What Do You Want for Christmas ?

158 - presentsSpam !

You might not realise it but every single day Next Starfish receives over 100 items of spam – either post comments, emails, fake tweets etc.

Despite my best attempts to automate and improve my spam filtering, processing all this junk communication takes some time to sort through, and no doubt as I go crazy with the delete button, I manage to accidentally overlook and delete one or two proper comments or emails – apologies if I’ve inadvertently nuked one of yours lately !

But this isn’t a post about my battles with the evil forces of spamalot.

It’s a post about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

As you’re all such smart and perceptive people I’m sure you see where I’m going with this somewhat clunky analogy . . . that if we fill our lives with too much junk, we struggle to find the time or energy to enjoy the genuinely good stuff.

This is might be something to ponder as we approach Christmas. A time of peace and good will to all men – perhaps. A time of commercialism, excess and over-consumption – definitely.

It’s also a time of tremendous stress and anxiety for a lot of people. How do you feel if you can’t afford to buy your children any presents this year, especially surrounded by so much advertising ? What do you do if your children’s friends buy them Christmas presents and you can’t afford to buy them gifts back ? What if the neighbours, your colleagues, the boss or your distant relatives insist on buying you a present . . . it’s stressful not being able to reciprocate.

A colleague at work described a scenario he’d encountered where a middle class mother brought gifts for her child to give to their friends, only to discover their friends’ families couldn’t afford to buy gifts in return. Rather than have her child think their friends didn’t like them enough to return gifts, and to avoid causing embarrassment by explaining their friends families were too poor, she secretly bought gifts for her child and pretended they were from their friends.

Clearly this is madness !

Has anyone asked you “What do you want for Christmas ?”, this year ? Did you struggle to come up with a good answer ? Perhaps you have enough ‘stuff’ already ?

The personal finance adviser Martin Lewis argues that “we should all stop buying each other presents”. Not entirely – but only to buy them for close family.

I think I’m broadly on his side, and I think Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper would also agree.

Less really can be more.

If you’re thinking about making a change in your typical Christmas routine, or perhaps your life more generally I recommend you spend half an hour listening to the two TED talks below, and perhaps another half an hour thinking about what they might mean to you personally.

Photo by metaphoricalplatypus via Flickr

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Mandatory Optimism ?

If you haven’t ventured to the links above the banner yet, the WHY NextStarfish and ABOUT NextStarfish might be worth a visit.

On the ABOUT page you’ll find my ten point manifesto – where I try to clarify the ethos for this blog a little more.

One of the points is:

HOPEFUL BUT REALISTIC – cynical pessimism and rose-tinted optimism both lead to denial and inaction

What exactly do I mean ?

Watching or reading the news some days it seems there’s a large section of our society, and probably the world in general, that generally believes ‘everything is pretty rubbish, getting worse, and there’s nothing we can do about it’. Whether they’re discussing the economic outlook, climate change, employment prospects, politics, pollution, the sports results or the weather – they appear to have a natural disposition to be pessimistic about things. Perhaps it makes them less vulnerable to disappointment, or perhaps they struggle to visualize positive outcomes, either way the end result can be a belief that it isn’t worth wasting your time trying to change anything.

On the other hand it also seems there’s another, almost as large, section of society that generally believes ‘most things aren’t as bad as ‘they’ make out, and anyway no doubt problems will work themselves out in the future’. Again, whether referring to the economic outlook, climate change, employment prospects, politics, pollution, the sports results or the weather – they appear to have a natural disposition to be optimistic about things. Perhaps optimism is comforting, insulating people from hard realities or bleak outlooks, or perhaps they’ve previously been so lucky as to never to face real hardship in life, so find it hard to ever ‘expect the worst’. Again, either way the end result can be a belief that there’s no need for them to act, or at least no need to do very much, or with any urgency.

The first group often describes the second as naive. The second often describes the first as cynical.

But whether you see the glass as being half-empty – with no chance of getting any more, or half-full – with no need to get any more the result is the same . . . there won’t be any more.

Half empty, half full – the truth is there’s room for more in the glass.

I once heard an economist describe both optimism and pessimism as traps !

The trick, he said, was to see things as they really are.

He then went on to explain that no matter how bleak the situation (and for most of us the economic situation was, and still is, pretty bleak) there was always something you could do, some action you could take to improve things. The best way to do this is to understand the current situation, along with what is wrong, and what can be done to improve things, as accurately and realistically as possible – but, and this is vitally important, remain focused on how to improve them, and hopeful that we will succeed.

It was impossible to do anything other than agree.

Read more about the importance of not being pulled too far into optimism or pessimism, and the importance of staying focused and hopeful about our own actions on the Co-Intelligence Institute, or by Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die, or Viktor Frankl’s powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning.


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Photo by via Wikicommons

7 Tips for Keeping Warm this Winter

If you’re currently reading this in San Diego, or somewhere equally warm, then you might want to skip this post, but if you’re in a somewhat cooler climate, December is a good time to start thinking about keeping warm. Particularly if some of the longer range predictions about this being an especially cold winter turn out to be true.

If you’re sat at home, how warm is your room ?

If you don’t know, consider spending £5 to get yourself a room thermometer this Christmas.

Room temperature is normally taken to be 20C , with typically quoted values ranging from 18 – 21C, the range in which most of us will feel fairly comfortable. Below this increased health risks begin to occur, below 18C most people will begin to experience some discomfort, while below 16C there is an increased risk of respiratory disease. Below 12C there is an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, and below an ambient living temperature of 9C hypothermia is a possibility. An extra 27,000 deaths occur over the winter in the UK, mostly of the elderly.

So it’s vitally important for both our health and our comfort to keep ourselves warm during the cold weather, but on the other hand we might be concerned about wasting both energy and money. Whether we’re motivated by reducing our carbon footprint or our energy bill (in my case it’s both) it’s important we manage to keep warm as efficiently as possible.

Here are a few tips – you might want to share them with more elderly family, friends or neighbours.


It seems obvious, but a if you have a central heating system controlled by just a single thermostat, that’s probably what you’re doing. Fitting room thermostats or radiator thermostat valves will let you heat just the rooms you use most – ie: not the spare bedroom, front room, conservatory etc.


Again, another ‘no-brainer’, but a surprising number of homes with central heating systems don’t have effective timer controls. Check your controls to make sure the heating is only on when you’re there.


A draught is ventilation in the wrong place (and vice-versa). Go draught hunting and use draught excluders, letterbox and keyhole covers, insulation strips, thick curtains and similar to deal with them. It your home is particularly draughty you might want to consider using a thermal camera to identify them (though it might be a good idea to get advice before hiring one). Remember though that it’s best to leave at least some ventilation somewhere in the house, to allow exchange of air.


Some ‘how to keep warm lists’ suggest letting warm bath water cool in the bath etc as a good idea to help heat your home. Generally speaking this isn’t a good idea, for two reasons. Firstly, moist air takes more energy to heat than dry air does – so the more water vapour you have in your home, the colder it will be (for a given amount of heating). Secondly, the water vapour doesn’t magically disapear – it just condenses on cold surfaces, like exterior walls and windows, often giving rise to black mould, which can become a significant health hazard. Avoid drying wet clothes on radiators without adequate ventilation, and make sure steam from cooking is properly vented.


Opening the curtains during the day to let in sunlight, and closing them as it starts to go dark, in order to retain heat might not make a huge difference in most homes, but it will help, and could be quite beneficial if your home has a conservatory, or other large expanse of exterior glass. Obviously the better insulated your curtains are the more effective they will be.


We wrap up warm when we go out in the cold, most of us could do a lot better at wearing warmer clothes inside as well. There are all sorts of suitable, comfortable ‘lounge-ware’, from jogging trousers and jumpers, to socks, thermals and even hats. I can confirm the currently popular onesies are very effective for keeping warm (though far too embarrassing to answer the door in) ! Sitting under a blanket to watch TV is also a good idea.


Your body keeps warm by using the food you’ve eaten, so if your home is cold it’s especially important to make sure you’re eating well, preferably with plenty of hot meals and hot drinks, while alcohol tends to lower core body temperature. A spot of exercise might also be a good way to help keep warm.

Photo by Ruben Laguna via Flickr

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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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The NEXT Industrial Revolution

A guest post by Alastair Sloan, a social entrepreneur and journalist, and writer of the ‘serious and fun’ blog: Alastair Sloan.

At the beginning of this year, Ellen MacArthur set out a vision for a “circular economy” to the world leaders and CEOs assembled at Davos. Her foundation had teamed up with McKinsey to deliver a report challenged our current economic model of “take-make-dispose,” and proposed an alternative manufacturing mindset – “what happens to this when my customer finishes using it?” Her video, well worth a watch before you read further, shows how a “circular economy” takes inspiration from the energy cycles we see in nature.

Reducing waste is a topic I’m particularly passionate about. It’s why I founded The Living Furniture Project, which takes unwanted furniture from around London and upcycles it, employing homeless people to do the work. Last year in the UK, households threw out 670,000 tonnes of furniture. Research by Wrap showed that 45% was re-usable. This social enterprise is a good example of how re-use can not only reduce landfill reliance, but also create jobs by cycling materials back around the economy. It finds inspiration in other re-use schemes, like theLondon Re-use Network and re-use centres in Flanders, Belgium.

The Living Furniture Project will only scratch the surface. The UK landfills more than any other European country, and in 2018 we will completely run out of space for waste. We are so accustomed to dealing with these mountains of rubbish, that we easily forget that we are the only species that has to create landfill. Mother nature is far smarter than us, and as a consequence 100% efficient – every ounce of biomatter lives, dies, decomposes, is eaten and lives again. It’s a continuous cycle that sustainability visionaries William McDonough and Michael Braungart call “waste = food” (watch their film of the same name to understand this more).

The argument for moving to this “circular economy” is compelling – not just because of the obvious impact in areas like climate change, but because it makes commercial sense. Linear consumption (the status quo) is by its nature risky; it puts your business at the mercy of fluctuating commodity prices. And as resources dwindle, competition becomes even fiercer, and weaker companies will flounder.

Now imagine a product that is designed from re-usable materials, and in such a way that it can be easily disassembled. In that business model you can sell a product (for example, a running shoe), collect back all or part of the shoe (perhaps the sole, as Nike are currently exploring), restore it at a fraction of the price and sell it back to the same customer – you’ve made the same sale twice.

The McKinsey report estimated that this kind of innovation could create savings in Europe alone of $630bn. Taking mobile phones as an example, handsets which were easier to disassemble and re-use would be 50% cheaper than current models.

But if you must produce waste, don’t worry. Industrial by-product can be a commercial opportunity too, so long as you adopt circular design principles. A good example is Swiss textile factory Rohner, which before 1991 was creating huge amounts of harmful chemical waste. The chemicals used in the inks and wools meant that waste disposal was an expensive burden to the business. But working with McDonough and Braungart, they radically changed their manufacturing process to only use materials which hadn’t been chemically treated in any way. Once the change was made, the only waste the factory produced was 100% biodegradable. This meant the by-product of the manufacturing process could now be sold to local farmers as a fabric to protect their crops in winter (see picture below). Sales of this fabric represented a third of the $8m revenues generated by the factory over the following three years.

Harvard Business Review has looked at the relationship companies are seeing between waste reduction and profitability, and noted two effects. Companies are consistently more profitable when they reduce waste, and additionally are attracting a much higher calibre of managerial talent, who are particularly interested to address these kind of sustainability challenges. This high-quality talent has a huge knock-on effect across the business, with innovative thinking being applied in other areas and creating yet more profitability.

The argument for “the circular economy” continues if you look at the increasing sophistication of our information technology systems. A shift to globalised production has required digital solutions to managing complex supply chains that can stretch from Taipei to California, and back again.

These systems can be put to use immediately, in preparing the groundwork for a shift to cradle to cradle production. Companies can easily scrutinize every screw, plastic and thread in a product – and work out exactly where it’s from, what it’s made of and where it’s going to. This heightened visibility means that for a company to move to a circular model of production, they should have all the information at their fingertips to create a strong implementation plan.

There has also been a shift in consumer thinking, that strongly favours the case for change. In 2012, popular sentiment tipped in favour of sustainability, with over half of consumers now saying that sustainable production is “very important” or “important” to them (Euromonitor).

Indeed, the “green economy” in the UK grew 4.7% last year (in stark contrast to other sectors suffering in the downturn), and now constitutes 8% of our national GDP.

This kind of consumer support is critical, as the required changes to consumer mindsets are radical. One of the major changes is around expectations of ownership, with more focus on “leasing and returning” and less on permanent ownership of goods.

For example, your washing machine could be “issued” on a 5 year lease and then returned to the manufacturer for “refreshing” and re-sale. McKinsey forecast that high-end washing machines would become accessible for nearly all households if they were leased instead of sold—customers would save roughly a third per wash cycle, and the manufacturer would earn roughly a third more in profits.

This might set alarm bells ringing for many -  what happens if the company wants their product back when you would rather keep it?

But the reality is we already live, to some extent, with these kind of arrangements. The percentage of American cars leased rather than owned has grown from 7% in 1990 to 20% in 2010. At one point, in 1999, nearly one in four American cars were not owned by their driver.

In 2009, Amazon Kindle users discovered that ebooks they thought they owned, were in fact only leased. In a spat with a publisher, Amazon had decided to recall copies of Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” which disappeared overnight from Kindles all around the world.

It sparked consumer outrage, but Amazon pointed out the small print and showed that they were within their rights as ebooks were, in fact, leased not owned. Outrage aside, when we consider that this leasing arrangement had quietly existed for two years beforehand, before being questioned in an isolated incident, leasing rather than owning property doesn’t seem like such an outlandish idea. And even since the scandal, ebook sales have been soaring, now outstripping paperbacks by 14%.

The circular economy has been tested and intitally seen positive results. Over the past ten years, McDonough and Braungart have implemented their “cradle to cradle” concept with high-profile manufacturers including Nike, Ford and Nestle (see the video below).

However, working with the Chinese government to build a series of much-vaunted “eco-towns,” they failed to get convincing results. But this had more to do with the challenging Chinese business environment, especially for foreigners, rather than subverting the guiding principles of circular economics (for an excellent analysis by Christina Larson, see here).

It would constitute a total dismantling of the modern economic system. It’s been called “the next industrial revolution.” But the circular economy makes sound commercial sense. Companies have systems available now to start quietly exploring their options. Consumers are clearly asking for it. And building on the trials that “cradle to cradle” pioneers have now made, the possibility of a new era of industrial design, inspired by ecology, looks increasingly likely.


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Photo by USACEPublicAffairs, via Flickr