Perceptions are everything we need to question

Perceptions are everything we need to question

I just read a fascinating book entitled Radical Help by social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. This woman, a maverick with a heart of gold, is taking on the establishment in ways it hates, by questioning everything.

What she has discovered is gold.

She begins her descriptions of what she calls ‘experiments’ with a social statement, here is one…

Wages for more than twenty million British families – 64 per cent of the population – are too low to live on. It is worth repeating that a far greater proportion of benefits are paid to those in work on low wages than to those out of work, as for millions the categories of work and welfare collapse into one another.

Hilary Cottam, Radical Help

In other words, the economic system is failing the majority, including those who find fulfilment and purpose in gainful employment.

Add to this 64% figure the fact that payments to those out of work account for just 1% of the UK welfare budget – equivalent to less than £3 billion a year – and the clear implication is that people are not bludgers, they want to work for a fair wage, enough to live and raise their families.

Thinking on these numbers some more, Cottam adds another key insight. People want purpose. Give them this and they will not only work hard but at almost any task aligned to their purpose.

How easy should it be to harness this immense power? When people can connect, cooperate, innovate they will solve what seems intractable. Everything is possible with aligned people power. Except that this is not some neo-socialism virus about to infect us all, it is actually about each person and how each one of us goes about our everyday lives. It is the power to grow our own wellbeing.

At the core of this power is the human connections we make.

When we are close to one another we literally move mountains. When I tell my wife this dramatic insight she simply smiles knowingly. A retired couples therapist, her entire career gave evidence to the power of connection. Deep connections are what hold us up and keep us together.

George Monbiot, in typical acerbic style, tells it more simply — no human on the savanna would have survived one night on their own.

Putting people together so that they can form connections that matter to them is what Hilary Cottam does in her experiments. It matters little if the people are old, young, disadvantaged or disabled. It seems that even the bored and the disillusioned will succumb to the salve of genuine human connection.

Back in the real world, the perception we are sold is that people are lazy, preferring the couch and a games controller to work and responsibility.

This may be true for some but it is not our natural state. Humans would not be so populous and prosperous today if our ancestors were innate bludgers with no connections. Our genes would have gone the way of the dodo and maybe neanderthals would be thumping their way around the globe.

So next time you hear that we are obese, lazy slobs with diabetes… do not, and I repeat in big letters, DO NOT believe this nonsense.

Instead, go get yourself a copy of Radical Help, read it and then go lobby your local politician.

Don’t tell them to change the system, just let them know that people are all-powerful, they just need a helping hand, not a handout.

Seriously, go read it. You will be amazed.

This is pivot day

This is pivot day

I don’t know why it’s this day, but today is pivotal.

It is the day when the past is very different to the future.

Today is when the passengers in the global busload of humanity wake and realise that the driver is heading for the cliff of chaos with his foot on the floor.

Today people realise.

They start to squirm in their seats.

This day they mutter amongst themselves, they tell the driver to apply the brake and steer away or else.

This is the day.

26 September 2019

Mark it.

Put a sticky on it, make a special diary entry, come back to note that this day happened, the day of the first twitch toward a better future.

Nobody knows because we are lazy

Nobody knows because we are lazy

It is hilarious when the ‘nobody knows’ card is played on the TV quiz show QI because it signifies trivia we do know is so obscure and seemingly irrelevant to anything that when the gotcha comes it is just weird.

What ‘Quite Interesting’ does illustrate beautifully, as it takes the piss out of our insatiable desire to know something nobody else does, is that humans are too curious for our own good. We rummage around finding out about the most obscure topics and then we remember large amounts of what we found. Staggeringly large amounts.

If you think about it, that a comic actor should know that ‘the Dyslexia Research Centre is in Reading’ is amazing and bizarre in equal measure. #RespectAllan.

We could dip into some evolutionary biology trivia. This will tell us the ability to seek, find and remember small points of difference in things is a core skill set for our success as a species. It meant we knew where to find food when it mattered, recognise danger from the smallest signs, to retain that information for a long time and to experiment with finding new resources. Add communication along with the division of labour to that mix and we’re off.

So our brains are set up to find and store detail. This is good.

But not everyone does trivia. No two faces are the same and neither are the brains that sit behind them.

Some people are really good at finding information and retain little; others can remember what their daughter was wearing to her friend’s birthday party three years ago. This is good too. It means that we have a range of abilities within the core skill set so that people can specialise in certain tasks. This makes tasks easier to complete if the adept person is the one to do it and provides the raw material for the essential division of labour.

Aggregate this across a modern society and we have any number of skills, trades, and functions performed mostly by the people best suited to them. This makes our systems efficient and also helps explain why humans have taken over the world.

So far this is a euphoric post, a vision of success through an explanation of why we hold on to information and anecdotes with no obvious benefit.

Only some people are not very good at trivia. They may have poor memory or just not inclined to widen their knowledge. They might be in the wrong place where their particular talent or inclination is not needed for any useful tasks or the system can’t match their skill to a need. No matching process can be perfect so we have to accept some errors.

So now, out of the blue, I’m going to suggest another reason. Perhaps some people are lazy.

Yes, it could be that the reason they don’t know is that they just don’t put in the effort. They don’t read, they don’t talk about issues with their friends, they don’t watch the news even though they rarely get off the couch. It is sad but true. Some of us are lazy buggers with no motivation to understand the magnificent world we live in.

Shame on us lazy bastards. Shame on our fat arses.

Get off the couch, go read something with evidence in it and then think about what you have read. Talk to your friends about it and argue with them. Debate the issues of the day and set that immensely powerful brain of yours to work on a challenge.

Please do this. Your life depends on it.

Will we die of the populist virus?

Will we die of the populist virus?

A populist virus is with western democracy and we have no vaccine.

The virus is virulent with insidious symptoms that begin with the loss of rhyme and reason flowing seamlessly into early-onset imbecility and then late-stage demagoguery. So far there is no cure for the frat party gone wild.

Unlike the cold and flu virus that mutates away into any number of strains and generates fever, coughs and sore throats enough to put all the men in bed for a week, the populist virus is a dandy thing. It incites bouts of clapping, cheering, and crowdsourced glee at almost anything said by a carrier. As its designation suggests, it goes viral online faster than anything carried by a flea and contaminates all feeds all the time.

Being devoid of content, antibodies have nothing to attach to, making it difficult in the extreme for any would-be medic, not even big pharma has enough resources to find an antidote.

Alistair Campbell, spin doctor and thought machine behind Tony Blair and New Labour from the mid-1990s in the UK, talks about the populist virus and had this to say when considering the choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the next UK Prime Minister

“I mean, we have gone from figures like Thatcher leading the Tory party to this being the choice. But also, it was the extent to which the really simplistic, populist, fact-free rhetoric was the stuff which was getting the applause. Where even five, 10 years ago, there would have been the absolute howl of ‘How are you going to pay for it? What happens if that doesn’t happen?’

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 I was just about to become a university student. It was a painful time but boy did she get things done. Neo-liberalism was embraced and before anyone really knew what was happening the unions were busted and ordinary folk up and down the UK were buying their terrace house and giving birth to yuppies. Much of this was new and scary and ego-centric but mountains moved.

Likely that the early mutations of the populist virus, the ones with little chance of real success appeared around that time when there were still enough howling to weed them out.

Today we do not have any leaders worthy of the name anywhere except in New Zealand. Consequently, the virus has the freedom to spawn, spread and mess with everyone’s heads so much that people cheer at the detention of women and children in cages at borders.

This is frightening. Not many would look back at the political climate of the UK in the early eighties and lament its strong leadership. At the time it felt like a rape of a socialist ethos, today you would take it in a heartbeat for at least you knew what the leaders were about.

Now we have a virus afflicting normal people with insanity.

Is the populist virus fatal?

Well, we know that populism is doing well and is spreading. Some folk have an innate resistance to it but can still carry it forward to others.

It is pushing evidence and facts to one side as it bends minds away from even the most obvious of conclusions. It means we are running blind into a world that is still adding 8,000 new people per hour and where 3.3 billion souls are getting by on $5.50 per day.

The estimate from the agricultural research community is that by 2030 we need to increase global grain production by over a billion tonnes and meat production by 180 million tonnes, just to get close to the rising demand. That’s 2% per annum food production growth across the board each and every year for a generation. Just because we achieved such a miracle once before in the 1940s and 50s, does not mean we can automatically do it again.

Blindness is not necessarily fatal unless you think you can see. Then you can easily walk out in front of a bus.

The real difficulty with this virus seems to be the antidote. What to take to reduce the effects of imbecility. On this problem, everyone is at a loss, even Jacinta.

Progressives are old and tired and the centre is scurrying to the populist left to express the symptoms of the virus there.

Fringe alternatives are unable to grasp the magnitude of the task for the mainstream – we can’t all live on a mountaintop on goats milk.

The ivory towers are mute and even George Monbiot is struggling to find a whinge.

You know what? I think maybe we will collapse under the weight of this virus or a subsequent mutation of it.

At the very least too many of us will succumb after two terms of Donald, another two of Ivanka, even five minutes of Boris, and become rabid, spreading infection out to the entire world.

But I have a solution…

Get everyone to read The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga and inoculate ourselves with some Adlerian psychology.

The awareness chasm

The awareness chasm

Take yourself to a glacier in the Alps.

It is a fine spring day and you are descending toward the green pastures in the valley below. The ice is slippery as the sun beats down on it but all is well as your experienced guide has filled everyone on your trek with confidence and humour.

As the smell of the fields reaches your nostrils the guide stops and raises her hand.

In front of you the glacier has inched forward and cracked right across the chosen path. It has opened a bottomless hole toward the earth two meters wide. In the few hours since your party passed this way the glacier just reminded everyone that they are standing on a frozen river.

What happens if you try to cross this chasm?

There are no ropes or ladders or material for a bridge. You will have to jump.

Realistically, only one of two things can happen.

Success or failure, the latter bringing certain pain and likely death.

What to do then? Take the risky leap or walk an unknown distance around the obstacle? Perhaps decide that either option is too scary and staying where you are is the safest choice.

There is something similar hidden in the minds of consumers.

They stand on one side of a mental chasm where the milk and meat come from the fridge in aisle 3. On the other side is what it takes to breed, feed and slaughter the livestock to actually produce the milk and the mince.

The same applies to aisle 1 where the bread is stacked. How it gets there is on the other side of a mental chasm. Most of us eating the smashed avocado on sourdough toast know very little about where the deliciousness came from beyond the Blue Moon cafe on the high street.

Only the glacier analogy is a poor one.

Consumers are not on a trek. They don’t perceive the awareness gap at all and whilst there are supermarkets with produce and checkouts there is no need to even think about it. So long as a proportion of household income allocated to food, usually somewhere around 10 to 15%, is available in their current account, it is easy to tap away and load the SUV with the weekly shop. No questions asked.

Now we should say that these generalisations apply to the billion or so people who are at level 4 in Hans Rosling’s development scale, the people that live on more than $64 per day. The 6.5 billion humans on levels 1, 2 and 3 who must survive on less than this are far more aware. Those on level 1 with less than $1 per day of income, acutely so.

However, most of the money flows via those in level 4 and so the supply chain is designed for them. It is long and complex. It makes it possible for seasonal fruits to be on the shelves in all seasons with only modest price fluctuations.

Supply chains mean the shelves and fridges are well stocked and it means that there is no need to even think that a chasm exists let alone be in a position to have to cross it unaided.

There is a chasm of scale though between the individual consumer and the system of production. Most people on level 4 don’t know it exists but they should.

Why they don’t is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone understand what it takes to run one. They are consumers not producers and fair dues. It is enough to know how to select the cut of meat, roast it with sliced fennel and serve with a red wine jus.

It is also important to the psyche to know that there is food in the supermarket at all times. No need to worry or hoard produce. Just rock up and tap your card. Sustenance is a base need that seems surprisingly easy to cheat. We are too easily fooled that supply chain to the supermarket will always work. We don’t see a psychological chasm of food insecurity at all any more, even though this was a primal driver for our ancestors and for over half the global population still.

It may be that this psychological chasm of food security has to open up before we realise it is there.

Instead we have an awareness chasm. Only there is no reason for us to cross. It’s just a precipitous gap in the ice that looks dangerous.

Everything we need is on our side so meh, why worry?

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison. For me, it meant I could now travel across the border from my home in Botswana to visit the fantastic country of South Africa. I went many times over the next few years often to Sun City in Bophuthatswana.

Beyond my own minuscule protest, I was not really present to the truth of what was happening until on one visit to Sun City I saw Johnny Clegg perform. I knew a little of his music but not much about him other than he was one of the few white musicians to integrate himself fully into black Africa.

Near the middle of the set, he introduced what he said was a new song called ‘The Crossing’ dedicated to his friend Dudu Ndlovu who was assassinated during the apartheid struggle. It talks about how the spirit crosses over, the spirit of a friend.

I am playing it now and cannot control the sobs for this truth cradles the soul.

Many years later when Johnny Clegg came to Australia I went to see him play in Sydney.

Older and wiser, and now very familiar with his music, I realised that this man was pure of heart and soul, his songs and his presence letting the world know of his love for his fellow man and for Africa, a love that we should all embrace.

Johnny Clegg passed away this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 66.

My tears are in sadness and memory of a musician and a man that helped me understand part of my own journey.

They are also in thanks for his life and his music that blessed this earth.

Are we busier these days?

Are we busier these days?

Are we actually busier than in the past

I’m constantly told that everyone is busy. We have so much to do that there is no time to do anything more. Everyone is busy, busy, busy, full, chockers, not a moment to spare.

Every time somebody asks you to do something, the request will begin “I know you’re busy but…”

Only, is this actually true? Are we actually busier today than we were in the past?

Certainly, we have more distractions these days. Barely a minute goes by without a ping to notify us of a crucial message and it is now compulsory to have at least two internet-compatible devices at your disposal whilst watching Netflix on the big-screen TV.

So yes, there is a lot going on.

But let’s go back a while to our ancestors, maybe 20,000 years before there was any serious agriculture. In these times people were very busy indeed.

Failure to be busy meant starvation for they had to be out looking for food all the time. And they couldn’t be lax, for failure to be vigilant at all times meant that either the predator with large teeth or the tribe with sharp spears threatened your life. There was barely a moment when it was safe to switch off and simply gaze at the stars. Our hunter-gatherer forebears were very busy, they had to be.

Now let’s come forward in time to 100 years before the Industrial Revolution, say around 1650 when Oliver Cromwell was fighting a civil war and Istanbul was the largest city in the world. There was no electricity, no running water, only basic sanitation, and almost all the amenities of life required active business. Agriculture was organised and provided people with food but it also sucked in their labour and, as with the times of hunting and gathering, failure to be busy meant you starved. Folk in the Middle Ages were very busy indeed.

Just 100 years ago during the first World War when vehicles, industry, bullets, and bombs had arrived in the west, people still had a lot to do just to maintain themselves. They had jobs but the low wages meant they had to work all hours just to get enough money to buy food and clothing they needed. They sent their kids to work as soon as they could stand upright and never knew if there would be enough. Even these early beneficiaries of the industrial revolution had things to do.

You could argue that electricity and the myriad of technology that goes with it made many of the time sucking chores of the past fly off into the distance. Today, the average westerner no longer has to spend time scrubbing his clothes by hand, tilling the fields, chopping wood for the fire or raising and slaughtering the goat. But instead, we are busy, busy, busy with…

Well, nothing really.

We are busy working just like all those who went before us and then we are busy entertaining ourselves.

It seems as though we have no time and we are constantly on the go but the reality is that this is a choice. We actually choose to be busy for today we don’t have to be that busy at all.

We could work enough just to live simply.

We could put the devices away and chat or gaze at the stars.

We could spend time doing nothing.

We could… and this is the difference. In the past, people could not.