Monday, 8 December 2014

Once upon a time Part Two: in Limehouse...

...I was invited to speak at the launch event for the London Chapter of CASSE.  It was 2014.

As I stood up to speak, my plan was:




Fortunately Desmond Kilroy, convenor of the London chapter, recorded my utterances (and, indeed, those of the four other speakers) so I was pleased to learn that this alarming scrap of paper was not the only evidence of whatever it was I said.

The full transcript, however, was just as alarming; and it was only after some prudent editorial work that something merely unsettling emerged:


A recovering economist speaks...

I’m convinced that a radically different kind of economy is required. I’m also convinced it is not going to be worked out by economists. 

I think the new economy is going to be created by millions and millions of ordinary people changing how they live their lives; and economics is going to have to catch up. 

My main warning is that I think assuming that policy can deliver this new economy is misguided. 

I want to explain why I think this by talking about washing powder, beer, drugs, rubbish, sandwiches and hairdressers, which all seem to me to be extremely ordinary everyday activities. 

Washing powder – a small number of manufacturers each produce multiple different ‘brands’ to limit the market share that might be available to a new market entrant.  It is elementary corporate behaviour.  At the more complex end, there are all sorts of methods by which corporates pursue their own interests at the expense of others.  No big corporate will seriously consider a transformation of the economic system that would imply their extinction.  

Beer - or, more accurately, prohibition. It didn’t work, and it doesn’t work. The genie of ‘choice’ is out of the box. The idea that a great regulatory transformation, some policy-led series of initiatives will suddenly make us all adopt sustainable lifestyles consistent with this new economic paradigm is nonsense.

Sandwiches – we in this room probably all want sustainable sandwiches.  But ‘big policy’ is concerned to ensure that Londoners get fed.  So whilst the bottom-up, inclusive, sustainable sandwich bar is great as far as it goes, a food strategy for London that doesn’t include Tesco and Sainsbury won’t get very far with a serious policy maker.

Water butts – in Tottenham a few years ago I was doing some research trying to find ‘influential individuals’: not leading opinion makers but ordinary people.  There was a lady who lived in a terraced house, a single parent with three children.  And on the estate where she lived, talking to people to find out who influenced who, they all gave the same name. The lady didn’t think of herself as influential, but she had six months earlier put a new water butt in her garden. And over the course of the six months between her getting that water butt and us walking up on that estate, everyone had installed a water butt. She wasn’t an environmentalist. I don’t think she would have much truck with the phrase “sustainable lifestyles”. And she didn’t have economic power. But she was pretty together: every time you went around there for a cup of tea, her home was tidy, and she got her children to school on time. And she was just on top of her life. She was just like the other people on the estate. There is a technical word for this: it’s called homophily. She was just like them, only a bit better. Every single one of us has got someone or two like that. Just like us; but a bit better. We look up to them. And when they make a choice, that legitimizes it, and influences us.

Hairdressers - About five years ago somebody heard me talk about influential individuals, telling the story about the lady and the water butts in Tottenham, and the listener went away to research this more thoroughly, and she told me in an email that she had decided to research hairdressers as influential individuals. Two groups of hairdressers were used in the study, one group primed to talk about environmental issues with their customers. And it had dramatic impact! So much so that I learned from her a couple of weeks ago that she has secured funding to introduce environmental issues into national hairdressing training.



So a group of influential individuals is likely to be chatting about the environment with their customers.  I am convinced that this is going to have dramatically more impact – on ordinary people thinking about environmental issues and how to develop ‘sustainable lifestyles’ - than some policy that no one will even notice. I’m not saying that we pay no attention to the ‘economic system’; it's just that I’d far rather that we thought about how we help ordinary people, in their millions, to make sustainable choices, than persuade a few policy people who might be trying hard but who are locked in by the kind of vested interests I’ve talked about.



One other lovely thing happened that evening, during the presentation about the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group at Surrey from the wonderful Ian Christie (also available on the CASSE page), when he was kind enough to put up a slide as follows:

David Fell, Brook Lyndhurst, in Guardian Sustainable
Business, 7/3/2013:

• Sustainable consumption consists at present almost
entirely of "supply push" rather than "demand pull". On
the supply side, a combination of regulatory and
legislative obligation, business-to-business peer
pressure and, slowly, a developing cultural norm mean
that a growing number of enterprises are taking
sustainability seriously.

• Turn to the consumer side of the equation, however,
and the story is very different. The number of people
taking sustainability seriously has remained
stubbornly low for the past 20 years.

• Perhaps two or three consumers in every 100 are
actively trying to minimise their environmental
footprint on a consistent, across-the-board basis.
The majority find it too hard, too overwhelming, too
complicated – too much hassle given all the other
things they need to think about.



Sometimes it almost feels as if all this stuff joins up.  Time, methinks, to move from 'tell me' to 'show me'... Roll on 2015.




Once upon a time Part One: in Leeds...

...I contributed to a conference organised by the Centre for the Advancement of Steady State Economy (CASSE) entitled 'Working towards an alternative to economic growth'.  It was 2010.

I ran and spoke at "Workshop 7: Changing Behaviour (the Psychology of Consumerism)"

I prepared a paper in advance; and, after the presentation and the workshop, amended the paper for inclusion as a chapter in the report of proceedings.

Here it is.


Chapter 10: Enough Materialism

“How can a ‘mass behaviour of enoughness’ be brought about?”

David Fell (Workshop Speaker)

Consumer spending typically accounts for about two thirds of economic activity in industrialised economies.  As such, consumer behaviour strongly influences the behaviour of the entire economy.  Under the current system, consumer spending and economic growth are inextricably linked — increasing consumption spurs the economy to get bigger, with all the accompanying side effects.

The character of consumer spending has evolved since the mid-18th century.  Contemporary “consumerism” — a social norm that gives pre-eminence to “consuming” rather than “doing,” “being” or “producing” — emerged in the 1960s and is widely seen as a dominant driver of behaviour by individuals, corporations and governments.

Since Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in the late 19th century consumerism has been the subject of continuous critique by economists and social scientists. The negative consequences of consumerism, as outlined by David Fell in his [work on] the 'economics of enough' can be summarised as follows:
  • It is a behavioural paradigm (“more”) that is fundamentally inconsistent with the finite quantity of material resources on the planet;
  •  It is a behavioural norm comprising an unsustainable “hedonic treadmill”.  No matter how fast individuals run toward happiness and fulfilment, they are always one step away, a setup that may contribute to widespread mental ill-health;
  •  It co-creates and reinforces systemic inequality both within and between nations and communities.

Given the negative consequences of consumerism, the challenge is to create an alternative model of consumption in which the vast majority of citizens are routinely choosing “enough” rather than “more”.  Hence, “enough” would become an inherent feature of a new value set that would drive positive changes, such as reduced resource consumption, improved psychological well-being, and greater equality.  Such a revolutionary change in values — and it is a revolution rather than a series of incremental adjustments to the prevailing orthodoxy — is unlikely to happen quickly or easily, given the forces lined up against it and the anxieties that will inevitably arise about such a transformation.

In summary, the challenge is to seek ways to instigate a shift to a “mass behaviour of enoughness.”

Proposal


It is no simple task to bring about a “mass behaviour of enoughness.”  To understand the proposals that follow, it is worth analysing the context of this behavioural shift.

The revolutionary change in values envisaged would be enacted within an economic system which is complex, open and dynamic — a system in which the objectives of institutions and groups are not fixed but are, in large part, emergent properties.  Social norms can be conceptualised as the emergent properties of social groups, and they are enormously powerful determinants of behaviour.  The contemporary social norm of consumerism is one (powerful) set of emergent properties that dictates significant behaviours for many individuals in industrialised economies.

Not all behaviours, however, are subject to this social norm.  Older people, for example, often spend less of their income on “things” and more on “experiences,” which tend to have a lower material impact.  In addition, increasing numbers of people, either as individuals or as groups, choose to live “downshifted” lifestyles or choose to live “off-grid.”

This context (consisting both of norms that emerge from social groups and of pockets of people already possessing a value set consistent with the desired model of consumption) contains the starting point for bringing about a “mass behaviour of enoughness.”  The main proposal offered by David Fell in the Workshop on Changing Behaviour is for a rapid diffusion of new values through the manifold networks that comprise contemporary society.  Such an exercise would be system-wide and would entail multiple points of influence, many of which would be beyond the remit of government.  Some mechanisms which would help make this proposal a reality include:

·         Influential individuals:  Influential individuals occupy pivotal positions in social networks and are key figures in the processes by which new social norms emerge and diffuse through those networks.  Such individuals need to be recruited as agents of change.

·         Community activism:  Organisations with objectives that challenge or contradict consumerism need to be supported and encouraged, both to expand their membership and to transmit their values and insights to the wider community.

·         Promotion of alternative hedonism:  Innovative media outlets can promote the benefits of non-materialistic lifestyles to specific target groups in a proactive manner.

·         Enabling new forms of institutions:  A particular role for the state lies in creating the enabling infrastructure in which new forms of corporate and civic entities can emerge.  Examples include organisations that manage assets for the purpose of delivering long-term well-being to asset owners, rather than delivering short-term financial returns to managers (e.g. land use planning, innovative taxation arrangements, and new classes of legal vehicles).

·         Overcoming resistance:  Resistance to the scale and type of change implied is sure to come from large corporations and the state.  Mechanisms to overcome that resistance (e.g. consumer boycotts, support for new forms of enterprise, organised media campaigns, political lobbying, etc.) needs to be developed and enacted.


Workshop participants expressed broad agreement that the mechanisms for behavioural change outlined in the proposal provide a solid start, but they also felt that, in some cases, it is necessary to examine more deeply the root causes of the problems raised by consumerism.  As one participant put it, “It is not enough to bring about change at the level of fashion.” 

Four main themes ran through the discussion and characterised potential paths to develop the proposal further: (1) values, (2) motivation, (3) dealing with power, and (4) visualisation of change.  These are explored below:

·         Values:  There is an implied acceptance across most of society that the self-seeking, individualistic values which form the backdrop to consumerism are reasonable and necessary.  Part of this acceptance has been brought about by an evolution from community-based values to individualistic ones.  This trend needs to be reversed.  There was a very strong feeling in the workshop that people could and should take a personal stand.  As one participant said, “We need to set an example by living our values and rejecting unnecessary consumer items — otherwise we lack the moral authority to inspire change.  We need to be aware of the importance of our prophetic voice.”

·         Motivation:  Motivation is key to the process of behavioural change.  People who are happiest are those who have intrinsic motivation and inner contentment.  There needs to be a greater focus on the positive image of the alternative life and a demonstration that a consumer lifestyle is deadening and boring.  Consumerism only appeals to some of the core human motivations (hedonism, status, achievement).  Love, connectedness, friendship, spirituality and creativity are equally powerful sources of motivation, and it is crucial to tap into these.

·         Dealing with power:  There is an urgent need to curtail the power of large corporations and the media, both of which exercise so much control over people’s lives.  It is important not to underestimate this power, which often resorts to subtle and even subliminal methods.  Bankers, advertisers and manufacturers, however, are simply responding to consumer demand (including demand they create themselves).  The shift needs to originate from people’s personal values, and from understanding the “mass infantilisation” programme to which the public is subjected.  Such a shift requires greater awareness of communication methods, persuasion, and psychology.

·         Visualisation of change:  Alternative hedonism is an attractive concept.  People need to be able to visualise what a sustainable lifestyle looks like in concrete terms.  Celebrities can be helpful in providing highly visual role models, but celebrity culture is also part of the problem.  As one participant exclaimed, “We should recognise that we can be the influential individuals.  We don’t have to ‘buy in’ to celebrity!”

It is possible to use existing networks and leading-edge projects to elicit change.  There are opportunities for change within our work places and local communities.  The Transition Towns Movement is an effective approach; it has captured many people’s imaginations and catalysed the formation of new social groups.  If politicians see change happening on a sufficient scale, they will be under pressure to respond.  Potential also exists for initiatives connected with a shorter working week and a citizens’ income to contribute significantly to a different way of thinking about consumption.

In the light of the proposals presented to the workshop, and the subsequent discussion, the following “arenas for action” were highlighted as worthy of further exploration:

·         Taking a strong personal stand, based on non-consumer values and motivations;
·         Community activism based on local initiatives to develop alternatives to mass consumerism, either by buying less, producing locally, or boycotting mass consumer outlets;
·         Putting pressure on local and national government through specific lobbying campaigns;
·         Influencing institutional culture (for example through places of work) to change patterns of consumerism in large and medium sized organisations (with the National Health Service as a prime potential candidate);
·         Influencing professional practice (again within the workplace, especially those with ‘levers’ in society like law firms); and
·         Systematic use of the power of consumer pressure to influence manufacturers and the media.

The main obstacle identified was one of complexity in that big changes in consumer behaviour require massive shifts at a personal level and a societal level.  Hence the questions for ongoing investigation can be categorised into the same themes that spanned the discussion and reflect the need for dealing with this complexity at both a micro and a macro level.


Answering these questions will be a crucial step, but the journey of transitioning from the value of “more” to the value of “enough” can get underway with other steps.  Ample approaches for diffusing ideas through existing social networks are available — we simply have to put one foot in front of the other.







The Twelve Days of Christmas (Square Mile edit) 2014


On the first day of Christmas the market gave to me
a people too easy to fleece

On the second day of Christmas the market gave to me
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

On the third day of Christmas the market gave to me
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

On the fourth day of Christmas the market gave to me
four blatant scams
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

On the fifth day of Christmas the market gave to me
FIVE OFFSHORE FUNDS
four blatant scams
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

[and so on, until]

On the twelfth day of Christmas the market gave to me
twelve fat cats laughing
eleven bankers lying
ten taxmen taxing
nine lenders scheming
eight traders stealing
seven dealers cheating
six wide boys gloating
FIVE OFFSHORE FUNDS
four blatant scams
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece




Merry Christmas!




Friday, 28 November 2014

Approaching One Hundred - and Biting Through


The stampeding horses create a turbulent and luxurious supply of oxygen for the skull-fire, but now and again the wild beasts pause for water, and the air stills and the raging mindstorm subsides to mere smoldering.  There is time to look around.

Gosh! This blog will soon be seven years old!  The hundredth post is nigh! A brief review suggests that some of the past may still be useful in the present, or even later, so while the horses are becalmed, an opportunity to provide some shortcuts backwards, just in case:


The Eleven Most Read
Economics of Enough Blog Posts 

One
A diatribe against the shallow nonsense of corporate networking, and a plea for authenticity in our exchanges with others

Two
A more analytical piece which uses an example from the UK property market to illustrate how meeting the short term requirements of financial markets results directly in outcomes that are bad for ordinary people and the places where they live

Three
Derived from a presentation given to the International Water Association, eleven 'top tips for scenario planning

Four
A theory of social and economic change in four-and-a-bit diagrams, justifying the ethical position 'On being a good grain of sand'

Five
An argument from deep inside the economics of enough, summarised for and presented to the Schumacher Institute conference in 2013 and entitled 'Beyond Consumerism: A Design Challenge'

Six
A pair of poems, the first of which was set in the Olympic Stadium in 2012 and appeared in the magazine Smoke.

Seven
A short prose poem explaining why I shall not be writing the book 'Deshopping Society'

Eight
A piece examining a striking result arising from some elementary economics on supply and demand in the UK energy market, the only explanation for which is a political process utterly in thrall to the wishes of big corporates 

Nine
A poem, second in a still-to-be-completed trilogy, contrasting some yearned-for or hoped-for human behaviours with the commodified simulacra we currently endure

Ten
A sketched  proposition for an aggressive, dramatic and self-funding policy to save thousands of lives each year in London by banning all commercial diesel vehicles from within the M25 from 2023

Magic Eleven
I dreamt, at a UCL seminar, that London would be a sustainable city in 2062 if there was more singing and less shopping.  The talk became a chapter in a book, as well as this blog, and last week saw the publication of 'Sustainable London? The future of a global city' in which, in the concluding chapter, the editors Rob Imrie and Loretta Lees re-print the essay and write:

'These ideas [of care and inclusion] are embedded in Fell's (2012) persuasive outline of an alternative, progressive way of re-conceiving London's future, based, in part, on a context of care, in which a flourishing and inclusive society depends on significantly different, de-materialized relationships emerging to those shaping contemporary social and political agendas.

For Fell (2012) a sustainable future for London means questioning the logics of development and modernization.  It should not mean business-as-usual development, which is not able to respond to, or even recognise as part of its modus operandum, the complexities of creating a caring and nurturing place for all to live.  

Instead, people-sensitised approaches to London's sustainability ought to include appropriate guarantees of individuals' welfare, the provision of good quality social housing, public transport, education and health and the development of a caring, collective future for Londoners rather than one mired in so-called preparedness and individualism.'




At which point, the restless whinnying of sated equines signals the end of the pause and the resumption of oxygen-red flow.  And, if not yet singing, I'm certainly humming...




Trains, planes and mischievous elves


Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at 'London Infrastructure Plan 2050 Event: Circular Economy', organised by London Sustainability Exchange as part of Mayor Johnson's consultation and held on the top floor of City Hall.

The synopsis I'd provided in advance was:


"Throughout the modern era, infrastructure and the economy upon which it depends have been (thought of as) linear.

Roads, canals and railways took goods and people from A to B; the economy was conceptualised as a machine with inputs that related directly to outputs; the future was estimated on the basis of straightforward equations so that schools and hospitals and other ‘social’ infrastructure were delivered through ‘predict and provide’.

The past may work for a while, but it locks us in to its way of thinking – and it leaves us trapped by dead Cost Benefit Analyses and in possession of unaffordable ‘white elephants’.

Now that economy and society are understood as complex, adaptive systems; now that the ICT revolution is in full swing; and now that mega-projects have become almost impossible to justify, we need an infrastructure that is flexible, adaptable, plastic, bendy and small-but-easy-to-emulate.  Rather than predict what infrastructure we’ll need, David Fell will speak about what our infrastructure will need to be like.”


My actual presentation didn't mention cost benefit analysis, or equations, or possibly even ICT, which is probably a good thing.  I did say, however, that the economy used to be thought of as being like this:


but now it was probably better to think of it being more like this:


and this presented quite a challenge for infrastructure planning and design.

I also discovered that a wonderful organisation called 'More than Minutes' were capturing proceedings in graphical format; and, since I had the privilege of giving the opening address, they decided to draw me:




In fact, they captured the whole thing:




The best bit though was that, in trying to exemplify what I was blathering on about with this flexible adaptive infrastructure stuff, I spoke of drones, and how quickly they'd gone from being hostile devices that killed people in rural Pakistan to being benign devices that were going to deliver our Christmas presents.  Soon we wouldn't need lorries, I suggested, and Santa's elves would probably pilot the drones.

And they drew that too:



After all that I need some fresh air, which was outside surrounding all this:




For a moment I thought I heard the harmonised hum of tiny engines and happy helpers...

...but it must have been a trick of the tail.



Thursday, 6 November 2014

When the universe speaks


“What time is it?”

2.15 sir

“In the morning?”

Yes sir.”

“And you’re ringing me again.”

Yes sir.  The alarm in your office has gone off again.

“Again?”

Yes sir.  There appears to be a fault.

“A fault?”

Yes sir.

“Your’re ringing me at 2.15 in the morning to tell me that my security alarm has a fault?”

I’m sorry sir, but our contract requires us to notify you whenever the alarm activates.

Which it did, on three further nocturnal occasions, in the hours remaining before I was due to begin my morning journey to Belfast.

So perhaps I was a little tired.  And I was certainly out of my comfort zone: I fly so rarely, as you know.  But I couldn’t have foreseen the choice by an anonymous individual of the Piccadilly Line and this morning for their Personal Decision to Exit Life.

Deprived by the suspension of the Piccadilly Line of my obvious route from Hammersmith to Heathrow, and having set off with ‘just enough’ time, I improvised the Paddington/Heathrow Express solution, and crossed my fingers.  This seemed to work – I caught the necessary train with 2 minutes to spare – until, at Terminal 1/2/3, the train doors developed a fault.  For one, two, three, four minutes we sat there.

So when I swiped my Boarding Pass across the electronic eye at the security zone, I was refused entry, it being 9.24.  My last opportunity to access my flight had expired, according to the sympathetic but powerless British Airways employee, at 9.20.

“And the next flight is?”

At 12.50”.

“And to change my booking would cost?”

A lot.

I stared at the woman behind the desk.  Then the fabulous arches of Terminal 5.  Then the painfully blue sky outside.

The universe had spoken.  I decided to listen.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem and an asymmetric scream - 5


On grief, en verve


HOW BIG IS IT?

It is the size of
long loves lost
lovers' fading faces
fleeting ecstasy of dust
It is the size of
a daily smile
the endless thrill
of oscillating refuge and release


WHAT COLOUR IS IT?

It is the colour of
the bare-remembered hours
holding and cooking and playing
with those beautiful children
forever gone
It is the colour of
the helping hand
extended to a stranger
in their sudden time
of peril


HOW MUCH DOES IT WEIGH?

It weighs the same as
the misty smile
of each fallen friend


It weighs the same as
the lifted heart
that sees the dawn


HOW DEEP IS IT?

It reaches as far down as
those once-upon home-bound moments
knowing that boy-child smiles
will burst and hurtle
up and down the stairs
It reaches as far down as
the mind that wraps
around you
when you are truly lost
in a fictional world


WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?

It tastes like
the repetition and assurance
of each summer following 
summer
each ritual journey
each comforting pattern
each family game
It tastes like
the rippling joy
of new invention
each time the opportunity
presents
itself
again


HOW FAST IS IT?

It is as swift as
the cancer that
recurs
again
It is as swift as
the poem that
never
ends


IS IT FIERCE?

It is as gentle as
my father's parting hug
his loving life
his final ask:
Did I do ok?
It is as gentle as
the paintbrush wand
that Monet used
to tell the world:
Look! Joy!


IS IT STEALTHY?

It is as stealthy as
the life that left
the little boy
safe and happy in the womb
unable - or unwilling - 
to join us in the
airborne world
It is as stealthy as
the languid words and
songs and games
that sons and father
turn, from time to time,
to joyous moment-filling
play

HOW SUBTLE IS IT?

It is as subtle as 
the mysterious fug of
Christmas
a family building its myth
and leaving it
in the past
It is as subtle as
the mysterious air
of a long walk
filling limbs and lungs
and circling us back
to the beginning

HOW REAL IS IT?

It is as real as
the dreams you once had
of one future or
another
somehow now
impossibly impossible
It is as real as
the infinitesimal mark
the only thing
of which to be sure:
to be a good
grain of sand