The power of oblique

I enjoy working with my 2 visual artist colleagues precisely because they push me out from the comfortably rational into other ways of doing and knowing.

Together, we’ve been exploring the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI). We generated a list of ‘rational’ questions which underpin the concept of UBI, e.g. “what is a citizen of the UK worth?“, “ what would you do you if you had an independent income?” , “is it one’s social duty to get a job?”, “is art a worthwhile activity?” As the three of us have been working remotely together during lockdowns, we’ve been experimenting with ways to address these questions through drawing.

Much of the power of art is the surprising insight it gives into a familiar topic through its very indirection or obliqueness. For example, “The poet” (writes Rowan Williams) ” is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another, the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness“. Similarly, the visual artist Robert Irwin talked about the role of art as “the placing of your attention on the periphery of knowing” .This requires stepping out from (beyond even?) our more familiar rational lines of enquiry.

The technique we’ve developed is to select one of our UBI questions and then blindly pick an everyday object lying around the house. We then each spend some time examining the object – looking at it, feeling it, sometimes tasting or smelling it and then drawing it at the same time as holding the UBI question somewhere in mind. It can feel crazy (especially if someone asks what you are doing!) but the result is always surprising, often entertaining and a great stimulant for further discussion.

Here are a couple of examples of what I (the ‘irrational psychologist’ in the team) generated…….

The question “ what would you do you if you had an independent income?” happened to be twinned with a sellotape dispenser. As I studied and drew the sellotape, I found myself wondering how I’d view what I’d do if I was actually a sellotape dispenser with the financial freedom to explore and use my individual ‘sellotapeness’ in any way I enjoyed, or added value.

A second question “is it one’s social duty to get a job?” happened to be twinned with a tube of allergenic face cream. Again (the rational part of me wondering what the hell I was doing!), I looked at, squeezed and drew the skin cream tube in relation to the question of whether it felt my duty to get a job. I ended up writing new descriptions on the tube.

As someone with life long troubleseome skin, I was really struck by how skin creams are offered again and again as a panacea but they never actual fix the underlying problem but they have to be sold as if they do and you have to act as if you believed it. Is that like bullshit jobs which might provide a wage to live on but leave you spotty, unfulfilled and itchy!

As a psychologist, I’m interested in our own irrational thinking and behaviour (which we rarely recognise) . This exercise turns that on its head – forcing one to approach a rational question in a deliberately irrational or oblique way and finding what that uncovers that you maybe hadn’t thought about before.

My take-away advice – if you are stuck in your thinking, find an irrational artist!

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Forget the statue, what about the plinth?

Toppling Colston’s statue in Bristol

“A heavy base supporting a statue”

In the midst of the hot debate about whether certain public statues should be removed, no-one talks about the plinths on which such statues are erected or considers toppling those as well. Does this mean that the plinth is 100% neutral, i.e. simply “a heavy base supporting a statue or vase” (as the Dictionary defines it).  It is made for structural purposes alone to raise the statue in question to the desired height for public viewing and to support its weight.

My artist colleagues and I have been exploring the social distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ individuals or behaviours in our society and what values these judgements are based on. Given the prominence of the current debate around statues, we recently turned our attention to those and decided to set ourselves the exercise of constructing different kinds of plinths with a view to creating discussion about who alive today might be deserving of a statue on our plinths. As so often with art, the act of trying to construct plinths took my thinking in new directions.  It challenged me into considering what a plinth is for and what it symbolises. Is it entirely neutral?

I now realise how highly symbolic and morally charged the plinths are. No single individual gets to be highly successful on their own. For example, not one of the most successful individuals today – be they politicians, entrepreneurs, business moguls, artists, elite athletes or scientists – achieved that success based on their talent, skills or activities alone without the work of a host of individuals’ unseen and often unrecognised activities or contributions behind the scenes. For some, this might be their school teachers or mentors or earlier ideas, theories and research on which their own ideas, inventions or discoveries are based. For some, it might be the wealth they were lucky to be born or marry into which enabled them to invest or start a business or simply have sufficient personal income to freely pursue their interests. For any one of us citizens, we are only able to do what we do any day thanks to the people we usually don’t know who provide our food, keep our electricity, communications and sewage running smoothly, clean our offices and keep our roads and transport operating.  Thanks to Covid-19 lockdown, we’ve seen that these poorly paid support workers are in fact our “essential workers”. So, the solid plinth on which any statue stands represents all the work of all the individuals who enabled the person featured to achieve whatever they achieved.

Early sugar manufacture

Ah… but I now realise this cuts both ways. Above, I was considering all the ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ contributions which build and maintain the support structure for any successful individual in any walk in life. But turned around, isn’t the same true for the now morally despised individualds like Colston? Who were the many individuals back in 1690 contributing to the ‘structure’ which was the solid base for Colston’s wealth and perceived individual success? Just to list a few: the ship builders, the bankers who financed the build, the dock workers, the sailors, the pilots and of course the entire population who bought and became hooked on the sugar which the slave plantations grew. In 1746, economist Malachi Postlethwaite wrote, “If we have no Negroes, we can have no sugar, tobacco, rum etc. Consequently the public revenue, arising from the importation of plantation produce, will be wiped out. And hundreds of thousands of Britons making goods for the triangular trade will lose their jobs and go a begging“.

Aware or unaware, free to choose their line of work or not, a huge sector of the British population helped construct that solid Colston Plinth, if you will. And the buildings which Colston helped finance are the basis for much of Bristol’s huge attraction and success as a thriving city enjoyed by all its citizens today.

As a society, we will always look for the lone scapegoat rather than each examining our own role in accepting an established society policy or practice and enabling it’s continuation or growth by the every day work we do, the way we vote or (perhaps most significantly) the purchase choices we make. So maybe before we topple the next statue, we need to consider what solid plinths we are are helping build or maintain today?

 

 

 

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First “I’ve Got an Idea” Fund award

We are delighted to announce that our newly formed “I’ve Got an Idea” Fund has granted its first award to Outside Lives Ltd in North Wales to enable their community to build a free standing, mobile, gravity fed, off-grid, handwashing station. This will enable them to open up their outdoor site safely again to their members.

The idea struck us as inspiring and fun.  Designing and building using recyclable materials will certainly require technical ingenuity to make the unit mobile and usable by people with different abilities. Outside Lives will happily share its design if the station proves a success.

I visited their site last week and was inspired by their focus on community co-production, the natural environment, sustainability, diversity and well-being in everything they do. They are full of ideas. I particularly liked their re-use of old motorway signs as strong, adaptable and funky looking building panels for the outside compost toilets they are currently constructing.

They already support many different interest groups with community members working together.

 

A comment from Lucy Powell, co-founder and Managing Director of Outside Lives Ltd.

‘We are absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to explore and coproduce our idea with a team of creative folk. We are looking forward to the ‘journey of discovery’, learning about the options available, finding out how we can make this work, not only for our site but for other places too. It is an exciting idea which we feel is particularly relevant at the moment and would like to thank ‘The Prospectory’ for supporting us.

 

 

 

 

 

I look forward to following the fun they have, the new community skills they discover and the things they learn together as they design and build their mobile handwashing station.

The “Ive Got an Idea” Fund is currently still open to applications (August 2020).

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How successful people attribute their success …

My artist colleagues and I have been trying to unravel the concepts of “deserving versus undeserving” in the politics of social inequality. The recent fiasco over how to “fairly” award 2020 ‘exam results’ has shone a harsh spotlight on this.

US Psychology Professor, Paul Piff’s research yields some compelling insights on this deserving/undeserving distinction from both his lab and real world experiments.

Pairs of experimental subjects were asked to compete against one other in a game of Monopoly but one of the pair was randomly allocated more money at the outset than their partner and allowed to add together two dice throws so they could move around the board faster and achieve higher returns.

Each playing pair quickly recognised the random discrepancy in starting advantage but, as the game progressed, the “rich” partners applauded their “own” successes at the expense of the poorer partner. They didn’t seem to bother that it wasn’t based on an even contest. After the game, the rich partners (the inevitable winners) talked about the tactics they employed to achieve their success and showed little awareness of the effect of their heavily rigged starting position.

In wider studies across the population, Piff has found that, as people become wealthier, their feelings of entitlement and deservedness increase along with an ideology of pursuing self interest even when that comes at the detriment of those around them.

Our governments are populated by people who are far wealthier than the average voter and happily accumulate more wealth (just like the Monopoly players) on the basis of the wealth they already have gained. Given the results of Piff’s experiments, the danger comes if these political leaders mentally attribute their success in life to what they have done or their own superior talent losing sight of all the random factors or societal “rigging” which were major contributing factors. They also may increasingly view self interest (even at the detriment of others) as morally acceptable.

Our current Conservative government is keen to promote a “levelling up agenda”. Meritocracy (on which the Tories are always keen) is defined as “an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth“. But is it? How much of the progress made by our own government ministers was actually down to random events, timing and luck and social systems which were rigged in their favour? Do they really have so much more raw ability and talent? I wonder if they would spend 15 minutes watching Piff’s TED talk and reflecting on how deserving or undeserving their own wealth or career success has been. And would they be prepared to level down if that was a more effective route to creating a more equal society? And me… would I?

 

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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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