Category Archives: 1 Perspective

The United States of Advertising and our dysfunctional perspective

This funny article and video clip give a good insight in to the difficulty we all face of having a sensible and balanced view of our world.

The author mainly discusses the differences between advertising in the US and elsewhere, such as the promotion of prescription drugs – “if your doctor isn’t prescribing this, ask for it”!  But it also reflects on the psychological distortion of our perspective to which we are all subjected by advertising and movies.  Sure, there’s the educational benefit of TV and movies, but most viewers are so persuaded by the intense audio visual presentation that we just accept what we see as fact and reality, instead of the propaganda and fantasy that it is.  And because advertising and movies have become the principal conduit of education for most of us, the sad, dysfunctional distortion of our perspective becomes clear.

No wonder so many people are unhappy because they think TV is real and that they should be living like that – caked in cosmetics and living in a virtual reality, totally out of touch with nature.

Still a primitive world – AI report on human rights 2008

Amnesty International released their annual report on human rights.  It continues to paint a stark picture of humanity.  Violence is the culture of too many places, and of too many rich countries.  With the richest countries still failing to respect human life, despite teh intellect and wealth available to nurture, it remains a dream that humanity will respect nature enough to save itself.

(BBC report here.)

The uncomfortable view from the top

Today’s BBC article Thailand’s Wealthy Untouchables touched a nerve.  It describes the chasm between rich and poor and the failure of the rich to take responsibility for themselves.  It is interesting to see the emotions of the downtrodden becoming visible.  And it illustrates the motivation for changing my career a decade ago.

When I looked from the Bangkok penthouse window in 1998 on to the men in the neighbouring building site washing themselves in muddy water, it was plain that the rich are ignorant of the people they/we tread on to enjoy a comfortable life.  And as a financier watching my industry enjoy relative immunity from the pain of economic hardship, it motivated me to do things differently.  “Is it possible to balance economics and equity?” I wanted to know.

I had pursued a venture capital career since teenage years because I wanted to nurture SMEs and help build companies that were not only profitable, but ethical and comfortable places to work.  While I had not needed to compromise principles until then, it seemed, as I stepped up the ladder, that “pragmatism” was the convenience of removing emotion from business decisions.  Having helped manage venture capital funds and businesses in Thailand and the Mekong Region through the Asian Financial Crisis, it was galling to see new money arriving in Asia in 1998 and doing deals because of political connections rather than because they had industrial, financial or managerial competence.  Worse, those businesses with successful track records knew the futility of the deals that were being concocted by managers with little relevant experience.  But what was worse is that no one was trying to fix the system, to do business in a better way.  And that plainly included me, because I was a suit in a penthouse.  The view from the top proved that “noblesse pas oblige”; that is responsibility was not the price of power, in fact, it was irrelevant.  Making Money was all that mattered.  And it didn’t matter who was drinking dirty water, as long as it wasn’t you.

A decade later the ethical investing or SRI sector has grown to become a significant allocation.  But the unwinding of financial markets over the past 9 months also proves that little has changed in the penthouse of power, whether economic or political.  The people being hung out to dry as the subprime meltdown continues are those little people at the bottom of the pyramid.  The bailouts and extra liquidity s for the banks and brokers not those duped into signing a faustian deal by fiduciaries who did not know what they were selling.

Perhaps the story from Bangkok is a sign that there is pressure for equity from below.  But the reality is more sanguine: a completely different perspective is required from humanity if we are to live together happily.  And without that intention to share from the top, our consumption of the planet will be complete in a few short decades.  The view from the top remains uncomfortable and it’s more vertiginous than before.

We’re running out of planet …

Even the capitalists are beginning to ask if earth’s resources are now being exhausted: BusinessWeek’s article The Age of Scarcity asks if this is our Malthusian moment. They offer evidence to support that point of view but conclude that policy changes will allow new technologies to make resources go further. Unfortunately this is wishful thinking. The simple science is that there are too many people on the planet. The 10% at the top consume as much as the rest. The bottom 20% barely have enough to eat. The 10% at the top (yes, that means you too) waste 20-30% of what they consume simply through over eating, over heating/cooling and land fill.

The simple truth is that the sun’s energy drives the biosphere (the living part of this planet), but humanity consumes many times more energy than that absorbed by the biosphere. (This is because we consume fossil fuels – a store of millions of years worth of sun’s energy, which is irreplaceable. Humanity is eating the planet to death.) The only (possible) solution is to eat less, of everything (food, clothes, travel, stuff …). Coincidentally, it was a year ago that the same suggestion was made in Astraea’s Newsletter.

(More on the Malthusian moment is in the Newsletter Perspective of May 2007 and August 2007.)

Stop making babies – Save the planet

When you take an interest in reducing humanity’s impact on the biosphere, it becomes apparent that there are simply too many humans. It is generally accepted that the planet can support only 2 billion people by natural means. The equation is simple: sun’s energy enters the biosphere and is converted to stored energy (by plants), and then consumed by life. Energy also is used to fuel weather and other phenomena and it is radiated out too.

Currently humans number over 6.5 billion, or three times what the biosphere can support. How can that be?

Simple really. We are consuming millions of years of stored energy in a couple of centuries by using fossil fuels. Oil and coal were created by compacting millions of years of plant growth into denser compounds than compost. That stored energy of the sun can not be replaced.

Population decline can save the planet. It was mentioned to me recently that a fertility rate of 1.3 would reduce the global population to 2 billion in 30 years. That means that females produce 1.3 offspring rather than the 2-3 average now being maintained. That is not necessarily easy to achieve; we have lots of friends with more than 3 children (ourselves included). And its harder in agricultural economies that are urbanising, such as those in Africa. Education and cultural acceptance of people without marriage or children is important.

But the number offer some hope. They show that population reduction is plausible and possible within a time frame that will redress the impact of humanity (pollution, climate change, biosphere destruction, species extinction etc). So, stop making babies. Consider sharing children and their rearing among small groups; maybe siblings would contribute more to the raising of your children and not have any themselves.

Here are some useful demographic links:
Population growth, Wikipedia
Population growth history
Population Connection (data and analysis)

Addicted

I’m addicted, you’re addicted, we’re all addicted. But not addicted to love, sadly. We might like to think that we’re immune, but facing the truth, we must own up that our addictions are open secrets.

Let’s touch a few bases to see where addiction might be in our lives. From personal to popular, from body to mind and soul. Since the references are drawn from acquaintances, friends, family and myself, they probably apply to your circle too.Of course there are the simple ones like food and drink. We eat too much and it can be worse than that when the diet is chips, crisps, sweets, chocolate, soda pop, coffee or tea. When consumption is a habit or a compulsion (I’ll just get that bar of chocs at the checkout) you know its in the addiction zone. And then there are the recreational substances like tobacco, alcohol and more. If its a daily event, its a habit of the mind. We are happier if in control of our mind than hooked to a habit.Its not just what we eat, its what we wear. Fashion. It must be changed daily and the suite of fashion each season. The cosmetics and “personal care” products seem critical to our self-esteem, because we lack confidence in ourselves and our friends. The daily baptism of Protene-V or some other phosphorous potion followed by lashings of lotions and creams poison our water and cover our emotional blemishes. Of course, without them we would be closer to who we are and our friends would be true.

Let’s take one step beyond ourselves to reflect upon home and work. In this sphere we’re addicted to oil. I sum it all up as oil because it is the natural biosphere credit that we’ve used up in a century to provide the fantasy to which we’re addicted. That bounty of oil, created over millenia by forces we can not replicate, has given us the stuff we wanted without the effort; though that is now changing. We drive everywhere, even though often the time benefit and convenience is not real. We heat homes and workplaces in winter so much that we wear T-shirt indoors while it snows outside. We cool them in summer, so much that we wear jackets indoors. We even use machines (requiring energy, rather than tools that don’t) to exercise. And modern conveniences beyond transport and heating consume so much energy that we effectively eat the planet many times faster than we are naturally built to.

And then stepping into the virtual world, our values also display the negative side of addiction. The compulsive adherence to convention when our mind and soul tell us to rethink our perspective. This is the crutch of certainty. At its core it is the primitive survivalist mentality of exclusivity. I am right, you are wrong. It is manifest in the monotheistic religions of humanity and in most other institutions of our world: nationalism, corporate hubris, social class distinction, professional division, intellectual pursuit, lifestyle and more. It is an addiction because we can not let go of our righteousness, even for the sake of understanding others. It is the story of nightmares, the story of martyrs, the story of visionaries being crucified.

Addiction whether acceptable, because everyone does it or because it is not easily detectable by others (day trading), or not socially acceptable (gambling) is a waste of our lives. It is a natural condition which impares our decision making ability. In fact, the habitual tendency that is endemic to addiction alters our brain in areas that are critical to decision making, learning and behaviour (eg frontal cortex). Prevention of the vicious cycle of addiction is easier than cure. But we do like to experiment and we do need positive social comparison, so with everyone playing the same games it is hard to be confident in ourselves. And the popular route to socially destructive behavior, like overeating, sedentary lifestyles and more poisonous habits is catalysed by the bounty of an oil age that gives us what we want without true cost. We have given up living for “sweets”.

When the compulsive and destructive consequences of addictions are played out at a global level by humanity, there is no one to help the sick, except we ourselves, who are sick.

So what can we do?

Denial is the symptom of addiction. So, first face up to the facts. Not by telling family, friends or acquaintances that they have a problem – that doesn’t help. But by admitting our own personal problems to ourselves. On an individual level that is harder than on a social or species level, because our confidence is impaired anyway, yet confidence is what we need to make a change. At the big picture level, the effort of humanity is vested in organisations whose own restructuring must be an immediate consequence of recognising the addiction to oil; and we must admit our compulsion more widely in institutions and government.

It is wrong to think that a crisis will be the catalyst for change, particularly on a global scale. Once a crisis occurs it is too late. And it may not even help change addictive behaviour. Is not our denial of humanity’s overconsumption combined with pollution and climate volatility evidence that this is so? We deny that there is a problem (“oh, that is just natural geological cycles … etc”). We deny that we are the problem (“We didn’t do it. Its not our fault It’s natural. It’s their behaviour, not ours”). We deny that we need to change. And if we do change its cosmetic not real (“I buy organics” without the admission that its from the global supermarket chain, imported by plane, in my SUV.) For us to tackle our addiction it must be admitted first, on personal and global level. And then we have a chance to survive.

The cure advocated by “anonymous” associations (AA – see The Big Book, CA – the Twelve Steps) encourages individuals to adopt a spiritual practice as a critical part of habit control. The language used is to seek a power outside oneself to assist with behaviour change. While this is not a universal prescription it is certain that the spiritual dimension of our lives has been neglected in favour of physical aggrandisement, whether that be diet or material wealth and status. And the failure of confidence is inherent in a weakened spiritual capacity. This does not mean atheists are not able to rejuvenate their behaviour – you do not need to believe in god to love. It means that we must attend to our emotional intelligence and the virtues of humanity, like compassion and empathy. Awareness of the spiritual dimension of the universe allows us to engage in living more fully and with this our confidence builds.

And while we may not like it, survival is the issue. There is no possibility that we can consume energy at the rate we do now for the next three decades. Unless we reengineer our habits, our addictions, together with technological advances in human infrastructure (energy, transport, consumption, education etc) we will face poverty, famine and belligerence.

Personally I’m an optimist and my vision of the future is wonderful. It includes a richness of life without the greed of consumption that has driven our primitive intelligence. But that is nothing if we don’t all change. We must face our personal addictions. We must admit our addiction to oil. We must learn to love, ourselves and others. And we must grow up.

Further reading:
Excellent HBO media presentation on Addiction – Centrepiece Documentary , What is addiction…,
Answers.com on addiction
Wikipedia definition
Addicted to Oil
– T Friedman reporting

Will truth win over power soon enough?

Although this question crossed my mind in the middle of October, it kept recurring in a range of areas. For those seeking system change it is core to the philosophical question of whether humanity can adapt to systems based on love and sharing instead of greed and fear. While that thought may not bear much reflection for us in our busy lives, and may even be annoying, it is strange that practical implications of the consequences of this primitive mindset coexisting in our high tech world should present themselves in a few weeks. We’ll call it synchronicity. Let’s reflect on the big picture of where power wins at the expense of truth.

Old news it may be, but the war in Iraq is prominent. The lie of course is that there were weapons of mass destruction. The truth is that its about money and oil. See Iraq is a resounding success …

Related to this is Iran and nuclear concerns. Here again we see the rich and powerful condemning the poor and weak, while in fact raising nuclear risk. See The US’s poor example of nuclear weapon management and US sanctions on Iran – the pot calling the kettle black?

Again related is the super media ready soundbite of a war on terror, while in fact curtailing civil liberties. See King John and all that – fighting for habeas corpus and Lying to ourselves

Turning to the world of money, there was more encouragement of moral hazard. But the best example of power winning over truth is the Master Liquidity Enhancement Conduit, a ruse by big banks with messy balance sheets to get investors to buy “the good loans” off their balance sheets. When the market needs transparency the big and powerful obfuscate the situation with MLEC! See US banks want you to carry the can for their sub-prime mistakes

And then there are the environmental challenges that everyone feels. Whether its drought in the US or warm winters or heat waves in summer we know there are problems and all of the science tells us we need to change behaviour now. So companies talk about green this and eco that. But do little to change their behaviour. See Lots of talk about Environmental Disclosure, little action among FTSE All-share

And we delude ourselves with the rationale that technology and trade can feed the world. But it isn’t working now and it doesn’t look like it could, unless the human population drops a lot and soon. See Humanity’s demands on nature, in pictures

There was also scientific research published which suggests that while fairness is a genetic quality, some have more than others. The balance of economic and social influence seems to be held by those with less interest in fairness and more interest in themselves. See Behaving like monkeys

We know that education is the solution to many of our challenges because it distributes power among many. We’re even getting a better consensus on what how to educate. But this solution gets little time, capital or energy so most of humanity is left behind. See How to build a better education system and Trade, inequality and education

We keep lying to ourselves. Whether it is economic imbalances, Iraq, Myanmar, trade or our own diet, we keep hiding from the fact that we want control over others even if the consequence is that our integrity is eroded. It is all too easy to take the money today, instead of sharing life with others. Whether it is coming to terms with Iraq or economic imbalance, our deal with the devil can only be unwound at a cost.

Just jotting these notes seems overwhelming. No one’s perfect. We all cut corners. But humanity will be richer by working together. For that we need trust. For that we need truth. Humanity needs to grow up and behave more like a healthy life-form than a disjointed, dysfunctional mess. We need to live with nature, not without it. Let’s hope that as our economic systems bend under the strain of over-consumption we can adjust our behaviour and love one another a bit more.

A war of virtual imperial powers

It seems that the political dynamic of our world remains dominated by tension between imperial powers. The primitive psychology is the same as any caricature of Romans, Huns or Brits, but the banners under which they march are not so tangible. Today the powers are virtual. They are fighting for minds and souls, rather than land. Who are the players? Capitalism, America and GWB versus Islam, Al Qaeda and OBL seem to be the protagonists. Unfortunately neither side is right; they both advocate the same misguided objective of exclusive power: “We are right, you are wrong.”

It is a battle without winners, everyone must lose. If you are on either side you are contributing to greed and hate. To be right you will think for yourself. You will not be partisan, but holonic. You will agree to disagree, but not fight over it. You would rather walk away than join in battle. When there are more people who can step back from confrontation, the energy for battle will wane. Then our energies can be more wholly committed to managing humanity in a globally responsible way.

A different scale of leverage has accelerated our progress and imbalances

As has been discussed over the past months, the economic imbalances around the world have grown beyond normal measures for some years now.  Trade imbalances, government debt, consumer spending have all been beyond expectations in the US and other mature economies.  With the tremors of collapse touching many since the cracks in US housing started to show in July have focused the attention of analysts who are increasingly focused on the scale of the mountain of credit that has accumulated over the past 5 – 10 years.  Last month’s commentary characterised the pyramid-scheme type of credit accumulation that has been allowed by financial derivatives: dicing and splicing of financial assets to create derivatives more and more removed from the reality of the underlying instruments.  Analysts have increasingly focused on the dysfunction that occurred in the sub-prime lending niche as rating agencies, investment banks, asset managers, lenders, mortgage brokers and other fiduciaries became caught up in the game of singing the same tune: “doesn’t the emperor have lovely new clothes”.  And this deluded song had been taken up by all of us from regulators to consumers.

Historically one could expect that the multiple of credit to cash (which together underlie money for the economy) might be of the order of 10:1.  But this has grown, perhaps by a factor of 10, as credit builds upon credit to build an economy based on leverage.  We have bought a wonderful life, but have not recognised the mortgage secured on our future.

The challenge is to deflate this balloon of credit in an orderly manner.  And this is made difficult by the need to change human behaviour, to change our expectations.  It will be impossible for developed economies to continue the illusion because the natural resource constraints are bringing the reality of debt from “the future” to today.  There is no doubt that the currently used measures of economic growth, focussed on GDP, can only show a flat or negative trajectory while the global financial system deleverages.  This requires that regulators, governments and business must either adjust to alternative methods of economic measurement, which are increasingly advocated, or suffer the pain of depression era economies.

It is not certain how long the illusion will remain.  We all want to retain it, especially since our cultures and measures of progress are slaves to the notion that more consumption is desired, ad infinitum.  But I do not expect it to hold for long because the imbalances have reached the ends of the earth.  Our economic systems have become contained by our natural world, both by physical resource interconnectedness and virtual communications. We must learn to live together or the pain of adjustment will be gruesome.

The best advice for taking a step in the right direction is to not be afraid of letting go of the illusion.  Enlightened individuals and leaders have already started to do so.  Make an effort to recognise that you have enough and focus your energy on building relationships with family and friends, not business.

Hope is not the answer; living in reality is

By coincidence a number of comments received on last month’s musings (both News and Views and Review) drew attention to hope. Whether a quantitative or qualitative observer of life, people seem to want a hopeful sign that everything is going to be alright. It would be fantastic if that could be. But it is only fantasy. Whether your god is religion or science, the fact of nature is that there is order. And that order even extends into our virtual world of money: that world which interprets participants’ values.

But hope is not a strong foundation for planning for the future.   It is teh foundation upon which the sub-prime mortgage market ballooned during the past 5 years.  We must be drawn to the concerns of the World of Money because, while players continue to say its all fine, the actual foundation looks shaky. We know that we’ve had a good run of obtaining credit on the promise that we will pay for our consumption in the future.  But as we realise that we’ve borrowed more tahn we can hope to repay, we start to take desperate measures.  The delusion of asset prices increasing while the economic news is so dire and regulatory authorities are reacting as if there is a problem, suggests that we are desperate to continue the illusion.  Unfortunately this can only lead to trouble.  First inflation.  And if this becomes gross, then the efficiency of financial markets will be compromised, participants will be unwilling to risk what they have on the uncertain future and our ability to operate as a cohesive market will dissipate.

If, however, we allow our feet to resettle on the ground, bring our expectations back in to the realm of nature, and stop confusing consumption with happiness, the adjustment will be easier, even pleasant.  But it requires that we appreciate the human values upon which communities thrive, not the belligerent values upon which individuals rise.  Do not confuse this with a step backward.  It is in fact a step forward, but a big one.  It is elevating humanity from bestial constraints of a simple organism to the self-aware delight of a fully conscious being.  It is humanity working together as one and interdependent on nature.  The stimulation of space age technology will flourish, but we must be relish the stimulation of natural systems too.  This means making space for nature; which means moving aside.