Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Book Review- Affluenza: When too much is never enough

Affluenza, by Australian economists Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, is challenging to read. It uses statistics and facts to paint a frightening picture of an Australian society - and by extension Western society - that has forgotten why it exists.

Affluenza's key message is that, while Australians are three times richer than in the 1950s and among the richest people in the world, there is still a perception that the 'average Aussie family' struggles to get by. In fact, the book asserts, some of Australia's richest people claim they don't have enough money for their basic needs.

So what exactly are our basic needs? That's what the book asks, attempting to show the absurdity of the materialistic, money-dominated consumer culture.

Marketers get a bum rap in Affluenza, bearing 100% of the blame for the Current State of Things. The authors are largley right, but in their fervour to make their point they haven't shown any examples of positive, socially responsible marketers. What's worse is the only solution they have to the marketing problem (that marketers and brands create wants which lead to overconsumption and waste) is to come down strong with legislation. It's as if 'marketers' were an evil race from another planet. The solution's got to be deeper than legislation.

Other solutions to Affluenza include political action. The authors are unashamedly political, harshly criticising John Howard's government for preaching family values while undermining them through materialistic policies that place the market above all else. At the back of the book is a 'Political Manifesto for Wellbeing' which makes interesting reading.

Affluenza reminded me of In Praise of Slow; it covered similar ground and offered some similar advice, however, while Slow is a showcase of answers to the 'cult of speed', Affluenza spends at least 75% of its time painting a picture of the problem, before finally (halfway into the "What can we do?" section; I'd almost given up) looking at some people who have turned their backs on the altar of mammon: the downshifters.

Affluenza is by Australians, for Australians, but pertinent to a global audience. Apparently New Zealand is suffering from the opposite problem; after reading this book, I'm not so sure it's such a problem after all.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

My Western History Odyssey, Part Four: the 1600s

Last time, we looked at the 1500s, the time of the Reformation and Renaissance. I already knew a bit about that time period, having studied it at school, but as I peered into the 17th century, I came in knowing very little.

Churchill and Schama guided me through the reign of James I, Charles I and the English Civil War, Cromwell, the Restoration, the hedonistic but stable reign of Charles II and the Glorious Revolution when the Dutch took over Britain from the Scots.

Meanwhile, understanding Continental Europe was becoming more and more important to understanding Britain. Luckily Barzun was happy to oblige, giving me details of the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe.

I also saw the growing religious pluralism - or desire for it - that gave rise to the Pilgrims' voyage to America. This was an age when many of the respected religious denominations of today were considered freaky, perhaps dangerous breakaway movements.

And thanks to King, I reached a significant date in terms of Western exploration in the South Pacific - 1642, when dutch trader Abel Tasman, far from home, sighted some giant Maori at the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. At least they look giant in the pictures he drew.
As a kiwi, I've read about Tasman many times, but for once I was reading it in context, realising just how far he was from what he would call civilisation, and what was happening elsewhere in the world at the time.

An interesting character who comes up around mid-century is Oliver Cromwell. The man is a mystery. On the one hand, he behaves like a despot, securing power for himself. On the other hand, he doesn't really desire that power for himself; he just wants a godly government and sees himself as the only candidate to choose from.

Cromwell gets mixed reviews from my hosts. Churchill, champion of freedom and democracy, slams Cromwell hard, pointing out his ruthlessness. Schama points out the very paradox I mentioned above, that while arbitrary and sometimes violent, Cromwell's rule resulted in a more tolerant, peaceful society than any of his royal predecessors.

The Restoration and the years of Charles II were semi-fictitiously portrayed in the BBC miniseries The Last King: The Power and the Passion and the slightly seedy Private Life of Samuel Pepys.

As you'd expect, these dramas played up the sensational aspects of the times. You can get a slightly tamer version at Samuel Pepys Diary, which has been bloggified for our fast-paced times. Nice idea.

Next time, I'm looking at the exciting 1700s, where men boldly went where they hadn't gone before.

My Western History Odyssey, Part Three: 1500 - 1600

(Part One is here, Part Two is here)

As 1500 hove into sight, my reading of Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking People was supplemented by Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, which gave me a wider perspective of the European continent around that most earth-shattering of times, the Reformation.

Dawn to Decadence is heavy reading but worth it. It is a real crash course in philosophy and arts awareness. Sure, I'd learnt a bit in Art History at school, but this really helped me understand the context - what a beautiful thing that is - that drove the Leonardos and the Donatellos, the Luthers and Erasmuses... fascinating stuff!

It was around this time that so many things were developed that we take for granted today. Paintings that actually look like their subjects, religious writings in the language of the common people, even encouraging people to question where before questioning was, well, out of the question.

It was interesting to look at the Reformation and contrast it with religion in the west today. My ancestors were Huguenots who were bitterly persecuted in the St Bartholomew's Day massacre, 1572. But I hadn't realised just how much persecution was going on both sides - newly converted Protestants were practising swordplay on their Catholic neighbours, too.

It brought up a whole range of issues that are very current too. Should Christians take up arms? Jesus said turn the other cheek - but what if it's not you under threat, but your family? In an age where a Christian President of the USA has urged his people into war, these questions are as pertinent as ever.

It also gave me pause to think, why are the issues of Protestant vs. Catholic no longer life-or-death issues? I think it's because of the idea of the secular state - something we take for granted now, but that didn't really exist back then.

I got a really good insight into the world of fear in which English Catholics lived when I saw In Search of Shakespeare, a marvellous documentary where the contagiously enthusiastic Michael Wood finds the behind-the-scenes story of the Bard's life.

Turns out Shakespeare was Catholic, and stuck to his beliefs even when it could have harmed his nascent career. Wood compares the world of Elizabeth I with the USSR in the mid-20th century. During the 1500s the espionage industry began in earnest, first for international affairs, but it wasn't long before it touched the life of every person in England. Those were dark days for many people, although many others were happy to conform and get on with their lives, such as they were.

Of course, I couldn't mention Good Queen Bess without mentioning Elizabeth, the film starring Cate Blanchett. I'm not a historian (nor an historian, if you say it that way), but what I read in Churchill agreed with what I saw on screen. I don't know if it's completely accurate (the folks at IMDb's discussion boards say it's not), but it does give you a feel for the times.

I also pulled off the shelf Great Artists, a book that I had referred to a lot for Art History class. It was great to read about some of the famous artists, bearing in mind the world in which they were living. And the context went both ways - being able to see the paintings and frescoes of the time, I was able to picture the scene, as it were.

Next time, the bloody and dangerous 1600s!

My Western History Odyssey, Part Two. 50bc - 1500ad

(You probably missed Part One because I only published it today, yet it shows up in March, when I originally drafted it. Where does the time go?)

In Part One I explained why I was going on a Western History odyssey: because I didn't have a coherent picture of my own roots as a pakeha (New Zealander of European origins).

Sure, I'd heard about some key dates like 1066 and all that, but never really understood it as a totality. And it matters to understand. At least I think it matters. You've got to know where you've come from to know where you're going.

50bc - 1500 ad
My trip began in about 50 BC with Winston Churchill's book, History of the English Speaking People, describing Roman designs on the savage islands of Britain. For the first 1500 years it was really just me and Winston, and what a pace he set. Romans and Saxons and Vikings, oh my!

Every so often I'd stop and realise I learnt this stuff at school. But I hadn't taken it in, nor had I realised how interesting it was at the time. Why? History is a story of adults doing grownup things, and schoolkids don't really know that world, although they imagine they do. When you can't imagine yourself in a situation, understanding the issues and the conflicts, you can't really grasp the story.

And it is all about story. Modern historians have robbed us by teaching us in themes at the expense of chronology. Sure, themes are important, but life doesn't happen in themes. Life happens, one event at a time.

What was most interesting was how the Anglo-Saxon culture - essentially the basis of British, American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand society, with strong structural influences throughout Asia, Africa and the South Pacific - was made up of many different cultures coming together, sometimes violently.

I sometimes wonder why the British culture has been so dominant around the world. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the adaptability it learned over generations of assimilating other cultures. Even our language reflects this - that's why English is one of the hardest languages to learn, because it's inconsistent. It's inconsistent because its roots go in all directions, from different linguistic traditions, and even more confusing it adapts to its locale with frightening speed.

I heard a great quote once, that English doesn't just borrow words from other languages, it follows them down dark alleys and mugs them for new words.

And then there's that indefinable "Western" culture, much maligned these days. The ironic thing is that, though it's maligned now for being the driving force behind colonialism and imperialism, the culture itself is a product of collaboration and compromise.

Think about it: British culture is the compromise between conqueror and conquered. The Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans invaded Britain, only to be eventually reverse-colonised by the land they now inhabited.

It's like a couple of lines in a favourite Goon Show of mine:

Moriaritus: I see that ten years in Britain have not changed your imperial Roman outlook, Caesar.
Caesar: True, Moriaritus, always a Roman eye.
Moriaritus: Will you take wine?
Caesar: No, thanks I think I'll take a half of mild and a packet of crisps.

So at the heart of the English-speaking Westerner, whether they're from the United States, New Zealand or even from old Blighty itself, is a willingness to adopt the new and throw out the old when it's not working.

On the other side of that same coin is a fundamental ambiguity about identity, perhaps most so with the English, who bore the brunt of the invasions while their Celtic neighbours retained a stronger sense of heritage and identity.

There is of course much more to say about this huge stretch, but this time round it was just providing background to my more in-depth journey into the Reformation, Renaissance, and (so-called) Enlightenment.

More on all that in Part Three!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Commencement address 2005

From the Desk of E.F. Watley

Hilarious. And brilliant. No sunscreen mentioned at all, but some pretty good advice. Not sure about the Scotch though! ;)

ChangeThis :: Managing With Aloha

ChangeThis :: Managing With Aloha

This should be good. Haven't read it yet, but I get the feeling I'm going to agree with it. Will let you know. I like how Rosa Say describes her company's mission: "bringing nobility to the art of management". Cool.

Update: 10 July 2005

Yes! I've read Rosa's manifesto on "Managing with Aloha" and I heartily agree with it. It's a people-first approach to management, one that probably goes against the bottom-line ideology of corporates today, but makes so much sense when you just apply a bit of common sense.

If businesses started looking at people as the biggest investment made rather than the biggest cost incurred, they'd start to experience balanced growth. This is the kind of approach Say is advocating, using aloha - far more than just a Hawaiian greeting - to provide a positive, productive atmosphere at work, wherever that is.

So I'll be following with interest what else Rosa has to Say... (sorry, unavoidable pun there) at her blog: http://www.sayleadershipcoaching.com/talkingstory/

Book Review: In praise of SLOW

As I write this review, I'm also finishing off an article about how marketers are using mobile phones to get their message across to their target audience. It's frightening.

It's not frightening what the marketers are doing, it's frightening what the public is doing. People are letting their phones grow into their lives, becoming symbiotically one with their cell, so to speak.

It's leading to an always-on world where anything is up for interruption, where you can never be sure if someone is "all there" when you're talking to them.

Enter the worldwide Slow movement. Yes, that is a capital S, and not because Slow is the name of some new deity.

In fact, if the Slow name wasn't so popular, I'd call it Sane. It's the rhythm of life our forebears have followed for centuries, and we've made it unusual by worshipping at the altar of speed and efficiency.

The concept of Slow (with a capital S) is explained in this book's introduction:

Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried and analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections - with people, culture, work, food, everything. The paradox is that Slow does not always mean slow. As we shall see, performing a task in a Slow manner often yields faster results. It is also possible to do things quickly while maintaining a Slow frame of mind.


The movement is made up of people like you and me who want to live better in a fast-paced, modern world. That is why the Slow philosophy can be summed up in a single word: balance. Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto - the right speed."

Carl Honore takes you on a magnificent trip through the burgeoning Slow movement, from Europe's Society for the Deceleration of Time to Japan's Sloth Club, to Tantric sex workshops in London, SuperSlow exercise studios in New York City, and - of course - a long, leisurely meal in the south of Italy.

Honore is a visual journalist - a rare talent among non-fiction writers. He takes you through a potentially bewildering array of facts and figures in a cinematic style. You're learning, but you feel like you're on holiday.

Slow, he explains, is not a headquartered movement, rather it is a collection of movements in the same direction - towards a more balanced, healthy life.

In ten chapters we explore the impact of Slow on cooking and eating, urban planning, healthcare, sex, work, leisure and raising children.

This book is very similar to The Joy of Laziness but where Laziness preaches somewhat (the authors are, after all, doctors), Slow simply narrates. Honore doesn't come across as a rabid evangelist for the church of Slow; instead he's a sometimes slightly skeptical everyman observing a movement, comparing it to his own lifestyle and making changes where it makes sense.

There's a reason this book has been out since December and I'm only reviewing it in July: it's a big book. Perhaps that's a deliberate move on the part of the publishers; after all, the print is fairly large and the book could've been printed smaller (would've saved a few trees, no doubt!). But maybe this book is saying, "Are you ready to slow down?" After all, there is a price to pay for a healthier lifestyle - cutting out the clutter, and taking time for what's important.

Making Poverty History - the power of a "Big Idea"

I was skeptical when I first read about "Make Poverty History". Surely poverty has always been with us, and always will be?

But this simple, imperative phrase has relentlessly driven the idea forward in my mind - and around the world. I, like many people, am starting to believe it may just be possible - simply because so many people are behind it.

It's got to be more complex than it looks - cancelling debt will only be one side of a multifaceted solution. But, the movement tells us, that shouldn't stop us from beginning now. And it's all led by this simple, in your face phrase, telling you - yes, you - to Make Poverty History.

I've seen the phrase go from obscure blogs to the evening news on TV here in New Zealand, the other side of the world from where all the action is.

Leaders understand the power of a simple idea

Other leaders in the past have understood the importance of a simple, clear idea. A clarion call. For instance:

  • Lord Kitchener: "Your Country Needs You!"
  • Winston Churchill: "We shall fight them on the beaches ... we shall never surrender"
  • Steve Jobs: "Think Different" (which upset many English teachers worldwide)
  • Brad Bird (director, The Incredibles): "Use the whole Buffalo" - a mantra he drummed into his production team to encourage them to make maximum use of their resources
Leaders who can boil down their grand plans into simple, easily understandable ideas, win. It's as simple as that. They win trust, they win cooperation, they win increasing mindshare in their audience.

Grassroots leadership

What's interesting is that I don't know who started all this. Bob Geldof isn't far away, what with organising Live 8, but I don't know whether he's the spearhead or whether it came from somewhere else. And it doesn't matter - it's the power of an idea that everyone now feels they can do something about. In fact, they're starting to feel they must do something about it.

Paul McCartney has this to say about the whole process of communicating through simple, powerful ideas. Here's a bit of his article:

In some ways Live8 is carrying on the idealism that became part of music in the Sixties. When we started, we all thought that we were just doing it to earn a bob and pull the birds, and it turned out to be much more than that. Music and politics began to fuse because, on an idealistic level, we are talking about the same things, peace, love and fairness.

In the Beatles, we would speak out because that was our nature. We were thinking people, we had opinions, and we started to realise we weren't the only people who held these opinions. We always used to say "These are not our ideas, these are our generation's ideas." We had the platform. We could give voice to them. And that is a very interesting phenomenon.

I look at G8 and I see world leaders but I can also look at the bill of Live8 and see world leaders, in a completely different sense. Political leaders talk about "hearts and minds" but that is also what music deals with. We Shall Overcome during the civil rights struggle. Give Peace a Chance during the Vietnam war. These anthems become very important.

Music can carry simple, powerful ideas but it also allows emotion into the idea. And it helps sometimes to get a bit emotional about things. Politicians may try to remain detached and objective, perhaps they have to be, but the rest of us can look at this and say "Imagine a kid being born today into debt that it cannot get out of." Imagine that. Now what are we going to do about it?