Sunday 25 January 2009

Spending our way out of trouble

Heavy borrowing to allow us to 'spend our way out of trouble' has been widely slammed, click here, here and here for example. And I agree it is short-sighted, short term and quite possibly panicked thinking onthe part of the government to cut taxes and borrow more to encourage the public to go on doing the very thing that got us into a mess inthe first place.

If we do not spend money we cause the closure of businesses and job losses, which triggers unemployment and all the anxieties that go with it. In the long run therefore we do need to spend our way out of trouble, it is just what we spend it on that we should be thinking about. If I'm an educator and you spend money to learn something from me, I will (assuming other people want my services too) have an income which I can spend on my rent, my food, my family and my own hobbies. I would, for example, like to spend some money French lessons. For a sustainable economy to exist and thrive we will need people to spend money on each other's ecologically sustainable goods and services. An economic downturn is useful in that it puts outdated and inefficient companies out of business, do we really need Woolworths? When the penny pinches people stop spending money on things they don't really need, people can live without plastic toys (for children and adults), penny sweets, chart CDs and bargain bin DVDs.

Talk of spending our way out of trouble is fine when we are sensible about what we spend our money (and time) on. NEF have a report titled 'Five ways to wellbeing'. Can we build an economy that is not too environmentally demanding and wasteful from these five ways to wellbeing? Here they are:

'Connect... with the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.'

'Be active.... Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance.'

'Take notice... Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual...savour the moment.'

'Keep Learning... Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course.'

'Give... Do something nice for a friend or stranger. Thanks someone. Smile. Volunteer your time.''
My answer: With a bit of planning - Yes. But, we do need to be wary that companies have been selling people highly energy dependent, highly wasteful goods and services that are either paraphernalia for these activities or pseudo-satisfiers. Mobile phones have constantly been sold as ways to connect with friends and family, when in reality they provide a weak and expensive substitute and/or excuse for real connection and contact.

Providing opportunities and genuine, authentic ways for people to experience these five ways to wellbeing while also experiencing them oneself would be (and for many already is) a full time occupation. We have machines now to meet our basic material needs very easily, the robotic element of a utopian dream is in place, we do not need to employ millions of people in food production, manufacturing and construction, we need to employ people as facilitators and generators of wellbeing. If we are to spend our way out of trouble perhaps we should be spending it on the things that genuinely bring us emotional and physical wellbeing, using our talents to help others and ourselves to make a living.

Monday 19 January 2009

Documentary making

I've been interviewed today by these people: CSL stands for the Centre for Sustainability Leadership and is an NGO based in Melbourne, Australia. They are attempting to train young people to be sustainability leaders and have come over to interview 30 British sustainability leaders for a documentary film to be used to train 15-25 year olds in Australia.

They contacted me with the aim of making a short segment about a young(ish) person who is trying to live sustainably in a big city, hopefully I fit the bill! After some brainstorming and short introductory clips at The School of Life we headed off to the Romanian orphans charity shop on Lamb's Conduit street to film a clip on buying things second hand. Of the clothes I buy, I'd guess around 50% come from charity shops, the rest are mainly hand me downs from my Dad's 80s wardrobe and I get the odd item brand new when I can't find a second hand alternative. In charity shops I mostly buy books and the odd film. I love the sense of not knowing what you will find in a charity - there is gold amoungst the clutter! After the charity shop I stood outside French Connection in Russell Square where I stated that 'Places like this are not really part of my life, I do not really feel connected to them at all'. I think I also said something about the wastefulness associated with this sort of high street shopping and how I can do without the queues and high prices!

After the talks about shopping we jumped on a packed 55 bus back to my flat in Hackney Road. On the bus I was filmed for a short segment on how I travel in an everyday sense and my thoughts on travel in a holiday sense. The main point I wanted to make about travel is that we need to consider not only where and how we travel, but also why. The more thought we put into the why, the more likely we are to have a really positive and fulfilling time. When planning it is also important to ask ourselves questions like: if I want to spend some time with my friends, do we all really need to get on a cheap flight to Eastern Europe or whatever, or could we have just as good a time in the UK or the near continent in a place we can get to overland? Travel is usually such a rewarding thing to do and it is the hardest thing to discourage people from doing, for the sake of the environment. When we feel the urge to travel it is possible however to take our sustainability principles with us and enjoy the journey as much as the destination - look up slow travel for more on this.

On arriving in lovely Bethnal Green I gave the CSL guys a tour of the flat, pointing out things like the Veg Box, our Ecotricity, the recycling box, our reclaimed furniture and so on. We then settled down for a more in depth interview during which I talked about the problems of a consumer society, life without a TV, the joy of cooking meals from scratch with Emma, plural rationalities, the knowledge-action gap and so on. Before they left I also sung a couple of songs, which may or may not be used, but hopefully I'll get a copy of them to put on YouTube at some point!

All that for what is likely to be a 5 minute section of their film, still it was a great experience and I really hope it turns out well and is useful! In terms of being a sustainability leader, I hope most of all to set a good example, if we don't any messages we send out lose all of their credibility!

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Utopian Dreams

Happy New Year. I’ve been reading a book by Tobias Jones called Utopian Dreams. It is about the authors’ experiences of living in various alternative communities in both England and Italy (he can speak English and Italian). I am about half way through at the moment and because I keep stumbling upon excellent bits I have decided not to wait until I finish it to write about it here.

Here is a quote that resonated with me. He is living in an Italian community called Nomadelfia. At Nomadelfia an editor called Domenico records programmes off Italian TV, removes adverts and any scenes of violence or explicit sexual conduct then airs them for the rest of the community to watch, after the news, in the evening. Jones is intrigued by the impact made by removing the adverts, he writes this:

"Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been thinking about how calm the life is and now, watching Domenico remove all the advertising, I’m beginning to understand why; it’s a kind of relaxation which derives from wanting nothing; a kind of apatheia, the setting aside of all desires. " (p. 73)

Later on Jones reflects on the way in which advertising manufacturers desire, he argues that in response to advertising:

"We become like Pac-men, those computerised pie-charts moving forward, munching everything that is put in our paths. Satisfaction leaves as quickly as it came but we have to keep ingesting, advancing but never becoming satisfied. Only now do I realise that all advertising is underpinned by melancholy. It nurtures unhappiness and envy, it deliberately creates a sense of personal inadequacy so that it can sell its cure." (p. 73-74)

Jones does not stop there he argues that:

"Because we know purchases will be unsatisfactory, we insist on pre-empting disappointment by buying objects which offer immediate gratification and which dissolve almost instantly….in the consumer world we remedy a problem simply by insisting on more of the same medicine."

….and the Landfill sites grow.