Sustainable living – is its nemesis corporate or individual guilt?

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Human beings are great at guilt, we have created religions to highlight our guilt. The 21st Century guilt is climate change. How responsible am I personally? Do I live in a way that is sustainable? This individual guilt can be debilitating. But is it all me?

I live in a consumer society. I operate within a capitalist economy where my skills and experience is bought and money is given to me. I cannot live on this money, so I go into the consumerist society and buy goods and services that I need. How are these goods and services provided to me? It is a corporate entity that provides the goods and services. How sustainable is the process of creating goods and services for the consumer? One answer comes from the story of stuff. It examines how the consumerist society has been built. It shows how energy and resources are wasted at every stage of the process. Moreover, the majority of the goods and services spend a small amount of time in your home before going out the door as rubbish. So it is not always the individual that should feel guilty.

Do corporates feel guilt?

Yes, sometimes, for example a UK energy company in 2013 was pressurised by a pressure group (ShareAction) to introduce the living wage. This could be seen as acting as a responsible corporate. However, the next day it was found that the energy company had hiked up its prices for consumers. This is what made the news story and politicians got on the band wagon to chastise the energy companies. The UK labour party used it to show the cost of living crisis. However, this did not get to the heart of the matter. The issue with the energy market is to do with the lack of separation between retail and wholesale. There could be issues of a cartel. WAIT, issue of retail and wholesale does this not sound like the issue behind the banking crisis? Does this mean the capitalist economy does not operate fairly? On radio 4’s today programme on 22nd January 2014 they had a representative from Npower. He stated that we needed to recognise that there is energy risk, so what do we need to do about it?

My concern is that corporates need to change and NOW. Organisations like Forum for the Future are working with corporates to help them change. But still more needs to be done. There is a Swedish research organisation (Stockholm Resilience Centre) that has recognised that there are nine limiting factors on the world. We have already breached three of them. This is the crisis. It has been put forward there is a new paradigm. My concern is the consumerist society lives well, people buy stuff for instant gratification without thinking of the consequences. Corporates continue to produce stuff in our capitalist economy. To what end? To generate more profit and larger GDP to satisfy the human need to accumulate more. This is done through spending money on marketing AND NOT on design to ensure products and services fit in with the product life cycle. Why?

On an individual level, I am looking in to creating a zero waste home. Where I think about what I bring in to the house. I re-think how I buy food so that it is not over packaged. I look at how I clean my house so I do not use too many chemicals. I think about how I travel and start with walking and cycling, then public transport, and finally fossil fuel travel – car and plane. I am working on increasing the amount of rubbish that is rottable. I put vegetable waste in to a wormery. At the moment, I am thinking about water usage as this is a limiting factor. I am also putting pressure on corporates where I can to remind them of their need to think about design rather than marketing.

What are you doing for your children, grand-children and future generations? What are you doing to keep this blue planet, blue?

Climate change: greenhouse v. blanket?

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A new theory has emerged. It is in climate systems. This area of science analyses the interaction between natural resources such as mountains, oceans, ice sheets, clouds and man-made resources such as factories, agriculture, and roads. The new theory is that the earth is covered by a blanket of gases. These gases keep the climate within certain set of parameters. These parameters allow earth to continue operating as an ecosystem. However, why the change? Previously, the greenhouse effect was used in a similar way to understand changes in our climate. To understand the differences, I need to provide some of the science.

Earth has a symbiotic relationship with the sun. It is our energy source and it provides heat and light waves. There are two theories about the system of how climate is maintained on earth. Climate is the trends of average weather in an area. The two theories are greenhouse effect and the blanket gases. These gases interact with the five spaces on earth – hydrosphere (e.g. oceans), biosphere (e.g. forests), atmosphere (space between planet and the ozone in the stratosphere), cyrosphere (e.g. glaciers), lithosphere (earth’s crust). For example the way the gases interact is through the water cycle, where there is evaporation from oceans, transpiration from plants, cloud formation, precipitation (rain etc.) and the water table. These systems interact with the spaces to provide our climate.

Scientist agree heat waves enter the earth’s atmosphere and are immediately effected by gases. However, there is disagreement about what happens to these gases once they enter the earth’s atmosphere. The old theory of the greenhouse effect put forward that the heat entered the earth’s atmosphere and got trapped. This was the explanation for global warming. A new theory disagreed with this theory, instead the analogy used was a blanket.

In the blanket theory, gases (e.g. water vapour or ozone) reflect the heat waves directly back out of the earth’s atmosphere. Other heat waves are able to get through to the earth’s surface. The effect of the heat waves on the earth is dependent on where the waves hit the earth. The two major areas are the oceans or ice.  If heat waves hit our oceans then the heat is absorbed, whereas if heat waves hit ice the heat wave is reflected (albedo effect). This is an example of one of the feedback loops within the climate system. It is a highly complex system with numerous components that interact in a variety of ways.

The planet’s climate is maintained by gases (water vapour, methane and ozone and nitrous oxide). The analogy used is a blanket around the earth. For example, water vapour, that we see as clouds, reflects heat. The blanket is  the gases that regulate the temperature to 15 degrees. The regulation takes place by how sunlight is reflected. Scientist measure the reflection of sunlight by albedo. If there is 30% reflection then there is 0.3 albedo. Different parts of the earth’s surface have different albedo. Ice reflects a lot of heat and has a high albedo, whereas water has a low albedo, as it absorbs a lot of heat. The hydrological cycle is viewed as playing an important role in moving heat around the Earth.

The earth reflects 30% of sunlight. Therefore it has an albedo of 0.3. If the earth only absorbed 70% of sunlight then the temperature would be -18 degrees Celsius. However, the blanket gases mean it is 15 degrees. How far can we go with this analogy?

In summary, there are four key scientific principles – albedo effect, climate systems, feedback loops, new theory of the blanket effect. I am able to bring you this blog thanks to Professor Lenton, the University of Exeter and Future Learn who have put on a free course called Climate change: challenges and solutions. If you are interested then I suggest taking a look.

Climate is what you affect, weather is what gets you!’

Corporate greed: Lessons from Victorian industrialist and philanthropist.

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In today’s world, corporates appear to be omnipotent. They control supply chains; large numbers of employees; prices of products and services? More worryingly, there does not seem to be a check on their power. I have two major questions. Where does their power come from? And why do they have power?

To list some reasons for their power that are obvious to me:
• Size – in terms of number of employees, number of offices across different geo-political countries
• Culture – there is corporatism where people on the inside protect each other
• Like minded individuals – people who go in to corporate life want to create wealth and wealth creation is recompensed with bonuses and shares.

The millions of people across the world are stuck in this bubble of wanting to create more wealth being paid more money and given shares that continue to give you money. Even in retirement, you depend on the share price to keep your standard of living comparable to when you were working. Is this right?

During Victorian England, there were many men (let me know if there were any women) who built factories and businesses on the enslaved labour of other men. For example mining, industrialists choose to exploit men and did not value human life. Why? Human life was not valued, as industrialists valued ‘money’ (a human construct) more than human life? The answers to these questions scare me.

There are some industrialists that were also philanthropist. One that stands out for me is Cadbury’s. They created homes, communities, safe working environments as part of setting up their chocolate factories. On radio 4, there was a radio programme with the industrialist and factory worker at the Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham. There was a friendship between these two individuals, which was based on respect. It does not appear that either was being exploited. Why was there this difference in industrialists?

What is the 21st Century equivalent? For me, it is Triodos Bank. Employers are called co-workers and people enjoy their work. Triodos bank has an ethos to take sustainability in to account when they choose where they invest. In addition they engage with other banks and challenge them to be more responsible. They do this through being part of a group – the global alliance of banking on values http://www.gabv.org/ . They inform savers and investors on how their money is spent and invested. They take criticism through feedback, and at AGMs. How can other corporates learn from them? I suggest by looking at their own supply chain and reviewing the sustainability argument. I think the most important point is accepting that you can be wrong.

More worryingly, where does corporates power come from? Now we need to take responsibility, as it comes from us. It is our consuming, investing and saving. If you do any of these activities and I am sure you do then you need to be more thoughtful. I do my best.

From a consumer perspective, I list things I need to purchase and I think about if I really need it. If I do and it is a big purchase, then I do research and think about the different impacts of buying that product. By not doing impulse purchasing, you are limiting your consumption. In addition, you can ask the retailer about their supply chains.

On saving, you have spare cash then I would suggest looking in to banks like Triodos and Charity Bank or getting involved in your local credit union. Your money does make a difference. It can be used for social good. This is a good website to help your thinking http://www.yourethicalmoney.org/

On investing, you probably don’t think you are an investor. BUT most people are through their pension funds. You can influence corporates through your pension fund. For more information on this try share action http://www.shareaction.org/ .

So from my perspective, we have to change. Look at this film on the story of stuff http://storyofstuff.org/movies/ . How are you contributing to this change?
Do share if you have other ways of dealing with this issue of greed?

Happiness – Why is it a goal?

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Did a stone-age person want to achieve happiness? I do NOT think so. Instead, they struggled to find food, water, and shelter. This meant that the majority of their brain power was taken up with this struggle. Since the stone-age person, the progression of the human being has allowed people to have more leisure time. This started to happen in the 18th and 19th Century for a select few, who subordinated or enslaved other humans to allow them leisure time. What leisure pursuits were chosen? Music, art, learning other languages, needlework, hunting are amongst some undertaken by the higher echelons of society. Did they ask themselves if they were happy? Today happiness appears to be goal and if you are not happy then you have failed. Why?

Dawkins puts forward the idea that the brain needs to develop for the 21st Century. He espouses the brain remains in the stone-age and by implication is unfit for purpose. What does he mean? What areas of the brain need to improve? Is it our goal setting? Is the goal of happiness wrong? Are we expecting too much?

It appears to me that most pursuits of the 21st Century are distraction. To stop us dwelling on real issues of a sadness, happiness and ill-health, we go for the lowest common dominator to take our mind of our troubles. Television and in particular certain types of reality TV, where the individual is sent up in to the stratosphere of fame for skills such as discussing their sex life openly (big brother winner). This is not done in a grown up way to encourage improved sexual relations of consenting adults, instead it appears to be for titillation. Is this the stone-age brain? A song that sums up this for me is by Sinead O’Connor called VIP. This is NOT distraction, this song is thought provoking and helps me to dissect the modern world.

Other distractions are food, alcohol, drugs (legal and illegal). These distractions are not new. The Chinese have used opium for centuries. In stories, such as Moll Flanders, people spent most of their time at a certain level of inebriation. Was their goal happiness? Was this their way of achieving it? Today there are so many rules and regulations of how we should lead our lives. Don’t smoke, drink alcohol in moderation, do not take illegal drugs, are these rules helping us? Is it the state’s way of controlling the amount of distractions?

There are certain distractions that are accepted by society. News and gossip, what are other people’s miseries? Legal drugs prescribed by psychiatrist to control the behaviour of people who are seen as mentally unwell. Even more prevalent is the use of anti-depressants by General Practitioners. Why are these accepted by society and not others? In the UK one in six people are on anti-depressants (source http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23553897), why? Is it a way to distract ourselves? Is it because we have unrealistic goals of happiness?

In January, a lot of people talk about being depressed, in a bad mood or not able to cope. Why? Is it the weather, the level of darkness, struggling relationships? How would the stone-age person respond? I think their tummy would rumble, and they would go and find food. Once they were sated, they would probably sleep.

Let the 21st Century person sleep well, are you?

Rubbish – where are resources going?

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Christmas is finished for another year. Did you get the presents you wanted or needed? What happened to the boxes, wrapping paper, unwanted presents, and surplus food? Did it get thrown in the bin, re-used or recycled? I asked these questions, because my eyes were opened by this film – Wasteland. http://wastelandmovie.com/

It made me think. These were the questions I posed myself. What is work? Is art a sustainable industry?

This art work turns on its head the traditional view of an artist producing a piece of art for others. Instead it is a collaboration with recycling workers, an artist who uses photography and an art dealer. This to me truly illustrates the way industries should work in a collaborative manner.

In these times, each industry has to review its supply chains and ensure it is being fair and ethical. I believe Vik Muniz and the recycling workers show how it can been done in the art industry and the rubbish industry. It shone a light on something that was done in the shadows. People, like the woman in the picture opposite, hid away and were ashamed of talking about their work. But the film seemed to find a way to help these workers overcome their shame and be proud of being a catadore. One woman states at the end she is happy in her work and her life. Is this not what we all want?

Vik Muniz took a huge step for his industry by including the recycling workers in his production of the art. In addition, they were involved in the sale of the art in a London auction house. The money made from the picture was given to the association for recycling workers. The money helped to provide a community library, and other needs of the workers. In addition, it challenges the viewer of the art. Is the picture beautiful? I think Vik Muniz can teach other areas of industry, as he is taking a sustainable approach to art.

What about another industry – holidays? This has changed at the start of the 21st Century, with a wide range of choice. The spectrum goes from camping to boutique hotels who want to provide an individual service. What about the all-inclusive high rise hotels that occupy the majority of the world’s stunning natural beaches. Is this a sustainable model for the 21st Century?

From the outside, the model appears to operate on cheap flights, low cost labour, low cost food and low cost alcohol. It is then package and sold to holiday makers, as pay for everything up front ensuring you only spend the money that has been saved. Is this true? Once you arrive in a high-rise hotel you are a captivated consumer. This allows the hotel to profit maximised through including and excluding items that are available within this confined market. For example, in one hotel you could buy a short period of time in a massage chair for a few euros or get a personal masseuse for 45 euros for half an hour. The consumer gets choice at a cost. Does the consumer think about what is included in that cost?

Do you think about the carbon footprint of your holiday before purchasing? Is it a deciding factor? I don’t think so. We are still price sensitive and if we can get something cheaper then we normally go for it. The impact on the environment is not a factor. What will be the tipping point for this industry in terms of the sustainability argument? How will the holiday industry continue to sell us the dream of happiness?

My challenge to us all for 2014 is to have more laughter than tears in our home. If you are lucky enough to have a paid job then hopefully you are paid fairly. If you are responsible for purchasing goods and services are you paying a fair price? In the words of Porritt, we need ‘to ensure that ‘optimality’ is redefined in order to encompass those fundamental social and environmental concerns.’ This is taken from his chapter on wants and needs, in the book – Capitalism, as if the world matters.