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?)

  

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Photo by James Cridland (creative commons), via Flickr

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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World Hunger Day

171 - HungerA guest post by Eimear Rigby from the global hunger charity Concern Worldwide.

The 28th of May is World Hunger Day.

There are 875 million people in the world are hungry today.

It’s hard to comprehend that figure – 12 times the population of the UK, or one in eight people worldwide.

At Concern Worldwide we believe that no one should have to live with hunger and the damage it causes. We work hard alongside the poorest and most vulnerable, in order to build a world where lives are not limited by lack of access to enough nutritious food. 

One location Concern Worldwide is working is South Sudan, where poverty, drought and families returning home after years of civil war are all contributing to a significant food crisis.

Our staff in Aweil in the north of the country shared their stories of just some of the people affected by the crisis earlier this year, including  four year old Avur – one of thousands of children who were badly affected. Avur and her grandmother Amou had walked for miles from their home in the north of the country, an area with widespread hunger and soring child mortality rates, to one of 34 health centres supported by Concern in the south.

Avur was not only malnourished; she was also suffering from diarrhoea and coughing fits that were further weakening her. Concern’s specialist staff at the center admitted Avur to an intensive feeding programme, providing special therapeutic food designed to bring malnourished children like her back to health over six to eight weeks. This removed Avur from danger and set her on the road to recovery.

A nurse weighs Avur as she waits for treatment

There are many more children like Avur in South Sudan and Concern Worldwide provides help and support in order to help improve their own lives, such as training local volunteers to spot the signs of malnutrition so that families know when to seek treatment. Concern is also distributing therapeutic food and teaching mothers how to use it, so that malnourished children recover in the safety and comfort of their own families.

As well as providing urgent crisis response, Concern works within communities to help them protect themselves from the prospect of future crisis. In Tanzania around 75% of the population are poor rural farmers who can’t afford the tools, seeds or crops they need to grow food in a country susceptible to both flooding and drought. Concern is able to offer support in these rural areas by proving simple tools and resources, and transfer skills to local communities: Marcelina Bedastus and her husband used to struggle to feed their four children and usually survived on just one meal per day.  In 2009 Marcelina joined a Farmer Field School run by Concern and received training and three chickens to help boost her farm. Marcelina was able to breed her chickens and now has coop of 20.

Reflecting on the difference this has made to her life she says, “I had nothing before, but now I have something. I can sell eggs to get money for items like clothes and food. We have three meals a day and I can vary the types of food we eat. I can also pay for school uniforms and I hope for all of my children to go to school – education is the most important thing for them.”

Christopher and mother with chickens

Concern would obviously welcome your support for its work, but even more importantly this World Hunger Day, asks that you tell as many people as possible about hunger in the world, the damage it does, but how many, including Concern Worldwide, are working hard to tackle the problems and transform lives.

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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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10 Emails to Send Today

169 - TimeThe difference between who we are and who we want to be . . . is what we do.

This post starts and ends with two ‘motivational’ quotes.

There are two types of people in the world – those who like ‘motivational’ quotes on the internet, and those who definitely don’t.

Apologies if you’re in the second group.

Not everyone likes being ‘motivated’ to do stuff, especially by sanctimonious bloggers. If being ‘motivated’ isn’t really your thing, and you feel far more comfortable making up your own mind about what you intend to do, and when you’re going to do it, then I’m genuinely sorry for this clumsy attempt at ‘motivation’.

To be honest, I agree with you anyway. I’m always resistant to anyone telling me what I should do, or what I should like. I think I’m generally more likely to like a song, film or book if I feel I’ve discovered it by myself, than if it’s been recommended it to me. None of us like feeling ‘bossed about’.

The problem is we have busy lives, too many distractions and too little time. We read a well written and powerful article about the plight of the flatulating acid-spitting  zumzizeroo, agree it’s a terrible thing and that something should be done, consider writing to express our views or lobby decision makers – but somehow always end up clicking on the another hyperlink instead.

Issues and concerns enter our thoughts, and then almost immediately drift out again. Petitions go unsigned. Surveys go uncompleted. Views remain unexpressed. Ignorance and greed goes unchallenged. . . . Situations remain unchanged.

Of course we obviously can’t change everything by simply sending an email about it – I’ve written before about the need to Avoid Slacktivism. But sometimes in this hyper-connected world, public opinion makes a difference  - I’ve also written before about Changing the World from your Keyboard.

If you can spare a few minutes today to be an email warrior for five minutes – here are a few humble suggestions of worthy causes you could put your keyboard to.

Do it now . . . because sometimes ‘later’ becomes ‘never’.

(sorry – I promise no more ’motivation’)

1 - Email your MP and tell them you care about climate change and favour policies that fairly and sensibly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and encourage sustainable sources of energy. Perhaps support an amendment to the current Energy Bill.

2 - Register with Hugh’s Fish Fight Campaign, to end fishing discards and protect marine conservation zones.

3 - Sign Greenpeace’s online petition to Protect the Arctic from offshore drilling.

4 - Spend 3 minutes to register as an organ donor

5 - Petition your local council on a local issue of your choosing

6 - Sign a petition calling for the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides believed to be responsible for significant bee decline.

7 - Send an email on behalf of Amnesty International’s campaigns around the world.

8 - Check out the online petitions on the Government website. 100,000 signatures means consideration for debate in the Commons.

9 - Register with 38 Degrees or Change.org to get updates of new campaigns.

10 - Email your friends, or post something on your social media to raise awareness and support.

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

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