On my Mind
Waves always carry a dangerous undertow that can drag us under.
The thought occured to me as I reflected that the age of rampant consumerism is only seventy years old. It started around the time I was born. Sorry.
In those seventy years, in the UK, GDP per capita has quadrupled from around £7,500 to nearly £30,000. By comparison, it took the one hundred and fifty years from 1800 to 1950 to triple from around £2,500 to £7,500, and nearly six hundred years, from 1270 to 1800 for the previous tripling.
This is the wave we have been surfing, with a few looking cool whilst many more get sucked under, as we rely on exponential growth to fund the lives we are living.
As we look around, it’s hard to believe that the wave is not about to break.
In those seventy years we have come to expect growth as a right, rather than a collaboration with the place we live. In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass” Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about the indigenous notion of the “Honourable Harvest” – taking what we need, and leaving enough to ensure healthy future harvests. We seem to have lost that idea along the way as we demand the right to consume ourselves out of existence, and the bigger the wave, the more powerful undertow will be.
I’ve been reflecting on what the return wave might look and feel like, and how we might recognise and come to terms with it.
Globalisation was a sudden explosion, and is now collapsing inwards as we reach the limits of geopolitical and logistical tolerance. We can see it at national level, as politicians in the UK flail around for stories to put a spin on the destructive and socially fragmentary effects of the “undertow” from the deregulation of fifty years ago.
We see the same in other “developed” economies. I see it at local level as I notice the sort of firms failing here in the Midlands. In one day’s news this week, I noticed pension firms failing (There’s something very poignant about that), a major retailer, NEXT, issuing a profits warning, and a big packaging firm nervously raising prices as inflation bites and demand falls away. What seems to link them is a reliance on growth to service the debts, financial and promissorial to investors that they have incurred in pursuit of the story they have sold them as a they mortgaged their futures.
As for P&O, I can only imagine the levels of groupthink and wilful blindness that left their hapless CEO trying to defend the indefensible in Parliament. Behaving like that is a choice, and finding ourselves in a position where we make that sort of choice is an indictment of our addiction to growth at the cost of our humanity.
What is clear is that the complex interactions of the pandemic, climate change, fragile supply chains and geopolitical tensions has the juggernaut of perpetual growth bogged down, and if we cannot rely on growth to fund a future predicated on consumption, where do we start the conversation we need to have?
Can we recognise and harness the power of the undertow? Can we not only mitigate the damage we are causing, but perhaps create something altogether better as the froth of growth collapses?
Perhaps we could start by thinking about the shocks that powered the wave in the first place.
Consumerism is not a force of nature, it is a construct that goes back less than a century to Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and “the father of spin” who did the groundwork that created the industrialised advertising and PR that energised the wave.
And then the industrialisation of personal debt during the 1960’s – there’s not much point in being able to make things that you can persuade people they need if they can’t afford them.
And then, as the flywheel speeds up, making work a science by deconstructing it to parts that have little meaning for the individual in order to develop the high levels of business efficiency necessary to provide shareholder returns.
Finally, making money a god in its own right, and creating a whole new industry that makes money from money, not by using it to create something useful, but deconstructing it, turning into complex derivatives the implications of which even those who create them do not understand.
Economy. late 15th century (in the sense ‘management of material resources’): from French économie, or via Latin from Greek oikonomia ‘household management’, based on oikos ‘house’ + nemein ‘manage’. Current senses date from the 17th century.
And here we are, with the perverse effects of making the economy something we serve, rather than making it something that provides for us. It makes we wonder whose “house” we are looking after.
So how, I wonder, do we unwind our dependencies on the creative, but highly addictive practices that have brought us to a crisis of consumption over a mere three generations?
The stresses we face have made “resilience”, along with “wellbeing”, industries in their own right and I think at heart are both about the choices we make. What we expect, and what we are prepared to sacrifice in order to get it. I have been privy to conversations that suggest we are separating them in the same way as we separate rights and responsibilities. It’s contentious because we have created an expectation of rights, but seem to have made responsibilities someone else’s job. Shareholders demand dividends, and a hapless CEO finds himself in the hot seat for treating that right as sacrosanct. Professionals who complain about the reactions of clients to the way they structure their work based on a financial model that has no place for relationships. People who demand more from their workplace than it can deliver.
Resilience is often about expecting less. Wellness is often about appreciating what we have. I think we need to get the balance back.
Exploration vs. Adventure Tourism
It is a shame that Taleb’s beautifully simple idea of using the energy of a shock to stimulate positive change, rather then be seen as something to be recovered from, has been captured by consultants and turned into processes. It is such an elegant, liberating and powerful idea. It calls on us to stand back and think through where we are, how we got here, where we want to go and the different routes we might take to get there. It asks us to move away from the “adventure tourism” thinking offered to us by consultants and self help gurus, and understand that the only people who can get us towards where we want to be is ourselves, and that requires a different mindset – that of “expedition behaviours”. I like the summary from Clymb, summarised here:
- Support the Group’s goals.
- Take care of yourself.
- Pitch in.
- Help others but don’t do their work for them.
- Moderate potentially annoying behaviours.
- Admit shortcomings and correct them.
- Support everyone’s growth.
- Stay calm.
- Be relaxed and also very aware.
- Be funny.
We haven’t been here before, and neither have those around us. We are all going to need to behave differently. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.
Here are the things I am thinking about. You will have your own.
- Make where I live more beautiful. Look after where I live before seeking refuge in the beauty of other places.
- Get closer to what I create. Understand of what I’m part of, my part in it and take responsibility for it.
- Generate more than I consume. Whether that is ideas, products, or relationships. Be net additive.
- Pay attention to who I spend time with. We become the average of the five people we most associate with, and cannot really contribute to more than one hundred and fifty relationships. The internet can be a swamp.
- Stop consuming as a right. Every journey, purchase, and meeting consumes time and energy – my own, others, and the planets.
- Don’t invest in froth. The internet is a hugely valuable resource. It is also the biggest froth maker we have ever seen. I’d prefer to be coffee than froth.
- Clarity. The words we choose, the way we use them, and how we speak them shapes the world – ours and of those around us. They reflect our thoughts and intentions.
We can come out the other side of the mess we have created better than we entered it, but it requires effort. I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it until I remember I cannot solve it for others,o nly for myself in the company of a few others. If we all do the same though, then things happen.
We will do better as explorers than tourists.
The pursuit of efficiency and returns has sanitised many workplaces and despite efforts at “engagement” removed the sense of being part of “something bigger”. If “bigger” is not to be found at work, where do we find it and how do we bring to it our talents that are waiting to be let loose?
Things I’ve enjoyed this week.
Playing Games with the Future.
I have huge belief in the power of games technology to move beyond short term thrills to offer us imagination spaces like few others. Here is Jane McGonigal talking about it with Gerald Kaufman.
Robin Wall Kimmerer on her book – a beautiful window on regenerative thinking reflecting indigenous wisdom.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Samurai since reading the iconic Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi at University. There is something about the focus and clarity they represented, and the powerful symbolism of the Sword. In this 1969 short documentary The Japanese Sword as the Soul of the Samurai, the US filmmaker Kenneth Wolfgang (1931-2011) is allowed rare access to the Tokyo workshop of a master samurai swordsmith to explore the craft and history behind the iconic Japanese weapon.
From Matters Journal. Sustainability as a goal, or regeneration as a way of living?