Category Archives: Advocacy

Make time to talk

Stephen Blyth, at Otago Access Radio studio“It used to be if I asked people how they’re doing, they would say they’re busy. Then they started saying “Oh, I’m busy, busy, busy”. And now they’re saying things like “I’m crazy busy” or “I’m insanely busy”, Margaret J Wheatley reflected when I talked with her last week.

The hyperbole will doubtless continue to inflate.

I experience this as having barely finished one thing before I’m racing on with the next. Distraction at the hands of this wonderful, but paradoxically attention grabbing technology, no doubt contributing to this. There rarely seem to be empty spaces.

There is definitely something missing as we blanket ourselves with this comforting illusion of busyness. When do we make time to scratch below the surface? To re-examine why we do things? For pondering about what really matters? To ask how come things ended as they are?

Margaret’s words ring true, if I really allow them to sink in. She says not only is thinking endangered, but working with others and generosity too. She very forthrightly describes our predicament at length in her recent book “So far from home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World”, and suggests we can find a way out.

One question that arises is how would things be different if we allowed more time for thinking and conversation?

I see a glimpse of what can happen when people stop to talk in a paper delivered by vivian hutchinson at the New Zealand Creativity Challenge held in New Plymouth last April (“What’s Broken is the We: some thoughts on creativity for the common good”, 2013).

The experienced community activist and social entrepreneur recounts how he invited two leading and long-time workers in community development in New Plymouth and Taranaki to talk:

“Let’s take all our various hats off for a while – some thoughts on creativity for the common good while … all the roles and labels that we carry around with us as we do our work. Let’s just have breakfast together as active citizens in this province that we love.”

Then I issued a deeper invitation: “Let’s tell each other the truth of what we are seeing right now … rather than what we tell our funders.” They both knew what I was talking about – because the growing gap between these two messages is in itself a significant problem in the sector right now.

Well, once we started talking, we found we couldn’t stop. We ended up having breakfast every fortnight for the next nine months. The conversations deepened our understanding of what we mean by community development and civic engagement. We asked ourselves some challenging questions about what sort of community sector we
handing on to the next generation.”

This conversation led to many others. Vivian found people “hungry for an authentic opportunity to stop and reflect. We spent four months at it, and established the beginnings of a learning community on how we as active citizens can do our work differently, and create real change.”

As I’ve found in the last week, conservation without the need to rush to conclusions is a wonderful thing. It is possible to find inspiration in the twists and turns of life.

When invited to revisit why I do the work I do by interviewer Sam Mann, I ended up heading off on some unexpected tangents. In the hour-long interview for the Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio program I talked about some of my motivations, shared learning from my community work over the last 25 years, and mulled on where using digital tools fits in.

This conversation was very invigorating, and would have been just as rewarding had it not been recorded. It’s just not something I would usually make time for amidst the day-to-day bustle.

Margaret J Wheatley is full of encouragement about the need to create time to be together in conversation: “I think a major act of leadership right now, call it a radical act, is to create the places and processes so people can actually learn together, using our experiences.”

Reflecting on climate change and #nptech

List of five people and distances travelled to NTEN's conference, March 2014Three tonnes of CO2.

That’s the ballpark estimate for how much of the climate changing carbon that will be emitted on my behalf, for my flights to the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

It’s a long way to Washington DC for me. It’s over 14,000 kilometres from my home on the west coast of Te Ika a Maui, New Zealand’s northern island.

Living close to the sea with a coastline threatened by rising sea levels is another reason for my concern. If we don’t reduce (or limit) the level of carbon in the atmosphere, I’ll likely suffer. As will my children. And their children too.

Some of my South Pacific neighbours are already finding sea water rising perilously close to their homes.

Knowing that my flights, in whatever small way on a global scale, contribute to climate change isn’t something I can truthfully ignore. It’d be easy to brush my insignificant contribution under a handy carpet. After all, my flight is hardly unusual. Why should I do anything about it?

It was looking at Beth’s presentation from her talk on individual social responsibility at TedXBerkeley in February that really spurred me to act.

Writing earlier about this topic after some personal philanthropy in India, Beth talks about “taking small actions that collectively can add up to changes.”

So, what am I doing?

My first response was to consider planting a small forest on our section. Then call it Washington DC forest as reminder of my obligation to the planet.

Before looking into this in any detail, my sister – who is an environmental planner – dissuaded me. Any trees not planted in certified scheme won’t guarantee carbon is locked away she said.

Giving $100-120 dollars to a certified carbon sequestration scheme would be easy. A one-off payment and my carbon problem is wiped.

It was only after talking with my friend and mentor Andrew Mahar, that I’ve decided how to discharge my climate responsibility.

As an inspirational leader Andrew never shies away from tackling difficult social and environmental challenges. Currently he is supporting a multi-faceted social enterprise in Timor Leste (the recently liberated nation in the Western Pacific). Prior to this he set up and led Infoxchange, a highly successful Australian nptech social business.

The WithOneSeed initiative supports subsistence farmers in East Timor to reafforest their land. Donations from people living in industrialised countries to pay for trees and other essential support. Incomes rise and carbon is locked away. Knowledge transfer is occurring alongside this through education and technology programmes.

As soon I talked to Andrew, he laid down a challenge: Don’t limit the carbon you offset to what you’re generating through a single trip: what about the carbon emitted to support your everyday computing habits?

Much as I’d rather not think about this, it’s true. Immense quantities of pollution are caused by coal-fired power stations that feed the data centres owned by Microsoft, Facebook, nameless cloud providers and others. When we watch YouTube videos, listen to music and live our digital lives, we are contributing to global warming.

WithOneSeed have a handy App that can help anyone interested to determine how much carbon is emitted by their digital media habits (on phones and tablets at least).

The personal story from Andrew, and a better understanding of my daily data usage in context, has allowed me to zero in on a global issue all too easy to ignore.

So, I’ll donate to WithOneSeed to offset the carbon. Not just for my flight, but for my daily computing too.

As I get ready to travel back home to New Zealand, I’m thinking not only of what I’ll take back the communities I work in, but also about the unseen impacts of my personal technology choices. I guess that is what individual social responsibility is all about.

Do you know what impact your technology is having?

Acknowledgement: my trip to Washington DC is only possible with support from NetSquared/ TechSoup, @goodresearch, @nzdrug, and my fab partner Roz. My evolving storify is at:

A sobering read – “The End of Growth”

Cover from "The End of Growth" by Richard HeinbergIf you get depressed thinking about the long running economic crisis and pending ecological meltdown, then Richard Heinberg’s book “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” is probably not for you.

Within a succinct 288 pages Heinberg provides an update on the Club of Rome’s 1972 critique of the ludicrous oxymoronic notion of perennial economic growth. He also covers at length the impact of resource scarcity on society (not only fossil fuels but other resources including precious minerals, water and soil) and the negative impacts of pollution on the biosphere.

As the book contains page after page of depressing statistics, I couldn’t bring myself to slog through it during my summer break. It was only over Easter that I finished the book.

I’m pleased I did as it is in the last two chapters that Heinberg sets out his prescription for citizens to respond to the end of growth.

If you don’t want to read through all the hard stuff, you can view a dazzling infographic presenting the book’s core thesis. Allow six minutes to get to the heart of “The End of Economic Growth” on YouTube.

It might seem alarmist, but I’m convinced that if we (ie humans) don’t consciously plan for a no-growth future, we’ll hit a wall. I’m not terribly keen to witness a crisis unfold, so I was particularly interested to understand what Heinberg rates as the top priority for action by citizens.

Number one is everyone making and sustaining meaningful connections with neighbours, friends and family in the area where they live. In other words, build social capital. Heinberg also suggests there are some big picture policy oriented measures within global financial markets that could buy some time, and things for individuals and families to do to get prepared.

For those committed to playing an active role in social change he suggests a number of areas to build connectedness. This isn’t really a prescriptive list of things we must do. It’s more an offering from a seasoned thinker, and doer.

The main initiatives he proposes are:

Given the magnitude of the changes confronting us, I find it hard to hold at bay my cynicism about relying on community initiatives.

From past experience I know how much it takes to successfully run things at the grassroots. There tends to be an over reliance on a core group, who won’t be taken for granted forever. Despite easily used, free tools, it takes a lot of effort to communicate within loose groups or networks. All this happens in a context of people with full-on home and work lives.

Yet, deep down I know this is the way to go. I’m drawn back to Mark Roseland’s work on sustainability, which I’ve quoted before:

To a considerable extent, the environmental crisis is a creativity crisis. By soliciting the bare minimum of public ‘input’, rather than actively seeking community participation from agenda-setting through to implementation and evaluation, local and senior-decision-makers have failed to tap into the well of human ingenuity”.

(Quoted in a think piece I wrote in “An e-government response to the climate change crisis: tapping into citizen creativity”, 2007.)

Getting to the bit about where these global concerns intersect with what I can do. It’ll come as no surprise, but to sustain and inspire my creativity I go online. Through the web I get fresh ideas, get challenged see things from all sides and learn from projects, successful or not. Examples I’ve come recently include The Story of Stuff and Do the green thing.

Part of the reason I decided to write this (long) post was an increasing sense of urgency about taking action. This is particularly so given the current political climate which I’d describe as being about BAU until our head, neck, torso, legs and feet are all in the sand.

I’d be the last person to urge anyone to read such a difficult book as “The End of Growth”. However, I’d say it’s important to engage in the ideas, Heinberg presents. Have you had the a chance to think about where we (ie humans) are heading? What does it mean for you? your family? friends? Is building social connectedness the key, or other there other priorities? This conversation didn’t start with this book (or post), but I hope it carries on with some vigour.

PS I’ve half a mind to share inspiring and hopeful projects, ideas and creativity I find on my travails travels on the web. Series working title: “Reasons to be optimistic”.

The final countdown?

One hundred months website image
I generally cross to the sunny side of the street when I can. It’s an attitude that I try to cultivate generally, not just during this bleak, long winter. Given the deluge of facts about human impacts on the natural world it’s not always easy.

When someone argues convincingly we’ve got a 100 months before runaway climate changes begins having really catastrophic impacts, it’s pretty sobering.

Andrew Simmons, from the new economics foundation (nef), and other colleagues presented evidence in the Guardian over the weekend suggesting we’ve hit “the final countdown“. In a nef technical note Simmons calculates “that 100 months from 1 August 2008, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will begin to exceed a point whereby it is no longer likely we will be able to avert potentially irreversible climate change.”

The new economics foundation is staying resolutely positive. They believe a new green deal will help people living in the UK take the urgent action required to address climate change. A Green New Deal group proposes:

… drawing inspiration from the tone of President Roosevelt’s comprehensive response to the Great Depression, propose a modernised version, a ‘Green New Deal’ designed to power a renewables revolution, create thousands of green-collar jobs and rein in the distorting power of the finance sector while making more low-cost capital available for pressing priorities.

Then there’s Pete, Andrew and the whole crew starting a website to encourage people to be politically active on climate change. You can sign up for a monthly message.

Practical knowledge gained from the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales seems to keep Peter Harper buoyed up. He reckons a radical reduction in the amount carbon we consumer per household is needed in the next 20 years. At a recent talk in Melbourne Harper shared his analysis of just how difficult it will be to shift to a low carbon society. Using two fictitious families he names the “WOTs” (Well-Off Techie greenie household) and the “LILs” (Low-Income Lifestyle greenie household) Harper argues the former won’t bring about carbon emission reductions because of unnegotiable lifestyle decisions, and the latter lifestyle option is unappealing on a mass scale. Both video and audio versions of the 17 April talk are online.

In the opinion piece I contributed to a review of progress with the e-government strategy published in June 2008, my source of optimism is more theoretical. I recall Mark Roseland’s pithy description of the “environmental crisis as a creativity crisis”. I suggest there needs to be “…greater responsiveness by government to the creativity of citizens. An effective and far-sighted e-government programme can make a big contribution by freeing up talents within the ranks of government, better engaging with citizens, and ensuring citizens are well equipped to organise themselves locally.” Read the full piece at “An e-government response to the climate change crisis: tapping into citizen creativity“, or the other 14 think pieces.

I wrote this over a year ago. Remarkably, my sense of optimism rings true. That’s partly as I’m hopeful civil servants with environmental sensitivities will use e-government tools and culture change to share alternative advice and begin debating how we transform society to bring about changes we urgently need. I’m also convinced that the Internet still contains within it a disruptive thread that supports and sustains activism.

So whatever alarming prognosis people come up with, it’s both the message and the medium that keeps my optimism alive.

Reviving citizenship to prevent run-away climate change

monbiot_ticket.jpgEven before George Monbiot started his interview with Sean Plunket as part of the 2008 Readers and Writers week, the British journalist and climate activist had made a big statement.

Monbiot declined to travel to Aotearoa to speak. Instead, he agreed to participate only by a video link. This decision was based on his conviction that air travel should be avoided because of the disproportionately negative impact flying has on climate change.

And there he was, beamed larger than life onto the cinema screen above Plunket’s head last Saturday.

It didn’t take long before more big statements were being slung around. Provocatively, Monbiot said we can’t shop our way to carbon neutrality.

“The first thing is to see yourself primarily as a citizen, not as a consumer. We’re not going to solve this problem simply by consuming better,” as he said in an earlier talk.

Typically he said new products supplement existing products rather than replacing them, and the rate of change of individual behaviour change is too slow and sometimes even counterproductive.

He argued that it will be only when citizens put pressure on their governments to reach an international political agreement, will there be any chance of preventing run-away climate change.

Revivifying democratic participation, something Plunket described as revolutionary, is the foundation for responses to climate change.

Afterwards, trying to digest Monbiot’s analysis and barbs, we talked about what is to be done. As I’m not so keen on joining another committee at the moment, I wondered about participating in local community activities (such as Friends of Owhiro Stream, Brooklyn Gardeners, etc) or perhaps adopting the ChangeMakers 5-10-5-10 recipe along the lines:

5 – spend 5% of your income directly supporting citizenship action that inspires you
10 – do ten actions in the next year on your personal passion in citizenship action
5 – spend 5% of your time on active citizenship tasks
10 – join with ten other people to create a learning community to support each other’s work for change

To get a taste of what Monbiot talked about at the Festival you can find a few other talks or interviews with him listed below.

Even if I feel I’m walking on hot coals, especially since I flew down to Christchurch within hours of hearing him speak, the message is sinking in.


What Australia Should do to Stop the Planet Burning, presentation to Friends of the Earth, Melbourne, 3 July 2007

Interview by Paul Jay, four parts, RealNews Network (USA), 1 May 2007

“If We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of Millions of People to Death”, Democracy Now (USA), 18 May 2007. Video, audio, transcript.

Global Democracy, ABC Radio National (Australia), 11 November 2001