Friday, 30 November 2012

Panning for gold, panning the crowd

Everyone is so charming, and interesting, and full of insightful things to say. We are all our friends! Witty, and charming, and interesting. Yes! Books and blogs and innovation! Disruptive jargon! Aspiration and connections! Influence and credibility! Self promotion disguised as personal viewpoint disguised as insight disguised as reference. A fleeting soufflĂ© of vanity; air bubbles of ego. My friends, my followers! 

* * * *

You are deciding which event to go to. What will make the difference?

Maybe the language:

"We have a great cross-section of blah blah blah and are thrilled to see so many from blah blah blah joining what should be a thought-provoking and inspirational blah blah blah"

Maybe the other people who are going:

"Here is who's currently in the crowd:

Global Director for Corporate Citizenship

Sustainability Director

Communications Officer

Ethical Trading Manager

General Counsel & Company Secretary

CSR Manger

Group Corporate Responsibility Director

Sustainability Manager

Director of CSR

Sustainability Manager

Technology Analyst

Citizenship Manager

Assistant Vice President

Project Manager - Environmental Sustainability

European Social Mission Team

Sustainability Manager

Sustainability Manager

Sustainability Reporting

Responsibility Manager

Corporate Communications

Head of Corporate Responsibility

Stakeholder Engagement Executive

Energy & Carbon Policy & Compliance Senior Manager

Better Future Strategic Engagement Lead


Community Investment, Corporate and Europe


Director Energy & Sustainability

Energy & Contracts Manager

European Director - Environment

Group CSR and Sustainability Director

Head of Corporate Communications

Chief Sustainability Officer

Sustainability Director

Group Director, CR Strategy

director for sustainability

Responsible Business Initiatives

Head of Food Composition, Standards and Alcohol


Managing Director

Procurement Compliance, Risk & SusManager

Energy Manager

Strategic Product Director


Group Head Stakeholder Engagement


Head of CR

CR Manager

Manager - Sustainability

Sustainability Manager

Corporate Responsibility Manager

exec director

Programme Manager

UK&I Environmental Manager

Sustainability Manager

Head of CR

Corporate Responsibility Executive

Senior Communications Manager, Global Sus.

Technical Director - Sustainability

Environmental economist

Director CSR

Head of Comms and CSR

Finance Coordinator

Head of Environmental Operations EMEA

Assistant Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship

Investment Manager

Head of Sustainable Development

Ethical Trading Manager

Plan A delivery manager

Envir. Risk Advisor and Broker

Sustainability Manager

Sustainability and Renewable Resources Dir .

Sustainable Supply Consultant

Environmental Sustainability Manager

Global Sustainability Manager

CR Manager

Head of Sustainability

SRI & Sustainability analyst

CSR Coordinator

Head of Sustainability

Environment Manager

Sustainability Manager

Director of Corporate sus.

Global Procurement Analyst

Sustainability Comms Analyst

Global Environment Manager

Sustainable Development Manager

Head of Sustainability, Energy, Environment

Sustainability and Innovation Manager

CR&Sustainability Manager

Head of Corporate Responsibility & Sus.

Sustainable Procurement Manager

Head of Technical Compliance


Sustainability Manager

Strategy & Policy Lead, Global Corporate Citizenship

Green Guardian

Environment Manager

Head of Environment

Corporate Responsibility Manager

International Community Plan Manager

Energy Performance Manager

Head of Sustainability

Climate Change Strategy Mgr

Group Environment Manager

Global CSR Co-ordinator

Sustainability Manager

Low Carbon London Project Mgr

Sustainability Research Engineer

VP Finance

VP Sustainability

CR Manager

Head of Sustainability

Director of Business Action


Head of Energy & Environment

Communications Director

Energy & Climate Change Manager

Programme Manager Clothing"

How can you resist?

(With thanks, but no apology, to Green Mondays)

Maybe the swanky website:

(Er, you are talking about London? As in, the real city, not an artificial digital one? Might be worth, maybe, just a hint, thinking about or mentioning, oh, I dunno, maybe, - air quality and climate change and transport and water and waste and energy and… oh, sod it, get back on your plane and fuck off.)

Or maybe there’s a nifty idea:

(yes, this is how the world ends – with a prize draw, not a bang...)

* * * *
Bollocks. If they want to play these ridiculous games, fine. But don’t let them waste my time. What matters? Authenticity. Not ‘achievement’ or being ‘powerful’ or having ‘connections’ or appearing in a Top 100 list compiled by one of your friends. In a most-post-modern, pluralist, wicked, de-browning pre-greening most mangled high tempo pan-material pro-digital con-fusible world, there’s only one survival strategy that counts – being real.

  • If it dawns on you that none of the organising parties give a toss about the issues (the sponsor is interested only in being able to say they ‘engaged’ with the political elite; the political elite is going through the motions as a favour to the organisers; the organisers are interested only in securing funding from the sponsor) – leave.
  • If the speaker is indulging in self-congratulatory self-aggrandisement and patently has nothing new or worthwhile to say – leave.
  • If you have a question that seems, to you at least, almost embarrassingly foolish because everyone else seems so erudite – ask it. It’s the question they’re scared of.
  • Don’t fucking network – just talk to people you find interesting.
  • Be generous in your use of the phrases “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” and, for a thrill, “I don’t see why I should care, actually”.
  • Look for the people that really mean it, whatever it is.
  • List the five most authentic people you can think of (it doesn’t matter if you know them personally or not) and think about what they have in common. Go hunting for those traits.
  • Listen to The Sunscreen Song (or at least read the lyrics) regularly (at least once a week).

It’s like my mother used to say – did you hear about the man who went to a party to try and create an impression? Well, that’s exactly the impression he managed to create.

Friday, 23 November 2012


And you may find yourself...

...following a falling rising path: John Lloyd on Desert Island Disks cites The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts as the book he would take with him to his desert island...

...and Alan Watts was a hybrid hippy west-coast most-Zen philosopher who hung out with Aldous Huxley...

...whose nephew Stewart Huxley built the remarkable Corpus Clock in Cambridge...

...and my best friend sent me a review from the New York Review of Books written by Freeman Dyson, who during his time in Cambridge shared a staircase with Wittgenstein...

...and Wittgenstein was mates with Piero Sraffa, whose Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities was the means by which I survived my second year at Cambridge...

...because I spent most of time reading other stuff, including Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig...

...whose second book was called Lila...

...and Lila is a Vedantic Hindu concept that refers to the playful way in which god hides from himself by being everything that there is...

...which is the underlying philosophy of the The Taboo Againat Knowing Who You Are.

Lovely.  If in doubt: play.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Death Race 2012

We are, apparently, in a race to the death.  Yes, it’s a race – and we are competing, to win.  Winning is all that matters.  We either win – or we’re dead.
Here’s the precise line from Mr Cameron’s speech today at the CBI Annual Conference:
"In this global race you are quick or you’re dead”
And how do you win? By
“having an all-out war on dumbing down” and by being “tough” and “fast”.
Yeah!  Screw the losers! Fuck the weak!  Hail only the winners – us! Ha!
[Small voice, off-stage]
“Hello? Er, hellooooo?  Er, I think there may be a problem.  With this, er, winning thing.  Yes, er, they’ve doing some research.  Yes, research – you know, the evidence thing?  Yes, well, they’ve been having a close look at this winning thing and, er, it seems like there may be an error.  Yes, er, it seems that these things called ‘collaboration’ and ‘co-operation’ are, um, better for us.  Yes, better.  Apparently they make us happier, they enable us collectively to achieve more, and they’re better suited to the complex problems that the modern world faces.  Uh-huh.  Racing to win is, in fact, the best way to lose.  Yup.  Racing to win is, in fact, yesterday’s strategy.  Only someone rooted in the past, or facing backwards, or who stubbornly clings to an out-dated ideology in the face of mounting evidence could possibly believe that ruthless and ceaseless competition was the way to help ‘our people thrive’."




Thursday, 1 November 2012

Thanks to Ivan, Pablo, Jorge... and Stuart

I have a fantasy that, somewhen in the future, we shall be able to move beyond the ugly and restrictive tribalist politics to which we have become inured, and find a way to allow poetry and science to guide us to what is true, and right.

Meanwhile, a prose poem (shortly to appear in Smoke) and a fleeting lament that seemed its pair.

Olympic Stadium 7th August 2012

My recently widowed mother stood among the flowers:

"This is the best day I've had in years" she pronounced. He had had cancer. It took ages.

She did not mind that the flowers were a contrivance, surrounded by a capitalist deceit. She did not mind that she had joined the painfully ignorant that she had only a few moments before condemned for having ignored the signed entreaties and merrily trampled over the beautiful flowers.

She tramped, and she was happy, and it was the least she deserved. Somewhere nearby, hyper-reality jumped and ran and threw: my recently widowed mum smiled, a real smile, for the first time in years. They really were very lovely flowers.

A Few Months Later

Autumn always looks the same

all the years of my life
all the years before my life
all the years beyond it

that innumerable eyes and minds and hearts
will drink the amber liquid leaves
imbued, perhaps, with reverie
as I am now

I think not of dust, and ashes;
but golden rust, and mulch, and
how my father and I shall be – are! – the
nutrients for tomorrow


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Magic 11

They say (though who they are is never clear; they can’t all be Malcolm Gladwell) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something.  Which means, I think, that I should by now be quite good at sleeping, eating and walking.

It also means I should by now be quite good at this thing they call ‘economics’. I have an O level in economics, and an A level, and a degree in it. I’ve been doing things to earn money for about 25 years now and most of the things I’ve done have been either directly or indirectly concerned with economics. Not only that, but so obsessed am I that I happily spend many of the hours when I am not sleeping or earning money thinking about economics.

I haven’t just done 10,000 hours – I’ve done 10,000 days. And still I’ve got more questions than answers.

One of the things that began to intrigue me at a fairly early stage was the power of people’s desire to be an ‘individual’. Simply enormous numbers of people, irrespective of their age or class, seemed to put very considerable effort into a process of establishing and maintaining and signalling their individuality. Some did it through their choice of music or hobby, some through their reading or their writing, some through their sporting or sexual prowess.

And everybody, absolutely everybody, did it by means of buying stuff. They just couldn’t help themselves: furniture, knick knacks, clothes, cars, you name it, carefully or carelessly chosen as an expression of ‘me’.

This behaviour reached its oxymoronic acme in the marketing and consumption of a well-known branded shoe wear: demonstrate your individuality, it said – by wearing the same shoes as everyone else…

And the thought experiment this begs is: how much choice do you really need in order to feel, or be, unique? How many options give you the individuality you crave? Eleven. The answer is eleven. With eleven choices, the number of permutations is about 40 million – which is, roughly, the number of people in the UK aged between 18 and 65. You don’t need thousands and thousands of lines of clothing, and hundreds of brands, and millions of personalised options in order to be exclusively ‘you’; you can achieve it with just eleven.

In practice, of course, it’s not quite like this, but that’s not the point: the point is that the thought experiment suggests it might be possible massively to reduce the number of options with which we as consumers are confronted (and by which so many of us are overwhelmed) whilst still allowing us the subjective experience of ‘enough choice’.

(Why you might want to reduce choice on such a scale; and how you might do it, are for another time.)

Eleven also turns out (according to the back of my envelope…) to be the number of large social networks you would need to co-ordinate in order to give more or less everyone the sense that ‘a thing’ – a vibe, a mood, a fashion, a way of behaving, a lifestyle – is something that everyone else is doing. Social norms, as we know, are the most powerful determinant of social behaviours: and it may be that, rather than a thousand flowers blooming or a hundred government interventions, one could bring about dramatic shifts in lifestyles (and social and economic and environmental outcomes…) through working closely with just eleven carefully chosen entities.

But the detail behind that, too, will have to wait a little longer.

Did I say seven blogs? It should have been Magic 11.


Number six, hitherto unused and unpublished...

I know that economics is having a bit of a rough time at the moment, what with having been utterly unable to predict the great crash of 2007/8, and having not the first clue about how to get us out of this mess, nor knowing when – if ever – we’ll get back to “normal”, and being in large part unable (or perhaps I’m thinking of economists now…) to have the humility to acknowledge that the entire notion of ‘normal’ needs overhauling anyway, and – now that I’m thinking about it – having hijacked the entire discipline of national management so that it’s probably possible to blame economics for the whole problem in the first place… but it has over the years got a few things right, including the basics of supply, demand, and price.

There are relatively few examples that illustrate the underlying principle to perfection, but here’s one I’ve just discovered. The chart below shows, for the five years 2004 to 2008 (it’s only just been published by DECC, but it’s the last year for which data were presented) the residential demand for gas (represented by the median gas consumption by households) and the price paid for gas (represented by the average household gas bill).

In theory, as the price of a good or service increases, the demand for that good or service, other things being equal (or, as we say in economics, ceteris paribus) declines. In this practical, real world example, with real data from a real government department, and as you can easily see from the chart, the price of gas (the red line) increased and the demand for gas (the blue bars) declined.

As you can’t see so easily from the chart, however, these two variables are negatively correlated with a coefficient of 0.995. 

Now it’s possible to quibble here: the consumption data are for England and the price data for England and Wales; and the consumption is a median figure and the price is a mean; and there are only five years’ worth of data; and there may be all sorts of other and important things going on for rich and poor households, or among high gas users and low gas users… but you’d be hard-pressed, looking at this, not to conclude that there is a near-perfect relationship between gas price and gas demand.

Which makes you wonder: if you wanted to decrease gas consumption (for the purposes, say, of reducing CO2 emissions, or because you just didn’t like relying on Johnny foreigner) then all you’d need to do would be to increase the price; and since (if you’re a government) you don’t want to have to take the blame for something like that, it would be better if, oh I don’t know, there was some sort of oligopolistic market that could do the dirty work for you. Then all you’d have to do (for your side of the bargain, as it were) would be to pronounce fervently in public that you were doing something to sort it out by passing a law or something, and apart from a few million people on middling incomes and a few million more on low incomes and a few million more on top of that who are surviving on amounts of money that you simply cannot believe is really true, everyone would be happy.

But I've headed back into the politics of it again.  Oops.

So, that picture you posted earlier

There’s an old story, I’ve no idea how old, and I can’t be bothered to check, but it’s the one where a bunch of blind people encounter an elephant. One of them grasps the trunk, and explains to his or her fellows that the elephant (a creature hitherto unknown) is very like a snake; another encounters the belly, and explains instead that the beast is very like a whale; a third holds a leg, and the elephant is very like a tree.

And so on.

And the gist of the story is to remind us that we may each only grasp a small part of what is going on, so we should be careful about rushing to conclusions.

I found myself wondering: what if, rather than asserting to one’s fellow blindfolk that you are right and they are wrong, you attempted – instead – a little teamwork. Collaboration, after all, has emerged under exactly the same evolutionary conditions as naked self-interest, so there’s no reason, in principle at least, why the various protagonists in the story shouldn’t gather together and conclude that the elephant is, in fact, the sum (perhaps more!) of its parts.

As a result, the blind people in my story assemble the whole from the parts – but still get it wrong, because they put the parts together in the wrong order. Such a beast, so evidently based on ‘E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T’ must therefore be a L-E-A-N P-E-T-H, as you can see in the picture.

I’ve no idea what this means: so I shall wait until, as a story, it is old enough to tell me; or until I am old enough to hear.

A review of “Affluence & Influence”

This one, blog four in the weekend series, is a book review I did for the Journal of the Society of Business Economists.  I'm being a little naughty, in that I'm posting it here shortly before it appears in the Journal, but I figure the overlap in readership is small, and I'm sure Diane Coyle, who edits the reviews section, won't mind.

A review of "Affluence & Influence", Martin Gilens (2012)

Concluding her 1962 classic “Economic Philosophy”, Joan Robinson - having, in the preceding pages, said much that could throw useful light on many of the contortions currently convulsing economics - writes:

“The first essential for economists, arguing among themselves, is to ‘try very seriously’, as Professor Popper says that natural scientists do, ‘to avoid talking at cross purposes’ and, addressing the world, reading their own doctrines aright, to combat, not foster, the ideology which pretends that values which can be measured in terms of money are the only ones that ought to count.”

Given the manifest political, social and environmental difficulties with which the world is now grappling, in large part as a result of the failure of a very particular economic ideology, Robinson’s entreaty is surely now more important than ever. In one key respect, however, she is in error: it is not solely among economists that there should be argument. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that unless economists – both orthodox and heterodox - very deliberately engage others in the argument, then there is every chance we shall merely replace one unsustainable ideology with another.

It is thus hugely important that figures such as Daniel Kahneman (psychologist), Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (epidemiologists) and Michael Sandel (political and legal philosopher) are making contributions. These heavyweight academics are not merely bridging the divide between academia and the general public; they are intruding into the arguments of economics using its very own tools of hard-arsed data, precision analysis and confident assertion.

It is surely into this argument that Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University, hopes to venture with his book “Affluence and Influence”. With its cleverly assonant title and its commercially populist cover graphics, there seems little doubt that the book is being positioned in a very particular way.

The book’s content is straightforwardly signalled by its sub-title “Economic Inequality and Political Power in America” and Gilens asserts from the beginning that his work has not merely reached but has proven a profound and important conclusion: that wealthy people in the United States of America are dramatically and consistently more likely than anyone else to see their preferences reflected in actual policy decisions by government.

Such a conclusion is hardly a surprise and, to his credit, Galens acknowledges this at an early stage. However, in developing his ‘proof’, he subjects the reader to what is, in effect, a very long academic paper disguised as a generalist book. Hoping for an action-packed opening chapter of key findings and insight? No no. Try, instead, pages and pages of detailed and defensive caveats for the analysis that follows. Hoping for relief in chapter two? No no – have a thick dose of “Data and methods”.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps SBE members would like nothing more than pages of “policy responsiveness” statistics. Perhaps there are readers only too keen to know the minutiae of Congressional voting patterns and the precise implications of ‘gridlock’ for the extent to which different types of American see their wishes, on different types of issue, reflected in policy outcomes, under different Presidents. Perhaps there are economists who wish to argue that power and money are not, in fact, correlated and need to see the ‘evidence’ before they are persuaded.

It is the case, regrettably, that economics has reached a condition where it does indeed seem to require evidence that carefully and comprehensively explains exactly what it is that bears do in the woods. That being so, we probably need material from the likes of Martin Gilens. It would be best, however, if that material was presented in a more digestible format; and that books are used strictly for bigger parts of the argument.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Blogrush - third of seven

So this one is, um, a sketch.  That's it.

Our skills with food have been stolen by the supermarkets; so they should pay for us to get them back

Blog two of the weekend's seven is a piece I wrote for Natan Doron, who did the heavy lifting for the Fabian Society's conference season special on food waste "Revaluing Food: Shifting the narrative on food waste". 

Over the course of the past six or seven years, Brook Lyndhurst has been researching the whys and wherefores of British food behaviours. For organisations such as WRAP, Oxfam, the Greater London Authority, WWF and Defra we’ve looked at people buying food, storing food, cooking food, eating food – and throwing food away.

A common theme through this work has been the issue of skills. At each stage of the process, it seems that many people do not know quite what to do: they don’t know what their food is or where it comes from; they don’t know how to store it properly, or what the dates on the food mean; they don’t know how to cook it properly, and they don’t know how to use leftovers.

This ‘de-skilling’ has been underway for a long time, and has many inter-locking causes. Lifestyles have changed over the past few decades, and busy people want both their cooking and their shopping done as fast as possible, so ready meals and instant solutions that require no skills have become more popular. The teaching of food skills in schools has declined: ‘fast food’ is ubiquitous and cheap; and, at home, we’re now into a second, possibly even a third generation of young people who have not learned to cook by watching their parents.

Given the scale of food wastage in this country, an urgent solution is required.

I propose that each large supermarket in the UK should have a Food Skills Advisor. Most large supermarkets already have butchers and bakers in store: this individual would have a similar status. They would offer advice and guidance to shoppers on recipe ideas, on how to cook unfamiliar vegetables, on how to store the additional items purchased when shoppers are lured by ‘three for two’ offers, on how the leftovers from a piece of meat might be used, how to make creative use of items in the discounted section that appears in the late afternoon, and so on.

To ensure a broad and fair provision, these FSAs would need their own identity, distinct from the individual store or retailer. I therefore propose that they should be provided by retailers in partnership with one another; and that they should be funded by a levy on turnover. The levy would operate a little like the Tobin Tax. Each store above 25,000 square feet would pay a charge that was related to its annual turnover. The monies collected would be hypothecated and used to fund the FSAs.

According to the IGD, the major retailers have, between them, close to 5,500 stores of this size. Assuming that the FSAs work part-time, and are on salaries commensurate with in-store butchers and the like, the total annual cost of the programme could be in the region of ~£130mn. On the basis of IGD data, this would be the equivalent of just 0.1% of large-store turnover. (It is also helpful to recall that the four large supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and Morrisons – between them made profits of more than £5bn in 2011.)

As well as being affordable, the proposed FSA programme addresses two key factors that underpin our food, and food waste, behaviours.

The first is that, whilst not everyone in Britain wastes food, most of us do – and we’re embarrassed to admit it. Deep down we know that it’s a shameful thing to throw away good food, but we look the other way. The second factor is that it’s almost as embarrassing to admit that we don’t know what to do, particularly with something as ‘obvious’ as food: so it can be hard to ask for help.

The FSAs, available in every large food superstore in the land, would overcome both these barriers. On the one hand, they would be a neutral, friendly and trustworthy source of information, available to everyone, thereby making it easy for people to ask for advice; and, on the other, they would be advising on positive issues – how to shop smart, how to cook smart – rather than castigating us on negative issues. We all prefer to be helped rather than told off.

The figures on food waste in this country are, indeed, shaming; but the programme outlined could provide a fast, effective and affordable solution.

The City of the Sick

Last week I gave a 'provocation' at an event organised by Cap Gemini, the London Sustainability Exchange and the Greater London Authority designed to consider the London of 2020.  This is the text upon which I (loosely) based my remarks.  The original paper had footnotes, but I can't figure out how to do that sort of thing in Blogger, so I've listed them at the end and you have to guess which bit of the text they refer to...
When asked to identify the things that are most important to them, the people of both London and the rest of Britain consistently identify the same issues. A typical survey result is:
  • Being able to spend time with friends and family     44 %
  • Health                                                               31 %
  • Personal relationships                                          23 %
  • Work life, study and/or day-to-day activities           20 %
  • Standard of living or money                                  13 %

As policy makers or others responsible for endeavouring to manage the circumstances in which Londoners live their lives, it is salutary to consider these priorities. The prevailing orthodoxy, of attending to economic growth and job creation, seems to address the lower-ranked items. A policy regime more attuned to public preference would concern itself with enabling citizens to spend more time with their friends and family (perhaps by looking to reduce commuting times, or reducing working hours or promoting the development of convivial community spaces) and with improving the health of Londoners.
Considering health, we ought, as policy makers, to focus on these "principal social determinants of health":
  • Early childhood development
  • Having access to (high quality) health services
  • How much education a person obtains
  • Housing status
  • Being able to get and keep a job
  • How much money a person earns
  • What kind of work a person does
  • Discrimination and social support
  • Having food or being able to get food
Broadly speaking, if these determinants are improving, then so too is health; and vice versa. Cumulatively, they (largely) determine the prevalence of Non-Communicable Diseases, themselves the leading cause of premature death in the UK . The dominant NCDs, such as cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes are principally driven by just three risk factors: poor diet (including the harmful use of alcohol), tobacco use and lack of physical activity . In addition, “mental ill health is the largest single cause of disability in the UK, contributing almost 23% of the overall burden of disease compared to about 16% each for cancer and cardiovascular disease.” The direct costs of this disability, and the indirect costs (through reduced productivity and/or lost working days) are substantial.
Considering London from such a perspective, we can ask: is the London of 2020 likely to be a sick city or a well city?

The outlook is not good. Cuts in government spending are likely to reduce social support, access to high quality health services and provision for early childhood development in London. The general state of the economy is such that significant employment growth is unlikely over the next few years; and such growth as does occur may well increase levels of stress-related mental ill-health among Londoners. Real incomes have been falling in the capital and, again, leading commentators and politicians are progressively extending the horizon for a genuine recovery in incomes. New housing development continues at a level far below that required to accommodate London’s growing population, and a combination of public sector funding constraints and private sector uncertainty seems set to limit any large scale investment in upgrading London’s housing stock.
On top of that, and despite recent increases in the levels of cycling, Londoners remain overwhelmingly dependent on modes of transport that do not require any physical exertion, do jobs that require no physical exertion and show only marginal increases in participating in active sport. Smoking rates have reached a plateau, alcohol consumption remains dangerously high and the consumption of high-calorie, highly-processed, high profit margin and low nutrient food dwarfs the attention sometimes secured by more wholesome, headline-grabbing diets.

In short, London is already pretty unwell; and virtually every determinant of health is heading in the wrong direction.
Although there are some London policies that are fighting the tide – current action on alcohol is a good example – they are not only woefully inadequate and uncoordinated, they are in some cases making things worse. Urgent and radical action is required if we are not to be a very sick city indeed by 2020. We can not only save money and lives; we can actually give people something that they want.
Notes & sources

Figures show, when asked what were the most important things affecting their lives, without prompting, the most common responses people gave and the proportion mentioning them. Source: “Life satisfaction and other measures of wellbeing in England, 2007-2011, from the Survey of Public Attitudes and Behaviour towards the Environment”, National Statistics/Defra, 2012. See also, for further evidence reinforcing this list and a helpful summary of the ONS work on well-being indicators etc, Houses of Parliament POST Note #421, Sept 2012
See, for example, “21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century”, New Economics Foundation, 2012
Marmot, M.G. and R.G. Wilkinson, Social determinants of health. 2nd ed. 2006, Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press
Center for Disease Control and Prevention,
“Non-communicable diseases in the UK, A briefing paper prepared for the UK Parliament (House of Lords)”, C3Health, September 2011
World Health Organization, Preventing Chronic Disease: A Vital Investment (2005)
Department of Health, Mental Health Promotion and Mental Illness Prevention: the Economic Case (April 2011):
“Healthy, wealthy & wise”, Fell D., TCPA Journal, 2006
House Building: June Quarter 2012, England, National Statistics/Department for Communities
Source: Wikipedia accessed 5/10/12
Sport England, Active People Surveys 1 to 6
Cancer UK, Smoking Statistics,
Statistics on Alcohol 2011, NHS

Monday, 10 September 2012

Time for some intervention?

Half a second or so it lasted, an opportunity presented by one of those fleeting urban moments, an anonymous near-miss at the entrance to the tube. The staircase was quite wide, wide enough to have a metal handrail down the middle, and there were few enough people for there to be no clear need either to follow or ignore the rules: you had to choose, without choosing, which side of the rail to go down, or come up. I went left.

Just ahead of me, a male figure, bulky, youthful-looking from behind, perhaps two or three steps in front; he chooses right. As I take my first step onto the stone stairs I glance up, checking whether anyone is heading towards me and, if so, which of us will be taking what evasive action. (It’s an unsung part of London life, this quest for efficiency: it happens on the road as much as on the pavement; it is easier to pull out from a junction onto the main road in London than anywhere else in Britain, not because Londoners are friendlier, but because there is a common acknowledgement that we all want to get to wherever we’re going as quickly as possible.)

Heading up the stairs, and having chosen her left, a youthful woman, maybe mid twenties, dressed in professional clothes, returning from the middle of town and heading home. Because she’s coming up and we’re going down, and she’s leaning forward with the angle needed to get up the stairs at the requisite London speed, her cleavage is eye-catching.

(Is ‘eye-catching’ an admission that I looked? Or merely that I saw? In a field of vision that included all sorts of other things – few of which are now available to my memory – why should a cleavage have been so noteworthy?)

Young male to my right is on the same side of the hand rail as the woman; I’m on the other side. There is no one else on the staircase. She moves slightly left so as to pass him; he is closest to the handrail, and thus closest to me. I am moving slightly quicker than he is, and so for a fraction of a moment we are three in a line; him passing her coming up, me pulling alongside him going down.

There is a noise, somewhat grunted, guttural almost, could have been a word or words, but not audible or distinguishable to me. It, or they, weren’t aimed at me: it, or they, seemed to have been aimed at the woman. Involuntarily I turn to look towards the noise – the young man – and then, as I realise that the noise was not for me, I track towards where the noise appeared to have been aimed: the woman. As my head is moving, my brain is catching up: the young man has made a remark about the woman’s breasts, or her face, or has otherwise in some way indicated in a crude and unpleasant fashion that he has just had a sexual thought about the woman.

As my glance moves from the young man – he seeming to have accelerated, or me to have slowed, and now a step or so ahead of me - towards the woman – who is now behind me – she has turned towards and is scowling, in disgust or annoyance or something similar, at the young man. My movement catches her attention, however, and she sends her glance my way – and our gazes meet.

I give a physical and facial shrug that is some weird combination of shared disgust, apology on behalf of my half of the species, sympathy at what she has had to endure and hope that she’ll let it go quickly; and her eyes indicate, in a few hundredths of a second, some sort of relief, if not thanks.

And without breaking our strides or losing momentum, all three of us continue on our way – and it takes me a further few moments, by this time no longer on the staircase and heading towards the waiting train, to realise that I have just witnessed exactly the kind of behaviour about which I was railing in the previous blog post. Right there: thuggish, thoughtless arsehole participating in low-level but nevertheless debilitating sexual harassment.

The implication of my previous blog is that it is no longer enough simply for women to draw attention to this behaviour and to seek redress or remedy; it is the responsibility of men, too. Perhaps more so. It is my responsibility, whenever necessary – in debate and argument, in conversation, most especially whilst out and about and on the occasions when I am witness – to confront, to challenge, to rebuke. I should have captured the attention of the young man, and told him: hey, arsehole, you can’t do that.

I am disappointed at myself: half a second it may have lasted, but I should have had the presence of mind to intervene.

Commitment: next time I shall.

Expect a report in due course.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Strong stuff, thin ice

A colleague recently sought to summarise an epistle from the Department for Energy and Climate Change – and if, at this point, you’re already wandering off, I bid you persist, for the origin of this particular tale tells little of its middle or its end – and encountered a variety of jargon terms that, before circulating a summary, she wisely and kindly translated.

In amongst the various technical terms referring to sundry measures, technologies and institutional norms associated with the production and consumption of energy, she found the couplet “ghost load”. This, as the energy-literate among you will already know, is the small charge that permeates the electrical grid all the time.

It is also, according to a variety of ‘on line dictionaries’ [no link provided...], a slang term referring (and, at this point, I respectfully invite all readers of a sensitive disposition, or who have hitherto led sheltered lives, or whose belief systems give them reason to take offence at items of an explicit sexual nature, to turn away now) to a sexual practice that, for the purposes of the remainder of this piece I have no option but to describe, as follows:

To ‘ghost load’ is the practice whereby a male, typically engaged in heterosexual coitus from the rear, withdraws just before ejaculation and then simulates that ejaculation by spitting on his partner’s back; his partner turns around (apparently) at which point, and to his partner’s surprise, the male ejaculates into her face (a “facial”)

Assuming (for the moment) that both this practice and this definition are news to you (as they were to me) your reaction – at this very moment – may be especially telling; and may, furthermore, tell us something important about the current state of affairs in the world.

I want to suggest that your reaction will lie somewhere along a spectrum. I want to explore this spectrum, initially with respect to a classification that ranges from ‘negative’ through ‘neutral’ to ‘positive’. At this stage, I am referring not to any social sense of positive or negative – by which I mean, I do not wish to ascribe some socially-determined sense of ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ to the negative/positive distribution (I’m far too good a most-post-Modernist for that); and neither, while I’m at it, do I thereby automatically endorse a pure moral relativist position; I am, rather, in the first instance at least, keen to focus solely upon the – your – initial, unprocessed, unanalysed, dare I say instinctive reaction to your discovery of the concept of ‘ghost load’.

Let’s start at the negative end of the spectrum. It sounds disgusting? Degrading? Morally reprehensible? Unfathomable?

And in the middle? A nothing, a not-especially pleasant or unpleasant sexual activity between two consenting adults, barely worthy of attention. Or: a normal, you are already familiar with this (either through your own practise or your reading). Or: a humdrum, yet another in the litany of human sexual practices that modern society is either revealing or enabling, to which you react with nothing more exciting than indifference.

And, at the positive end: a thrill! That sounds like a fantastic idea! Or: an intimate, warming moment, in which two humans express their love for one another in their chosen fashion; or a sign that human sexual exploration continues unabated and that this is yet another wonderful expression of that endeavour.

You get the gist. I imagine that it would be possible to expound further upon each of these three, but to little further effect: you get the gist. (She got the jism, you get the gist.)

So. Where were you? Before any of your processing or rationalisation?


And after?

My view – or, perhaps more accurately, my response - was somewhere between negative and neutral. My ex-post rationalisation of this response found three acorns that led into a much, much bigger argument.

Acorn one is the notion that your own sexual proclivities and attitudes are an unavoidable amalgam of the things you’ve done, the things you heard or read about and the things you’ve fantasised about. Growing up in a time of Fiesta, the naughty bits in James Herbert novels and the publication of Alex Comfort’s ‘The Joy of Sex’ – for example – provides a very different frame of reference to – by way of counter-example – the front page of The Daily Star, on-line pron, JPG files for the mobile phone and Fifty Shades of Grey. The parameters of your expectations, the spaces within which you formulate ‘normal’, are profoundly different. The expectations you have of yourself, and others, must be different: and thus, too, your path of conduct.

Acorn two is an apocryphal tale from a friend of yore, who spent some years in a relationship with a handsome Dutch man. (The Netherlands, remember, is a country lauded in many parts of the UK for having spectacularly successful liberal laws and attitudes, and which has – amongst other things – one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world.) My friend explained that sexual practice is taught (by parents, to children) with reference to a metaphor – of cheese. When young, so it is told, it is appropriate and sensible to eat mild cheese; and to progress, as the palate develops, to stronger cheese only with age. It is, furthermore, unwise to eat too strong a cheese too early: you don’t appreciate it as much, and you remove certain pleasures from your future self.

It’s a nice metaphor, it seems to me: don’t go too far, too fast, you’ll only spoil it for yourself.

And acorn three is a joke I heard told by the lovely Irish comedian Dara O’Briain. He imagines a young couple, in a few years’ time, visiting their family doctor together. We want a baby, they say, and we’ve been having trouble conceiving: could you give us IVF or somesuch, please, they ask.

Being a thoughtful woman, the doctor thinks to check a few basics first. You’re having sex regularly? Oh yes, they say. And not having any trouble with the sex? Oh no, they say. So could you describe a little of your sex life, she asks. Of course, they say. Well, we normally start on the sofa, with some kissing and cuddling, and then we usually head upstairs to the bedroom, and take our clothes off, and then when we’re nice and ready my husband puts his willy inside me, and he moves backwards and forwards like normal, and we really enjoy it, and then just before he comes he pulls out his cock and wanks into my face.


We now live in a world where the following is the case:
  • on-line pornography means that extremely strong cheese is available in a matter of seconds to more or less everyone (and the statistics suggest that the overwhelming majority of men make, at a minimum, occasional use of on-line pornography) (and yes, that means you, and me)
  • the requirements of pornography – such as ‘the money shot’, and the idea that ‘the action’ is visible, and the idea that women are hairless – are generating notions of ‘normal’ that are totally at odds with day-to-day reality
  • sexualised images of women (and, increasingly, men) are virtually ubiquitous (take a look at the front cover of The Daily Star, available everyday alongside, and at the same eyeline, as other ‘newspapers’)
  • male attitudes towards women, rather than progressing since the emergence of feminism in the 1970s, seem to be going backwards rather than forwards. It seems that virtually all women have to deal with either the reality or the threat of leering, sexual abuse or harassment on a daily basis; and it is taking courageous stances from the likes of Hollaback and Slutwalk to bring this to ‘mainstream’ attention [though, for the life of me, how on earth a daily issue for half the population is not already a ‘mainstream’ issue is utterly befuddling) while pole-dancing and lap-dancing clubs seem to be on the verge of ‘acceptability’
  • most discussion of and/or reference to such issues takes place on the ‘women’s’ pages of newspapers and/or websites

Enough, I cry. We have two, big problems here.

Problem the first: the liberal attitude towards sex, engendered by the freedoms of the 1960s, and which was so vital and essential and emancipatory and wonderful, has reached a point – by no means uncommon in human affairs – where the freedoms are both being abused (not least, of course, by the big corporates – the sex industry in the US is second in turnover only to the aerospace industry) and are in turn abusing. We are being debased. We are lessening ourselves. We are actually depleting our ability to enjoy ourselves through gluttony: not only are we consumers and voyeurs of the strongest cheese our imaginations can muster; we are consuming it in ever vaster quantities. Commensurate with the excesses of capitalism more generally, we find ourselves obese with fuck. Our self-control mechanisms – see Avner Offer – are out of kilter with our environments.

(This is not for one moment to suggest that in any individual case there is not a fully loving, wonderful, exploratory sex underway: who am I to judge the sexual preferences of another? I don’t even understand my own! No: I mean – in much the same way I wish to see Eton and other bastions of privilege abolished, yet I do not wish to see existing Etonians eliminated – that I condemn the system, not the individuals within it.)

Problem the second: men need to get on the case. We need to learn to look at this porn and remember: virtually everyone we see is being exploited, virtually everyone we see is funding a drug habit. We need to hear an anecdote from a friend and condemn rather than endorse his attendance at lap dancing clubs and his reliance on prostitutes. We need to be truly conscious of how we speak to our sisters, and to do our utmost to ensure that we bring normal respect to that discourse, not derogatory innuendo; and we need to call our brothers to account for their leering remarks and their wolf whistles and their sniggers. It’s not funny. It’s not clever.

And we need to put proper effort into building human relationships with our fellow humans, even those we(’d like to) have sex with.

This is a demand side issue, and that’s why it’s so important to the project of Enough. Enough, in the end, is a judgement we make to limit our consumption, our behaviour. The supply side can never do this for us. The supply side is dumb: it supplies the stuff that we ‘want’ within the strictures (legal, regulatory or otherwise) that civil (and, indeed, uncivil) society places upon it. If we keep on ‘wanting’ this stuff – if we keep on behaving this way – either someone will supply it, or we’ll come to feel it’s ‘normal’.

Yet our wants, desperately individual though they feel, are horridly shaped by our environment; and so much of that environment – that ‘fitness landscape’ – is shaped by, and in the interests of, the big beasts. Someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money out of the idea of the ‘ghost load’; and I’m pretty sure that an awful lot of young women are feeling pretty desperate and humiliated, and a not dissimilar number of young men are feeling a deep-down sense of shame and ill-ease, as they try to live up to the impossible demands of a system that is abusing the freedoms we’ve won.

Sex is a basic appetite, and has the potential to be a wonderful, uplifting and fulfilling part not just of everyday life but of a sustainable world. We need to reclaim it.

Come in her face if you want to – but, second, make sure you really, really want to; and, first – and it’s the leading first – make sure she really wants you to.




Friday, 6 July 2012

What do I want when I'm old?

So, I’ve been thinking about pensions.

Not my own, especially, but the generic problem of pensions, and what they are and how they work and what we might do about them.
 And I’ve been thinking about two things in particular:

firstly, that the basic thinking underpinning a pension is that at some point in the future I shall want a supply of money to buy the things I shall at that future point want, and so I need to save some money in a suitable vehicle so that the money is available when I want it.

second, that all the money that gets saved in pursuit of said ends, in the form of ‘pension funds’, constitutes a very signficant fraction of the money that these City boys and girls get to play with and from which they skim their obscene salaries and bonuses. (“Skim” is an interesting euphemism: points to the fact that the faster they can make it spin about, the more froth there is from which they can purloin their ‘earnings’.)

Which leads to a counter-thought:

Is there a way I could de-monetise this? I could reduce my risk (have you any idea how much your pension will be worth? Have you any idea how much a fucking annuity will cost you?) and I could reduce the amount of money available for these criminals to play with.

How about:

I want to invest in some sort of community bond, a community owned, non-tradeable asset, which guarantees me not a supply of money but of something else I’m pretty sure I’ll need: care. I want to buy a care bond. I want to pay xxx pounds per year, cash which will be available to my/a community now, in return for the promise (and what is ‘money’, if not a promise?) that I shall receive yyy hours of care, per year, in perpetuity, once I pass a certain age.

Pros and cons?