20/05/2013 § 5 Comments
My recent post about my mother made me reflect further on the duality of “I” and “we”. If, like my mother, we’re all both individuals and part of a wider whole, then our thinking, our society, and institutions and our day-to-day actions need to acknowledge that duality. It seems to me that the politics of the last 40 years or so (and no doubt of a lot longer – but history isn’t my strong point!) have been characterised by a battle between those who want to see us simply as individual particles, unconnected with those around us, and those who see us as mere parts of a whole without individual identity of any significance. Thatcherism and Reaganism emphasised our particle-like qualities (the “I”) and communism our wave-like qualities (the “We”). Neither is right or wrong, and seeing this as a choice we have to make is not serving either the I or the We.
If we acknowledge that there is a duality, and a tension between our needs as individuals and the needs of the whole, we can ask that our institutions and our representatives in these institutions creatively manage the balance so that both our qualities are acknowledged. If, as happened under communism, the state (the big “we”) owns all property then individuals stop caring about property. I saw this when I lived in Saint Petersburg, where after 80 years of communism the beautiful buildings were steadily deteriorating due to lack of maintenance. When privatisation came, everyone suddenly had an incentive to look after their property and, externally at least, the city was transformed. By contrast if we over-emphasise the I, then we do what Margaret Thatcher did and sell-off state-owned houses with the inevitable consequence that some individuals get rich out of it and others less fortunate have nowhere to live.
Wouldn’t it be good if, rather than left-wing and right wing politicians arguing over whether the I or the We are more important, we could all be a bit more creative and explore solutions that balance and harmonise. There are some good examples in a recent book, the Resilience Imperative, by Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty. They highlight the community land trust model in United States, an example of how land ownership can be solved (interestingly, their relevant chapter is entitled “Uniting the I and the We” – great minds think alike!). In this model there is a separation of the two cost elements of real property: the market price of the land and the price of the house itself. The land is removed from the market and placed in a trust, so that escalating land values do not make the price of a house (which is much less significant than the price of the land) unaffordable to those of low and moderate income. This concept has its roots in the successful village land trust movement in India, which was inspired by Gandhi. Its roots go back further to Ruskin, who may have been inspired by practices of traditional communities where land was held collectively but individuals could eat what they grew. There are other examples given in the book including mutual home ownership housing in the UK and tenant owned co-operatives in Sweden.
These examples are a reminder of our human ingenuity, which we will need to manage this apparently irresolvable tension between “I” and “we”. I have no doubt other effective solutions will emerge as global consciousness increasingly recognises our dual nature.
Our aim, it seems to me, is maximum freedom (allowing individuals to shine) and maximum cohesion (being the best we can be collectively). A sound maxim for the 21st Century.
15/05/2013 § 4 Comments
I had a really good chat with my mum the other day when she and my father came to visit. It was probably the most mature conversation we’ve had, ever. We talked quite easily and naturally about things from the past we’ve never been able to really talk about before. It was a good feeling.
It was no coincidence my father wasn’t around at the time. He was busy playing with Lucas. Not that this says anything against my father, it’s just that my mother is a different person when he is around. I can have a different kind of conversation with my mother if my father isn’t there. Likewise, she has different conversations with my father when I or my brothers are with them – she says that they don’t argue when we are not around, for example.
My mother, then, is not just a being, a collection of emotions, a body, thoughts, a soul. She is also a set of relationships. It is not possible for me or anyone else to encompass all of who she is, because she is changing all the time, in constant flux as she moves in and out of relationship. She’s one person with me, one person with my father, one person with my brothers, with her friends and so on.
That duality is mysterious. It is mysterious because she is not just a set of relationships, but also this physical, emotional, spiritual thing. To start to make sense of her, I need to see her as both, not just one. In that sense, she is like light. One of the mysteries that was uncovered in the 20th century was that light has both a wave form and a particle form. In some experiments light exhibits the properties of a wave and in others it exhibits the properties of a set of particles. And it is not accurate to say that light has simply the form of a wave, or simply the form of particles. It is both these forms, simultaneously. You will get different responses depending on how you measure it. Likewise, my mother, you, me and all human beings are both individuals and parties to a set of relationships.
I suppose the significant thing that comes out of this for me is that it reminds me how complex and mysterious we are. I think I know my mother but all I really know is what I have experienced in a series of encounters with her, separated in time. She is in constant change, even at the age of 79. She is, like all of us, both order and chaos, interacting constantly. This means that how I choose to engage with her, what spectacles I am wearing when I encounter her, will affect how I see her – will affect who she is, in my eyes.
It also makes me realise that I should be paying more attention to the relationships that I’m in, if I want to influence my direction in life. To live more consciously I need to pay attention not just to my own practices and thoughts, my own choices and habits, but also to the nature of the relationships I am in and who I am in those relationships. Which ones make me feel more whole and which ones weigh me down or make me want to hide my light? How am I in relationship to my son? Do I change as he changes? Do I allow him to change sufficiently while I model stability for him in his rapidly evolving life?
I also start wondering what other conversations I might have – with my father, my brothers, my wife – in the right context. The sort of conversations rich with meaning that we can spend lifetimes yearning for and yet avoiding.
What relationships nurture you? How conscious are you of the impact that relationships have on you? What meaningful conversations could you have to enrich your life and your relationships? Think about it.
15/04/2013 § 2 Comments
Why do people keep repeating that the core purpose of business is to make money? Sue George did it today in the Guardian. bit.ly/16YPL She said: “...the core purpose of any business is to make money – without profit there can be no corporate social responsibility (CSR)…“. This is a bit like saying that the core purpose of a human being is to eat, because without food people can’t be nice to others.
People are conflating the content of business (exchange, innovation, creativity) with the vehicle (the organisational form). Since the typical legal form for a business is a limited company, and since the ultimate power in a company is in the hands of the shareholders (they appoint and can dismiss the board) people assume that (a) the purpose of a limited company is to serve shareholders and therefore (b) the purpose of business is to make profits to give to shareholders.
Most people creating new businesses are not, it seems to me, driven by the core purpose of making money. They have a passion to heal the sick so they start a pharmaceutical company. They are passionate about engineering so they start a car company. And so on. But they have to choose a legal form and they are advised to use a limited company because this is how you raise money. And sooner or later the logic of the structure prevails and rather than following their original passion they start serving investors’ passion to maximise their returns. Either that, or the entrepreneur is replaced because he or she is not prioritising investors’ interests sufficiently.
We seem to have forgotten that business, or enterprise, has been around a lot longer than the limited company, which has only existed in its current form since 1855. We forget the wisdom of Shakespeare, who revealed the ultimate sadness and alienation of those like Shylock in the Merchant of Venice who seek happiness through pursuit of wealth. We forget the wisdom of Kahlil Gibran “It is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied. Yet unless the exchange be in love and kindly justice, it will but lead some to greed and others to hunger.”
Doesn’t that summarise our age rather nicely – some are lead to greed and others to hunger (see the front page of today’s Financial Times, “Commodity traders reap $250bn harvest“, if you want to see evidence of the extremes of greed in today’s world). What price kindly justice in today’s businesses?
So long as we accept that the purpose of business is to make money we can justify all sorts of unhealthy, unjust, unsustainable and simply greedy behaviour in pursuit of that purpose. Acceptance of this falsehood lies at the heart of the current unsustainable behaviour patterns of most businesses: pushing to persuade people to buy and discard goods they don’t need; to eat food when they are already full and overweight; to borrow more money than they can afford.
What do I think is the purpose of business? Maybe there is no one core purpose for business, just as there is no one core purpose for human beings. I have no doubt there are some businesses that have been set up with the core aim of making profit. But inevitably in time these businesses will prove hollow and unsatisfying – for their staff, their customers and even ultimately their owners. Those that survive and thrive will have tapped into something deeper. They will connect with true wealth – truth, integrity, compassion, love.
I believe the days when people can casually say that the purpose of business is to make money are numbered. Let us all hope so.
11/04/2013 § 3 Comments
I got hungry yesterday evening and went downstairs to the cupboard to see what I could snack on. I ended up chomping my way through a bag of “giant pretzels” from Waitrose. It was a disappointingly empty experience – the pretzels had little flavour. It seemed to me that they represented much of our modern life – they were all pretty packaging and very little substance.
Supermarkets are under considerable pressure from government and lobby groups to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content of their food, which tends to be much higher than in simple food from health food shops. In modern lives where we are encouraged not to seek meaning or anything of real substance but rather growth and the accumulation of wealth, many of us are left dissatisfied. So we seek satisfaction (some of us anyway) in sugary, salty and fatty foods. The supermarkets have pandered to this, with predictable results in the surge in obesity and diabetes.
The supermarkets now find themselves in a real bind. They want to continue selling more and more stuff (this too is encouraged by the government – but by a different department from the one that worries about the impact of food on health). but they also are under pressure to do their bit in addressing this health crisis. So we end up with products which are beautifully packaged and alluringly described and yet can only disappoint.
Our politicians in many ways share this “thinness”. They spend so much energy on packaging themselves beautifully that they end up being completely bland and tasting of nothing. They satisfy for a very short time only. I presume that is why there has been such a fuss made of Margaret Thatcher in the last couple of days. Love or hate her, no one could accuse her of being thin, of lacking substance. It is a great shame that our political system allowed her to take too much control, particularly in the latter years, leading to the inevitable hubris and a lack of regard for the wider impact of her actions. It is becoming more apparent that our political system needs redesigning, with more checks and balances and more opportunities for individuals to be heard. It is not that we need less “characters” – we need a system that encourages strong characters to emerge while also preventing any one individual or interest group to dominate.
What is my response to this thinness (I always like to bring this blog back to the personal). Funnily enough, I am pretty thin myself From a food point of view I will continue to concentrate on proper food, which to my mind means organic (where possible) whole foods – brown rice and pulses and fresh vegetables. It is also to try to focus on and connect with the real essence of life, to look behind the marketing puff and the cheap thrills of TV, headline news and other forms of titillation. It is to connect with life in all its richness and beauty at a deep level.
There is still a part of me which craves the superficial, salty quick fix of a bag of pretzels. In the long term, however, I know it’s only a diet of brown rice and truth that will sustain me.
26/03/2013 § 13 Comments
I am amused at the overreaction of the TED organisers to the two excellent speeches by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake at TEDx Whitechapel in January (an event I attended and spoke at). I thought both speakers were excellent – passionate but articulate and credible.
Because effectively these two speakers are squarely challenging conventional scientific thinking, when the talks went on-line some people objected to the talks being associated with TED. So what did the TED organisers do? Asked some anonymous scientific experts to look at the talks. See here http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/19/the-debate-about-graham-hancocks-talk
What a brilliant idea – ask some scientists what they think about two speeches that are, in effect, accusing most scientists of being partially sighted. The scientists could only respond in one way – “this is not science” they claimed. So TED got in a tizzy and insisted the talks be put in a quiet corner of their site, with lots of health warnings from scientists, proper ones of course!
What did the TED people expect the scientists to say? It is a bit like expecting a group of doctors to opine objectively on the validity of homeopathy, or Chinese medicine. It is so different from the way they were taught and how they practice that most doctors, literally, cannot see it. And many of them react defensively, as if they are being attacked.
To take another metaphor, what would have happened if, before the banking crisis of 2008, you had assembled a group of bankers to decide upon the validity of Ann Pettiphor’s views (she was saying that the banks were taking us towards a financial collapse). Would they really have been objective? Or would they have found every way they could, fair or foul, to shut her up?
We are facing a scientific crisis/opportunity. And the good news is that, as this blogger pointed out, whereas a few years ago the scientists would have won hands down, now there are enough articulate supporters of the new science that the old guard can no longer be assured of having their own way. Don’t we live in interesting times!
21/03/2013 § 1 Comment
I wrote this a couple of years ago but I still like it:
It is bankers’ bonus season again in the UK. £7bn is expected to be paid out to our senior bankers – not bad at all, at a time when the economy is suffering and businesses and government departments across the land are cutting costs and jobs.
The funny thing is that the bankers genuinely seem to believe they have earned these ridiculous amounts. According to them, their contribution to society is so valuable that it justifies them being paid twice as much in a year as a teacher, an intensive care nurse or a soldier fighting in Afghanistan will earn in a lifetime. Who are they trying to kid?
But I am not here to bash bankers, fun though it may be. I am really only interested in underlying patterns. I want to know what is going on in our society that allows such disparities of wealth to arise. And I think I have an answer.
It seems to me that the bankers’ bonuses are a classic symptom of a society plagued by the “paradox of richness”. The paradox of richness, as explained to me by a botanist friend, is a counter-intuitive phenomenon in nature, where if you increase the fertility of soil, you tend to reduce the biodiversity. So for example among the most beautiful and species-rich grasslands in the UK are chalk downlands, which can have 40 or more different species in one square metre. Yet chalk downlands have very poor soil – just a very thin layer of topsoil and below that chalk, which contains little that plants can feed on. If you increase the fertility by applying fertilisers you will end up with lots of lush growth but a vastly reduced species variety – perhaps 10 species per square metre. It seems that when the soil is poor, there is a chance for every plant species to find its niche and show its beauty. But when the soil is rich, a small group of species become very strong and crowd out the others.
Now apply this to our society. In the last 40 years or so there has been an explosion in the availability of money. There is simply much more money around than there ever used to be (this phenomenon is due to a number of technical reasons I won’t go into here but that James Robertson explains brilliantly – see his website http://www.jamesrobertson.com). The consequence of this application of excessive fertiliser, in the form of money, to our society is that a few species (bankers, lawyers, accountants, Tesco) have tended to thrive, and become fat, metaphorically at least, while other species (teachers, public servants, nurses, small shopkeepers small farmers), that are not designed by nature to flourish in such rich soil, become marginalized or wither away.
Superficially the field that has been fertilised looks healthy and attractive – it is deep green and lush. But a closer look reveals the truth – there are far less flowers, far less insects, far less birds. What’s more, the wide diversity of species in the poor soil ensures that, whatever the weather conditions in a year, enough species will thrive to ensure a healthy ecosystem – biodiversity brings resilience. By contrast in the rich field, with just a few species, unusually harsh weather conditions can do far more damage.
So where are our farmers in all this? Surely they can step in and do something? Sadly our farmers in recent times (named variously Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron plus their teams of helpers) have based themselves in farmhouses that are rather too close to the factories where the fertiliser is produced and rather too far from the fields. They spend their time in the company of the fertiliser producers and convince themselves that all is well, relying on distant reports that judge only quantity and make no mention of quality.
If they would only step out into the field and leave their advisers and lobbyists behind, they might see what is really going on. That the world is simply not so beautiful without the corncockle and poppy, the quaking grass and cowslip, the meadow saxifrage and yellow rattle, and all the other beautiful wild flowers that we are slowly driving out of our pastures (the equivalent in our society being the small shops, the small building societies, the teachers – or at least the status of teachers). What’s more, unlike the pampered and overgrown dominant species that require large applications of fossil fuel based fertilizers every year, the wild flowers grow happily, without external aid, year after year. All they need to flourish is a level (playing) field. In such an environment, each species learns not to fight the others but rather to find their niche so that nature’s rich bounty of air, light and water can be freely shared. In effect, they cooperate.
So what’s the solution? You can’t take back the money that has been put into the system, otherwise the whole economic machinery will seize up. What we need to do is make that money less valuable relative to things that have real value (like fertile land, and human endeavour). This is the solution outlined by economist Richard Douthwaite in his contribution to a recently published book “Fleeing Vesuvius” (to which I also contributed a section). Douthwaite suggests that, once we have taken back control of our money supply, we should allow inflation to occur. This should allow the price of assets to reduce over time in real terms, thus allowing us to return closer to balance.
This is not the path that our current political leaders are pursuing – instead they are attempting to slash costs, trying desperately to maintain the value of money. But never mind. Douthwaite believes, and I agree, that in the next few years time this will be taken out of politicians’ hands. He points out the close links between energy and money, and suggests that the coming energy crisis will cause the value of money to decline relative to things of real value. The task for our leaders then will be to help society negotiate the inevitable humps and bumps as we transition to an age where money is more evenly distributed, where small businesses thrive rather than being swallowed up or driven out by predatory larger ones, and where nurses can dream of bonuses as big as bankers. A nice dream…