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

Indian Pesticide Pollution

The rich West has become used to cheap clothes. Walk into several high street stores and you can find T-shirts for £4 and pairs of jeans for £10.

Much of the cotton used in these garments is grown in India, the second largest producer of cotton in the world – the weather is well suited, labour is cheap and environmental regulations are less stringent (and less stringently enforced) than many other parts of the world.

Unfortunately cotton has many pests, and in order to maintain yields Indian farmers have been resorting to using ever larger quantities of pesticides, particularly as pests have become increasingly resistant. As a result cotton production accounts for more than half of India’s pesticide usage, even though it occupies only 5% of its agricultural land !

this reliance of large quantities of pesticides causes problems, but not only because of the volumes – it is often inappropriately applied by illiterate farmers – often at the wrong times of year, in the wrong weather or using ineffective techniques. Workers are often left unprotected, and regularly exposed to direct contact with high levels of pesticides, with many significant health consequences.

The organochlorine pesticide endosulfan, in particular, is in common use in Indian cotton growing, years after it’s widespread banning throughout most of the rest of the world. Agreement to phase it out was finally reached in 2011, as a result of increasing health concerns.

As with many of the things we buy in the globalized market, we tend to be ignorant of the effects of our consumption on the environment, and most vulnerable around the world – and cheap clothing is no exception. If we want to avoid our clothes being responsible for such far off impacts, we need to research our purchases carefully, buy organic cotton garments more often, buy second hand, or perhaps just consider buying fewer clothes overall . . . just a thought.

  

Photo by KimberleyKV, via Flickr

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From Petrified Forests to Poor People

One of the golden rules of blogging, is that you should have just one clear message per post.

Watch in awe as I break the norm and boldly ignore that piece of advice.

I’m unashamedly going to combine two points in a single post – but you’re all such smart people, you’ll be fine (golden rule number two – flatter your readers).

Let’s begin in Arizona’s Petrified Forest.

A natural wonder of the world, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park contains the remains of a forest, stunningly fossilised and preserved from 225 million years ago. The park is hugely popular and visited by over half a million people a year, the problem is that many of them decide to take just a small reminder of their visit home with them – resulting in 14 tons of fossilised wood fragments being removed from the park every year by visitors !

Needless to say, worried by this rapid erosion, the management quickly put up signs to deter visitors from taking fragments: “Your heritage is being vandalised every day by theft losses of petrified wood, amounting to 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”.

The results weren’t quite what they hoped for . . . losses went up significantly !

By suggesting the idea of stealing wood fragments to visitors, indicating that everyone else was doing it, and also raising the prospect that, if you wanted a wood fragment you better get one quick before they’re all gone, the signs were a Triple Fail !

Bottom line – people knew it was wrong, but when they thought everyone else was doing it, they did it anyway.

This is an example of  a perceived ‘social norm‘ trumping a moral or ethical belief. The evidence shows that we’re all far more likely to be influenced by the behaviour of others around us, than we are by our own moral or ethical code. We’re a social animal and it’s not surprising we like to fit in, rather than stand out.

With the help of Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona University, the park were able to design new signs highlighting that though the vast majority of visitors treated the park with respect, a small minority were damaging it for everyone else. These were much more successful – turns out we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves by doing something we know (or think) most of our peers would disapprove of.

Which brings us on to my second point = the fight against poverty.

We know there are a lot of poor people in the world, whether in far off countries, or down the road.

We may be aware there are around a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. That 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. That 50,000 people a day die from poverty related causes. These facts can seem very abstract when we see them printed on a screen, can’t they.

If you regularly read Next Starfish I’m sure you likely share my strong desire to combat poverty and tackle the various inequalities and injustices in the world. You probably share my ethical and moral perspective that ‘something must be done’.

But the chances are also most likely, that you’re probably living a fairly comfortable life yourself – food, clean water, warm home, healthcare, education, new mobile phone and all the rest. The odds are that you’re also surrounded by friends, colleagues, neighbours, relatives who are similarly living fairly comfortable lives . . . for many of us, this is our ‘norm’.

If both the above are true, but you’re still currently giving most of your spare money away to tackle poverty and injustice across the world, then you’re acting 100% in alignment with your ethical and moral principles, and, just between you and me, you’re quite a remarkable person.

If like the rest of us you give a little of your spare money, and then sit wringing your hands about poverty, before going off to buy a new car, iphone or expensive pair of shoes, then it might just be you’ve been influenced by the ‘norm’ of living in a (relatively) affluent society and having (relatively) affluent friends to compare yourself against.

This isn’t meant to be a guilt-trip. Just an observation that we all tend to judge and compare ourselves, our lives and our behaviour, with reference to what we see around us. I don’t think we should feel bad about this – norms are normal after all.

But there are two things I’d suggest.

If, both individually and as a society, we were more familiar with the lives of the poor, then ‘normal’ would begin to shift , perhaps we’d begin to appreciate what we have a little more, want a little less, and maybe be a bit more generous with our wealth as a result.

Secondly, we should also realise we’re part of someone else’s ‘norm’. Maybe if we visibly changed our behaviour, perhaps by being personally more generous towards the poor, giving where possible, or supporting aid policies etc, those around us might feel just a little more inclined to do some of the same things themselves.

With that in mind, I’ve linked to a few powerful short films illustrating the lives of the poor around the world (both far and near) below.

Why not help shape your friends and colleague’s ‘norms’ by sharing some with them.

              

Photo by PetrifiedForestNPS via Flickr

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9 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Lists of  ’ways to reduce your carbon footprint’ are hardly new on environmental websites, and no doubt, as you’re all such wonderful people, you will all already be well on the way to a low carbon life already.

This list is just another reminder, a small nudge, to help keep us all focused on what is perhaps the most significant threat our planet will face in our lifetime.

Personal actions alone aren’t going to suddenly bring atmospheric CO2 levels back into line, but on the other hand, without them nothing will !

1 – USE LESS ENERGY AT HOME

Energy use in our home (or place of work) is the seemingly obvious place to start, in reducing carbon emissions. More efficient heating and lighting and improved insulation are all important areas, as is improving energy efficiency by turning off unused appliances, using room thermostats and timers to properly control heating and cooking more efficiently (for example by keeping lids on, using pressure cookers and not over-filling pans with unnecessary water that needs boiling etc). By using less water we also reduce the need to abstract, treat, store and supply so much, reducing our carbon emissions further, as does producing less wastewater for treatmeent, including unnecessary toilet flushing.

We can also take steps to ensure that the energy we do use has as low a  level of carbon as possible associated with it, perhaps by generating some electricity ourselves from solar cells, or using solar thermal tubes to heat domestic water.

There is also the vitally important question of where we buy our energy from. Though obviously all electricity is essentially the same once fed into the grid, by selecting a supplier who will invest in low carbon generation, we can help decarbonise our countries energy supply.

2 – USE LESS ENERGY TRAVELLING

Of course we should all try to travel less, by grouping trips together or using phone/email/video-conferencing in place of travelling in order to meet-up. Arranging for home delivery is also usually more efficient than making a special trip to the store.

We could try becoming more familiar with local bus and train routes and timetables, and trying to use public transport as much as possible. We should also try to share transport wherever we can by lift sharing and car pooling. Most obviously, we should also try to walk, rather than drive, where we can.

Air travel unavoidably generates significant quantities of carbon, and we should also think carefully about the amount of flying we undertake. Anyone flying a few times a year will emit more carbon through air travel than all their other activities combined!

3 – EAT A LOWER ENERGY DIET

A significant percentage of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by agriculture, food processing and transport. Eating a greater proportion of locally produced food, unprocessed food, and food with less packaging, will significantly reduce carbon emissions. Growing any food ourselves ticks all three boxes.

A number of foods also have greater carbon emissions associated with them, particularly meat, and in limiting our consumption of these high carbon foods we can further reduce our emissions.

4 – BUY BETTER STUFF

Better, in this context, means lower carbon footprint over the lifecycle. More energy efficient home appliances, gadgets, cars, are all obvious choices, but it’s usually more beneficial to buy second hand items wherever possible, and reduce the carbon generation associated with production and transport of something new – second hand furniture, clothes, toys, books, bikes, tools are all possible options.

The issues of durability and repairability are also important. Much less carbon will be produced repairing a good quality product than simply throwing away an inferior one that isn’t worth repairing, and buying another.

We should also try to buy locally produced goods wherever possible, to reduce the transport impacts.

5 – BUY LESS STUFF

The easiest way to minimise the carbon emissions associated with the production of various goods, is simply not to buy them.

Many of us in the developed world have a highly consumerist lifestyle, being obsessed on a constant cycle of working-earning-shopping and throwing away. Changing our lifestyle so we gain more enjoyment from non-consuming activities, such as spending more time with family and friends, or enjoying the outdoors and nature, will reduce our dependency on shopping and consumption, as an enjoyable pastime.

It’s not all bad news though. We can also shift more of our consumption from material goods to digital goods and services, which typically have a much lower associated carbon footprint.

6 – PRODUCE LESS WASTE

Energy is needed to treat and dispose of the waste we produce, but far more importantly waste also represents unnecessary energy usage and associated carbon emissions. Whether food waste, packaging, junkmail, old clothes, unrecycled building materials or anything else, waste represents an inefficient use of our resources.

As the wider economy moves to reduce/reuse/recycle as much as possible, we should work to do likewise in our personal lives – producing as little waste as we can, reusing items or donating them so others can. Finally recycling them as a last resort.

7 – FIND TIME TO SLOW DOWN

The thing is all of the above takes time, and effort, and daily life is all too often hectic and exhausting. Many of us struggle to reduce our emissions because we are too pressed for time, or too short of energy to change.

Sometimes it’s just easier to jump in the car, buy a packaged ready meal or throw stuff out rather than sort through it and donate it. If that sounds familiar, you might first have to look at slowing down your pace of life, so you can then find the time and energy to tackle reducing your carbon footprint.

8 – FOCUS ON THE BIG PICTURE

You might have seen endless lists of ways to reduce your carbon footprint talking about things like  turning off the lights when you leave the room for five minutes, making sure your car tires are properly inflated to maximise efficiency, using both sides of a piece of paper or using rewashable towels instead of paper napkins.

While these aren’t wrong, they do tend to miss the point.

We’re not going to manage to avert our current course from potentially catastrophic global warming by simply making a few tiny changes like these here and there in our lives.

We’re actually going to have to live differently.

Hopefully better technology will help us out, but we’re also going to have to change our collective behaviour.

9 – TELL OTHERS

Pretty much the most important thing you can do from this list is to influence others to start reducing their carbon footprint too. Tell your friends, family and work colleagues, use you social media and also be sure to let your MP, Council, school or employer know your thoughts.

Of course there’s the tricky question of how you tell them.

In most cases pointing out the extra advantages of reducing carbon might prove more effective than focusing on the carbon issue alone. Insulation = lower bills. Car sharing = less petrol. Switching to digital billing = less paperwork. Using technology instead of sending staff travelling to meetings = more efficiency.

Just in case you need a bit of extra motivation – this is a recent talk by Climate Blogger David Roberts, set to some nice visuals.

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Photo from NASA

You Are the Future of Philanthropy

If you type the word philanthropy into Wikipedia you find it was first used by the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, in the play Prometheus Bound and literally means ‘the caring of man’ – caring, nourishing, improving and enhancing the quality of life for other human beings.

Whatever meaning it had back in Ancient Greece, it’s become a word we now tend to associate with the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill Gates, George Soros and Warren Buffett – incredibly wealthy men giving away their millions later in life to worthy foundations, charities and causes.

Men who tend to get libraries, concert halls and public buildings named after them.

BIG philanthropy.

It’s fairly normal to be cynical about this type of giving, and unsurprisingly we sometimes question the motives involved:

‘It’s OK for them to give a few million when they still have millions left. If they really cared they’d give more’.

‘They’ve enjoyed all their money, now they’re just worried about how history will judge them’.

Do we ever ask ourselves the same questions ?

We may not have Bill Gate’s billions, but no doubt many of us reading this have more than we really need. How would our choices about how we spend our money look from the perspective of a hungry parent in the developing world, struggling to feed and nurture their children ?

Would we also be seen to be just cynically donating a few pounds here and there in order to feel better about ourselves, while still squandering much larger sums on luxuries we don’t really need ? If we really cared would we give more ?

These aren’t questions with easy answers. We have to wrestle with and resolve them ourselves on an personal basis.

In her uplifting TED talk below, the social change activist Katherine Fulton argues that things are changing when it comes to philanthropy. That philanthropy is being democratised, influenced in large part by the networking and collectivising power of the internet.

The world might be facing more significant emerging global problems than it’s faced before, but we also have more potential to create emerging global solutions than ever before. Our ability to connect, support and give, to all kinds of people around the world offers new opportunities and incentives.

We are now able to connect far more directly with the beneficiaries of our giving. We can individually select recipients of micro-loans we might make to developing world entrepreneurs through Kiva. We can sponsor individual children, and their villages, through international child sponsorship schemes like those run by World Vision, Barnardo’s or Compassion International. We can find and choose organisations and causes we might wish to support more easily than ever through sites like Charitable Giving, Just Giving or Donors Choose, and we know far more about how money is spent by these organisations, and what effect it has than ever before.

And it’s not just about the money.

These are tough times, and many in our own societies who previously felt comfortable, are now struggling financially. Charity donations have begun to decline in recent years – but there are many ways to support charities and good causes other than sending money:

- Donate your time to a local group or campaign such as foodbanks or conservation volunteers.

- Record yourself reading a public domain book.

- Spend one hour helping someone get familiar with the internet.

- Look at Do-It, IVO, Volunteer England for more ideas.

If we are to be successful in tackling the many challenges facing the world – whether in India’s slums or down the road – we’re going to have to further refine our vision of philanthropy, and embed it more into our normal, everyday lives.

Katherine’s TED talk finishes with two pictures.

The first is a photo of her Great Grandfather and Grandfather, taken nearly a hundred years ago, who devoted much of their time, money and energy in the benefit of their local communities, and whose legacy is her admiration, fondness and inspiration.

The second is a blank picture, which she asks us to imagine is a photograph of us, viewed a hundred years in the future, perhaps by our grandchildren.

What would we wish our legacy to be ?

What is it you want to be part of creating ?

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