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

RELATED ARTICLES – Jubilee: A Shout for Joy,  More Equal than OthersThe End of Growth and Keeping Out the Giraffes; Citizen’s Income

Teaching Our Kids About the Environment

175 - KidsA guest post by Marcela De Vivo, a freelance writer and mother of three from Los Angeles, who currently works with A believer that it’s never too early to teach kids about their impact on the environment, she encourages her own children to recycle as well as help her garden. Why not follow her on Pinterest today.

As parents, you teach your children all sorts of things early on to help them lead a more productive life for themselves and their families when they get older; however, one of the things that often gets lost in the shuffle is teaching children about the impact they have on the environment and why it’s important.

While many children will learn about the environment in school, the lessons they learn aren’t always practical ones that apply to their own everyday life. As parents, it’s our responsibility to teach our children about how their choices affect their own environment, as well as the rest of the world.

Caring the the environment may seem like a big lesson to teach a young child, but it’s actually relatively easy to get the point across. Children may not understand the full impact of how people affect the environment right away, but providing them with some basic information they can use in their life can make them more responsible adults.

Why Is Environmental Education Important ?

Children quickly turn into adults, making decisions for themselves. These decisions will affect future generations – including their own children.

Without the proper information, about things like environmental impact, and the benefits of sustainability, younger generations will suffer the negative consequences, from poor air quality to a potential lack of clean drinking water.

It’s also the younger generation that will be responsible for making changes necessary to keep the environment clean. Quite simply, the fate of the environment and everyone in it will be in the hands of the youngest generation very soon.

Without proper environmental education, how can we expect our children to make wise decisions for future generations ?

Teaching Kids About the Environment

Discussing the environment with your child is a good start, but there are more beneficial and effective ways to teach kids. Kids tend to learn most effectively through actions and interactive education, so starting a project like creating an eco-friendly garden makes sense if you can – both in starting to teach lessons, but also in terms of it’s own positive effect.

Create an Eco-Friendly Garden

If you have even a little bit of space in your backyard, creating an eco-friendly garden with your child is an ideal way to teach them about giving back to the environment. In your garden, you can include items like herbs, fruits and vegetables that are native to the area and are easy to grow inside the house. Not only will this project help you keep your kids interested in being eco-friendly, but they’ll also enjoy eating the results!

In addition to fruits and vegetables, you can stress the importance of doing something good for the environment by incorporating items like bird baths and water fountains for the local wildlife. As an added benefit, these eco-friendly garden fixtures can make spending time with your family even more pleasant.

Get Involved In Recycling

Another easy way to teach kids about their environmental impact is through recycling. Explain the importance of recycling to your children, and explain what happens to all the stuff you recycle. If your neighborhood has a recycling group, consider joining and taking your child along to meetings, and ask him/her to help you with the activities. Recycling groups are also a great way for kids to start to learn about the importance of community involvement.

If there’s no recycling group in your area, create one for your own family. Use separate bins for different materials and teach your kids how to identify what can be recycled and what can’t. You can even reward your kids for finding recyclables around the house or in the neighborhood that could otherwise go into a landfill.

The impact we have on the environment is a serious issue, and its one young children may not fully comprehend; however, it is possible to get children in the habit of being environmentally responsible from an early age.

Teaching your children about their impact on the environment can also remind you of your very own impact – something you likely already know about, but tend to forget when life gets too busy and stressful.

(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 Greendoula (creative commons), via Flickr

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)

Similar articles – Good BehaviourCan Christmas Still Really Change the World ?, Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, The Year of Anti-Consumerist LivingThe Art of Giving UpWhat Do You Want for Christmas?,  Buy Nothing DayCleaning Out My Closet

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Can Most People Be Trusted ?

173 -  TrustA few questions for you.

Do you think most people can be trusted ?

What percentage of people do you think, believe most people can be trusted ?

Have you given money to charity in the last month ?

What percentage of people do you think, have given money to charity in the last month ? 

Have you volunteered your time at least once to help others during the last year ?

What percentage of people do you think, have volunteered their time at least once to help others during the last year ? 

There’s a theme behind these questions – what we do is influenced in part by what others are doing.

The fact is that most of us, most of the time, feel more comfortable when we go along with the accepted social norms, than when we don’t. No one wants to be the only person at a fancy dress party not in fancy dress, or the only one wearing it at a black-tie event.  It’s all about fitting-in and living-up to the expectations of our peers and the wider group.

Of course, it’s not that we always unthinkingly follow the crowd, but just that we tend to conform unless we have especially strong views to the contrary . . . we follow the path of least resistance. This tendency affects our beliefs and behaviours to a surprising degree; from what music we listen to and what we wear, to what newspapers we read and how we vote, and the study of social norms, how they form and develop and how they may be influenced and changed, has become an important area of research.

But the really interesting thing is that in fact it doesn’t much matter what people are actually doing, it’s what we think they’re doing that matters !

If we think everyone else is helping themselves to the office stationary, we might be more tempted to ‘borrow’ a stapler ourselves. If we think everyone else is evading paying their taxes, we might be more tempted to do the same.

And it’s not only our behaviours, it’s also our beliefs.

It we think everyone else is upset about ‘illegal immigrants coming over here, abusing the system’, or that ‘wind-farms are a terrible blight on the landscape’, then the evidence suggests we’re more likely to conform to those views ourselves.

And of course, we mustn’t forget, that in fact most of the time we don’t actually know how everyone else is behaving, or what their beliefs or opinions are.

For example -

How much does the average person give to charity ?

Most of us simply don’t know.

So we tend to either project our own opinions onto the wider world, and assume that most people broadly do the same thing we do, or we rely on our recollections of media headlines we might have spotted recently, which of course puts us at risk not only from their slant and bias, but because we tend to self-select our news sources, often only reading things we already know we’re going to largely agree with.

Needless to say we get things wrong much of the time as a result !

I think this is an important issue – it shapes opinions, actions, policies and ultimately lives.

So I’ve set myself a challenge – to try to distinguish more clearly between facts and opinion, both in others and in myself – we’re all entitled to our own opinions after all, but not our own facts! I’ll also try to challenge untruths being presented as fact wherever I can, or at least ask ‘what’s your evidence for that?’ more often.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ll try to be a little more open and talkative about the various ‘good’ things I do; from organic gardening and buying my clothes in charity shops, to recycling and giving money to charity – if you all do the same, we might start changing a few social norms . . . in a good way.

Let your good be visible. 

And finally, the answers:

What percentage of people, do people believe most people can be trusted? What percentage of people do you think, have given money to charity in the last month? What percentage of people do you think, have volunteered their time at least once to help others during the last year?

(41% of people believe most people can be trusted. 74% of people gave money to charity last month. 72% of people have volunteered their time at least once during the last year)

How much does the average person give to charity ?

(The answer to that last one is £16 a month; with poorer people and Muslims being more generous – who knew?)


Similar articles – From Petrified Forests to Poor PeopleChoice is VoluntaryBe Your Own Choice ArchitectGood BehaviourAre You Well Informed?

Photo by James Cridland (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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