Archive for the ‘ideas’ category

You’re blocking the sun

October 18, 2010

When Alexander the Great passed through Corinth, he visited the philosopher Diogenes and found him sitting under a tree, dressed in rags, with no money to his name. Alexander, the most powerful man in the world, asked if he could do anything to help him. ‘Yes’, replied the philosopher, ‘if you could step out of the way. You are blocking the sun.’ 

(From ‘Status Anxiety’, by Alain De Botton, 2006)

In an age focussed on acquisition and comfort, what we often fail to recognise is that a decrease in possessions is not such a sacrifice as we might imagine. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, and folks who are deliberately choosing another road find some freedom that for others is hard to locate. 

The search for a life more simple is not without it’s complications and dilemmas. But the seeking of personal comfort and the piling up of ‘stuff’, as gratifying as it might be at the time, is in the end a pathway towards emptiness. If the unfairness and environmental degradation brought about by over-consumption is not enough to make our generation come to its senses, perhaps a realisation of the resulting hollowness might be. 

The hard part is seeing past our reality – to step out of the shadows of those piles of goods and into the sun.

Good intentions

September 8, 2010

“Couldn’t we get involved with those people you visit in the compound on the edge of town – the people with HIV?”

That was my question to Paul, the Zambian man we stayed with for four months. After all, we had come as volunteers to help and to experience. Wouldn’t that be a good use of time, an experience more ‘on the edge’? Among the many tasks Paul did, he visited and organised practical help for some of the many folks living with and dying of AIDS in the compounds, the very poorest communities on the fringes of Kitwe, the northern Zambian city he lived in. No, we were to teach some English in the local school and maybe help with some first-aid. And we were take our time and listen, and see where we might fit in. Sometimes we were good at that, sometimes we weren’t.

There are many notions tangled up in my question, few of which I could recognise myself at the time. What were my thoughts about other people’s poverty, and maybe about my own? Did I think I could do better, or just as well at least, as a local person? What role does international volunteering have in addressing complex issues? Who really benefits in the end?

It was 12 years ago and half a world away, our time as volunteers in Zambia, but some reading I did the other night reminded me of my conversations with Paul. I got stuck into reading a number of blogs about international aid and development – a couple of them I regularly read, but as happens with online  reading, a link to a link to a link takes me all sorts of places I never expected. Very often it’s worth it though. It’s worth examining why orphanages are a bad idea most of the time, or the way grinding poverty gets mistaken for authenticity. It’s worth asking questions about well-intended schemes to free people from human slavery or send a million shirts to ‘Africa’, or even about the way we characterise communities that are only ever seen as poor, and never anything else. All these bear further thinking about – so often good intentions are gravely misguided, and the errors gets hidden away beneath the goodwill, seldom exposed for their ignorance.

None of this is new – debate about the best ways to address pressing issues is ongoing. There is a natural counterpoint to this too. We could get paralysed with fear that we might do something wrong. Surely good intentions should be applauded? Surely passion for alleviating poverty and harnessing the vast resources of those who have them is a key part of working for justice and compassion. With too much complexity and too much criticism, won’t we kill the passion and creativity? Creativity and passion are powerful forces – for good and evil, but they are never enough.

In this vein, the importance of self-examination and critical thinking cannot be under-estimated, especially on actions that affect others so much. As one writer argued, we don’t let anyone do brain surgery on our relatives just because they’re keen and they have a creative idea. In our thinking about contributing to overseas aid and development, often we are not as thorough. The feel-good factor of offering help in times of need can often cancel out the important task of thinking about further ramifications of our actions.

There are so many others can write with clarity about these matters with much more maturity and expertise than me, but in a sense it helps me crystalise my own thoughts, and to encourage others to go on a similar journey. I would recommend a read of some of the material on Blood and Milk, Good intentions are not enough, Aid watchers and many of the writers they link to. And I think  Staying for tea writes a beaut post about competence and passion and humility, that makes good sense of some of the competing ideas. It’s a bit like a chain that never ends.

And I make these comments here with trepidation, because who am I, having rarely travelled beyond my own comfort zone compared to so many others? However, in a world that always seems to be in strife, where a million causes and ideas to face them stare out at us, our own seeming good intentions and the intentions of others need serious consideration. Ignorance can so often be laziness.

The road to hell is paved.

Part-time work

May 24, 2010

 

watching the waves

 

Recently I found a poem that my then eight year old daughter had written to me for Father’s Day a couple of years ago. Most of it was heart warming and predictable – “he tickles me, I love him, he fixes things.” I remember though, it was the last line that caught my attention the most – “my Dad works part-time and I love him”.

I know people who regularly work at least 60 hours a week, often on Saturdays and Sundays and only ever see their children on occasional days off or for a quick sleepy cuddle at night if they’re lucky.

They are not alone. According to Australian researcher Hugh Mackay, more than one fifth of Australian workers work more than 50 hours a week, and about a third work regularly on the weekend. Australia is second highest on a list of industrialised countries who’s citizens work consistently long hours.

I remember another piece of research, from the Australia Institute a few years ago, which interviewed children about family life and parent’s work hours. They seemed to understand that parents need some paid work, but also expressed a longing for more time together, rather than to be compensated with having money spent on them. The wonderings of a young bloke called Eddie, aged 12, said it best:

 He misses out on seeing us. He wants to see us heaps and heaps and to make up for it … he buys stuff and he can see you feel sad”

 A cycle of pressure to earn and spend, to provide bigger houses, more up to date gadgets and fancier holidays could well play a role in the sad end result. As wealth and income increase across a society, the ability of people to derive satisfaction from their economic gain is reduced – a bit like the way a $100 is worth much more to someone who only owns $100, rather than to someone who’s income is much higher. Therefore, those seeking satisfaction from material wealth need to accumulate more in order to be satisfied – feeding a cycle of acquisition as well as dissatisfaction. In a society such as ours where material acquisition is a major goal and pastime, this rings particularly true, and makes the need to find ways to scale back consumption more urgent.

Just this week, the Australian Institute of Family Studies released a study about the time children spend with their parents. This included research about time fathers spend alone with their children, and it showed that Australian fathers spend on average less than hour a day with their children, and often as little as half an hour. Even on the weekend, the time alone with a father was still fairly low – on average about an hour and half.

There are complications of course, like family structures and changing work demands. However, it is also true that many children are spending less and less time with their fathers, and in many cases they’re unhappy about it.

Not everyone can work part-time. Not everyone can share parenting and household duties. Not all children can have a dad at home. However, there is wisdom in a little girl’s observation that something good is going on when a dad chooses time with them over other pressing demands, and keeps on doing it.

Everything has a biography

May 10, 2010

All commodities have a biography – the coffee and tea we drink, the fuel for our car, the clothes we wear, the toys that children play with, the packaging that is discarded.

The biography of all those things includes what they are made from, how they made and under what conditions, and how they are traded and marketed. What happened to the earth and the sea where the raw materials came from? Who made the things I bought and what is their life like? The end of life for all those commodities is a part of that biographical journey – will they be recycled, added to landfill, or discarded on the side of the road or in the bush.

We could be tempted to see our food and our clothes and the energy we use, as only existing where they are with us, but they have histories and futures and to deny those would be a lie. Environmental degradation, sweat-shop labour, and manipulative marketing are all part of the life story of a great deal of what gets bought and sold.

A news story I was reading yesterday reported on the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where still 800,000 litres of oil a day leaks into the ocean from an exploded rig. The report reflected upon the ongoing ramifications of another famous oil spill over 20 years ago. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker leaked over 50 million litres of oil into the ocean off the Alaskan coast. Twenty years on, the ongoing costs are enormous – tons of oil still under the ocean bed, herring and fish stocks that never recovered, local fishing villages gripped by alcoholism and domestic violence that rose along with the unemployment rate as the local fishing industry perished along with the sea birds.

The sins of heavy industry are not the only ones – there are lesser known, ongoing stories, in which we play a part too.

In Cote de I’voire, where a large proportion of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, poverty is endemic, with children, many of them from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, held in forced labour in places where there are no clinics, no schools and no electricity. They know little of the future of the cocoa beans they work long days to harvest. The issue of child trafficking and cocoa is complicated – ingrained poverty, cocoa trading by large transnational corporations, the varying advocacy efforts of fair-trading co-operatives. It is a complicated web of contingencies, often with no clear flows of cause and effect, but laced with plenty of injustice and misery. The chocolate we consume joyfully and readily has a biography too, and it is a shady one.

But must I spend my days wracked by guilt? After all, to function socially where I live, and to earn a living and contribute to society, I need some things – clothes, tools, books, transport. And I need to eat. Constantly researching and worrying about the origin of the things I buy is wearying, and seems almost pointless – a lonely drop in a large ocean. There are other drops but they are never enough to change the tide. Ignorance is easier.

Resignation is an option too. Human history, amongst other characteristics, is one of harshness and exploitation, of one group’s power over another, of earth and sea constantly changed. Perhaps this is life on our lonely planet.

This seems inadequate though. Dissatisfying, lazy, weak even. What if we just resigned ourselves to the fact that if a child gets sick, they might die. What if the East Timorese had resigned themselves to never being free. What if a girlfriend beaten up resigned herself to the fact that it will just keep happening. Resignation is what people do when they’re leaving somewhere, and even though we will all die at sometime, most of us are staying for the moment. If we never sought change, our humanity would be diminished.

I can’t change, know or understand everything. But ignorance and resignation would be too lazy a response.

* I first read about this concept of biographies in a 2005 Arena Magazine article called “After Affluence”, written by Kim Humphrey

Your own idea

March 30, 2010

Talk about ‘community development’ is often littered with buzz-words. Terms like empowerment; grass-roots; community-based; participation – they seemingly get tacked on to any new policy or project to give it a bit of legitimacy or power. Sometimes true meaning gets lost.

I like this from a George Davies interview I was listening to, talking about a project he was part of:

“it is a network, it is a creating place where you can have a go at your ideas … rather than seniors in the church running an op shop and collecting money and making up food parcels to give to the poor, we made the space for people to have a go at their own idea.”

Now there’s a good thought to hang onto – making space for people, especially folks who are usually not listened to or don’t have much power, to have a go at their own ideas instead of getting told what they need to do.

Rusty brown dog?

March 26, 2010

I do have a dog. He is rusty brown and his name is Arthur. And he is a good companion on our late night walks together.

My rusty brown dog is reliable and friendly. He listens in to me, seemingly without his own agenda in mind, and he is easy to please. One thing about dogs is how content they are. They make a big deal about small things – a stick, a biscuit, a trace of a smell they sense in a prickly bush. They don’t worry about what other dogs think of their body shape – they don’t mind being fat or skinny or not having curves in the right places. They don’t watch television, they don’t ask for lollies. They don’t gossip about other dogs and they don’t have hip clothes. They don’t check the price of their shares, plan for retirement, or search for friends on facebook. They are glad to see us when we get home.

I read a book once which listed all these things we could learn from dogs, like being loyal and never pretending to be something you’re not, like not passing up the chance to go for a joy ride, and that when someone’s having a bad day you should just sit quietly by, and nuzzle them gently.

I was also reading another book about dogs and humans, and how we ended up forming such an alliance. Who needed who first? It may well have been that the dog-human relationship was based on mutual survival. In early human times, we needed each other. They needed us for protection. We needed them to help us hunt. And having some closer affiliation with another member of the animal kingdom was comforting, and the alliance with the dog became relational as well as practical.

In a more modern world, maybe we still need each other just as much, but for survival in a different way. From where I sit, much of the modern world endures what some call a ‘social recession’ – broken relationships, outrageous consumption, financial stress, greed, depression, fear of strangers. 

A fascination with wealth and continual gathering of possessions is a central part of our culture, and it makes me terribly uneasy. The uneasiness is compounded by the knowledge of a world in which so many people suffer from not having enough of the basics for survival – food, water, shelter and medicines. It is an uneasiness that surfaces at children’s birthday parties, on reluctant trips to suburban shopping complexes and not surprisingly, emerges a lot at Christmas. There is a nagging inside that searches for a simpler but better life that might have been lost somewhere and a wariness of an overriding greed that is seldom recognised. I suspect that not only is too much consumption unfair, it erodes many of the good things about human life and living in community. In a way, we all miss out.

The apparent contentedness of the dog reminds me of that inner struggle, and how it might be different. Can we take a dog for a walk and learn from his contentment – he smells the air and plants. He wags his tale and gives a doggy smile to his family, and then he does the same for strangers too. When he comes home and sleeps, he needs no hi-tech entertainment or alcohol, just some companions and a home.

And rusty brown? Brown does not belong only to my dog Arthur. Brown is the colour of long dusty roads, the earth, of skin, and brown paper bags. It is the colour of rust, of chocolate and bread and brewed tea, of old bottles and tree trunks, of worn out and old things. And it’s the colour of recycling and nature. It is a good companion for green in the symbolism of sustainability.

We are different species’, but the simplicity of my rusty brown dog reminds me of what life could be. The people I know who aim to live as simply as they can – to use less resources, to focus more on relationships and justice and compassion than on material acquisition, contribute more to a saner world than they could ever imagine. Often they have more time to be with neighbours and families, and to help out at local schools and community projects. They use less resources and create less waste. And they give things away – money and time, to projects that alleviate poverty close by and far away. Often they seem more satisfied too, more content, more aware, even as they live honestly with the limitations of their own actions and the knowledge of a world in strife.

It makes sense really, that simple living has a lot to offer our current times. Our world is faced by an environmental crisis requiring massive change to the way we consume resources, and poverty and inequality are a persistent reality. If we are critical enough, most modern western societies are diminished by genuine concerns about health, well-being and community. That social recession just won’t go away. The actions circling around simple living bring some genuine alternatives on a number of fronts  – less resource use, generous sharing, more time and intent for rebuilding often fragmented neighbourhoods. No doubt these actions and attitudes also involve struggles and dilemmas, and it seems, an amount of courage. It sounds like a movement suited to our times.

My rusty brown dog reminds me of these ideas and actions and hopes. Perhaps they are just what we need, not only for survival, but for a life worth living.