollution and energy security.

Similarly – rather than trying to convince the second group of the social and environmental benefits of buying Fairtrade or of eating local, seasonal or organic foodstuffs, we might do better if we try to promote and enhance the social status of more ethical and natural foods, perhaps by focusing more on presentation, celebrity endorsement or promoting social approval.

Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt presents a even more complex picture in the second video below, suggesting we can all be considered to have a combination of five moral traits, which help determine the extent of our liberal (small L) or conservative (small C) views and opinions.

Regardless of how accurate or meaningful you consider these psychological models and insights to ultimately be, we might be well advised to consider the old Native American aphorism:

“Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins”

Photo by from Lindsey Gee, via Flickr

Sao Paulo’s Advertising Ban

In 2006 Gillberto Kassab, centre-right mayor of the world’s 4th largest city Sao Paulo, passed his ‘Clean City Law‘ – requiring the immediate removal of all 15,000 advertising billboards, posters, bus ads and store signs from across the city.

The progress of the ban opened up a lot of debate of the pros and cons of advertising, especially the ‘unsolicited’ type you can’t avoid.

On the one hand, it was argued, ads were necessary to inform the customer, promote competition, support cultural activities, and even stimulate the consumer spending necessary to support the economy.

On the other hand ads were accused of being a violation of privacy, psychological manipulation, promoting consumption and greed, encouraging personal debt and providing an unfair advantage to rich multinationals, compared to smaller local businesses. The presence of so many advertising billboards was also considered ugly !

Six years later the ban is largely regarded as a success, with 70% of residents describing the law as having been beneficial. Even a number of advertising agencies have voiced their approval of the ban.

“Protect me from what I’m going to want”

Photo by Deigo3336, via Flickr

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A Full Life

If you’re reading this sat glumly at your office desk you might want to spend a short while pondering this post.

Would you like to spend more time with your family and friends ?

How about more time pursuing leisure activities or keeping fit ?

Most of us could easily come up with a long list of enjoyable, useful, life affirming things we could do with more time – spend more time with the kids, get involved in our local communities, relax and unwinding, prepare better food and eat together as a family more, learn a new skill – or teach one, do something creative, or maybe even do some of that voluntary work or take part in civic society the way government keeps urging us all to do.

But instead we work long hours, both during the day and increasingly into the evening and at weekends, commute a few more and as a result feel under constant time pressure as we try to balance all the things we know we should be doing: help the kids with their homework, buy and cook healthy food, get involved with the community, try to keep fit, find time to see friends, not to mention finding time for ourselves and our own interests and relaxation. Modern life can be hectic.

Not all time is equal of course – we might have a couple of hours free before bed, but after our long work day, commuting and the necessary family and domestic duties, all we might be good for is veging out on the sofa in front of the TV or aimlessly messing with our social networks. Time is no use if you’ve got no energy left.

If this sounds exactly like your life, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself . . . wait a moment, because there’s another alternative.

Millions in our societies are also struggling with unemployment, and as economic austerity bites deeper, many have little optimism about their working futures – the young, the ‘more mature’, those with obsolete skills, those suffering from poor health or disability and those with other family care commitments, usually women.

The conventional economic cure for our current economic woes is yet greater efficiency – less people doing more work for less money.

Somehow, we’ve managed to build societies in which millions of people are unemployed, desperate for meaningful work – while simultaneously, millions of others work long hours in jobs they hate, and are too tired as a result. While some of us are overworking, over spending and over consuming, others can’t afford a decent quality of life.

There is a seemingly obvious solution every school table of six year olds would spot.

Why not share the work out more ?

Seems obvious doesn’t it. Reducing the working week, giving people free time to do ‘all that good stuff’ and creating jobs for more people appears to be a ‘triple-win’: good for the economy, good for our quality of life and good for the environment, as, it is argued, people will become less attached to status driven resource based consumption, deriving more enjoyment from their relationships.

A reduction in the working week to an average of 21 hours is being championed by the think tank The New Economics Foundation, as a way of breaking the live to work mindset, rather than working to live. Many other futurists have previously argued the same thing – assuming increasing technology would provide us with ever more leisure time, instead of driving a desire to do ever more work. Keynes himself imagined we would all be working a 15 hour work week by 2030 . . . probably not going to be one of his more accurate predictions.

But this seemingly obvious solution, of sharing the work out, has a couple of major obstacles – firstly working fewer hours means bringing in less money, and those on comfortable incomes may not immediately see the attraction of this, secondly it’s simply not reasonable to expect those on already low hourly rates to simply reduce their hours, so there would also need to be a corresponding increase in the minimum wage.

Will we see societies higher earners giving up a significant slice of their income in exchange for more leisure time, and a better quality of life ?

Sounds unlikely ?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

For sure, not everyone agrees we should all be working less – another think tank is reported as recently proposed scrapping the UK’s bank holidays to boost GDP, but increasing numbers of people do appear interested in downshifting, simpler living, anti-consumerism, slow living and all aspects of sustainable living. Many also recognise the advantages having a more equal society would bring.

I don’t imagine our governments are about to institute 21 hour maximum work weeks any time soon – but those of us who are in the fortunate position of having options regarding our working week might want to give it some serious thought.

Many of us could get by just fine with a little less money, and would enjoy finding ways to constructively spend the extra time. I know I did, when I moved to a four day week a couple of years ago :)

Less work, consume less, for more jobs, and more time with your family and community – what’s not to like ?

I’d love to hear your views.


Photo from Seo2 via Flickr

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Good Behavior

Can I ask you a personal question ?

Did you deliberately set-out to read this blog, or are you procrastinating, because you should be doing something else instead ?

We don’t always do what we should, do we ?

We get distracted, loose motivation, get bored, make excuses to ourselves and give in, or give up – then we eat the second helping of unhealthy desert, buy the expensive thing we don’t really need, or don’t do the revision we need to for the exam.

It’s as if there’s a part of our brain that rationally makes plans, has aims and objectives, and another part of our brain that needs to be persuaded to go along with it.

This isn’t news of course, we know this instinctively, and consciously attempt to manage ourselves, so that in moments of forgetfulness or weakness we stay on track. We leave notes for ourselves, we bribe ourselves with delayed treats and rewards, we put up motivational posters, read motivational quotes and listen to motivational speakers.

We also intuitively use similar techniques to try to influence the behavior of others – making fresh coffee or baking bread when trying to sell a house, in the hope that potential purchasers will associate the property with pleasant smells etc.

Changing our own behavior can be a very difficult thing to achieve . . . and successfully changing other people’s even harder !

Why ?

We might like to think we’re 100% rational 100% of the time, but unless you’re an android or a Vulcan, it’s simply not true. We are subject to subconscious or emotional, social and environmental influences and triggers, that direct our behavior at least as much, and often more, than our conscious selves.

The study of these motivational and attention based factors, and how we can make use of them to change our own, and other people’s behavior is called behavioral science. It tries to shed light and insight across a range of issues, including motivating ourselves to eat a healthier diet, tofinish writing a book weve started, go to the gym more, or simply get on with the housework.

Policy makers, businesses and many others would also like to influence our behaviour en mass – so we stick to the speed limit, buy their products, sign their petition or lend them our vote.

The acronym MINDSPACE is sometimes used to list a number of the key subconscious factors that influence our behavior – it stands for: how we feel about the Messenger, what our Incentives are, what everyone else is doing, or Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment and Ego.

A few examples:

- People are more likely to leave their table clean after eating if they smell cleaning products in the air. This is an example of priming, by using a subconscious mental connection.

- People tend to automatically be quiet in a library. This is an example of a social Norm ie: we all have a tendency to do what everyone else is already doing.

- People tend to want, and respond to, ‘anchors’; initial reference points – when they are considering unfamiliar. This is why charities provide ‘suggested minimum donation amounts’.

- People want to feel approval in the eyes of others; which is why teachers now increasingly use happy face stickers or stamps to give positive feedback to pupils – a happy face gives a subliminal message of being liked by others in a way that a tick doesn’t. Happy or sad face symbols are used as feedback  in other scenarios too, including energy bills and public bathroom cleanliness.

A recent fascinating report has been issued by the UK government’s Behavioral Policy Unit, that considers many of these factors in detail, and considers their application in public policy making and delivery.

But it’s a complicated picture, and sometimes our behavioral responses seem counter intuitive. One study set out to measure the effect of different approaches to dissuade the taking of firewood from an area of public forest. A sign asking people not to take firewood actually resulted in an increase in the amount taken – by raising the idea in people’s minds and making them more likely to act on it. A finding that won’t come as a surprise to any parent who has ever told a child ‘whatever you do, don’t touch this‘.

A further sign giving the same message and also showing a photo of a group of men taking firewood had the effect of increasing the amount of firewood taken even further ! The photo illustrated that other people were also taking firewood, and by showing a small group doing so collectively, indicated that it could be a social activity, rather than a solitary one – we like to feel we’re part of a group!

If we want to nudge ourselves to change our behaviour, then we can try to apply these insights. Want to motivate yourself to go to the gym more ? Try keeping your gym kit where you can see it to act as a visual cue. Try tracking your workout progress, weight loss etc, to give yourself targets and feedback. Go to the gym with a friend, to add an enjoyable social aspect, a competitive element, build in accountability and create a social group where the expected ‘normal’ behavior is going to the gym frequently. This is how weight-watchers works! Some of these affects could also be created by participating in  online social networks.

Finding effective ways to influence behavior and change habits isn’t just an interesting personal development issue – many of the most significant issues and challenges our societies face are essentially behavioral ones: from reducing carbon emissions and food waste, to developing healthier lifestyles and more ethical business practices. Often we have the best intentions, but somehow fail to follow them through.

Although it’s far from being an exact science, using visual cues, indicators, reminders, feedback, social expectations, punishments and incentives can help us influence both our own behavior and that of others. Real time energy monitors encourage greater energy efficiency. Using smaller plates and bowls will subconsciously encourage us to reduce our portion sizes. Signs highlighting that 99% of people don’t throw litter on the street may increase the sense of social disapproval for those who do etc.

The Jam song Absolute Beginners (as referenced by the behavioral scientist Paul Dolan in the video below) contains the apt lyrics:

“You can loose some hours just thinking of it. You need the strength to go and get what you want”


Photo by CGP Grey via Flickr

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The Most Polluted Place on Earth ?

Where’s the most polluted place in the world ?

Typing the above question into a search engine will quickly throw-up a number of potential candidates:

- The city of Linfen, in the heart of China’s coal belt

- Kabwe in Zambia, the name of which literally translates as “ore” or “smelting”

- The industrial city of Vapi in the Gujarat, India

- The town of La Oroya, in the lead mining area of Peru

- The city of Sukinda, also in India, home to one of the world’s largest chromite mines

The truth is of course that it’s not that straightforward, or particularly meaningful to rank polluted places in this way. An area might be heavily contaminated, but with perhaps only a limited number of people being exposed; or there might be ongoing pollution of important rivers or ecosystems, but little direct risk to human health. It’s a bit like comparing apples and pears.

The Blacksmith Institute wrestle with these issues every year, to publish their well regarded list of the world’s ‘top 10 polluted places‘.

Regardless of the exact order of the ranking, these lists are very useful in highlighting pollution problems around the world, and two things in particular stand out:

Firstly, that millions of people around the world are having their health significantly affected by toxic pollution.

And secondly, the world’s most polluted places are all in the developing world.

The pollution stems from a range of local manufacturing, mining, smelting, processing and associated transport and energy production,  in large part associated with the production of consumer goods, food, clothing and other items – much of it destined for export to the rich world.

Not only has the West exported most of our manufacturing jobs to the developing economies – we’ve also largely exported our pollution too !

Industries move because the costs are lower – partly because labour is cheaper (people are paid less and receive fewer benefits, such as health care and pensions), and partly because there are less stringent environmental regulations and those that do exist tend to be less well enforced.

When companies talk about improved efficiency, lower overheads, improved shareholder value etc – they’re unfortunately not always talking about ‘the good stuff’ we want them to do. Often these terms are euphemisms for leaving many of the real costs of production to be paid for by someone else, other than the company or the consumer, such as exploited workers, or polluted environments. Ultimately it’s down to the desire for higher profits, and cheaper ‘stuff’.

This of course is not new.

A list of the world’s most polluted places produced around 1900 would have looked very different, comprising several of the large industrial cities of Europe. There is of course, still plenty of pollution in the West – but much of it is associated with old legacy industries, now long gone, but with their various toxic chemical footprints remaining - from UK’s Victorian gasworks and coal mines, to the sediments of the Great Lakes polluted by effluent from car manufacturing and other industries across the American Mid-West.

Over time we’ve tackled many (not all) our pollution problems, with reformers like Edwin Chadwick, Joeseph BazalgetteAlice Hamilton and Rachel Carson progressively bringing about changes to ensure the costs of controlling pollution were borne by whoever was responsible for producing it – the so called ‘polluter pays principle‘.

But this only applies in our own economies, and in our globalised, inter-connected world, the full costs of cheap goods is often left to be borne by others, invariably the poorest and most vulnerable. Unfortunately we consumers are all too often complicit in this process – with pollution being caused on our behalf on the other side of the planet, to keep down the cost of our food, clothes, mobile phones or children’s toys.

Ultimately the answer can only lie in paying the true price for things, so that pollution can be controlled, waste dealt with properly, resources used sustainably and workers treated fairly.

What we choose to spend our money on matters.

As a start we might want to check out the ethical credentials of the products we buy and the companies producing them (Ethical Consumer) – alternatively we could think about buying and consuming a little less . . . just a thought.

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Photo from Gambier20, via Flickr