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Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

With timing so precipitous as to border on the comic, Chancellor Alistair Darling chose to announce a cut in VAT in the same week as Buy Nothing Day, today’s annual jamboree of anti-consumerism that urges us to forsake all consumer spending for 24 hours. Suggested activities on the BND website include temper tantrums – “Sit on the floor in any shop with a friend and chuck a mental. Shout things like ‘I don’t want anything anymore!” – and zombie shopping excursions of like-minded individuals dressed in ghoulish garb and “shuffling from shop to shop chanting BUY, BUY – BRANDS, BRANDS!” All good fun, but as anyone familiar with Oxford Street on a normal Saturday will know hardly an effective way to grab attention. The protesters will blend in seamlessly.Bliss!

But whatever your view of BND, you might still find it a little odd that our Government is somehow trying to elide consumerism and civic duty, two things that are – or should be – about as far apart on the individual-society spectrum as it’s possible to get. Whilst not, perhaps, as banally distasteful as George W Bush’s exhortation to Americans to respond to 9/11 by going shopping, there is something discomforting about the Government’s plea. For as unemployment rises, property prices plummet and millions live in fear of their next credit card bill, this should be a moment to step back and reassess whether the way we consume has taken us nearer to, or further from, the kinds of lives we really want.

For years, we’ve lived with a poisonous combination of messages: on the one hand, constant bombardment from advertisers intent on telling us how hollow our lives are without magical Product X and, on the other, staggeringly easy access to credit with which to acquire Product X on the never-never. There are plenty of reasons to worry about this. Perhaps the most obvious is the indisputable link between Western levels of consumption and unsustainable environmental pressure. We can’t expect to keep living as we have been doing and stave off irreversible climate change, let alone repair the damage to ecosystem services and biodiversity caused by our profligacy and attain some measure of global social justice.

There are significant downsides at the personal level too. For instance, recent research from the renowned Institute of Psychiatry in London shows that personal debt “mediates” the relationship between poor economic circumstances and mental health difficulties. In other words, the further up to your neck you are in debt, the higher your chances of developing clinically significant anxiety and depression, largely irrespective of how much you earn. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be. The stress of working just to keep up repayments and the fear of defaulting are constant and gnawing, and that’s without having to deal with the feelings of shame and inadequacy if things really go wrong. There will be plenty of former bankers and traders in serious emotional distress at present, and that is not something anyone should be celebrating.

There is also a more subtle, but no less damaging aspect to all this focus on personal consumption. People who are strongly motivated by the idea of getting rich and famous are what psychologists (despairingly) and marketeers (delightedly) refer to as “materialistic”. The scientific evidence for negative impacts from materialism is pretty overwhelming; they range from poorer personal relationships through fewer good moods and lower self-esteem to increased prevalence of psychological symptoms. Ironically, given the consumption-as-moral-imperative line implicit in the VAT cut, materialistic people have been shown to be generally more selfish and less inclined to help others, even when there it little personal cost involved. Fascinatingly, in one study, the extent of individuals’ materialistic outlook was shown to be positively correlated with their ecological footprints.

If Western-style consumerism, with its attendant values and attitudes, aren’t making us happy, what might do? Possible answers are provided by nef’s mental health equivalent of “five fruit and veg a day”, which we distilled from the evidence on improving well-being and warding-off mental health difficulties. What we came up with was a list of simple, everyday activities, arranged around five core concepts: Connect… Be active… Take notice… Keep learning… Give…

There is a reason that none of these suggestions involve consuming more or striving to get richer, and it has nothing to do with our ideological preferences. The reason is that they are based on the best available scientific evidence, and the best available evidence is unequivocal. The road to well-being is not paved with gold, but lined with friends and family, punctuated by opportunities for enjoyable detours, and is more about the journey than the destination. The happiest people in the world are those who spend their time engaging with life to the full, sharing experiences with friends and savouring the moment. The least happy are those who spend it slumped in front of the TV wishing they were Paris Hilton. And that, as they say, is a fact.

It is all enough to give us cause to reflect on what would really be the best way to spend this Buy Nothing Day Saturday. For those of us who are consuming way beyond our means (and the Earth’s) it is about time we started buying less every day. Do that, and the evidence shows our lives are likely to be richer as a result.

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Bookmark and ShareJosh Ryan-Collins is a researcher in the Connected Economies team at nef.

olympicsOlympics Minister Tessa Jowell has been out and about recently trying to explain exactly how the 2012 London Olympics are going to be delivered in the worst economic conditions since the War.

Like many Labour ministers of late, she has turned to J.M. Keynes for inspiration, arguing that the government will “turn the great spending power of the Olympics in to economic gold at a time of economic need”.

In terms of investment, I suspect the government might rather get its hands on real gold – which has shot up in value in the past couple of years as investors lose faith in money – than ‘economic gold’, but that’s another story.  The important question is whether the Keynesian multiplier – an increase in government spending leading to increased demand which in turn creates jobs and stimulates consumption – will work its magic in East London and further afield as the £6bn Olympic injection, made up 75,000 odd contracts, takes effect.

Jowell claims it will as, unlike previous games, 2012 has regeneration at the heart of its bid.  75 pence of every pound spent on the Games is regeneration-related apparently.  Most of this will be spent on East London, one of the most disadvantaged areas in the UK.  But as nef has long argued, it is not so much the amount of money invested in an area as how it is spent that determines the regeneration impact.   If the big contracts go to foreign companies – as has happened with the Olympic village which went to an Australian developer for example – there is no reason to expect them to subcontract to locally based businesses or hire local people.

This ‘trickle down’ economics failed in Canary Wharf and it will fail again if money is allowed to leak out of the local economy to consultants, developers and the large companies that are best able to exploit new commercial and sponsorship opportunities.

nef‘s report, Fool’s Gold, suggests there are ways to prevent this from happening.  Community benefit and regeneration could still be made core criteria for all new contracts and larger contracts could be broken down in to smaller lots.  This will level the playing field for smaller, local businesses and social enterprises many of whom are currently struggling to gain access to credit.  Targets for the involvement of local firms and the employment of local people should be also be drawn up.  The report also recommends that the Olympics organisers utilise nef’s Local Multiplier 3 tool which measures the local impact of spend over three rounds.  LM3 has been used successfully across 23 local authorities in the North East to see how public money can maximise public benefit.

Without these steps, it remains doubtful that the 2012 Games will deliver on their promise to regenerate the heart of East London, recession or no recession.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

The Green New Deal has a significant new advocate in UK politics: Lord Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency. Speaking at the Agency’s annual conference yesterday, Lord Smith called for “swift and bold” measures to tackle the climate and energy crises with as much urgency as the government has responded to the financial crisis.

“I believe if there’s to be another New Deal, it has to be a green New Deal,” he said. “We need a Green New Deal to meet our carbon emissions targets and create jobs in renewable energy and green technology.”

Watch his full speech:

chrissmith

Oddly, Lord Smith attributes the idea of a Green New Deal to Barack Obama of all people. So remember where you heard it first!

Bookmark and ShareAniol Esteban is head of the Environment Programme at at nef’s centre for Global Interdependence.

madagascarDaewoo Logistics has just acquired 1.3 million hectares of arable land in Madagascar on a 99-year lease to grow maize and palm oil for South Korea. 1.3 million hectares, by the way, is about half the size of Belgium – and about 50 per cent of Madagascar’s farmland.

The world is still reeling from dramatic increases in the price of wheat, rice and other grains and Daewoo’s acquisition will only make matters worse for Madagascans. Where will they get their food from now? As other countries become increasingly worried about food security, this kind of land-grabbing will only become more common. It’s the latest step in the long march of colonialism.

Take the sea for example – for decades the EU has taken control over the fishing resources of many developing countries through various trade agreements which undervalue the resources themselves while overlooking the social and environmental costs felt by the countries. Over-fishing has badly affected the livelihoods of coastal communities, depriving them from an important source of protein and development opportunities. There is every reason to believe that this exploitation will intensify under new EU trade rules.

We cannot buy our way out of climate, food and natural resources crises. We have to work to restore the ecosystems which support human life on this planet. A recent report estimates the benefits of fishing at sustainable levels at $50 billion a year, and this doesn’t include social benefits. Funding the transition towards healthy ecosystem functioning might look costly in the short-run, but certainly less than driving ecosystems to the point of collapse.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

newdealOnce again, it’s time to track our Green New Deal meme through the headlines.

First off, Matthew DeBord at the Huff Post says that a bail-out of the American auto industry could be a decent launch pad for a GND. Professor William Ayers (a.k.a. Barack Obama’s ‘terrorist pal‘) has also come out as an advocate of Green New Deal solutions. Reuters’ Paul Taylor also thinks that a Green New Deal would be emminently sensible – but laments that “it takes political courage in a recession to think big”.

At the Independent, Geoffrey Lean reports that Boris Johnson – yes, Bush-backing, Kyoto-bashing Boris Johnson – has undergone something of an eco-conversion and will now call for a Green New Deal in his speech to the Environment Agency this week. Boris says he wants London to become the greenest city in the world. Lean also maintains faith that Barack Obama will deliver the GND goods: the President-Elect promises that 2.5 million jobs will be created over the next two years via spending on green infrastructure.

But the Economist says that we should stop comparing Barack Obama to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They once again dismiss the notion of a Green New Deal, arguing:

the election result was more a verdict on the incompetence of the Bush administration than a plea for an era of activist government. Forty-three per cent of voters (and 27% of Obama voters) have told pollsters that they think government is doing too much.

But there are a couple of problems with this argument. Read the rest of this entry »

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Okay, so maybe Barack Obama isn’t exactly revolutionary in his economic outlook. But when was the last time that you heard an American politician – or a European one, come to think of it – describe climate change in these terms:

Bookmark and ShareVeronika Thiel is a researcher and project manager on nef’s Access to Finance team.

tamed.Can the leopard change its spots after all? It appears so! It was a ‘leaked’ letter by Lord Mandelson to the Guardian that indicated a change in Government thinking. Instead of finding new ways to justify post office closures, the Government abandoned a tender for the running of the POCA and left it where it was – with the Post Office.

nef welcomes this move, but we also, as always, go a step further: we want to see the creation of a People’s Bank at the Post Office. Now, it seems, there are some MPs who start to come round to our thinking. As the Financial Times report, the Post Office could indeed soon be offering current accounts.

Since we seem to have the Government’s ear at the moment, can we ask you to consider the following when you recreate the People’s Bank?

  • make sure it is accessible for all, and a champion for innovation as the Girobank once was.
  • make it a bank for people on lower incomes and the financially excluded by being transparent and flexible
  • make sure it invests its deposits where they are collected – in the local communities
  • and use the opportunity to make the high-street banks follow suite.

Britain already has one of the highest banking concentrations, with only four high street banks covering most of the market. This reduces customer choice and stiffles innovation. By introducing a new bank, people would finally have what has recently become a scarce commodity: choice of where to bank.

I would not be surprised to find that many would choose the People’s Bank.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

For those of us who worry that unconstrained spending on meaningless luxury items might not, after all, be the best route to happiness, this is a distinctly positive development. (Hat tip Lynne Kiesling)

One newly reformed spendthrift noted that the current economic climate is

“a time to stay home, spend time with friends and connect.”

Exactly. Of course, this might well have been a more useful way for people to occupy themselves the first place.

Bookmark and Sharelindsay-mackie2Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.

lettersIn a week when the Government has finally joined the millions of us who see Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd as an essential public service which needs to be strengthened and extended in the services it offers, you have to hand it to PostComm. They’ve come out fighting today for the past. Discredited ideas? Step right in. Postcomm will give you a warm hearing.

Today sees the release of the eighth annual report from PostComm – the regulator for the Post Office. You might think that PostComm’s job was to keep the Post Office efficient, on time, that sort of thing. But since its inception in 2000, Postcomm has set up as deregulator in chief. It has trumpeted the virtues of competition, of breaking up Royal Mail, of letting in private competitors who can deliver mail and parcels for the final mile, leaving it to Royal Mail to carry out all the other work to ensure delivery for that final mile.

Not surprisingly, this genius scheme has led to domestic customers and small businesses paying more for a worse service while corporate clients take advantage of the ‘final mile’ deal more cheaply.

Their latest stupid contribution to the debate on the future of our Post Office is to suggest that Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd be de-merged. It joins their other ideas like forcing Royal Mail to pay VAT, and predicting that many private companies would want to build their own ‘end to end’ mail systems, rather than cannibalizing Royal Mail’s work. Unsurprisingly no company wanted to spend their own money when they could make use of Royal Mail’s.

This de-merger really would be the death knell of a decent Post Office network. Royal Mail needs the post office to provide a universal service while the Post Office remains dependent on Royal Mail for approximately a third of its revenue. Separation would threaten not strengthen this revenue stream.

But then what can we expect from a regulator which has been consistently wrong about the supposed benefits of Post Office liberalisation (really, really wrong) and whose description of the national rage and anguish at the Post Office closure programme is this: “The high profile reaction to post office closures throughout the UK serves as testament to the public’s attachment to their local post office.”

Postcomm should be re-designed (with two exceptions, its Commissioners are from the worlds of huge corporations, investment banking and European de-regulation) and told to stick to the honest work of ensuring that we have a Post Office that millions of us want, and help this institution flourish to that end.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

newdealAmerica’s neocon idealogues are finally on the defensive. As support mounts for a Green New Deal, and Obama’s transition team outline plans to reverse many of Dubya’s decisions on the environment, the bloggers at the Heritage Foundation are most definitely on the back foot, bizarrely arguing that any sort of environmental regulation is going to harm small businessess, curtail civil liberties and generally wreck our lives. Energy scientist Joseph Romm points out the intellectual bankruptcy of such arguments at the GristMill, while defending the calls for a Green New Deal.

The GristMill also responds to the anti-GND leader from last week’s Economist. The leader even seems to have sparked a minor mutiny at the Economist‘s own blog:

The Leader suggests, quite correctly, that the first, best means to deal with climate change is a carbon pricing regime. But beyond that there are plenty of economically acceptable investments that might make up part of the stimulus, and which might also be considered green.

So with the neoliberals second-guessing themselves, we might finally see some economic epiphanies from our politicians. Read the rest of this entry »

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.