The psychology of reducing consumption?

I’ve been challenged this week by an article in Nature Communications. It warns starkly how affluent consumption is the leading factor in environmental and social impact. And the major technological advances we are making are not enough to outweigh its effects and won’t ever be. Consumption levels have to change.

The paper describes the evidence from numerous studies showing consumption by affluent households worldwide is the strongest determinant and accelerator of global environmental and social damage. They argue that any transition to sustainability cannot be achieved by technology advancements or ‘greening’ of consumption. There has to be a significant reduction in inessential consumption by the affluent nations. The problem is that competitive market economies have a structural imperative for continuous growth based on ever increasing production and consumption. And our cultural norms and beliefs have now evolved around these.

We are currently witnessing this in real time with the Covid-19 pandemic. When you stop all inessential (but not essential note!) consumption, our economy and job market collapses. Then, when “inessential”(sic) shops re-open, the prime minister and the chancellor beg us all to “get out shopping” and spend on inessential consumables as our “civic duty” to get the economy back on its feet. In the past 24 hours, Rishi Sunak has twice stated that more than any country, our UK economy is based on consumption. Sadly, he is right given how our economy is currently structured. But Westminster shows no signs of recognising or planning for how we change our economic structures and consumer culture to meet the carbon reduction goals they have signed up to.

I hope that the appearance and traction of alternative economic models like Doughnut Economics and Universal Basic Income along with the stated ambition of countries like New Zealand to make the wellbeing of people and planet the goal of their economies will start to prove there are other ways of operating. As a Celtic resident, it’s encouraging that both Scotland and Wales have joined Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership.

Leaving the considerable economic challenges of new operational models to the economists, I’m happier thinking about the psychology of consumers here on the ground. Can our affluent nations be weaned off inessential consumption into other less harmful ways (both environmentally and socially) to live enjoyable, stimulating, healthy and meaningful lives.

It’s not going to be easy but my own experience of research in consumer psychology makes me hopeful that this is not a regression to a hair-shirt, less prosperous existence. Here are my reasons:-

Our needs for a good life are independent of our current means of fulfilling them

Beyond our basic physical needs of food, shelter and protection from disease, we all share a set of fundamental psychological needs to live well and happily. These include: stimulation (physical, mental and emotional), connection with others and a sense of our own identity/worth. These are the things which release “well-being” chemicals into our system (serotonin, oxytocin, adrenalin etc) which give us that buzz of excitement, warmth or happiness and make life worth living. Unfortunately, in the last 50 years we have developed the cultural habit of looking to fulfil many of these through material consumption.

From time to time, I have analysed people’s language to uncover how consumer products have fulfilled one or other of these needs beyond the product’s utilitarian function. A mobile ‘phone is far more than a simple communication device and clothing is far more than something to keep us warm. The bad news is that we have developed a shared culture where inessential consumption is now accepted as the principal, if not the only, way to live well and be happy and the only way to create jobs and keep the economy going.  This is despite research showing that we are actually less happy now than we were in the 1950’s when we had a fraction of the material goods we own and rely on today.

But the good news is that each of these wellbeing needs can be fulfilled in different ways … often more powerfully.

Experiences are more satisfying than material products

Spending on experiences, rather than products (e.g. restaurant meals, holidays, sports) has grown significantly over the past 30 years. A survey  conducted by Harris Poll in 2014 found that 78% of Millenials would prefer to spend money on a desirable experience or event over a desirable object. Also, U.S. consumer expenditure on live events doubled between 1990 and 2010.

Research also shows that that experiences deliver more in terms of stimulation, happiness and self worth both in anticipation of their purchase and because their positive effects last longer after the purchase compared to material purchases.  This is partly because of the enjoyment in relating the story of one’s experience to others.

From an environmental point of view, the good news is that experiences do not necessarily require any material production although some (most notably air travel) have a very high carbon footprint.  But finding ways to meet our need for stimulation, human connection and identity through experiential rather than material consumption is definitely something to be encouraged wherever possible particularly if travel by aircraft can be avoided. Active, rather than passive experiences which enable consumers to shape the product through their own individual expression, skills or creativity deliver the biggest buzz.

 Many of people’s enjoyable and meaningful activities have minimal environmental (or economic) impact

In 2017, I carried out a survey of 300 UK residents to discover what activities they had engaged in over the past month which they’d either enjoyed, found meaningful and/or had made a difference to something or someone. I was surprised and encouraged to find that most of the activities they described had minimal environmental impact (e.g. walking the dog, playing sport, gardening, reading, volunteering) and mostly involved no material consumption at all. Interestingly, shopping as an activity was rarely mentioned.

Where enjoyable activities made an economic contribution, it was either via services like gyms or clubs or entertainment events or via media content providers like books, TV and music. The activities they described often cost them little or nothing and personal income levels had little effect on what they did or how much they spent. This suggests that we are actually less hooked on inessential material consumption than maybe either we, our government or the media think we are. Unfortunately, because the government is locked in an economy and jobs market based on consumption, they require us to be hooked which is why they are currently begging and incentivising usback  into the manufacture and consumption of inessential goods regardless of carbon targets.

It would be interesting to re-run my 2017 survey to explore what activities people engaged in during lockdown which they found enjoyable, meaningful or made a difference and how were these different given there was no inessential consumption – other than online. Results would be distorted because people suffered badly from the lack of contact with close family and friends which we know is a vital psychological need but, fortunately not one which requires material consumption of any kind.

So, as the Covid-19 rules are relaxed, will we get re-hooked into inessential consumption or will we look to other ways to fulfil our need for stimulation, social connectedness and identity? The planet meanwhile hangs in the balance.

 

 

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Shit & capitalism – anything in common?

I first encountered the concept of Faecal Standard Money from two members of the Science Walden Centre based in South Korea. The ramifications of their project have fascinated me ever since in relation to our capitalistic mindset here in the UK. As a psychologist, I like it because it’s an example of how doing affects thinking. It doesn’t matter if the experiment doesn’t necessarily scale. The doing experiment itself will inform our thinking.

The project was developed by a combination of artists and scientists at Science Walden. Jaeweon Cho, Director of the Science Walden Centre, dreamed of a scientific method of making odourless powders from our faeces, and replacing money with that powder as an alternative to our current system—i.e., “faeces standard money (FSM).” In reality, the current project consists of a waterless toilet system that converts human waste into fertilizers and biofuel which can then be sold (in principle) to make money.

(This is not total fantasy. A U.N. report estimates that globally, human waste converted to fuel could have a value of about $9.5 billion. The amount of waste produced just by the 1 billion people with no sanitation facilities could be worth up to $376 million in methane production alone — enough to power 10 to 18 million households. The compressed, solid residue would also produce the equivalent of up to 8.5 million tons of charcoal for industrial use.)

Back to Cho’s team who developed a smartphone app for the Centre’s toilet users which tracks the weight of their treated waste and assigns a monetary value to it. Depositors (if that’s the right term) can spend their ‘money’ on a set of products within the centre. The idea is to get people to think differently about their own waste, its potential ecological value and the wider relationship between money and value. Apparently, a person averages a faecal output of 400 grams/day or 145kg/year.

For a while, my artist colleagues and I have been exploring the disconnection between value and money. How can we unravel and rework a capitalism which is based on endless economic growth dependent on us all consuming ever more material stuff which damages our finite planet and does not make us any happier? And the vast wealth generated from all our material consumption flows to a tiny minority of the population who generally don’t invest it back into society but use it to grow their own personal wealth.

So, here are the things which fascinate me about faecal waste (a.k.a shit).

It’s a taboo topic (as is personal wealth incidentally) but we all produce it every day. So, if it was actually worth something as a consequence of ecological recycling then every one one of us has a means (albeit tiny) of making a societal contribution. We each have monetary value!

And, we would be making money out of contributing something into the ecological system rather than consuming something from it as is our required role in today’s economic structure.

Ideally, we need to excrete our waste matter every day. If we don’t, we get constipated because we are holding onto something which our body no longer needs and will ultimately cause pain and can be fatal. How different life would be if money was like that, i.e. fine when we used it but increasingly uncomfortable for us to hold onto if we had no immediate need for it. When we have some, we should spend it for something needed today while it’s fresh and before “it goes off” . Interestingly, Freud even suggested a link between money and a toddler learning to control their bowels – when to hold onto faeces and, most critically, when to let go. He suggested that people who never learned to let go were the kind of adults who hoarded money rather than spend it. Who knows with Freud, but it’s an interesting thought.

In a similar vein, the Old Testament relates the story of the Israelites in the desert where God rained down manna (a snow like material) for them to eat every morning but the manna went off if not eaten immediately. If you tried to stock pile it for another day then it “bred worms and stank“.

In today’s society, the poorest live from day to day while the richest have far more money stored away than they could possibly ever spend today on their own needs or pleasure however hard they tried. Arguably, this money no longer has functional value if there aren’t enough things they could possibly spend it on on any day. If they choose to keep storing it and adding to it (because wealth in our system accrues wealth), they will certainly become bloated and may ultimately suffer from a dangerous form of constipation. Ouch.

Read more about Science Walden’s projects here.

 

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What does redundant really mean?

SunakIt looks like masses of people will become redundant as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown.

And our economic systems and government policies have made paid employment the sole means to reliably feed, clothe and house your family.  It is also how we recognise the individual worth of citizens who make a valuable contribution to society. The oft used phrase “hard working” only refers to people in paid jobs. And the pandemic has highlighted that,  even in employment,  pay doesn’t reflect the relative value to society of any particular job (or even its utility at all!).

But what does it mean to be “redundant” . I looked it up and here’s the modern, most common definition.

not or no longer needed or useful; superfluous

So, people will now have to prove their eligibility for Universal Credit in the hopes that will pay them enough to eat and pay the rent (although probably not any mortgage). But just as bad, the label defines them as “not or no longer needed or useful” – up and until they secure another job – however poorly paid or ill-matched to their skills or interests that is.

Could we look at this differently? Is anyone ever actually “redundant” in that sense. Dr Katherine Trebeck has argued that our economic system lacks the resilience it needs because it has no inbuilt redundancy or slack. As profit and shareholder dividends became the goal, we developed Just-in-Time manufacturing followed by Just-in-Time employment to cut any slack out of the system and thereby maximise efficiency and profit for the benefit of wealthy shareholders.

In contrast, nature is one system that thrives on abundance making it very resilient. Why does the term abundant feel like a much more positive term than redundant? Again, I looked it up. The dictionary definition has a more positive feel:

existing or available in large quantities; plentiful

Abundance certainly would have felt a preferable state in relation to numerous critical items, people and services during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic here. Presumably, those staff, equipment and services were deemed “not or no longer needed or useful” at various points in the last few years.

Whilst the modern definitions and common usage of “redundant” and “abundant” express something so different, they actually share the same Latin root and clearly were synonomous in earlier times. The Latin root is “surging up” – again an entirely different feel.

Working with my artist colleagues is teaching me ways to explore knowing differently so I stopped thinking at this point and simply drew what came to mind in relation to the those two words – ‘redundant’ and ‘abundant’ – and their common Latin root to see what might emerge.

This is what emerged on the paper as I drew… so, could we choose a world where no-one was ever labelled as redundant, paid employment or no? Given a sustainable basis, everyone has the ability to contribute uniquely to the common good. Surgepic

 

 

 

 

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The Covid who came for G&T

G&T with CovidOK, so the unexpected ring at the door WAS a surprise but I (being both ‘home’ and ‘alert’) saw it as an opportunity to face the enemy and try to understand her perspective on causing a devestating pandemic.

She did suggest that I sit 2 metres away and keep the hand sanitiser handy.

The G&T and crisps disappeared pretty rapidly (do tigers and Covids have something in common maybe?) but we conversed for a while once I’d got over the initial shock and had a stiff gin inside me.

I suppose, not surprisingly, she said she sees herself “leading” rather than following “the science” – laughing disparagingly at my New Scientist lying on the table and saying she’s thoroughly enjoying leading those guys a merry and unco-ordinated dance (her words not mine).

I asked her motivation and, I guess fair enough, she pointed out that she simply exists to reproduce and have her species thrive even if that’s at others’ expense. “How am I any different from any other biological species? We are all concerned with number 1, no?

I slowly nudged the conversation round to the dreadful death and destruction she is causing. I’m afraid she laughed huskily (not a pleasant sound at all) before hitting back hard. “What do you mean ‘dreadful death and destruction’ – compared to you humans? At least I know the death and destruction I am causing. You guys are only just waking up to how your desire for endless growth by consuming everything in your path is killing the world and how your economy allows the poor to die”.

“…..And, more to the point, I’m simply programmed to do what I do. But you humans can make choices about what kind of values, lifestyles, politics and culture you want to replicate and what gets killed or destroyed en route. “

Hey, maybe I’ve even done you humans some good – cleaner air, time to stop and think, finally recognising who your critical workers actually are and I’ve even got your Tory government acting like big state socialists.. Who’d have thought?. Ever read Solzhenitsyn? “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”?”.

And with that, she polished off the second bowl of crisps and said she was heading back to England where life now looked a hell of a lot easier than here in Wales.


Making an imaginary Covid-19 was inspired by a combination of Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4 where the topic on Monday 11th May was fantasy and the children’s book by Judith Kerr “The Tiger who came to Tea”. I was curious about what we might talk about.

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What effect is Covid-19 having on our thinking?

Stuck at home in isolation, I’ve been wondering (as have many others) what impact Covid-19 is having on our thinking about the world we’d like to inhabit beyond the pandemic.

In this weird, lonely and suspended state, we long for a return to “normality”. At the same time, there’s a growing sense that we don’t want (or possibly can’t even have) a return to “normality” as we have known it. We are suspended in time right now between two worlds and that creates opportunity for reflection and change. As the quote says “never let a good crisis go to waste“.

I’ve been analysing hundreds of online comments discussing the economic ramifications of Covid-19 to try to gain a sense of the language and the mood at least in some circles.  Admittedly these are circles where people were uncomfortable already with the way our Western neo-liberal society was headed and the values and politics driving it. So, this is not necessarily representative of the wider population.

My symbolic burning of a sacred cow

However, whatever one’s views, there are certainly much garlanded sacred cows which, whilst not being slaughtered outright, are certainly having their value and importance questioned.

To name a few: economic growth (built on consumption and debt), GDP, the market, and paid jobs for all.

The following are some patterns I am seeing emerging (conceivably because I want to!)….

An acknowledgement that we got ourselves in this mess. It was inevitable given the way we had structured our society and its priorities for the past 50 years.

An aversion to “going back to “normal” because “normal” is what got us in this mess.

An ideal that, post Covid-19, we need to evolve a new economic model with many of the following characteristics:-

  •  it protects our planet and recognises that we humans are part of it not magically separate from it,
  •  it doesn’t rely on growth based on endlessly buying and consuming material stuff,
  •  it isn’t fuelled by debt,
  •  it redistributes wealth more equitably,
  • it recognises and pays well those people whose work and skills are most critical for the common good – e.g. nurses, carers, cleaners, drivers, shop assistants, etc
  • it prioritises public spending on that which benefits the common good – the environment, NHS, Social care, education, infrastructure, housing, community and creative and cultural activity,
  • it reduces people’s dependence on a wage in order to live,
  • it acknowledges death as part of the natural cycle of life.

These are reflections from my particular Covid island. For a much more thorough analysis of our economic choices going forward, I recommend this article.

 

 

 

 

 

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Our shadow selves…

“Imagination …. reason in her most exalted mood” (William Wordsworth)

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Technology trials & tribulations

The Prospectory agenda  (assuming we were ever formal enough to have such a thing) suffered a significant set back when Peter was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in December 2017.

Having said that, our combined interests in technology and psychology are getting well exercised as we learn how to adapt to living with Peter’s progressive loss of muscle power.

Some things we are learning for the first time; others we are re-encountering from  experiences over the years in technology research. Here are some examples:-

Single function wins every time

I confess to a long term dislike of multi-function devices. They lack affordance ( an object’s visible or tangible properties that signal clearly the actions users can take with it), e.g. door handles, push buttons, hooks, sliders or well designed screen icons). In contrast, multi-function devices require a user model – “what will it do?” and “how do I make it to do that?”. You can find yourself in the ‘wrong’ mode just when you need to act and sometimes the different modes interact in unfortunate ways.

So, here’s an example. Peter can no longer turn the lock and open our front door. Generously funded by the ever wonderful NHS, we were assessed for appropriate technology support which was installed some months ago by the private technology company who design and manufacture it.  Unfortunately, it’s a multi-function system designed (at least in principle) to control a whole range of household functions mainly via an app on a dedicated ipad. – TV, lights and phones as well as the front door .

Radio key fob for opening door

The best thing is that the “system” includes an independent single function radio fob. You can hang it round your neck and press its one button (from anywhere in the house) to open the front door. It’s perfect for our needs except you can’t distinguish between friends and axe murderers (not that we have a lot of these in rural Wales) before opening the door to let them in.

But the all singing, all-dancing ‘system’ includes an intercom with the doorbell so, in principle, you can talk to the caller to establish their identity before opening the door to let them in. But, unfortunately you can’t do that from the radio fob. And the doorbell, rather than sounding a loud bell in the house, causes the ‘phone (well at least one dedicated handset) to ring. If  we don’t happen to be in the same room as the handset,  we don’t hear it or, if we are otherwise occupied and think it’s a phone call (which it kind of is albeit with a different ring tone) we might leave it to go to Voicemail to pick up later – all while some poor friend, delivery person or even would-be axe murderer is stuck waiting on the

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i.e. Please use the other doorbell, not this one!

doorstep. If you hear the ‘phone, what you are meant to do is pick it up and you can then speak to the intercom. You can’t actually open the door though. That requires the ipad or the key fob. So, embarrassingly,  we have had to sellotape a sign on the intercom bell pointing to the old (less conspicuous) doorbell which we need people to press if they are guaranteed to get a response.

The function which seems to really excite the suppliers is the TV automatically muting when you answer the ‘phone! However, unfortunately if you are using the ‘phone when the doorbell goes, it interrupts the call completely not offering the chance to ignore it or explain to your ‘phone caller what is happening.

So, we’ve switched off as much of the system as we can and are just happily using the simple radio key fob.  Ironically though, the lock on the door having been changed, Peter now finds he can now open the door by hand!

Physics 101 for MND sufferers – Friction vs slipperiness

If you have very poor grip or muscle function, then suddenly textural properties of everyday objects gain huge significance but they have to be the right way around. Friction when you need slipperiness means things get stuck and slipperiness when you need friction means things get dropped or can’t be picked up at all.  So,  we have switched to fleece jackets and coats with slippy nylon linings and silky night shirts because otherwise, you’ll never get them on or off or (in the case of night shirts) be able to turn over in bed. But the opposite (friction) is what you need when you can’t squeeze your fingers together to create friction and you need to pick something up or open a jar. And friction is also useful (we discover) for working one’s socks on by pushing the foot against the carpet or to work one’s trousers on by lying on the bed and wriggling!

This kind of easily obtainable grippy material is invaluable.

sticky

Useful grippy/sticky stuff

Physics 101 for MND sufferers (cont) : Skeletons are invaluable

There’s nothing like losing muscle function to discover the value of your skeleton! The trick is to find ways of using your skeletal structure instead of using muscle. A skeleton is arguably like a  table – it’s a strong and stable structure which, physics will tell you, involves no energy to support a weight. So, Peter can carry surprisingly heavy things as long as his arms are straight and we’ve found a way of attaching them to him which don’t require grip! If the arms are bent at all, it won’t work because then muscles are involved. As Peter happily explains to people, a dead horse can carry the same weight of rider as a living one – it just won’t take him anywhere!

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Enjoying irrationality

What I like doing best is Nothing.”

How do you do Nothing?,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Oh!” said Pooh.”

A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh

———————————————–

Activities with my artist colleagues, the Larks & Ravens, sometimes feel like this. When the Larks & Ravens are struggling to understand something or don’t know what to do next, we make an effort to stop talking or thinking and start doing instead – sometimes drawing, sometimes making or manipulating physical materials and seeing where that takes us. This is so different to my previous experience of beating a troublesome topic to death through endless discussion. Doing is nearly always rewarding but, as with Christopher Robin, the tricky bit is when someone asks you “what you are doing?” and you simply have no rational answer. Is it our fear of looking or acting crazy – i.e. not in a way which makes logical sense to those around?

Last Friday we were ‘playing’ with materials by a bus stop in a community (where we are working) because we had got stuck as to what made sense to do next to trigger conversations. All we had to hand was a very large red hot air balloon cover and a council wheelie bin so we started seeing what we could do with them. A lady waiting for the bus asked “what are you doing?”. “We don’t know” we replied. Another man, who’d watched us for a while, came over asking “can I help at all? … just explain to me what you are you trying to do!”. We “explained” that we had absolutely no idea but would he like to red bus stophelp?!  Having such conversations in public is certainly awkward but also interesting. It makes you question why we think our normal life makes rational sense when ‘playing’ with a red tent and a wheelie bin by a bus stop doesn’t. What’s the critical difference?  Is it just that we have a set of culturally acceptable narratives of what counts as rational activity?

(I have put ‘playing’ in inverted commas here because we certainly weren’t playing in the dictionary definition sense of “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose” (OED). Our actions were both serious and practical (as well as playful) but I can’t find another word which works in this context).

Some argue that an important role of art in our modern society is as a resistance to the logic of making sense … or, should I say, believing that what we do in our everyday lives makes sense … because does it? really?

 

 

 

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A small rant about project ‘outcomes’

I’ve just completed a project proposal which required a section entitled ‘Outcomes’ ( “The way a thing turns out” according to the OED). Grant Applications often require this too along with a description of  “Outputs” (“The amount of something produced by a person, machine, or industry” according to the OED).

The most rewarding aspect of work I do in collaboration with my artist colleagues is that we don’t know what might happen until we do something! No-one does. We can certainly tell you our motivations and roughly what we plan to do first but even what we do after that will change depending on “the way things actually turn out“!.  To me, that’s the power (and joy) of art.

Of course, there are cases where you know exactly what you want the outputs and outcome of a project to be (although, in my experience, it still rarely works quite as you planned). But, even in such cases, the fact that you declared your outcomes in advance can shut down alternatives or surprises emerging en route and may mean you miss out on a better or more interesting result.

Thinking back to my more traditional working days as an experimental psychologist – I didn’t have to declare what the desired outcome of any planned experiment would be but rather the outcome (a.k.a. a null hypothesis) which my carefully designed experiment would set out to disprove. Designed well, the actual ‘outcome’ could still surprise (and often did) challenging one’s developing theory and forcing you to think again.

Declaring desired outcomes in advance and then setting out carefully to realise them as stated feels at best narrow minded and, at worst, self confirming. You are likely to select the data which fits and consult the experts who agree with you. Disruptions and misfits (data or people) are not welcome.

I guess the question may be – do you want to have your pre-conceptions challenged and be open to surprising or uncomfortable outcomes? If you don’t, my advice would be to stay clear of involving artists and live an altogether duller life!

(For some reason, I’m reminded of 3M’s accidental invention of Post-it Notes as a result of a failed experiment with a glue which didn’t stick properly.)

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What’s £10 worth?

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My artist colleagues and I are on Day 5 of our short residency in Newport Market – learning surprising things every week about exchange and value and the weird and distorting nature of money.

The last 2 visits we’ve been copying a £10 note and painting a huge version on the wall of our stall. This week, market customers stopped to chat and draw with us. The questions about value just keep on coming…

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