Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Movement to Live More Simply Is Older Than You Think

What might history teach us about living more simple, less consumerist lifestyles?

by Roman Krznaric

Diogenes. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes took simple living to the extreme, and lived in an old wine barrel. Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When the recently elected Pope Francis assumed office, he shocked his minders by turning his back on a luxury Vatican palace and opting instead to live in a small guest house. He has also become known for taking the bus rather than riding in the papal limousine.

Simple living is not about abandoning luxury, but discovering it in new places.

The Argentinian pontiff is not alone in seeing the virtues of a simpler, less materialistic approach to the art of living. In fact, simple living is undergoing a contemporary revival, in part due to the ongoing recession forcing so many families to tighten their belts, but also because working hours are on the rise and job dissatisfaction has hit record levels, prompting a search for less cluttered, less stressful, and more time-abundant living.

How Should We Live by Roman Krznaric.

This article is based on the author's new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life.

At the same time, an avalanche of studies, including ones by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, have shown that as our income and consumption rises, our levels of happiness don't keep pace. Buying expensive new clothes or a fancy car might give us a short-term pleasure boost, but just doesn't add much to most people's happiness in the long term. It's no wonder there are so many people searching for new kinds of personal fulfillment that don't involve a trip to the shopping mall or online retailers.

If we want to wean ourselves off consumer culture and learn to practice simple living, where might we find inspiration? Typically people look to the classic literature that has emerged since the 1970s, such as E.F. Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful, which argued that we should aim "to obtain the maximum of wellbeing with the minimum of consumption." Or they might pick up Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity or Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's Your Money or Your Life.

I'm a fan of all these books. But many people don't realize that simple living is a tradition that dates back almost three thousand years, and has emerged as a philosophy of life in almost every civilization.

What might we learn from the great masters of simple living from the past for rethinking our lives today?

Eccentric philosophers and religious radicals

Anthropologists have long noticed that simple living comes naturally in many hunter-gatherer societies. In one famous study, Marshall Sahlins pointed out that aboriginal people in Northern Australia and the !Kung people of Botswana typically worked only three to five hours a day. Sahlins wrote that "rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society." These people were, he argued, the "original affluent society."

In the Western tradition of simple living, the place to begin is in ancient Greece, around 500 years before the birth of Christ. Socrates believed that money corrupted our minds and morals, and that we should seek lives of material moderation rather than dousing ourselves with perfume or reclining in the company of courtesans. When the shoeless sage was asked about his frugal lifestyle, he replied that he loved visiting the market "to go and see all the things I am happy without." The philosopher Diogenes—son of a wealthy banker—held similar views, living off alms and making his home in an old wine barrel.

We shouldn't forget Jesus himself who, like Guatama Buddha, continually warned against the "deceitfulness of riches." Devout early Christians soon decided that the fastest route to heaven was imitating his simple life. Many followed the example of St. Anthony, who in the third century gave away his family estate and headed out into the Egyptian desert where he lived for decades as a hermit.

Later, in the thirteenth century, St. Francis took up the simple living baton. "Give me the gift of sublime poverty," he declared, and asked his followers to abandon all their possessions and live by begging.

Simplicity arrives in colonial America

Simple living started getting seriously radical in the United States in the early colonial period. Among the most prominent exponents were the Quakers—a Protestant group officially known as the Religious Society of Friends—who began settling in the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth century. They were adherents of what they called "plainness" and were easy to spot, wearing unadorned dark clothes without pockets, buckles, lace or embroidery. As well as being pacifists and social activists, they believed that wealth and material possessions were a distraction from developing a personal relationship with God.

Woolman insisted on paying slaves directly in silver.

But the Quakers faced a problem. With growing material abundance in the new land of plenty, many couldn't help developing an addiction to luxury living. The Quaker statesman William Penn, for instance, owned a grand home with formal gardens and thoroughbred horses, which was staffed by five gardeners, 20 slaves, and a French vineyard manager.

Partly as a reaction to people like Penn, in the 1740s a group of Quakers led a movement to return to their faith's spiritual and ethical roots. Their leader was an obscure farmer's son who has been described by one historian as "the noblest exemplar of simple living ever produced in America." His name? John Woolman.

Woolman is now largely forgotten, but in his own time he was a powerful force who did far more than wear plain, undyed clothes. After setting himself up as a cloth merchant in 1743 to gain a subsistence living, he soon had a dilemma: his business was much too successful. He felt he was making too much money at other people's expense.

In a move not likely to be recommended at Harvard Business School, he decided to reduce his profits by persuading his customers to buy fewer and cheaper items. But that didn't work. So to further reduce his income, he abandoned retailing altogether and switched to tailoring and tending an apple orchard.

Woolman also vigorously campaigned against slavery. On his travels, whenever receiving hospitality from a slave owner, he insisted on paying the slaves directly in silver for the comforts he enjoyed during his visit. Slavery, said Woolman, was motivated by the "the love of ease and gain," and no luxuries could exist without others having to suffer to create them.

The birth of utopian living

Nineteenth-century America witnessed a flowering of utopian experiments in simple living. Many had socialist roots, such as the short-lived community at New Harmony in Indiana, established in 1825 by Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer and founder of the British cooperative movement.

Parisian artists lived off cheap coffee and conversation while their stomachs growled with hunger.

In the 1840s, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau took a more individualist approach to simple living, famously spending two years in his self-built cabin at Walden Pond, where he attempted to grow most of his own food and live in isolated self-sufficiency (though by his own admission, he regularly walked a mile to nearby Concord to hear the local gossip, grab some snacks, and read the papers). It was Thoreau who gave us the iconic statement of simple living: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." For him, richness came from having the free time to commune with nature, read, and write.

Simple living was also in full swing across the Atlantic. In nineteenth-century Paris, bohemian painters and writers like Henri Murger—author of the autobiographical novel that was the basis for Puccini's opera La Bohème—valued artistic freedom over a sensible and steady job, living off cheap coffee and conversation while their stomachs growled with hunger.

Redefining luxury for the twenty-first century

What all the simple livers of the past had in common was a desire to subordinate their material desires to some other ideal—whether based on ethics, religion, politics or art. They believed that embracing a life goal other than money could lead to a more meaningful and fulfilling existence.

Let's enlarge the areas of free and simple living on the map of our lives.

Woolman, for instance, "simplified his life in order to enjoy the luxury of doing good," according to one of his biographers. For Woolman, luxury was not sleeping on a soft mattress but having the time and energy to work for social change, through efforts such as the struggle against slavery.

Simple living is not about abandoning luxury, but discovering it in new places. These masters of simplicity are not just telling us to be more frugal, but suggesting that we expand the spaces in our lives where satisfaction does not depend on money. Imagine drawing a picture of all those things that make your life fulfilling, purposeful, and pleasurable. It might include friendships, family relationships, being in love, the best parts of your job, visiting museums, political activism, crafting, playing sports, volunteering, and people watching.

There is a good chance that most of these cost very little or nothing. We don't need to do much damage to our bank balance to enjoy intimate friendships, uncontrollable laughter, dedication to causes or quiet time with ourselves.

As the humorist Art Buchwald put it, "The best things in life aren't things." The overriding lesson from Thoreau, Woolman, and other simple livers of the past is that we should aim, year on year, to enlarge these areas of free and simple living on the map of our lives. That is how we will find the luxuries that constitute our hidden wealth.

Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Roman is an Australian cultural thinker and cofounder of The School of Life in London. This article is based on his new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (BlueBridge). @romankrznaric


Friday, December 20, 2013

The Bike-Share Planning Guide

More than 600 cities around the globe have bike-share systems, and new systems are starting every year. The largest and most successful systems, in places such as China, Paris, London, and Washington, D.C., have helped to promote cycling as a viable and valued transport option.

This guide evaluates international best practice in bike-share, helps to bridge the divide between developing and developed countries’ experiences to provide guidance on planning and implementing a successful bike-share system regardless of the location, size, or density of your city.

For more information on the growth of bike-share systems, watch this Streetfilms video, Riding the Bike Share Boom.

If you are a member of the press, please contact Dan Klotz for more information or to arrange an interview with the authors:
Dan Klotz, +1 301-280-5756 /

Download this document and view it on your favorite reader.


Friday, December 13, 2013

How the Economy works?

A fun animated tutorial by storied investor, Ray Dalio, laying out how the economy works. | How the Economic Machine Works by Ray Dalio.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Call for proposal - Low cost household toilet adapted for the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Save the Children, the world’s largest independent organization for children, delivers immediate and lasting improvements to children’s lives all over the world.
Save the Children (SC) works to promote every child’s rights to survival, protection, participation and development as set forth in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The current programme focuses on the following core sectors: Health and Nutrition; HIV/AIDS prevention; Care and support; Education; Child protection; Child-focused emergency preparedness and response; Climate change adaptation; and the Child rights agenda, including Civil society development, Economic opportunities, Child poverty Research, and Advocacy for child-friendly development policy and practice.

Being flooded yearly, unsafe defecation practices, unaffordable safe toilet model are the common sanitation challenges in the Mekong Delta. Statistically, the region has amongst the lowest coverage of safe toilets in Vietnam. For example, in Dong Thap Province in the Mekong delta, less than 43% of households have access to latrines.
This problem is widely recognized by national bodies and NGOs, and increased sanitation coverage forms a component of the government’s National Target Programme 3. In order to support the government’s shift away from subsidy-driven sanitation programmes to demand-driven programmes, in the framework of project “Mekong Delta Sanitation Challenges” sponsored by HSBC bank, Save The Children associated with Women’s Union of Dong Thap province would like to call for proposals on a flood-safe and sustainable toilet model that is affordable for household in The Mekong Delta.
A flood-safe, sustainable and affordable toilet model at household scale.
General requirements
·         Flood-safe:
-          The toilet will be built in a flood prone area, therefore, the toilet should be completely sealed to avoid the fecal contamination and bad odors to surrounding environment
·         Sustainable:
-          Long lasting duration in flooded condition (3-4 months flooded yearly)
-          Utilization of local materials
·         Affordable
-          Affordable price, on the average of 100 US$. This cost should be AT LEAST cover the main septic tank and the squat. The aim is to provide an affordable core component of the toilet. Remained parts (wall, roof, doors, etc) could be tailored by user upon their financial capacity.
A toilet proposal will be scored based on the following criteria
1.       Clear design and function description
2.       Easy and feasible construction method
3.       Utilization of local materials
4.       Capital cost
5.       Innovation
6.       Bonus points will be given to a proposal indicating in detail
-          The construction plan for household
-          Recommendation for alternative materials (if any)
3 Proposals will be selected for final review in February 2014
The finalist will present their design concept to the judging panel in the beginning of March 2014
The winning proposal will implement the pilot model in Mekong Delta from March – April 2014, including the following activities
·         Field visit in Mekong Delta
·         Training for builders/households who will be selected for Pilot model
·         Construction monitoring
Up to 3,000 US$ will be rewarded to the winning proposal
A proposal includes the following documents
·         The application form is available on the website
·         Drawing design, BOQ, Cost Estimation and other related documents (if any)
The proposal should be completed in English (Preferable)/Vietnamese, signed and scanned into PDF format and sent to via post/email with the subject TOILET DESIGN CONTEST FOR MEKONG DELTA
Application should be sent before 5PM (GMT+7) 15th February 2014 via post or email
Post Address: No.4, Tran Quy Khoach, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Healing Power of Nature

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” -John Muir

In my last blog on the growing numbers of kids being diagnosed with ADHD, I wondered out loud about the potential negative effects in our modern culture of things like: too much time spent indoors, too little sun and exercise, too many electronics, and not enough sleep. Rather than dwell on the causes of our problems, let’s consider what we can do to reduce the impact of stress on the lives of both adults and children. Not from a medical psychiatric perspective, but from the perspective of everyday life.

Ask yourself this question: Do you or your kids suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder?

This wonderful name was coined by journalist Richard Louv with the publication of Last Child in the Woods. His newest book, The Nature Principle: Human Restotion and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, offers a new vision of the future, in which our lives are equally immersed in nature and in technology.

What do we already know about the positive effects of time spent outdoors, immersed in nature?

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, environmental psychologists from the University of Michigan, are internationally known for their research on the effect of nature on people’s relationships and health.The Kaplans got involved in studying the effects of nature back in the 1970s, and since then have done extensive research on “restorative environments” to understand the psychological benefits of time spent in nature and what types of natural environments stimulate health and reduce stress.

In order to work or study efficiently, we need to maintain focused attention on the task at hand–something that everyone struggles with–most especially those with Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD. Too much focused attention can lead to mental fatigue and increased stress. One remedy for this fatigue is exposure to nature. The wilder the better, but even a little bit helps. Office workers with a view of nature are happier and healthier at work; kids do better academically; hospital stays are shorter with windows to nature; exercisers who walk outside in pleasant environments walk longer.

Positive Effects for Kids with ADHD

ADHD kids who participate in activities conducted in natural outdoor environments concentrate better and show less impulsivity. Published in The American Journal of Public Health, Frances Kuo conducted a national study comparing the effects of after school activities conducted in green outdoor settings versus those conducted in both built outdoor and indoor settings. Controlling for the amount of physical activity, type of activity, preference for nature, or timing of medication, they concluded that time spent in nature reduces ADHD symptoms.

The authors concluded that, “While medications are effective for most children with ADHD, they are ineffective for some, and other children cannot tolerate them…and a green dose or series of green doses might conceivably reduce the need for medication by 1 dose per day, allowing growing children to recover their appetites in time for dinner and get a good night’s sleep. These studies, and hundreds of others, add to the growing body of literature that shows how exposure to nature has profound effects on the health and well being of children and adults alike.

The Benefits of More Time in Nature for Children:

1. Kids get along better.  Research has found that children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. There is something about being in a natural environment together that stimulates social interaction. Another study showed how play in a diverse natural environment can reduce or eliminate bullying. In several studies, researchers have found that some of the kids who benefit most are those with attention and learning challenges.

2. Imaginative processes are enhanced.  Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with a sense of wonder. Children are more likely to use their imagination outdoors.

3. Cognitive development is improved. Curiosity and wonder are strong motivators that make children more eager to learn. When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse. Creative play, in turn, nurtures language and collaborative skills. Spending time in natural environments helps improve their awareness, reasoning and observational skills.

4. Physical health is improved. Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. They get sick less often. Just getting their hands in the dirt can bring exposure to “good bugs” that stimulate the immune system.

5. Kids are less stressed out. Nature buffers the impact of life stress on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits. Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and connection to the planet. Haven’t you noticed how kids can do whatever they need to do when they are out in the wild? They can just sit and stare at bugs or scream at the top of their lungs.

6. Kids are more psychologically mature.  A boost in maturity comes from the increased independence and autonomy that free play in nature encourages. Children with more contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The more green, the better the scores. In a study of kids with ADHD, it was found that those who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms than kids who played in grassy outdoor spaces. School classrooms with outdoor views even help.

7. Kids are more likely to love and protect the environment. When people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in places like Yosemite Valley, they realized that these wild places were “America’s treasures,” needing our stewardship and protection. In order to teach children how to treasure nature, kids must be allowed to explore it in their own way, and be given the time and opportunity to “dig in” and immerse themselves in its mysteries. Like a perfect mother, the earth welcomes us all with open arms.

- See more at:


Authors: Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra MacMannis, M.S.W

Don and Debra are a team both at home and at the office. Husband and wife for almost thirty years, they have simultaneously served as directors of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara, a nonprofit organization. In this capacity they oversee the clinical work of fourteen therapists providing help to hundreds of clients each year. They are authors or coauthors of numerous articles on parenting and clinical issues. In 2009, Don won the title of “Best Family Therapist” in a poll taken by In 2010, Debra was honored with an Award for Service to the Community by local therapists and the Mayor of Santa Barbara “for 30 years of inspiration, leadership, and training provided to thousands of clinicians, and the devotion exemplified in?consistent visionary work for the community.”


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Painting the Town: Part 1 - The Public Realm


Streets and squares have always been the most important places in our cities. We have always wanted, nay, needed to come together, meet and socialize, buy and sell, gossip, celebrate and work together, and this all began in the public realm. Meeting and spending time with other people in a beautiful place is pleasure, it makes us more alive, and creates a sense of gaiety. And we have an innate desire to beautify places where we gather, particularly for special occasions, to increase the geniality of the event.

Give some children chalks and a pavement and they will immediately collaborate to color the street with patterns and drawings. Children learn to make their own inexpensive chalks by mixing chalk powder and pigment with a little water, rolling handfuls into sticks, and letting them dry. Then they are off. In English “play streets”, in Italian piazze, and in European “Wohnstrasse” (Living Streets), children - and their chalk - have free reign for creative expression.

This urge to beautify the street has been taken to high aesthetic levels by the ancient tradition of street painters. Known for centuries in England as “pavement artists”, and in Italy as “Madonnari”, these artists work with high quality chalk to create works of extraordinary beauty. Pavement art can now be seen in cities around the world, and sometimes, through use of trompe l’oeil, appear to create vast chasms in the street revealing waterfalls and nether worlds. While these are created by individual artists working alone, rather than by the community, they always cause strangers to pause and talk to each other, thus enhancing the street’s sociability.

Since 1972, an international festival of street artists has been held in the main piazza of Grazie di Curtatone, Italy, and other festivals (Savannah, Denver, etc) have since appeared across America.

The public realm was always the primary location for community celebration, and usually included elaborate decoration of the streets themselves in the form of flower carpets, sand art, etc. More than just decoration, these festivals originally involved the entire community and have been absorbed into religious celebrations. In India, for example, Rangoli (hand painted patterns on the floor) are part of the Hindu Festival of Light.

Across Italy, in towns and villages like Genzano near Rome, Noto in Sicily, Spello and Cannara in Umbria, communities take great pride in their elaborate “infiorata” (flower carpet festival) temporarily created for the Corpus Domini festival. This day-long event involves months of deciding on a design, preparing the flowers, and an entire night of preparation wherein the community carefully lays a carpet of flowers, each street presenting a unique and beautiful image. Everyone takes part, young and old, and a much needed meal is shared at midnight before the work continues until dawn. The next morning, the streets are awash in celebration and admiration of the artwork before the formal procession where the priest ceremoniously walks along the flower-carpeted streets.

Cannara’s “infiorata” is still a genuine community event, created by the people, and for their own celebration. But in some towns, such as Spello, inundated by bus loads of tourists, it has become more secular and commercial. Organizations are formed to compete for the high stakes prizes awarded for various best carpet categories, and souvenir stalls rake in the profits.

Perhaps the single largest flower carpet in the world is created every two years in Brussels’ Grand Place. Composed almost entirely of begonias, this carpet celebrates great events in Belgium’s history, evoking great national pride.

In some European cities, the floor of the pedestrian zone is decoratively paved with colorful pebbles and mosaics. Freiburg, Germany treats the floor of the whole historic district as a permanent “carpet”. Geometric patterns, flowers, historic, cultural and business symbols emphasize the unique character of each street and square. Outside shops and businesses are emblems signifying the building’s use, and the coats of arms of each of Freiburg’s sister cities are laid in mosaic in front of the Rathaus.In most modern cities today, any street painting typically exists to dictate traffic flow and communicate information to commuters. Some streets are multi-purpose, but there is no doubt that the automobile now dominates. But in some residential areas in Portland, community groups gather once a year to paint an intersection to “take back the street” for the pedestrian.

City Repair, a Portland based non-profit organization, “educates and inspires communities and individuals to creatively transform the places where they live.” They provide a very unique service – helping neighbors to paint (or repaint) an intersection with a brightly colored abstract image. Each neighborhood creates a different design. On the day of the painting, old and young, and even small children are handed a brush and allowed to fill in the lines. These images also serve another purpose - that of traffic calming. When motorists approach one of these brightly painted intersections, they tend to slow down.

Painting the streets can also add life and vibrancy, adding interest but also pride in the communities. In Istanbul, a retired forestry engineer painted a giant staircase up the hill all shades of the rainbow “to make people smile”. This technically illegal act was so prized by the community, that officials, after painting it back to grey, were forced to paint it back to a rainbow. People in adjacent neighborhoods were inspired to paint their stairways too.

Further, in some places painting the streets can be a form of protest or expression, to draw attention to an issue and communicate it to the community. In another rainbow-colored event, activists painted over the typically white crosswalk near the Russian embassy in Sweden to protest Russia’s recent controversial anti-gay legislation. Others use stencils to paint messages on the street and advocate for change. This one in particular again draws attention to our modern usage of streets criticizing cars and lauding the fat-burning bicycle as a preferred mode of alternative transportation.

The floor of our city is our “common wealth” – it belongs to all of us. Whether we paint it, or make it beautiful for special community events, or pave it permanently with patterns and emblems, we are celebrating our shared places and claiming the public realm for pedestrians – for all of us – to socialize, to celebrate, and to enjoy together.



Friday, November 22, 2013

From The Story of Stuff To The Story of Solutions


--by Annie Leonard , syndicated from Yes Magazine, Nov 21, 2013

The final film in the “Story of Stuff” series asks, What if the goal of our economy wasn’t more, but better—better health, better jobs, and a better chance to survive on the planet?

In an ad for a major phone company blanketing TV this year, a circle of doe-eyed children is asked: "Who thinks more is better than less?" You know the one—an eager kindergartener answers, "We want more, we want more," before the commercial voice intones, "It's not complicated..."

To economists, there's no distinction between money spent on stuff that makes life better and money spent on stuff that makes life worse.

When it comes to our economy, most Americans also believe that more is always better. More, in this case, is what economists call growth, and we’re told that a bigger GDP—the way we measure economic activity—means we're winning. So it’s the number that thousands of rules and laws are designed to increase.

After all, what kind of loser wouldn't want more?

But unlike in the commercial, it's a little more complicated.

To economists, there's no distinction between money spent on stuff that makes life better and money spent on stuff that makes life worse. GDP treats both the same. If GDP goes up, we're told we’re golden—even though it doesn't actually tell us a thing about how we're really doing as a society.

In what I call the "Game of More," politicians cheer a steadily growing economy at the same time as our health indicators are worsening, income inequality is growing, and polar icecaps are melting.

But what if we changed the point of the game? What if the goal of our economy wasn't more, but better—better health, better jobs and a better chance to survive on the planet? Shouldn't that be what winning means?

That’s the question I ask in my new movie, "The Story of Solutions."

In it, I acknowledge that changing the goal of the entire economy—from more to better—is a huge task. We can't do it all at once. But I argue that by focusing on game-changing solutions, we can steadily build an economy that values things like safer, healthier, and more fair as much as we currently value faster, cheaper, and newer.

So what’s a game-changing solution look like?

It's a solution that gives people more power by taking power back from corporations. It values the truth that happiness and well-being don't come from buying more stuff, but from our communities, our health, and our sense of purpose. It accounts for all the costs it creates, including the toll it takes on people and the planet—in other words it internalizes costs instead of externalizing them as most businesses do today. And it lessens the enormous wealth gap between those who can't even meet their basic needs and those who consume way more than their fair share.

When I see a solution that does all that, I'm in. And they're popping up everywhere:

Like the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, where worker-owners are running green businesses—a laundry, a solar company, and a super productive urban farm—that are healthy, safe—and democratically run.

Or in Capannori, Italy, a so-called Zero Waste town where local citizens, businesses, and government aren't just aiming to manage waste better, they're questioning the very inevitability of waste by working together as a community to reclaim compost for the soil, to find reusable substitutes for disposable products, and put discarded material to good use.

And how about the new trend of "collaborative consumption"—formerly known as sharing? Sharing may sound like the theme of a Barney song, but it's a huge challenge to the old game. Things like bikeshare programs and online platforms that let us share everything from our cars to our homes get us off the treadmill of more, more, more, conserve resources, give people access to stuff they otherwise couldn’t afford, and build community. Nice!

Like I said, it’s hard to change the goal of the economy all at once. But as transformational solutions like these gain traction, I think we'll reach a tipping point—if we keep focused on the new goal of better. I believe that within a generation it’s possible we'll be hearing way less about the share price of the latest start-up or the battery life of the latest iPhone and way more about the health of our planet and neighbors.

So next time you hear someone preaching the virtues of more, tell them you choose better.

Annie Leonard photo by Lane Hartwell
Annie Leonard: How to Be More Than a Mindful Consumer

YES! Magazinewhere this article orginally appeared, is a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. This article is shared here with permission. Annie Leonard is the author of The Story of Stuff and the director of the Story of Stuff Project. She is also the creator of The Story of Cap & Trade, The Story of Cosmetics, The Story of Bottled Water, and The Story of Electronics.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Is the Sharing Economy Here Yet?

by Dave Pollard


Most of the Western world’s financial and commercial activity occurs within what we’ve come to call the Industrial Growth Economy. This economy has been around since the start of the industrial age roughly a couple of centuries ago. It requires exponential (and ultimately unsustainable) growth in production and consumption of goods and services to survive. It also requires the use of ‘fiat currency’ (state-issued notes, deemed by the state to have value) for all transactions.

Living quietly alongside the Industrial Growth Economy is another economy, an ancient one. In this pre-industrial economy, financial and commercial activity occurs through what Dmitry Orlov calls “tribute, barter and gift”. Tribute is when you give something of value to another out of respect to enable them to do something — to your church, your overseer or lord or landlord — without the expectation of reciprocation. Barter is when you trade something of value to you for something of value to another. And of course gifting is giving something of value just “out of the good of your heart“. Dmitry argues that philanthropy is not gifting, but rather the laundering of guilt money with the tacit expectation of praise and reward for doing so. I see his point but I’m not absolutely sure I agree with him.

The poor have always lived principally in this ancient economy — let’s call it the Sharing Economy, a name made popular by Charles Eisenstein in his essays and talks and his book Sacred Economics. That’s because the poor don’t have any ‘currency’ in the Industrial Growth Economy, so they are shut out of it. Despite the globalization of the Industrial Growth Economy in recent decades, that hasn’t changed much.

But it’s complex — these two economies exist side by side, and everyone participates to a greater or lesser extent in both. Even the poorest pay what they can with what cash they can earn, beg, borrow or steal, and if they live in cities (which they increasingly do) they are forced to find money to pay for food (since they can’t grow it themselves any more), and often even to pay for ‘security’ (extortion and shakedowns). And even the richest, philanthropy aside, participate in the Sharing Economy — their spouses may raise their children without ‘pay’ as such, for example.

The chart above attempts to differentiate these two economies.

The complexity of living with a foot in each economy leads to some unexpected results. Our tax, legal and accounting systems are built around the Industrial Growth Economy and don’t deal well with Sharing Economy activities. Our measurement of economic prosperity is based on GDP, which recognizes paid child care and the clean-up of pollution as positive GDP-creating activities, but not unpaid child care or pollution prevention (unless that prevention activity is ‘paid for’). Balance sheets and income statements aren’t suited to showing the value of Sharing Economy activities. And as Janelle Orsi has explained, complex, convoluted laws designed to inhibit abuse of power by large multinational corporations often make small Sharing Economy start-ups and operations impossible, drowning them (mostly unintentionally) in red tape.

So what good is the Sharing Economy, beyond something we will have to have in place when the Industrial Growth Economy repeatedly stumbles and finally (and probably gradually) collapses?

Its greatest good is that it allows people who are partly or totally shut out of the Industrial Growth Economy to obtain what they need and offer their gifts when otherwise they could not. It’s how much of the world copes with little or no fiat money.

Its other major advantage is that it leads to greater equality of wealth and well-being, while the Industrial Growth Economy is engineered to do the opposite. Sharing Economy activities tend to drive down prices and work around artificial ‘manufactured’ scarcities (e.g. oligopolistic practices and intellectual property ‘usage fees’). They also encourage local entrepreneurship (finding and meeting local needs), which the Industrial Growth Economy (in its zeal to homogenize, centralize, commoditize and ‘consumerize’ everything) discourages. The Sharing Economy is, while much less efficient, more shock-resilient, personalized, sustainable and effective than the Industrial Growth Economy.

So we should try to encourage more Sharing Economy activity, and to ‘starve’ the Industrial Growth Economy by participating in it as little as possible. The means to do that are pretty obvious (e.g. boycott large corporations, create a living for ourselves instead of working for large organizations, encourage public sector activities and reverse the trend to privatize everything). But since the line between the two economies is pretty grey, we need some means to assess which activities are in which economy, and which are kind of in between.

I’ve had several discussions about this in recent weeks, and there seems to be no clear consensus or ‘formula’ for assessing where different activities and organizations fit, and hence whether we should be encouraging them or not. What I did come up with is a set of five general criteria that tend to make an activity more Sharing Economy-like and less Industrial Growth Economy-like. Here they are:

A. Well-being created — Does the activity produce real value for the recipients of goods and services?
B. Ethical behaviour / non-exploitative & sustainable — Is the activity that funds, accompanies and/or ensues from the transaction moral?
C. Generosity — Is the gifting bona fide, without ulterior motive or reward?
D. Non-reciprocality — Is the gift without cost or strings (tacit or explicit) attached?
E. Non-monetization (in fiat currency) — Does the activity avoid the use of money? And if any money changes hands, is it in a local community-based non-debt-creating currency?

I would argue that something needs to meet at least three of these criteria to really qualify as a Sharing Economy activity, and that the more criteria it meets, the better. So a true gift, along the lines of the repentant Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Day gifts, would score 5 out of 5. Here’s how I would score some less obvious activities, in declining order of ‘sharing’:

  • A library, seed swap, community garden or tool exchange: 5 (ABCDE).
  • Providing ‘community space’ or workspace free of charge: 5 (ABCDE).
  • Providing free education, information, counselling,  child care, health care or couchsurfing/’warm showers‘: 5 (ABCDE).
  • A gift of time to a charity: At least 4 (BCDE) out of 5. If it’s time spent doing something really valuable to the charity, then 5.
  • A gift of money to a charity: If by a poor person, 4 (ABCD) out of 5. If by the Koch Brothers, 1 (A) out of 5.
  • A gift in a community currency: Same as above, plus 1 (E).
  • Free expert advice given (e.g. by a hardware store) in the hopes you will buy something ‘in return’: 3 (ABE) to 4 (ABCE).
  • A barter exchange where both participants get roughly equal value from the trade: 3 (ABE).
  • A service charging a ‘sliding scale’ based on ability to pay and recipient’s perceived value: 2 (AB) or 3 (ABC).
  • ‘Subsidized’ housing and food ‘banks’: Not sure — depends I think on quality and how demeaning it is to qualify.
  • Co-ops and co-housing: On average I’d say 2 (AB).
  • A barter exchange where one participant gets the short end of the trade but feels compelled to do it anyway: 1 (E) to 3 (ABE).
  • Bike share, car share, ‘Airbnb’-type room-sharing etc.: 1 (A) to 3 (ABC).
  • An interest free or low-interest loan: 1 (C) to 3 (ABC). Some would argue that even a low-interest loan is usury and unethical.
  • A ‘market-rate’ loan or investment; or a regular ‘market-price’ sale or lease: 0 to 1 (A).

As the economy continues to wobble and the rest of the middle class disappears, more and more of us will be, both purposefully and of necessity, engaging more with the Sharing Economy. In the meantime, many communities are starting to create local directories and maps of Sharing Economy activities. (I participated recently in a Sharing Economy ‘map jam’ in Eugene, Oregon, hosted by Tree and Kindista, and they’re great fun and terrific learning and networking opportunities.)

When you’re tied to the Industrial Growth Economy (as most of us in affluent nations are), it may seem like a huge leap to a Sharing Economy where there is no accounting, no money changing hands, and absolute trust that one’s local community will give you what you need, and that you should give what you can offer without asking for compensation. But up until a couple of millennia ago that’s how we all lived, and until a couple of centuries ago that was still the main economy in most people’s lives. There’s lots we can do in the meantime practicing making the transition gradually, so that when the bottom falls out of the Industrial Growth Economy it will be a manageable last step to the Sharing Economy that will replace it. And as a bonus, gifting and re-use are better for the environment as well.

The next time you’re thinking of buying, or selling, or discarding something, imagine how you might share it instead — move the activity up a couple of points on the 5-point scale. What do you have to offer that’s surplus to your immediate needs that someone else in your community could use? And what needs do you have that, instead of being satisfied at the mall cash register, could be satisfied by another’s offer? And what could you do with others in your community, through organization, ‘map jams’ and directories, to make it easier for the Sharing Economy to bloom there?


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can teleworking save the city?


A few weeks ago on a rainy Friday, I was taking the Skytrain home from my job in Downtown Vancouver. Every person on the train looked unhappy - soaking wet and packed in like sardines. Traffic was gridlocked (I could not see the faces of the drivers, but I am pretty sure they were miserable too).

Why does Western society do this? Why must we partake in a stressful commute to and from work, and be forced to sit in a desk and be productive for 8+ straight hours a day, 5 days a week?

Not to mention the pollution pumped into the atmosphere from commuters stuck in traffic. And, many offices are not in walkable urban environments where employees can take a break by stepping outside to walk and get some fresh air. They are stuck in an office park where the only escape is their car.

Could city life be better if we just worked from home even 1 day a week?

The benefits of teleworking are well-documented. Last year, the Globe and Mail published an article about the Telework Research Network’s review of about 2,000 studies from the past decade concluding that employees who work outside of the office can have higher productivity because of:

  • Fewer interruptions Working independently reduces distractions of working in a busy office and cuts time spent in idle chatter and lunch breaks
  • Better time management E-mail and text messages are more immediate and less apt to digress into non-work topics.
  • Greater flexibility Mobility allows employees to work when they are most productive.
  • More time for work Studies show mobile workers apply an average of 60 per cent of the time that they save by not having to commute to doing productive work.
  • Reduced down time Employees don’t have to lose a full day’s productivity when they’re sick, recovering from surgery, caring for a loved one or attending to personal business.
  • Greater efficiency Employees who are trained to work remotely are more adept at using technology to communicate and collaborate more efficiently.

The studies also suggest mobile employees may be happier because of:

  • Better balance A worldwide study by Brigham Young University showed that telecommuters were able to work 57 hours a week before they felt their job interfered with their personal life. Traditional workers felt conflicted at just 37 hours.
  • Increased confidence Empowerment, trust and accountability are fundamental to remote work and are keys to job satisfaction.
  • They avoid stress Commuting and office politics can often be emotionally draining.
  • They save time and money The Telework Research Network calculates that a typical two-day-a-week telecommuter in Canada can save an average of $2,000 (Canadian) a year in vehicle and work-related costs and gain the equivalent of nine work days a year in time they’d have otherwise spent commuting.

These examples do not factor in the benefits to the city, such as:

  • Less air pollution, which improves human health.
  • Less traffic congestion and fewer automobile crashes/deaths, due to fewer people on the road.
  • Less wear and tear on transportation infrastructure, which postpones funding requirements.
  • Less dependence on oil, which means more money to spend on other consumer goods and services provided by retailers.
  • Less vehicle-related runoff from roads, ensuring cleaner water and improving ecosystem and human health.

There are clearly advantages to working face to face with one’s coworkers, which is why it would be unwise to switch completely over to teleworking - perhaps just 1-2 days a week to reduce pressure on the environment, transportation infrastructure, and human health and well-being. 

Several major companies, including Canadian communications company Telus Corp, have encouraged teleworking. It started in 2010 when the organizers of the Vancouver Olympics asked Telus to minimize the number of workers entering the downtown core, as part of a plan to ease traffic. The company agreed, and employee feedback was so positive that the company eventually made many of the Olympics-related changes permanent.

“For Telus, it resulted in significant cost savings, and allowed us to reduce our real estate footprint,” says company spokesman Shawn Hall, who himself works from home several days a week. “It’s also a great recruitment tool. By offering people the opportunity to work from where and when works for them, that’s an important benefit.”

Telus is now working toward a goal of having 70 per cent of its work force teleworking by 2015.

I don’t see teleworking being wholly embraced in the immediate future. But, as the Baby Boomers retire and more Millennials move into the workforce, it is entirely possible that this trend will continue and grow in acceptance, which is not a bad thing for city life.

If you don’t think long commutes are bad for your health, check out this infographic: The Killer Commute


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Affirming an Abundant Future

by Madisyn Taylor

Squirrel medicine reminds us to set aside a portion of our most precious resources as an investment in the future.

Native Americans considered all living beings as brothers and sisters that had much to teach including squirrels. These small creatures taught them to work in harmony with the cycles of nature by conserving for the winter months during times when food was plentiful. In our modern world, squirrels remind us to set aside a portion of our most precious resources as an investment in the future. Though food and money certainly fall into this category, they are only some of the ways our energy is manifested. We can conserve this most valuable asset by being aware of the choices we make and choosing only those that nurture and sustain us. This extends to the natural resources of our planet as well, using what we need wisely with the future in mind.

Saving and conservation are not acts of fear but rather affirmations of abundance yet to come. Squirrels accept life’s cycles, allowing them to face winters with the faith that spring will come again. Knowing that change is part of life, we can create a safe space, both spiritually and physically, that will support us in the present and sustain us in the future. This means not filling our space with things, or thoughts, that don’t serve us. Without hoarding more than we need, we keep ourselves in the cyclical flow of life when we donate our unwanted items to someone who can use them best. This allows for more abundance to enter our lives, because even squirrels know a life of abundance involves more than just survival.

Squirrels use their quick, nervous energy to enjoy life’s adventure. They are great communicators, and by helping each other watch for danger, they do not allow worry to drain them. Instead, they allow their curious nature to lead the way, staying alert to opportunities and learning as they play. Following the example set by our squirrel friends, we are reminded to enjoy the journey of life’s cycles as we plan and prepare for a wonderful future, taking time to learn and play along the way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Six Habits of Highly Empathic People

By Roman Krznaric

We can cultivate empathy throughout our lives, says Roman Krznaric—and use it as a radical force for social transformation.

If you think you’re hearing the word “empathy” everywhere, you’re right. It’s now on the lips of scientists and business leaders, education experts and political activists. But there is a vital question that few people ask: How can I expand my own empathic potential? Empathy is not just a way to extend the boundaries of your moral universe. According to new research, it’s a habit we can cultivate to improve the quality of our own lives.

But what is empathy? It’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity. And don’t confuse it with the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” Empathy is about discovering those tastes.

The big buzz about empathy stems from a revolutionary shift in the science of how we understand human nature. The old view that we are essentially self-interested creatures is being nudged firmly to one side by evidence that we are also homo empathicus, wired for empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid.

Over the last decade, neuroscientists have identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other, just like our primate cousins. And psychologists have revealed that we are primed for empathy by strong attachment relationships in the first two years of life. 

But empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives—and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation. Research in sociology, psychology, history—and my own studies of empathic personalities over the past 10 years—reveals how we can make empathy an attitude and a part of our daily lives, and thus improve the lives of everyone around us. Here are the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People!

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers

Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. They find other people more interesting than themselves but are not out to interrogate them, respecting the advice of the oral historian Studs Terkel: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”

Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own. Curiosity is good for us too: Happiness guru Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction. And it is a useful cure for the chronic loneliness afflicting around one in three Americans.

Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the heavily tattooed woman who delivers your mail or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.

Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities

We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “welfare mom”—that prevent us from appeciating their individuality. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them. An episode from the history of US race relations illustrates how this can happen.

Claiborne Paul Ellis was born into a poor white family in Durham, North Carolina, in 1927. Finding it hard to make ends meet working in a garage and believing African Americans were the cause of all his troubles, he followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Ku Klux Klan, eventually rising to the top position of Exalted Cyclops of his local KKK branch.

In 1971 he was invited—as a prominent local citizen—to a 10-day community meeting to tackle racial tensions in schools, and was chosen to head a steering committee with Ann Atwater, a black activist he despised. But working with her exploded his prejudices about African Americans. He saw that she shared the same problems of poverty as his own. “I was beginning to look at a black person, shake hands with him, and see him as a human being,” he recalled of his experience on the committee. “It was almost like bein’ born again.” On the final night of the meeting, he stood in front of a thousand people and tore up his Klan membership card.

Ellis later became a labor organiser for a union whose membership was 70 percent African American. He and Ann remained friends for the rest of their lives. There may be no better example of the power of empathy to overcome hatred and change our minds.

Habit 3: Try another person’s life

So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”

George Orwell is an inspiring model.  After several years as a colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. So he dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and vagabonds. The result, recorded in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”—Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and gathered some superb literary material. It was the greatest travel experience of his life. He realised that empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too.

We can each conduct our own experiments. If you are religiously observant, try a “God Swap,”  attending the services of faiths different from your own, including a meeting of Humanists. Or if you’re an atheist, try attending different churches! Spend your next vacation living and volunteering in a village in a developing country. Take the path favored by philosopher John Dewey, who said, “All genuine education comes about through experience.”

Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up

There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist.

One is to master the art of radical listening. “What is essential,” says Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.” HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again.

But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.

Organizations such as the Israeli-Palestinian Parents Circle put it all into practice by bringing together bereaved families from both sides of the conflict to meet, listen, and talk. Sharing stories about how their loved ones died enables families to realize that they share the same pain and the same blood, despite being on opposite sides of a political fence, and has helped to create one of the world’s most powerful grassroots peace-building movements.

Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change

We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.

Just think of the movements against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. As journalist Adam Hochschild reminds us, “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts but human empathy,” doing all they could to get people to understand the very real suffering on the plantations and slave ships. Equally, the international trade union movement grew out of empathy between industrial workers united by their shared exploitation. The overwhelming public response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 emerged from a sense of empathic concern for the victims, whose plight was dramatically beamed into our homes on shaky video footage.

Empathy will most likely flower on a collective scale if its seeds are planted in our children.  That’s why HEPs support efforts such as Canada’s pioneering Roots of Empathy, the world’s most effective empathy teaching program, which has benefited over half a million school kids. Its unique curriculum centers on an infant, whose development children observe over time in order to learn emotional intelligence—and its results include significant declines in playground bullying and higher levels of academic achievement.

Beyond education, the big challenge is figuring out how social networking technology can harness the power of empathy to create mass political action. Twitter may have gotten people onto the streets for Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, but can it convince us to care deeply about the suffering of distant strangers, whether they are drought-stricken farmers in Africa or future generations who will bear the brunt of our carbon-junkie lifestyles? This will only happen if social networks learn to spread not just information, but empathic connection.

Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination

A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough.

We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives—understanding their thinking and motivations—if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy. A little of this “instrumental empathy” (sometimes known as “impact anthropology”) can go a long way.

Empathizing with adversaries is also a route to social tolerance. That was Gandhi’s thinking during the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus leading up to Indian independence in 1947, when he declared, “I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew.”

Organizations, too, should be ambitious with their empathic thinking. Bill Drayton, the renowned “father of social entrepreneurship,” believes that in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership. His influential Ashoka Foundation has launched the Start Empathy initiative, which is taking its ideas to business leaders, politicians and educators worldwide.

The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels. The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships.