lessons to be learnt

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A climate change demonstration in Wellington, New Zealand. Picture copyright Fritz2.

“…an important thing to understand about any institution or social system, whether it is a nation or a city, a corporation or a federal agency: it doesn’t move unless you give it a solid push. Not a mild push – a solid jolt. If the push is not administered by vigorous and purposeful leaders, it will be administered eventually by an aroused citizenry or by a crisis. Systematic inertia is characteristic of every human institution, but overwhelmingly true of this nation as a whole. Our system of checks and balances dilutes the thrust of positive action. The competition of interests inherent in our pluralism acts as a break on concerted action. The system grinds to a halt between crises…”

John W. Gardner speaking to the National Press Club, December 9 1969.

I’ve been doing a history project recently on the environmental movement, and the lead up to the first Earth Day in the U.S. on April 22nd, 1970.  I thought this was a really interesting quote about institutional inertia in dealing with serious problems. He’s talking in the context of the environmental crisis back then, but his words could just as easily apply to environmental problems and the failure of politicians and leaders to tackle them today.

Today the American political system is seemingly incapable of combating climate change, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration. Back in the late sixties I think activists and ordinary people felt the same kind of frustration at the elite in Washington, unwilling or unable to do something about the pollution of the environment that those that care about climate change and a whole host of other issues feel today.

The lesson we can learn from the 1960s and 70s is that activism works. Continue reading “lessons to be learnt”

The Gospel of Consumerism

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I was reading this interesting article called ‘The Gospel of Consumption‘ by Jeffrey Kaplan and it raised a number of interesting points. In developed countries over the twentieth century, productivity and real wages have grown a huge amount. People’s work creates more value per hour, and hence they are usually paid more. Kaplan writes that in the United States, 2005 per capita household income was twelve times what it had been in 1929. If we were to go back to the standard of living that people in 1948 enjoyed, we would only have to work 2.7 hours per day.

The article raises the interesting question of whether we wouldn’t all be better off if we didn’t work so hard and enjoyed more leisure time. Instead of chasing after the next generation of TV or a fancier car or a new cellphone one could relax and read a book or spend some time with your family or something. Kaplan talks about an interesting and hugely popular pilot scheme that Kellogg (the cereal guy) ran in his factories where all his workers shifted to six hour days (30 hour weeks). It meant less pay for workers, but substituted the “mental income” of more leisure time instead. There was also the added bonus of more employment to go around. The workers loved it – it meant more time to spend with their family or gardening or playing ping pong.

Imagine if as a society we decided to work less – we would certainly have to endure a drop in income, but would we be any less happy? I know for a lot of people who are struggling in poverty cutting back on hours is impractical, but for the majority of rich westerners it’s an interesting question.

Most of us equate happiness with the number of material possessions we have – we’ve got into this cycle of consumerism where we can never have enough. After a certain point, we just need to recognise that we’ve got enough material stuff, work less hours, enjoy more leisure time and ultimately be happier.

Image credit: mark sebastian (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Reading vs internet

My mother frequently nags me to stop playing on the computer and read a book.  I got thinking, something about the internet makes it so much more attractive to me, as a form of entertainment, than reading a book. On the computer I can catch up with friends, read news, listen to music, play games etc, and in comparison a book just doesn’t have that much appeal most of the time. Then I got thinking about the long-term ramifications of the choices I am making now, as well as the consequences of the choices that young people like me are making.

Most of the things I do on the internet are very inconsequential. When I look at my Tumblr dashboard, for instance, what I see is often a whole series of nice looking photos and ‘deep’ quotes offering some interesting perspective on life/love. Every day I religiously catch up on Twitter with all the tweets I missed. As I was lying in bed I started to think about what all the time I devote to this stuff really amounts to.  Sure, it’s fun, but I don’t really achieve anything trawling through all this stuff. I might look at an image for five seconds then move on without it having any lasting impression.

I guess it comes down to a matter of priorities. If I just want to have fun then maybe the internet is the place to do it. But if my goal is to have fun and further my horrendously incomplete knowledge of the world, then perhaps I should be reading more.  I think books have a much greater potential to leave a lasting imprint on you, for the memory of that novel or non-fiction text to stick with you. Perhaps sitting down and reading a good book will also help to extend my horrifically short attention span as well. When I’m browsing the web I’m constantly flicking between this tab and that tab and sometimes I just can’t be bothered reading long articles. I think that this form of entertainment is just training myself to process information in artificial little snippets and making it difficult for me to sit down and read a textbook when I need to for university.

Even though I’ve come to this conclusion that reading is ultimately a more productive activity, I’ve been finding it hard to shift away from spending so much time trawling the web. I think I’m almost addicted to the internet, I have this strange desire to keep up with everything, even though I always seem increasing the amount of information that I follow. I can’t help but think I’m not alone in my struggle to curtail my computer use as well, it’s probably a widespread phenomena. Are we breeding a whole generation of young people with short attention spans who pick the internet instead of reading? Ultimately though, I think it’s in my best interests to train myself to enjoy reading again and stop spending so much time on this infernal computer and the instant gratification it provides.

Popularity

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I’ve recently become swamped by social networking – I’m drowning in a torrent of status updates and news to read. I use Bebo, Facebook, Twitter and now Virb (2.0 has just been launched!). Keeping up with the endless stream of things popping up in my RSS reader and on TweetDeck and checking social sites is becoming too much. I think I’m going to have to cull a few feeds from Google Reader.

I ask myself: why do I maintain all these social networking sites? And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because I have a -somewhat closeted- desire to become popular. I think social networking sites (ie Facebook) have facilitated and stimulated an already present desire in people (me included) to have a lot of friends, be very social and to generally flaunt their popularity. By maintaining all these social networking profiles I think I am attempting to become as popular as I can. But when you think about it properly, the number of friendships doesn’t matter at all, it’s the quality that is important. Internet popularity runs on a quantitative model which is deeply flawed. The most intriguing thing though is why I feel a desire to become more popular, to improve my social status. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on me.

I think my motives for writing a blog are the same as frequenting social networking sites. Writing for a blog that next to no one reads, I can’t help but entertain the fantasy that one day I will wake up and overnight the entire internet will have come to recognize that this is worth reading. A scenario that is perhaps a tad unrealistic, but if I didn’t think more people might read this blog at some point in the future, why would I still blogging? To entertain the handful of people who do read my incoherent ramblings?  I also can’t help but feel that my situation is shared by countless numbers of bloggers around the world who want nothing more than for a few people to hear what they have to say. With the advent of easy accessible blogging websites, creating a website can take only a few minutes and as a result the internet is veritably flooded with people voicing their opinions regardless of whether anyone is listening. And I think at the end of the day most people blog because they want to become famous. They want to make it big.

Also, the image for this post is from Nexus friend grapher – a tool that creates a picture out of your network of friends on Facebook.  It’s fascinating to see how my different groups of friends and family relate to each other.