Category Archives: Features

12 Steps to not being an arsehole.

Last year I wrote a post about cooperating in groups ( but not long after I finished writing it I realised I was still lost. What troubled me in particular was how to deal with people I already have a bad relationship with. How can you get a group to agree to a certain standard of behaviour when at least one member does not like you (or will think that you are just trying to get at them) – especially when these rules for behaviour are something you seem to have made up on your own?

It reminds me of when I tried to climb Black Mountain[1], because it feels like climbing a never-ending mountain made up of boulders. I struggle to the top of one boulder, or a pile of boulders, thinking I’ll be ‘finished’ when I solve that problem, only to find I’m at the bottom of a new part of the mountain.

I’d probably still be stuck at the bottom of the last boulder if I hadn’t had my friend Sweta to talk to. As we told each other about various awful experiences we’ve had when trying to work with people who aren’t cooperative we came up with the ideas that I have used to write this article. It started with the realization that the worst characteristics of our society tend to get embedded within each of us, even if we don’t like those characteristics. My best example is ‘neoliberalism’  – which I take to mean a combination of selfishness and greed that disregards relationships and nature and cares only about making more and more money – it gets blamed for many problems in the world, but I’ve seen plenty of people who fight neoliberalism that have their own inner neoliberal that stops them from being able to work well with other people.

I was struggling to choose a word to describe people who make cooperation a misery. The term ‘neoliberal’ felt close, but it wasn’t spot-on and it also means different things to different people. Then my Dad pointed out that other people have decided that they are ‘arseholes’[2].  After plenty of reading and discussion, I realized that everyone is capable of behaving like an arsehole, that our culture has a lot to do with it, and that we need more than a private resolve to stop ourselves from being one.

What is an asshole/ arsehole/a-hole?

According to the 2012 book ‘Assholes: A Theory’ (James, 2012), an asshole is someone who has an entrenched sense of entitlement and is resistant or unwilling to listen to complaints. So they think they don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else, either because they are superior or because their cause is more important, and they don’t even pretend to care about what you think or bother to show you respect.

In the book ‘Asshole Survival Guide’ (Sutton, 2017) an asshole is “a person who leaves people feeling demeaned, deenergized, and disrespected”. Sutton (2017, p 117) says that in groups ‘the asshole poisons this well of goodwill by turning well-meaning people against one another’

James (2012, p122) mentions that assholes cease to cooperate if group decisions don’t go their way ‘… he can’t hide the fact that, in his view, this is of course his meeting, that a decision he disagrees with would be completely outrageous and raise serious questions of retaliation. He needn’t openly threaten retaliation, with memories fresh in the group from the last time things didn’t go his way.’

Other examples of asshole behaviour that James (2012) gives are:

  • Pushing in line.
  • Frequently interrupting when other people are speaking.
  • Driving without care.
  • Persistently emphasizing another person’s faults and using insulting language.
  • Being extremely sensitive to perceived slights while being oblivious to their own crassness.

I find it hard to write about examples I’ve experienced. At first I thought it was because I didn’t like remembering the pain of the experience but when I looked hard I started to better understand what went on and then the a-holeness seemed to vaporize (maybe because I realised things I hadn’t noticed at the time, like that the person behaving like an a-hole had been hurt by something else) – leaving me feeling silly for having been so upset by the situation. I guess there is also the chance that a well-practised a-hole will leave you feeling like it was all your fault.

Some examples I’ve seen of a-hole behaviour in group situations are:

  • When a group excludes certain (or most) people from decision making. I’ve seen this done in a number of ways:
    • People who don’t let other people have a say (commonly by responding angrily, speaking over people or just talking and talking until there isn’t any time left). I’ve often seen people who ask a question, or make a suggestion, be shut down by someone who doesn’t want to listen. It is awful when someone obviously isn’t interested in hearing what you have to say – as if they have already decided that nothing you could say would be worth listening to.  I know that this sometimes comes as a defensive action if you are making comments on something a person has done or proposed, and so the way you make suggestions is important too.
    • Hostility towards people who express ideas that don’t match the groupthink (sometimes dismissing these people as timewasters). I know it is hard to feel happy about sitting and listening to someone who comes across as a bit crazy talk about their ideas in a meeting when there are other things that need to be discussed before everyone leaves, but there must be a better way to deal with this than by being rude. There’s also the risk that if you don’t take the time to understand the seemingly crazy person you will miss out on an incredible idea. I’d like to see more questions aimed at understanding , and less defensive comments. Not everyone with great ideas is a great communicator. People talk about not wanting to be held to ransom by loonies, but this means you’ve decided that the people who don’t agree with you are loonies (a-hole behaviour, I reckon) rather than concluding that you don’t yet understand them. This excuse also gets used by developers and miners who want to destroy the lives of neighbours to their development or people living on the land they want to mine – labelling people as crazy so you can get your way is definitely a-hole behaviour. A friendly devil’s advocate is also something to be valued.
    • When a member of the group who has control of something the group needs refuses to cooperate unless group decisions go the way they want them to, or when one or two people in the group decide between themselves what is going to happen and think meetings are just for them to announce their decisions. To be fair, if some people in the group end up doing most of the work it is unlikely that they will think it is fair for other people to have just as much say in things as they do, but what then tends to happen is that people who have been excluded from decision making lose interest (I’ve left groups because of this) and so even fewer people are left to contribute to projects. Then it ends up not really being group work at all. I think help comes at a cost – you have to invest some time communicating and developing trust so it is easier to let go of control of parts of the project.
  • People who pride themselves on being inclusive but fail to value people of a certain race, sex, class or religion and then don’t even notice their prejudice – pretending to themselves that the person just doesn’t perform well.
  • Competitive behaviour – including unnecessary point scoring and rudeness.
  • Intellectual snobbery – people who don’t value uneducated people, and seem to think that a lack of education is an inherent indication of inferiority. This is especially annoying when it comes from people who believe in reducing inequality, or when it comes from university lecturers who regard explaining things properly as ‘spoon feeding’. I think they should remember the saying ‘If you can’t explain it to a 6 year old you probably don’t understand it,’ but I also realise that if everyone could understand the work that intellectual snobs do then it would reduce their value as an expert – they are protecting their cultural capital by limiting access to the same kind of cultural capital. This behaviour makes a-hole behaviour more likely because it divides people into those who are apparently too stupid to understand complicated things and those people who do understand complicated things but don’t understand the real world (and are able to use resources self-indulgently when ordinary people can’t because they are too busy growing the food, providing essential service etc – doing the real work).
  • Black and white thinking, like labelling a person who disagrees with you as ‘stupid’ or demonizing someone who once behaved like an a-hole towards you, or thinking that because a person has a certain characteristic or background that they will never understand you. This lazy thinking really annoys me because it leads to people having to continually develop their case against someone – as if there’s no intention of listening to what the other person has to say, except to use it to strengthen the argument for your point. Places dominated  by black and white thinking are not good places to develop friendships, or not what I think of as friendship – the kind that accepts none of us is perfect but we all our good qualities as well as bad, and that we all have a lot in common even if we have some differences. It may seem trivial to mention friendship, but the relationships between people in a group make a big difference to how well people cooperate.

I think a-hole behaviour happens when a person doesn’t feel your pain, or when they don’t feel any connection to you (or no connection to whatever it is they might damage). I think it is easier to be an a-hole in big cities or  large organisations because it’s easier to be distant from other people – you can treat someone badly and not expect to find yourself in a situation in the future where you depend on a person you’ve treated badly. In small towns or organisations, if you behave like an a-hole it is likely that everyone will find out, which will affect how other people treat you. [3]

Variations on assholes

James (2012, p87) points out that some people have an entrenched sense of entitlement without being bold enough to disrespect people to their face. Instead they are ‘open to the voiced or expressed complaints of other people, but immunized against their motivational influence’. So they listen to complaints, and maybe pretend to care, but do not care, because they are insusceptible to anything you might have said. ‘You really feel things have been sorted out between you, and that you really are mutually understanding and responsive to each other’s concerns, until you later learn that the discussion made no difference’ – the betrayal then happens behind your back. James uses the term ‘bitch’ for people who behave like this. This kind of behaviour is probably just as damaging as a-hole behaviour but might take more time to recognize – if you don’t witness the person being disrespectful you might initially be confused about what is going on. Maybe the same person can be capable of both ‘asshole’ and ‘bitch’ behaviour, adjusting according to who they are dealing with. Maybe ‘bitch’ behaviour is sometimes used in response to ‘asshole’ behaviour when the ‘asshole’ is too scary to confront. I think it is important to note that both kinds of behaviour come from the same feeling – that your thoughts or feelings should not interfere with what they want to do (Maybe the person behaving badly has decided that you are too stupid or uninformed to have anything worthwhile to say, maybe they think you are pursuing a different agenda to theirs, maybe they think it would be a waste of time to make an effort to understand you).

Psychopaths also don’t care about what you think or feel, but not for the same reason as a-holes. Gillespie (2017) explains that a lack of empathy is the common feature of psychopaths. The sense of entitlement an a-hole feels may block their ability to have empathy for you but because psychopaths cannot feel empathy it doesn’t matter whether they have a sense of entitlement or not, they just don’t care about you (It doesn’t mean they can’t be charming when they want to though) and that’s why I consider psychopaths to be at the extreme end of the a-hole spectrum.

What is the opposite of a-hole?

When I was searching for information about a-holes I couldn’t help noticing that some people have written guides about how to be an a-hole, so maybe you are worrying that trying not to be an a-hole isn’t a good thing because it makes it easier for people to walk all over you. When talking about how to be a good, strong leader Azzarello (2017) explains that: ‘The opposite of asshole is not “weak person”. The opposite of asshole is strong, genuine and respectful.’

So if I don’t want to be an a-hole, what do I want to be? Words that come to mind are decent (recognizing that other people are people too, being fair and proportionate), reasonable (appropriate, fair, sensible) and good (ethical, principled, honorable). Jureidini (2014) suggests that to be a decent person we need to respond with empathy. That would mean that on the empathy spectrum decent, reasonable and good people are at the high end and a-holes are at the low end.

What’s wrong with a-holes?

“Although we humans sometimes express it in strange ways, we all want a life where we encounter and are damaged by as few assholes as possible, we want the same thing for those we care about, and we don’t want to behave like or be known as assholes. As one reader wrote me, “No one ever says, when they are on their deathbed, ‘I wish I had been meaner.’ ” (Sutton, 2017 p39)

When I started writing this article my specific problem was that when people who want to do good things behave like a-holes it damages their cause. A-holes also damage people – causing them pain, misery and anger. Another big problem is that a-hole behaviour spreads (Sutton, 2017 p143), making people who aren’t usually a-holes behave like them.

Now that I’m looking I find that most things that annoy or upset me seem to boil down to a-hole behaviour.  Violence and war definitely require a-holes who think it is ok to hurt and kill other people; starvation and homelessness require a-holes who think it is ok for them to be so greedy that other people miss out, and other a-holes who think it’s ok to abuse other peoples’ kindness; destruction of nature requires a-holes who don’t recognize the value other forms of life (and don’t care about the people who will suffer in the future because of the destruction).

Seemingly minor a-hole behaviour between fairly reasonable people could be preventing effective action against hard core a-holes because if we are tied up being awful to the people who we mostly agree with we can’t cooperate properly, and if we can’t cooperate, the biggest a-holes will continue to get their way.


Culture has an impact on how many people behave like a-holes. James (2012 p92) suggests that individualistic cultures may tolerate the required sense of entitlement more than collective ones and that individualistic political philosophies with a clear entitlement message ‘may push many mere would-be assholes over the line’.

According to Kohn (1986, p128) ‘Because the US is both an exceedingly competitive and a highly individualistic society, and because competition here usually takes place at the individual level (rather than group), we often assume that competition promotes individualism. But the word is actually associated with two very different philosophical movements’.

Kohn (1986, p128) explains that these two movements are:

  • Genuine self-sufficiency, conscience, autonomy and nonconformity (a commitment to deeply held values and courage to risk disapproval or worse from others)
  • Pop culture/human potential movement – alienation from others, be your own best friend, look out for number one, privatization and the absence of communal forms of production, consumption and recreation.

Kohn (1986, p 129) adds that competition is compatible with the latter version of individualism, and I think it is usually the latter version of individualism that people mean when they say critical things about individualism. James (2012, p48) also mentions that ultra-competitive culture can also unleash the a-hole within people.

Gillespie (2017, page 153) finds that ‘Wealth drives individualism and individualism drives the free expression of psychopathy. He also points out that only ‘empaths’, which are people with empathy (not psychopaths), can cooperate.

Even just being too busy and distracted to be polite makes people behave like a-holes (Sutton, 2017 p146).

Sutton (2017, p143) points out that ‘power can cause you to have less empathy for others, to exploit them more, to focus more on your own needs and less on the needs of others, to be rude and disrespectful, and to act like the rules don’t apply to you. Wealthy people are more prone to such unflattering tendencies because, after all, being rich means that you have high social status, the ability to influence others, and to get more of what you want—all elements of power.

James (2012, Chapter 6) talks about how ‘Asshole Capitalism’ sends a strong entitlement message, encouraging others to behave like a-holes. Asshole Capitalism is an unstable capitalist system where there is:

  • The incentive of unbounded personal enrichment
  • Where ‘you can rightly get something for nothing or get rich without having to worry about the costs to others’
  • Under-management (not enough laws or protections against a-hole behaviour)
  • And ‘the resulting profusion of assholes undermines the cooperation needed for a capitalist system’s healthy functioning…’)

Tannen (1999, p3) describes the warlike atmosphere of Western culture (and the United States in particular) that she calls an ‘argument culture’ where we approach the world and the people in it with an adversarial frame of mind – we look at things in terms of black and white and winners and losers. According to Tannen (1999, p36) the argument culture creates an atmosphere of animosity that spreads. This is hardly likely to help us solve our problems and will make cooperation much harder.  The media is especially fond of the argument culture. Tannen (1999, p28, 29 and 30) writes about how the media likes to describe news items as fights between two sides and how they think they have achieved ‘balance’ by looking for people from the ‘right‘ and ‘left’ to provide views (and that this also means a label must be attached to people who may hold views that are a mix of conservative and liberal).

Having to have ‘two sides’ gets in the way of solving problems (Tannen, 1999, p47) because people with the greatest expertise are often rejected or refuse to take part in polarized debates if they don’t want to slot complex issues into a simplified debate format. This means that people who are willing to use the format get the parts, even if they don’t have much to teach us. Instead Tannen (1999, p 286 and 288) suggests that we learn from Japanese shows that have guests who are identified by the expertise rather than their political perspectives, that the number of guests is anything but two (1 or 3+) and that the goal is to mediate and diffuse polarization.

The talk of our individualistic argument culture encouraging a-hole behaviour made me wonder what else we could learn from other cultures. When discussing individualism Gillespie (2017, p151) mentions a study by Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) of survey data about the values of people in more than 50 countries that discovered that there were different cultural dimensions, which lead me to read the original work (Hofstede and Hofstede, 2005) and subsequent work (Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) and Hofstede Insights (2018a and 2018b)). You might consider this a bit of a detour, but I think it is important to consider how different cultures will shape potential a-holes. It is also important to understand why other people might think differently to you. If you can’t comprehend why someone else would not agree with you it is tempting to just label them as ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’, but if you are aware of the different values of their culture you might be able to understand why they would see things differently to you, and that would allow you to find them to be reasonable people (being able to imagine that in their position you would think the same as they do), even while you disagree with them.

Cultural dimensions and the impact on a-hole behaviour

The six dimensions of national culture are Power Distance, Individualism vs Collectivism, Masculinity vs Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Orientation and Indulgence vs Restraint (For more details see Table 1). The meanings of ‘individualistic’ and ‘collective’ are narrower than I would have expected, with some of the characteristics that I would associate with these words being in the Power Distance and Masculinity indices (Power Distance deals with the preference for or against equality while Masculinity deals with the tendency to compete rather than cooperate, reach consensus and care for the weak).

Table 1. Dimensions of National Cultures from Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) and Hofstede Insights (2018b).

Power Distance

This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. It is not the same as the GINI coefficient and there is only a weak correlation between the two.

High Power Distance Low Power Distance
People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.
Individualism vs Collectivism

A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”

Individualism Collectivism
A preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. As countries become wealthier they become more individualistic. A preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
Masculinity vs  Femininity

This is about what motivates people – wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).

Masculinity  Femininity
A preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.

Investing in armaments is given higher priority than aid to poor countries and economic growth is prioritized over environmental protection.

A preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

Aid to poor countries is a higher priority than investing in armaments and protection of the environment is prioritized over economic growth.

Uncertainty Avoidance

The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Strong Uncertainty Avoidance Weak Uncertainty Avoidance
Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour, and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.
Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Orientation

This dimension describes how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future.

Long Term Orientation Short Term Orientation
Encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. Prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.
Indulgence vs Restraint

This dimension is defined as the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses, based on the way they were raised.

Indulgence Restraint
A society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. A society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.


According to Hofstede and Hofstede (2005, p373): ‘Both what is “rational” and what is “ethical” depend on cultural value positions.’ They define culture as ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others’ and explain that the core of culture is formed by values, which are broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others and that these values are acquired early in life, and because of this they remain unconscious.

‘Every person carries within him- or herself patterns of thinking, feeling, and potential acting that were learned throughout their lifetime. Much of it has been acquired in early childhood, because at that time a person is most susceptible to learning and assimilating. As soon as certain patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting have established themselves within a person’s mind, he or she must unlearn these before being able to learn something different, and unlearning is more difficult than learning for the first time.’ Hofstede and Hofstede (2005, p2 – p3)

Values also vary according to age, sex and profession. For example:

  • Power distance varies between occupation just as much as between countries, but also countries with high power distance had high power distance in all occupations while those with low power distance had a low power distance in higher status jobs but a high power distance in low status jobs – so the power distance of the country affected high status much more than low.
  • In feminine countries there is no difference between scores of men and women but in masculine countries the gap in masculinity between men and women was largest (men very tough, women fairly tough). Overall the gap between women’s and men’s masculinity becomes smaller with age, becoming equal after 50 years of age.
Which values encourage a-hole behavior?

The key differences between each end of each spectrum for each cultural dimension are summarized in Hofstede and Hofstede (2005, Tables 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5,4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, 5.2, 5.3, 5., 5.5, 5.6, 6.2, 6.3, 6.4 and 6.5) and Hofstede (2015). It seems to me that people with a sense of entitlement would be more accepted in High Power Distance cultures (assuming they were at the top of the hierarchy) because inequality is expected, subordinates expect to be told what to do and because people in power get away with bad behaviour; that in Individualistic cultures selfishness and rudeness would be better tolerated because individual interests prevail over collective interests, sharing is not expected and it is ok to say things that will hurt another person in the name of ‘honesty’; in Collectivist cultures an a-hole could get away with treating people from out-groups  badly because laws and rights vary depending on which group a person is part of; in Masculine cultures male a-holes would be acceptable and the competitive nature of Masculine cultures probably makes people less empathetic (competitive people have less empathy);  in Strong Uncertainty Avoidance cultures people are more likely to behave like an a-hole because the culture is more stressful and because a-hole behaviour towards certain groups is acceptable. In Weak Uncertainty Avoidance cultures there tend to be fewer written rules and laws so a-hole behaviour might be harder to prove;and greedy people will get away with more in Short Term Oriented cultures because of the belief that people should be able to take as much as they can get. Indulgent cultures can be expected to use more resources and have more children, and be less likely to repress urges to behave like a-holes. In Restrained cultures men will be given a sense of entitlement.  I expect that that a-hole behaviour would be most acceptable /expected in cultures that are high power distance, masculine and short term oriented.


Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) found that values varied with class (with class based on profession). For example, Mewburn (2013) discusses how cleverness is a form of currency in academia (cultural capital) and because negative or unkind people are often seen as more intelligent, competent or expert than people who express themselves more politely that perception encourages a-hole behaviour, especially at public forums.

Williams (2017) has also studied different classes in America and has noticed double standards – the ‘elite’ class (household income in the top 20% and at least one university graduate in the household) is capable of a-hole behaviour towards the ‘working class’ (those neither rich nor poor – in the middle. Williams (2017, p11-12) says:

‘In an era when the economic fortunes of the white working class plummeted, elites wrote off their anger as racism, sexism, nativism – beneath our dignity to take seriously.’ ‘..when you leave the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss “the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America”, this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working-class whites. Deriding “political correctness” becomes a way for less-privileged whites to express their fury at the snobbery of more-privileged whites.’

Williams (2017, p25-30) claims that looking down on religion is a common form of modern snobbery (elites prefer to be spiritual but not religious) but that not all working class people who participate in religion believe in God and these people value religion for other reasons:  ‘For many in the working class, churches provide the kind of mental exercise, stability, hopefulness, future orientation, impulse control, and social safety net many in the professional elite get from their families, their career potential, their therapists, and their bank accounts.’

Williams (2017, Chapters 6, 8 and 9) explains why working class people see elites as two-faced:

  • They use their social lives to get ahead instead of spending their spare time with real friends and family.
  • Elites play political games, know how to be phony and suck up.
  • Implicit association tests show that elites are no less racist than working class. Working class racism is more explicit but ‘Among the professional elite, where the coin of the realm is merit, people of color are constructed as lacking in merit. Among the white working class, where the coin of the realm is morality, people of color are constructed as lacking in that quality.’
  • ‘Professors who would never let a racist comment pass their lips openly embrace “the stereotype of the southern redneck as racist, sexist, alcoholic, ignorant, and lazy … redneck jokes may be the last acceptably ethnic slurs in ‘polite’ society”, reports a Southern class migrant.’
  • Elites don’t value stay-at-home mums, but the working class would love to not need two incomes to get by. ‘… the average working-class man is less likely to espouse egalitarian than his professional class counterpart; but he spends more time caring for his children than does his elite counterpart.’


I mentioned a spectrum of empathy before because I think that a-hole behaviour comes from a lack of empathy, not necessarily because the person isn’t capable of empathy, but because something stops them from using their empathy. Things that can block empathy include:

  • Social distance. According to Goleman (2013) people with the most social power pay less attention to other people than those with less social power. They are also ruder in conversation (more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the person they are talking to). To feel empathy you need to first pay attention to the person.
  • A busy mind, stress (Barnecut, n.d.) because the emotions you are feeling get in the way of feeling empathy.
  • Sack (n.d.) explains that there is a link between addiction and lack of empathy (regardless of which came first) and that empathy must be restored for successful long-term recovery. Lack of empathy is also linked with the use of painkillers (Capps, 2017) and cocaine (Whiteman, 2014). This doesn’t mean I think that all addicts are a-holes[4]. What I suspect is that the same pain that causes addiction also causes a-hole behaviour.

Mending relationships

There are people I dread having to talk to because of the hurt they’ve caused me in the past, and that lingering pain makes it more likely I’ll respond with my own a-hole behaviour.  Thich Nhat Hanh writes about how communication can be toxic or nourishing (Hanh, 2013), that nourishing and healing communication is the food of relationships, that ‘With mindfulness we can produce thoughts, speech, and actions that will feed our relationships and help them grow and thrive’ (Hanh, 2013, p9) and ‘The foundation of love is understanding, and that means first of all understanding suffering. If you really want to love someone and make him or her happy, you have to understand that person’s suffering.’ (Hanh, 2013, p46).

Hanh (2013) makes a special mention of family relationships:

‘Sometimes communication is hardest in our own family because families share similar suffering and ways of responding to suffering. The suffering of your parents was passed down from their parents and from their ancestors before them.  Unless you begin to understand your own suffering and reconcile with yourself, that suffering will continue to be passed down to future generations.’

 ‘You have to recognize that you are the continuation of your father, mother, and ancestors. Cultivate mindfulness so you can recognize the habit energy each time it arises and embrace it with your energy of mindfulness. Each time we’re able to do this, the habit energy becomes weaker. If we keep practicing like this, we can stop the cycle of transmission, and this will benefit not only us but our children and descendants. We can also help our children learn how to handle their habit energies and nourish the positive elements they have inside’ (Hanh, 2013, p104)

Hanh (2013)  recommends:

  • Don’t act while angry because you aren’t lucid and it can cause a lot of suffering and escalate the situation. This doesn’t mean you should pretend that things are fine, it means you should first handle your anger by feeling and engaging with it in a healthy and compassionate way. Use mindful breathing to help yourself recognize anger and treat it tenderly. Because anger is a strong energy this might take time. After calming your anger with mindful awareness you can look deeply to see its nature and where it came from. Anger can be because of a wrong perception or a habitual way of responding to events that doesn’t reflect your deepest values. When you are angry it is a good time to ask for help and let others see your suffering instead of your anger.
  • To mend a rift or estrangement, first use mindfulness to recognize your own suffering and the suffering of the other person. Acknowledge their suffering, by saying something like ‘It’s not my intention to make you suffer. It’s because I didn’t understand your suffering, and I didn’t understand my suffering either’. Use your own words though, and before you say it practice mindful breathing.
  • We often get into the habit of thinking that change isn’t possible – we think that the other person should change and when they don’t we give up hope. Don’t wait for them to change, change yourself. When they irritate you, calm yourself and then invite them to speak and listen deeply. Don’t interrupt even if they say awful things or things that aren’t true. You can find a way to undo their misunderstanding later. Make time. This can take a long time. ‘Loving, compassionate speech and deep listening are the most powerful instruments for restoring communication. If you can understand and transform yourself, then you can help your partner. ‘(Hanh, 2013, p109)

What should we do about a-hole behaviour?

We can change the way we behave towards each other’ – to curtail the power of psychopaths and create a better society for us all’ (Gillespie, 2017, p161)

Even if there were special pills that cured a-hole behaviour, I don’t think we’d be able to force a-holes to take them. There is one person who sometimes behaves like an a-hole that we can influence though – ourselves.  I think this is especially important if you are working on a project meant to make the world a better place, because the negative impact that even a whiff of hypocrisy has can seriously put-off potential supporters of your cause.

In quiet moments we might all be able to explain what decent human behaviour was, but that doesn’t mean we behave that way. In the heat of the moment it might not come to mind fast enough to counteract the urge to behave like an a-hole, plus we get influenced by what other people do. It’s easier to feel ok about your a-hole behaviour if you regularly see other people behaving much worse. That’s why we need a list, and to remind ourselves regularly of the list, as well as our wish to be a good person.

Don’t be an a-hole yourself

  1. “Be slow to label others as assholes, be quick to label yourself as one.” (Sutton, 2017 p137). Make sure you aren’t an a-hole yourself. Seek and accept candid feedback from people who won’t sugarcoat the truth and apologise when you behave badly (Sutton, 2017 p140).
  2. Remember the Golden Rule and treat other people the way you would like to be treated. Gillespie (2017, p142) explains that the Golden Rule is at the core of every religion and philosophy and that all moral rules descend from it.
  3. Don’t demonise someone who is behaving like an a-hole – they might not always be like that (don’t be an a-hole to people behaving like an a-hole). Develop sympathy for people behaving like a-holes and respond to their nastiness with relentless civility and warmth (Sutton, 2017 p137).[5]
  4. Pay attention to people – listen and make eye contact. Make time for civility. Don’t cause stress to yourself or other by being too busy (Sutton, 2017) – if you can’t be civil doing all the things you plan to do then you should plan to do less. Hanh (2013) explains that you need to connect with yourself before you can connect more deeply with other people so reserve some time alone each day to communicate with yourself. He also suggests you begin each communication by remembering that there is an understanding and compassionate person inside everyone (by saying ‘hello’ to that person within them). Listen when you are at your best (practice mindful breathing and mindful walking until you are ready to really listen). Listen without interrupting or correcting (you can correct later, and listening with compassion keeps you safe from their wrong perceptions, bitterness, anger, blame and accusation). Hanh (2013, p44) suggests you remind yourself: ‘I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less’
  5. Use loving speech – speech that nourishes us and those around us. Speak in a way that helps others recognize the suffering inside themselves and in you (Hanh, 2013, p52-57):
    • Tell the truth. Don’t lie or turn the truth upside down. If you think the truth is too shocking then you need to find a way of telling the truth so that the person doesn’t feel threatened and that is loving and protective, remembering that your perception of the truth may be incomplete or erroneous. Don’t tell the truth in a violent or attacking way. If your words cause pain but are spoken with compassion and understanding the pain will heal more quickly.
    • Don’t exaggerate.Exaggerating takes away from the truth and takes away trust. If you exaggerate how bad what someone else has done then you are painting a wrong image of them.
    • Be consistent.This means no double-talk: speaking about something in one way to one person and in an opposite way to another for selfish or manipulative reasons.
    • Use peaceful language.Don’t use insulting, humiliating, accusing, judgmental or violent words, cruel speech, verbal abuse, or condemnation.  Note that we need to adjust the language we use to suit the person we are talking to – speak in terms they will understand, based on their experience, perspective and understanding (while keeping the content truthful).
  1. Argue about ideas, not the person who has them (Gillespie, 2017) and use cooperative conflict, which is not a debate where there is competition but an exchange of ideas – solving a mutual problem collaboratively. To do this it is important to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s interests and necessity of searching for a solution that is responsive to the needs of all (Kohn,1986, p156).
  2. Do not tolerate lying and keep your word (Gillespie, 2017): Judge people by their actions not their words and put your trust in people with a proven track record of passion and honesty.
  3. Keep away from a-holes because a-hole behaviour is contagious (Sutton, 2017). This might have to be a long term plan if you work with an a-hole and can’t quit immediately, or if someone in your family is the a-hole. We could apply the ‘No asshole rule’ (Sutton, 2017) to our personal lives as well as business lives – not hiring a-holes, not doing business with them and not marrying them or being friends with them. But first consider that a person might not always be an a-hole – they might just be having a bad day.
  4. Don’t act while angry – first handle your anger by feeling and engaging with it in a healthy and compassionate way.
  5. To mend a rift or estrangement, first use mindfulness to recognize your own suffering and the suffering of the other person. Don’t wait for them to change, change yourself.

Limit the damage that a-holes can cause

Hanh (2013, p130 – 134) explains that when people are exposed to altruism from members of their community your seed of altruism is watered and when your turn comes you will know how to sacrifice for the sake of the community.

‘When we speak about creating a sustainable environment or a more just society, we usually speak of physical action or technological advances as the means to achieve these goals. But we forget about the element of a connected community. Without that, we can’t do anything at all’

‘Mindful listening and speaking will make it easier for us to build a stronger community’

There are also structural things that we can do (together) to limit the damage that a-holes can do.

  1. Apply the ‘No asshole rule’ (Sutton, 2017) – screen out a-holes before giving them jobs, which means being aware of what to look out for and being open about the rule[6]. I think the ‘No asshole rule’ should be extended beyond our organisation so we don’t do business with a-holes, vote them into power etc.
  2. Limit income and wealth – remove the incentives to use bad behaviour to get more than your fair share (Sutton, 2017).
  3. Don’t enable a-holes by serving one – by cleaning up their messes and allowing their bad behaviour to continue (Sutton, 2017 p152).
  4. Encourage communal investment in goals (management by objective) (Gillespie, 2017).
  5. Use a reward system that aligns with values – reward good behaviour (remember that the threat of punishment does not deter psychopaths) (Gillespie, 2017).
  6. Limit the power of corporations – corporations are psychopaths (Gillespie, 2017).
  7. Have a culture of honesty (Gillespie, 2017, p112):
    1. Remind people that they are honest
    2. Tell people that everyone else is honest.
    3. Don’t allow loopholes of omission – people are more likely to lie by omission so have systems that don’t allow a default or no response option.
    4. Reward honesty
    5. Avoid secrecy
    6. Decentralise decision making
    7. Promote open communication – CEO should be in communication with all levels of the organisation
    8. Encourage communal investment in goals (management by objective).
  8. Don’t use an adversarial format for discussion, or the legal system (Tannen, 1999).
  9. Have rules of engagement for dialogue (Tannen, 1999) that include:
    1. Don’t demonise
    2. Don’t offend values
    3. Talk about needs, wants and interests rather than rights
    4. Be reasonable but stick to your convictions.
  10. Share the power and the humble tasks – incorporate the ‘Balanced job complex’ idea from participatory economics (Wikipedia, 2017) into workplaces and other organisations to improve empathy and help prevent people developing a sense of entitlement. What it involves is sharing (each day or each week) the unskilled or demeaning work as well as the more rewarding and empowering tasks (it sort of follows that you’d have to look at reducing the difference in pay between the highest and lowest paid in the organization). An important aspect of this is that everyone gets to participate in decision making, not just ‘managers’, and decisions are better informed because the people making them actually do the work.
  11. Reduce the influence of powerful a-holes by replacing elections with ‘sortition’ – selecting citizens randomly to represent the electorate they live in for a term. This way you’d get a more representative sample of people in parliament (no more career politicians) so you’d get people who are better connected with the people they are representing. Without elections there’d be no need for donations towards political campaigns and much less need for political parties, making it harder buy influence – instead of threatening a party you’d have to threaten all members of parliament, none of whom would be worried about reelection. Sortition should also be used to select people for powerful roles that aren’t elected (or if the role requires some kind of technical experience or ability then randomly choosing from a pool of candidates who have the prerequisites).

Addiction and assholism – making use of the 12 steps?

Like healthy eating and exercise, just knowing what you should do isn’t enough. Sutton (2017, p152) mentions a man who called himself a ‘recovering asshole” and worked on not being an a-hole “one day at a time.” When I think of interacting with people who I haven’t gotten along with in the past a whole day seems like a long time to resist getting angry and falling into rude behaviour, so I’d rather take it one interaction at a time.

Addiction makes a-hole behaviour more likely, but there might be more to it than that.  When Brand (2017) writes about how the 12 step program can be used to control addictive behaviour he also claims that addiction has become part of our culture and that we are all addicted to something, even if it is something socially acceptable (like food, work, money or power), and that some of these behaviours are even endorsed by our culture. On page 15 he writes:

‘I believe we live in an age of addiction where addictive thinking has become almost totally immersive. It is the mode of our culture. Consumerism is stimulus and response as a design for life. The very idea that you can somehow make your life all right by attaining primitive material goals – whether it’s getting the ideal relationship, the ideal job, a beautiful Berber rug or forty quids’ worth of smack – the underlying idea, ‘if I could just get X, Y, Z, I would be okay’, is consistent and it is quite wrong.’

 Brand (2017, p 169) adds that:

‘Consumerism and materialism are creating a culture of addiction. We are all on the scale somewhere because we are kept there by the age we live in’

Bruce Alexander was part of the team that ran the “Rat Park” experiments and discovered that if rats were given big cages with things to do, nice food to eat and other rats to socialize with, they weren’t interested in heroin (but lone rats in small cages were) (Alexander, 2010). Alexander (2010) continued to wonder what causes addiction and whether people who become addicted actually feel “caged” and so he looked at what had happened to native tribal groups in Western Canada who were moved off their tribal lands onto small reserves in the 18th and 19th Century. This move destroyed the economic basis of their cultures and split up families because children were taken from parents and sent to “residential schools” to be assimilated and native languages were forbidden at these schools. Alexander (2010) found that before colonization the native people of Western Canada there was little or no addiction but after colonization almost all became alcoholics and other addictions also became common (such as drugs, television, gambling, dysfunctional relationships). In areas where native cultures were not destroyed but alcohol was available people drank (and sometimes got drunk) but there was no widespread alcoholism and in areas where native culture was destroyed but alcohol was not available people behaved a lot like alcoholics – they stopped doing productive work, stopped taking care of their families and criminality became a problem (so if there was a genetic weakness it would have to also be for TV, gambling, bingo, the internet and dysfunctional love relationships).

‘Native people have described the anguish of being deprived of their traditional cultures and social networks in eloquent language and have explained how drunkenness relieved their misery temporarily, even as it ultimately led to self-destruction.’

Alexander (2010) concluded that an environment that produces social and cultural isolation causes high levels of addiction – drugs only become irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed:

‘The view of addiction from Rat Park is that today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, hypercompetitive, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social and culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction to drugs or any of a thousand other habits and pursuits because addiction allows them to escape from their feelings, to deaden their senses, and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.’

Remembering that feeling distant from others (either because you don’t have any empathy or because something is blocking your empathy) cases a-hole behaviour, perhaps the same lack of connection that causes addiction, and if so, perhaps the same treatment will be useful.

Rob (2017) also suggests that the 12 Steps are useful for everyone saying ‘They’re about being a decent person who builds self-esteem through honesty, dignity and reliability. The 12 Steps are a Design for Life.’ Rob (2017) explains that alcoholics use alcohol because it allows them to escape themselves and their self-loathing, feeling isolated and full of fear and that the 12-Steps allow you to become someone you are happy to be so you don’t need to use something to help to escape yourself.

Deer (2012) also suggests that ‘normal’ people can benefit from the 12 steps:

‘The beauty of these steps is that what they really do is help us see we’re trying to control things we can’t and help us let and ask for help, take responsibility and apologize when we screw up! Who would have imagined that apologizing was a spiritual practice?

This has less to do with hard core addiction and everything to do with ego! Which applies to everyone—especially assholes!’

Brand (2017, p22) also mentions the self-centred nature of addiction:

‘Curiously, later examination of these principles revealed that self-centred, egotistical thinking is the defining attribute of the addictive condition.’

Brand (2017, p177) points out the value of having the program to refer to in difficult times:

‘In moments when we are challenged it is helpful to have clearly iterated ideals to which we are willing to work. That way we have immediate access to a checklist, as I keep saying much of the spiritual life as I live it is admin.’

The ongoing nature of the 12 steps is also important. It is easy to fall back into bad habits without regularly reminding yourself of how you want to behave, especially when we are constantly being exposed to people behaving like a-holes. Brand (2017, p215) says:

‘ In my working of Step 12 is the understanding that I will always default to self-centredness; if I don’t work on my mental and spiritual state I automatically become selfish and indifferent to the suffering of others. A friend of mine says, “the spiritual life is like rowing a canoe away from a waterfall, if you stop rowing you are pulled backward.”’

Deer (2012) translated the 12 steps to be more palatable to “normal“ people:

1) Admit I have issues and I’m unhappy because of them

2) Believe I can heal if I let go and ask for help

3) Let go of “control”

4) List all resentments I have caused or have gotten, list my part in them and my issues/triggers

5) Share this list with someone

6) List my emotional issues and triggers

7) Ask for help with these issues

8) List all the people I’ve hurt

9) Apologize to them

10) Do all these things regularly

11) Meditate/pray

12) Help others

Rob (2017) explains that steps 1 to 3 are about admitting your life is a mess, recognizing you aren’t the centre of the universe and that you can’t control everything that happens to you; 4 to 9 are essentially about learning to live a decent life; and steps 10 to 12 are basic maintenance based on the previous 9 steps, as well as about helping others who need it.

The meditation step (step 11) is probably useful for another aspect of connection – with ourselves.

Now what?

I think that most of us at risk of a-hole behaviour because we are rushing around trying to achieve things that we think will make us feel our lives have been worthwhile. Cutting down on chatting time might feel like a clever time saving measure, but if we neglect to communicate compassionately with ourselves and the people around us we are likely to end up feeling disconnected and empty, no matter how much other stuff we got done. Things that reduce our chances of behaving like a-holes towards other people are:

  • Empathy – feeling what other people feel. You might not know those people or love them but you can imagine what it is like to be them, and that makes it hard for you to treat them badly.
  • Connection – you know or rely on someone. You might not really understand them but there’s a familiarity and closeness or dependence that means that if they get hurt it hurts you.
  • Real understanding – you have communicated properly with the person enough to understand what they think and feel, and because you really know the person their behaviour makes sense to you (and you think they are reasonable, even if they don’t think exactly the same way as you).

The same things can reduce a-hole behaviour towards nature: empathy for other life forms, feeling connected to nature (knowing that we depend on it and feeling part of it) and understanding nature (although this is unlikely to be via spoken or written communication, it could be developed through spending time listening to, and observing nature).

To reduce a-hole behaviour, I think we need rules for our own behaviour (the ‘Don’t be an a-hole yourself’ list), and rules for community and organisations (the ‘Limit the damage that a-holes can cause’ list). But just knowing what a-hole behaviour and decent behaviour is, and how we can make it harder for people to behave like a-holes isn’t enough. Knowing what to do isn’t the same as knowing how to do it (otherwise everyone would be fit and eat healthily). That’s where I think we need some kind of program – a regular practice used to administer the ‘rules’ that you want to live by. Another element that the 12 steps can add is the connection to yourself (by listening to yourself enough to understand what is going on inside), and to other people who are trying not to behave like a-holes. Having this regular connection or dialogue serves as a reminder of the ‘Don’t be an a-hole yourself’ list, to reinforce the practice of vigilance and to admit when we’ve slipped back into a-hole behaviour.

Ideally, I’d like to include some information on how a recovering a-hole can use each of the 12 steps, but I’m still looking for someone qualified to explain that. One difficulty I’ve already realised is that not behaving like an a-hole isn’t as clear cut as ‘not drinking alcohol’ or ‘not taking drugs’ – just being able to identify your own a-hole behavior takes effort.

After writing this article, what I think I need to do next is step 4 (make a moral inventory). I need to better understand my own a-hole behaviour and what triggers me in order to stop it, because I probably don’t even notice all the instances.

Here’s my version of the first four steps to not being an a-hole:

  1. I realise I can behave like an a-hole and I don’t want to behave like an a-hole.
  2. I realise I don’t have to behave like an a-hole. It isn’t just part of who I am, and it isn’t necessary to be the person I want to be. I believe that there is a way to not behave like an a-hole.
  3. I need help to not behave like an a-hole.
  4. Make a moral inventory – take a fearless look at myself and identify negative thoughts, emotions, and actions that make me behave like an a-hole. This is very scary so I’m going to use a guide, like Brand (2017, chapter 4) that involves writing resentments and fears from as far back as you remember.

I don’t know how I will do step 5 yet because the few people I’ve mentioned my idea to have just laughed. But things might change before I’ve finished my inventory. Who knows, maybe people all over the world are thinking the same thing as me and will start meeting to support each other to not be a-holes.

There’s one more critical question I need to answer before I finish this article. Have I found a way to make it easier to work with people I don’t get along with?

Even if I manage to never behave like an a-hole again, will it make a difference to how I feel about cooperating with people who aren’t nice to me? While I’ve been writing this article (which has been a while – it has taken all the scraps I time I could find for many months), I have definitely noticed a change in my attitude towards the people I would previously have said I didn’t like. Not that I think they are perfect now, but I no longer dislike them. I think that’s because I realise that there probably aren’t many permanent a-holes out there, but there are a lot of suffering, disconnected people who, in their weakened state, behave like a-holes sometimes. Maybe it is a coincidence (though I don’t really think so), but there seems to be an improvement in the behaviour of some people who’ve upset me in the past. I can’t help thinking it might be because I’ve become slightly less of an a-hole and they’re responding in a similar way.


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[1] Black Mountain is near Cooktown in Queensland and made up of lots of giant boulders. I’ve since heard that it is too dangerous to climb, so don’t try. My dad, sister and I were guided by local Charlie Roberts when we climbed. I remember we stopped by the side of the road and wandered over, but it must have been better planned than that (I was only ten).

[2] Americans say ‘asshole’. ‘A-hole’ is a less offensive version of the word.

[3] Not that people in small towns can’t be assholes, but if you knew everyone would find out what you were up to you might reconsider some asshole behaviour.

[4] One very decent person I knew was the opposite of an asshole, despite having a problem with drinking and being a heavy smoker. Some people don’t take their pain out on others.

[5] Gillespie (2017) recommends that you maintain your privacy when dealing with a psychopath boss (I imagine the same advice is good for any psychopath you have to deal with) so take this into account when being warm and civil to someone who is being an asshole because if they are really lacking in empathy they might use information about you against you. You should also fact check the things that assholes say and keep records of their bad behaviour.

[6] We also need to look out for psychopaths, who can be expected to show superficial charm and tell lies about their past so fact check their claims and talk to people who have worked below them.

Walking to the Steady State

So far, The Inkling has concluded that a steady state economy is necessary for sustainability. That’s because a steady state economy is a sustainable size and does not require growth for stability – instead it has a constant physical size and that size is sustainable because it is within the capacity of our ecosystems to provide resources (running a steady state economy does not require the degradation of ecosystems).

The use of non-renewable resources would have to be phased out in the transition to the steady state economy. Incorporating the circular economy would help with this (by designing–out waste and using only renewable energy).

Instead of aiming for GDP growth, in a steady state economy the aim would be to maximise wellbeing and a key part of this is to reduce inequality. You should read ‘Addicted to Growth?’ or Demystifying Sustainability if you want to know more.

How we get to the steady state economy is something less well-defined. And one of The Inkling’s original questions was: What sort of political system would be compatible with a steady state economy? But there is no point asking that question without also asking ‘How would we get that political system?’.

When I was an undergraduate, a classmate told me that she considered the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to be a manual for living. Not understanding, I borrowed the book from the library and read it. Afterwards I still didn’t understand. Then recently a steady stater said something to me about how relevant Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was, so I read it again. I think I finally understand. In particular I like this part from page 382:

Phaedrus remembered a line from Thoreau:

‘You never gain something but that you lose something’. And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth – but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.

If would be hard for a story about people travelling by motorbike and camping in various harsh climates to not show what it is like to be a part of this world. This is true of my favourite mode of transport too: walking.

I expect that if a car driver sees me walking in rain, the cold or the heat they might feel sorry for me or wonder if I’m mad. But overall I am happy to get rained on and blown around by the wind. I want to feel the sun and be able to notice how sometimes it feels like it is burning holes in my skin while other times it gently warms me. I want to be refreshed and frustrated by the wind. I want to be able to notice the drop in temperature when I pass under a shady tree on a hot day and to feel the warmth that radiates off western-facing walls even after the sun has set. The comfort of a dry home is much more noticeable when you have been soaked by a storm, frozen by the wind or melted by the sun. I don’t want to miss out on the smells in the air, like when you get a whiff of rain just before it starts landing on your head; when my nose tells me that the monster I hear around the corner is a rubbish truck; when I notice my mood brightening as I smell a lemon scented gum, jasmine or gardenias; or when, walking home on a cold, dark evening I am able to sniff clues of what other people are having for dinner.

When walking, your mind is freer to think, there’s more time to look at the things you pass and you can say ‘hello’ to people. Yes, I haven’t forgotten that walking pace is slower than driving pace or that your body uses more energy to do it, but look at the other side of that – having to drive would suggest that you don’t have time or an able body.

When I am out walking, I often have to remind myself that cars are just machines driven by everyday people, not just because drivers occasionally behave like territorial lizards with a one tonne weapon, but because, in comparison to the hardness and vigour of cars, drivers and passengers tend to look like soft-bodied organisms. I am worried because the most common expression I see on the faces of people driving is ‘hurriedness’. I imagine thoughts of “Let’s get this trip over with”, “I can’t wait until this week is over”, “It will be good when I’ve paid my house off or when the kids have grown up and I don’t have to drive them everywhere”. Add a bit of mischief and these thoughts can be extrapolated to “Let’s get life over with as soon as possible so I can lie down and die”.

So maybe drivers just have too much to do, or feel they have to do too much, but what I most suspect of people who drive cars when they could walk is fear. It was only when I thought about the people who do walk that I began to suspect this. I don’t just see lithe grannies and doting mothers walking children to school, or patient retirees taking their backpack or shopping trolley to the shops. I also see misfits – people rejected for being physically or mentally different – people who cannot assume that when they make eye contact with someone they will see acceptance in the other person’s eyes. But they still venture out into the world, on foot and unprotected or veiled by a car. And they still make eye contact. If you have to be brave just to exist then there’s no being scared of going for a walk.

Do drivers fear the people who walk? Do they fear physical discomfort?

Brock Bastian writes about how we need pain (and when he talks about pain he means things like holding your hand in icy water, eating chillies, doing squats or going for a run – things I’d call discomfort rather than pain) to provide a contrast for pleasure, and that pain promotes pleasure, keeps us connected to the world around us, reduces feelings of sadness, makes tastes more intense, bonds you with others and increases cooperation. That’s a lot to miss out on because you are worried that you might get a stitch when you walk up the hill on the way home.

Driving instead of walking because you fear missing out on something else means you miss out on the best conversation time (try walking with your family or a friend and see), time to pick dandelions, pat cats, pick up litter or do that ‘exercise’ we all need to do to make up for all our labour saving devices.

And I can’t help noting when I see labour saving devices are used in other over-the-top ways: using a ride-on mower for a patch of grass that isn’t as wide as the mower; or a ditch-digging machine operating for three days to dig about 20 metres of trench while 11 people with seven vehicles hung around watching; or the painfully slow process of four people supervising a crane as it collects about half a cubic metre of cement at a time from a cement mixer-truck and carries it gingerly over to the middle of a building site.

Sure, driving rather than walking might mean you have more leisure time (or maybe just more time to earn money), but when the exercise that was once integrated into life has become something that we bolt on (probably in a gym) at the end of a mentally exhausting day, and when we know that some discomfort actually makes us happier, does it show that it is really humility that we are avoiding? Other labour intensive activities like growing and preparing your own food or making things by hand get their own TV shows and have become hobbies openly enjoyed by people who are well off enough to have leisure time. So rather than walking being a hardship, I suspect walking is still just too humble – as if it would only be ok to walk if you could make it clear to anyone who saw you that you had a helicopter at home (or at least, you must wear expensive exercise clothes while walking, to prove that you are out to burn energy, not trying to get somewhere).

Walking is multitasking that works – you can get somewhere, do exercise and think at the same time. But it isn’t anything new. It doesn’t involve new technology. Why would you do something as simple as walk when you can spend money buying something fancy that promises the same benefits? When I see how easy it is to ignore the things that are already here or that we already know and instead look for something shiny and new to buy, build or design, I wonder whether, instead of being fixated on trying to find the ‘best’ political system to go with the steady state economy, we should just try to start using the political system we already have. If you did manage to design the perfect system you’d still need to get support for it, from leaders and voters, before anything changed.

If you want to change the goal of a system you need to change the paradigm. Paradigms are things that people assume to be true and so changing the paradigm involves changing their view of reality. Naturally, this requires repeated encounters with evidence, and denial is a common reaction because it can be terrifying to accept what it would mean if the evidence were true. It is also natural to try to find ways of fitting the new evidence to the existing paradigm (like “Let’s have ‘green growth’”). Getting a person to change their paradigm is a bit like erasing all their previous imagined futures. It is not compelling to step forward into a future that is completely blank and so if you really want to make it easy for people to take that step, you need to help them draw in new versions of the future.

We don’t really have to start with a blank page. Just like the footpath exists parallel to the road, there are aspects of the steady state economy that already exist in parallel to the growth economy and we should be identifying these as well as identifying the things that are incompatible with the steady state economy.

There could be more than one version of the steady state economy, and the version we get would depend on things like how long we take to act, and how well different options are promoted. By accepting limits we may find that necessity really is the mother of invention and come up with things that can’t yet be imagined. Nevertheless, I’ll try to do a quick sketch of how I picture our journey to the steady state.

What would we erase? Let’s start with fossil fuels. What do we draw in their place? Renewables, obviously. If you want to talk about how that won’t work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, go and tell it to people who have lived off the grid for 20+ years, or to the people (, who have been busy showing that we can power the whole grid using renewables. What would be a better thing to ask is how we would be able to maintain and manufacture a supply of the equipment necessary to generate energy renewably when the equipment currently uses non-renewable materials. That’s something that would need working out even if it were possible to burn all the fossil fuels first.

With delight, we could erase all the dotted lines that signify planned new motorways and airports, at least until we’d worked out how to power planes, trucks and cars with 100% renewable resources (and without liquidating anymore ecosystems or clearing any more land to create the energy source). We wouldn’t have to erase the infrastructure we have already built though. It would still be here in the steady state economy, if its use was worth the maintenance.

‘Disposable’ products would need a rethink. If they were necessary then they’d have to really be disposable. Rather than sulking that we couldn’t have all the stuff we’d anticipated having, it would be wiser to prioritize – which resource intensive products or services are really the most valuable to us? How could we produce those things sustainably?

We’d erase sacking people because of productivity gains or downturns and instead reduce working hours – sharing jobs instead of depriving people of paid work. We’d erase ridiculously high incomes – a maximum income limit could be set (at a certain multiple of the minimum wage) and we’d erase regressive taxes.

We’d erase policies that encourage having lots of children and we’d stop using GDP as a measure of our progress.

What things would we leave? The things that build our mental and physical strength, build community, and include all people in society. We’d need to strengthen the things that reduce the gap between rich and poor, like free education, health services (including family planning) and legal advice. We’d need the services that try to prevent corruption and other abuses of the poor by the rich. We’d need the institutions that protect and study our ecosystems and keep track of our natural resources. We’d leave the services that resolve conflicts and teach us how to communicate more effectively. We’d leave progressive taxes.

What new things would we draw in? We’d introduce limits on the use of renewable natural resources and monitoring of those resources so our use didn’t exceed what was truly sustainable. For non-renewable resources, we’d have to steadily reduce extraction, eventually stopping completely. In the meantime, as well as recycling and reusing these materials, we’d have to find renewable alternatives for the things we didn’t want to do without.

We’d draw in the equation births + immigrants = deaths + emigrants so that immigration levels could be adjusted in order to stabilize population.

We’d draw in activities that build soil and biodiversity so we could farm sustainably, because sustainable farming would mean no non-renewable inputs and no net land degradation – so we’d have to make the land we already use as productive as possible. We’d draw in lots of people remediating damaged ecosystems (investing in our natural capital) and they would be smiling because at last their job had been given the priority it deserved.

We’d erase research that aims to make it possible to exploit our natural resources faster or more cheaply and draw in more research aimed at answering the important questions of the steady state economy, such as finding renewable alternatives for non-renewable resources, the best ways to improve ecosystem health, how to get the most out of limited resources, and how to stabilize an economy that isn’t growing.

We’d erase the aim of economic growth from the economics, banking and finance professions, and, with a freshly sharpened pencil we’d replace it with sustainability and equity. Then these experts could direct their knowledge onto managing the transition to the steady state economy. People who have borrowed or invested in a growth economy will be vulnerable and so we could draw in things like the creation of debt-free money and/or reduction of debt via a partial amnesty – to be used when income is reduced relative to debt, to prevent personal, as well as economic, collapse.

We’d draw in a new set of indicators that span the economy, environment and society so that we could track our progress towards the goal of maximising well-being.

We’ll slot-in environmental and social aims above the aim of profit for businesses so that making money becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself.

We’d draw in people being more physically active – to reduce the demand for energy and because exercise and even some manual work is good for us, because we’d have more time to do it and because it makes people happy. Less able bodied people would have their labour saving devices, but we’d have removed barriers to walking and cycling and we’d focus on keeping our bodies in good working order.

To signify our internal change, we’d cross out the label on people that says ‘consumers’ and replace it with ‘citizens’ and we’d see them acting accordingly – living their lives as if they were more worried about their eulogy than their resume.

Last but not least, we’d draw in all the detail of the natural world, in colour, and then step back to admire our beautiful planet and be happy to be a small part of it.

Not alone

By The Inkling

Dear readers,

You may have been disappointed recently by the long time between posts on this blog and I am sorry for that. There has been so much on my plate and on my mind that I have been overwhelmed, but now I am going to try to delight you with a post that covers everything!

There has been lots of bleak news lately and I have found myself sitting at home, despairing and getting angry with all the stupid people out there who aren’t doing anything to save the world. This made me feel very lonely, until I started thinking things through calmly.

When I was a child I remember that I counted a couple of trees near the house as friends. They were Cypress Pines and were easy to climb, but I usually just sat on one of the lower branches. I felt, or just imagined, that I was communicating with the tree as I sat there. I visualized or sensed the life in the tree. Perhaps I was just imagining the sap flowing below the bark, but this calmed me and I felt like we understood each other. By the time I was a teenager both of these trees had been chopped down because it was a bushfire hazard to have such flammable trees so close to the house (so even people who truly love the bush cannot live in it without the bush being worse off), but I still remember the comforting feeling of having something in common with a tree. I could be alone in the bush and never feel lonely.

I have never been someone who was flowing down the mainstream, but I cannot believe that I am so unique that nobody else out there is being scared almost to death by the recent reports on how climate change is already getting out of hand or that nobody else frantically reads through articles, books and blogs looking for answers or stays awake at night trying to find a solution. Even if I were conceited enough to believe that only one in a million people cares as much as I do then, in the seven billion people out there, there must be at least another 7000 who care as much as me. I am not alone, and nor can I be all that rare.

What if some of those people out there who I have been getting angry with for letting the planet be destroyed are also sitting at home despairing and including me in their “stupid people” and wondering why I am not out there saving the planet?

Yes! It is not just me who talks about how ridiculous it is that we are cutting down nature reserves and dredging the Great Barrier Reef so we can export even more coal when coal is already doing a good job of killing the planet. It is not just me who cheers when GDP is down because we know that when the economy is growing our environmental impacts are too. It is not just me who would prefer it if our city/town/country didn’t become busier.

And yet the focus is still on keeping the economy growing, more mines are being approved, governments have no plans for sustainability and nobody in power is racing to stop climate change. People who do care about the future are being kept busy putting out spot fires – saving one piece of forest or coast or farm takes a lot of work and there will always be pressure on these areas if the economy must keep growing. Even creating a new reserve or national park does not mean we have more natural landscape than before, it just means that one piece of what we already had is less accessible to people looking for profits.

I may not be alone, but is it possible that in the midst of all this craziness that the majority of people would prefer the planet not be destroyed? What if it is just that our democracy is not working? In a true democracy how could 1% (or 0.1%) be doing what they like at the expense of everyone else?

And now we see that climate change means that our alternatives are no future or, despite our best possible efforts, a planet that is much less habitable than we were expecting, but I’m trying to get over being scared. Life is relentless. There will always be problems and, to some degree, people are good at adapting. It is scary to think of the radical change necessary to have even just a chance of a livable planet, but imagine how delicious it would be to be one of the people who was putting the brakes on and stopping us from crashing into the wall and compare that to how shocking it would be to be a passenger if we don’t stop in time.

In the end it doesn’t really matter what the problem is, it matters that people who want the problem solved are not being effective enough to solve it.

Have you had your ideas dismissed or ignored by someone who you thought believed in the same things?  Or have you ever found yourself dismissing another person or their ideas because they aren’t exactly aligned with yours? There is something seductive about being able to find THE solution to all our problems (imagine being the hero who saves the world!) but what if there isn’t one solution? And I don’t think there is. How could there be one simple solution to saving this complex world? The solution must be made up of lots of people all doing their own part. It helps me to think of us all being a small part of the same thing. If there is a meaning to life I think it is to keep life going, and at the moment we aren’t doing a very good job of that. I am going to keep going though, and I am sure I will not be alone.

Inklings of how to save the world

Some keen readers may have noticed that The Inkling has not published a feature article since November last year (when Sustainability was posted). There is another feature in the pipeline, but because it is bigger and better than the first two it is much harder and more time consuming to prepare. To keep you entertained in the meantime, The Inkling has decided to give you some idea of what goes on when The Inkling writes these articles.

Rotating Democracy (sort of like Sortition)

By The Inkling

When looking at how to move towards a sustainable world, one thing keeps coming up – our democracy isn’t working as well as it should.

Even if we elect good people, being in a position of power changes their brains (reducing empathy), plus, of course, baddies tend to gravitate towards positions of power.

We see that vested interests keep getting their way and “the people” aren’t doing anything about it. Then most of us sit back and rely on politicians to fix things, and don’t even bother engaging with politics or the issues well enough to keep the politicians in line.

I keep hearing how the only way to solve our environmental and social problems is to get people to participate in their communities and politics, but how? And even if we managed to convince people to participate more now, how would we stop things from degenerating back to the way they are now at some time in the future (when community enthusiasm lapses)?

How many people love their politicians these days? Who would feel sad if they suddenly lost their jobs? What about political parties and powerbrokers? Who would feel much sympathy for them?

What if instead of electing politicians we took turns? Imagine if politics was like Jury Duty and it was likely that at some time during your life you’d be randomly selected to serve a Parliamentary term (or Council term)?

And what if instead of dissolving the whole Parliament at once, each person’s term expired at a different time, so that Parliament changed the representatives that made it up gradually like an animal replaces cells?

Of course there are lots of details that would have to be sorted out, like rules for how representatives could behave (they’d have to be kicked out if they broke the rules and replaced by the next random person) and the conditions under which a person could “get out of” their turn, but basically the idea would be that “the people” were responsible for governing the place. No more complaining about how crap all the politicians or parties are. And what better way to get people to be interested than to make it likely that they will have to be the one doing the job at some point!

What do you reckon? Would our politicians vote for it?

The next feature article

Some keen readers may have noticed that The Inkling has not published a feature article since November last year (when Sustainability was posted). There is another feature in the pipeline, but because it is bigger and better than the first two it is much harder and more time consuming to prepare. To keep you entertained in the meantime, The Inkling has decided to give you some idea of what goes on when The Inkling writes these articles.

The Political Compass

By The Inkling

Political views get lots of funny labels. You can be left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative, neo-liberal, a fascist, a communist or an anarchist. I wasn’t about to be tricked into thinking that the Liberal party is necessarily for liberals but I wasn’t exactly sure what all these labels meant. While I was looking for answers I found a very useful site called Political Compass that has a clever way of classifying your political position. Rather than using a linear right-left scale it plots political views in two dimensions: economic and social.

The x-axis is the economic dimension, ranging from Communism on the left (an entirely state-planned economy) to Neo-liberalism on the right (a completely deregulated economy).

The y-axis is the social dimension, with Authoritarian (Fascism) at the top and Libertarian (Anarchism) at the bottom.

There is a test you can take, which plots your political position on the compass.

The site also includes analysis of political parties and leaders so you can see how your views compare with theirs. I’ve combined the positions of some political leaders given in two separate charts on the analysis page of the Political Compass site into Figure 1. I’m happy to report that my dot on the compass was closer to that of Gandhi than Hitler or Stalin or Thatcher.

Figure 1. Leaders on the political compass (based on

The Australian federal parties at each of the two last elections (2007 and 2010) have also been plotted on the Political Compass site. Only the four major parties (Labor, Liberal, National and Green) were shown for 2010. The chart for 2007 includes Family First, Democrats and One Nation too. In Figure 2 I have combined the charts for 2007 and 2010.

From Figure 2 it can be seen that most of the parties are located in the right-wing authoritarian (top right-hand) quadrant. These parties accounted for 84% of the vote at the 2010 Federal election. There is only one party in each of left and right-wing libertarian quadrants and there are no parties in the left-wing authoritarian (top left-hand) quadrant. I suppose this should reflect the Australian population but I wonder if it does- if the political positions of all Australians were plotted on the compass would they fall most densely where the parties that received the most votes are plotted?

The other thing I noticed was that between 2007 and 2010 the Labor, Liberal and National parties became more right-wing and authoritarian (they moved closer to the top right hand corner). The Greens were plotted in the same position in both years.

Figure 2. Australian Political Parties in 2007 and 2010 (based on and

It is interesting to think about how the movement of the Labor and Coalition parties further towards right-wing authoritarian affected their votes. In 2007 Labor won the election easily but in 2010 it only managed to form a minority government. The Liberal-National coalition vote increased but not as much as the Green vote.

You may be wondering where the Communists would be plotted. I was left wondering that too. Perhaps if they received more votes (The Communist Alliance party received 0.01% of primary votes in the House of Representatives in 2010) they’d get their point plotted too.

The next feature article

Some keen readers may have noticed that The Inkling has not published a feature article since November last year (when Sustainability was posted). There is another feature in the pipeline, but because it is bigger and better than the first two it is much harder and more time consuming to prepare. To keep you entertained in the meantime, The Inkling has decided to give you some idea of what goes on when The Inkling writes these articles.

Communist Party Headquarters

By The Inkling

While trying to work how we can achieve happiness and sustainability I’ve sought interviews with people from different Australian political parties, but the most surprising so far has been my visit to the Communist Party headquarters in Sydney.

The Communist Party of Australia’s website directed me to Denis Doherty as National Organiser for the CPA. The website also had an abundance of reading material, including a communist perspective of local political activity in Australia. I wondered whether that venomous man at the polling booth had read all this material.

Denis promptly replied to my email and gave me his mobile phone number so we could arrange an interview.  He was kind and friendly to me on the phone, and gave the impression of being happy to meet with me. He was flexible with his time and gave me plenty of helpful directions to make sure I had no problem finding their address.

The office was nestled amongst terrace houses, warehouses and show rooms in a respectably quiet, leafy inner-city street.  As I pressed the buzzer, I imagined being led down a creaky staircase into some dark, underground bunker, where I would be hand cuffed and interrogated by bearded, manic-eyed men in berets, smoking cigars. I was brought back to reality by Denis’ familiar, friendly voice on the intercom, telling me he would be right down to meet me.  Soon after, I was surprised, once again, when a cheerful, white bearded man met me at the front door and welcomed me inside.

I was struck by all the typical communist paraphernalia displayed around the reception area; lots of crescents and stars and a portrait of Lenin overseeing operations. It was like peering through a window into another time, and yet there were also posters and headlines crying out references to current worldwide political issues.  I was led through a maze of small offices and cubicles where editorial staff were busy at work producing the CPA’s publication The Guardian.  I was presented to some wholesome looking people in woolen jumpers who smiled brief, absent minded greetings as we dodged boxes of books and pamphlets.

I was amused to see a modestly-sized Buddhist shrine with a water feature occupying a large corner of the 2nd storey landing.  Denis told me it had been left there by the previous tenants, and no one had had the heart to remove it.

My tour came to its conclusion when we reached the boardroom, which I could tell by Denis’s enthusiastic introduction, was his favorite part. He was particularly proud, when he turned on the lights, to reveal a large mural which filled an entire wall, running lengthways down the long, thin room. He explained to me that this was a reproduction of the Sydney Wharfies Mural, which had been painted on the walls of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Australia headquarters in Sussex Street, Sydney from 1953 – 1965. It must be a powerful backdrop to the meetings that take place in that boardroom.

What I quickly discovered from Denis was how patient and determined the CPA is in their approach to bringing about change.  There is none of the fiery rebellion or radical action that one might associate with far-left revolutionary parties. Denis was adamant about the CPA’s adherence to a slow and steady campaign, and to separate themselves from any kind of rash, high impact or attention-seeking behavior. He passionately opposes these “stunts”, and refers to the many cases where the tactless, obnoxious anger and aggression of other parties has been detrimental to the efforts made by the CPA through careful negotiation and gradual, but stable cooperation. He said that the party can always improve its performance, its rigour and its attention to detail in pursuing its objectives, sometimes however members can be like Brown’s Cows and be inattentive.  On the whole they are very committed and active.

Now more than ever I wondered why the word “communism” is such an unspeakable, touchy word that triggers distaste and rejection.  If the actions of the CPA were really as peaceful and non-threatening as they appeared to be, then is it what the CPA stands for that upsets people?

Denis puts the Communist agenda very simply. “We aim for, public ownership of housing, of medicine, education, etc, and we are competing against the neo-Liberal, or economic rationalists’ ideology.”

After more than two hours of discussion Denis ended on a positive note “There’s that continuous battle going on between capitalism and socialism, and even though capitalism thinks it’s won, it still brings up these old issues of Soviet agents, and it still goes on, and it’s still a battle of ideas. But we still think we can win.”

The next feature article

Some keen readers may have noticed that The Inkling has not published a feature article since November last year (when Sustainability was posted). There is another feature in the pipeline, but because it is bigger and better than the first two it is much harder and more time consuming to prepare. To keep you entertained in the meantime, The Inkling has decided to explain why these feature articles were chosen and to give you some idea of what goes on when The Inkling writes these articles.

How it all started: Three big questions

By The Inkling

I’ve never been much of a fan of knowing things just for the sake of knowing them. I wanted my quest to result in something useful. I wanted my answers to all these little questions to add up to something – to some big answers to big questions. I wanted to assemble the information into some sort of guide, some sort of plan. A big picture. A vision.

I needed some structure to work within so I made a couple of assumptions and came up with three big questions.

My first big question was “What makes us happy?” – and my assumption was that people want to be happy. I don’t mean the silly-grin kind of happy. I mean a content kind of happy. Where people have what they need to lead full lives. The results of this investigation can be found in the post called “Happiness”.

My second big question was “How can we be sustainable”. This was personal, but I justified it with the assumption that people don’t really want to crash and burn – that we’d like to be able to carry on without disaster, that deep down in our hearts we’d prefer not to destroy the planet and each other. The results of this investigation can be found in the post called “Sustainability”.

Then the third question, the biggest one of all, was “How can we achieve happiness and sustainability?”. To answer this question I’m looking at many things, including political and economic systems, the policies of the political parties in this country and how economies and monetary systems “work” (or how people think and expect that they work, at least). I’m learning a lot (I have to) and it is taking a long time. So you don’t get too sick of waiting, I’ll be sharing little tidbits of information with you from time to time.

The next feature article

Some keen readers may have noticed that The Inkling has not published a feature article since November last year (when Sustainability was posted). There is another feature in the pipeline, but because it is bigger and better than the first two it is much harder and more time consuming to prepare. To keep you entertained in the meantime The Inkling has decided to explain why these feature articles were chosen and to give you some idea of what goes on when The Inkling writes these articles.

How it all started: Election Day 2011

By The Inkling

I was wearing a red hat and strayed too close to a polling booth when I was called a Communist. The man said it with venom, and a few bubbles of spit came out of his mouth. I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t really know what a Communist was. Then later it started to worry me.

I didn’t know what a Communist was! Did the man who called me a Communist know what a Communist was? Shouldn’t I know what a Communist was, especially if people seemed to think I was one? And if I wasn’t a Communist then what was I?

For days and months these sorts of questions kept popping into my head, but they became broader. What political and economic systems are there? Which one is the best? What is “best”? What should the system be achieving?

Then it became even more personal. What should I be trying to achieve? How can I achieve it?

Eventually I couldn’t bear my ignorance anymore and I decided I’d have to find answers for all these questions.

Sustainability – Hurry! Stocks are Limited!

Note:  The characters and forum portrayed in this article are entirely fictitious. The topics discussed are based on real information gathered from authentic sources and real experts who are referred to and quoted within.

The PM was exhausted as she settled into her seat.  Her private flight would take around 90 minutes and she planned to spend the time looking over the reports she was supposed to have read for that afternoon’s cabinet meeting. She tried to focus her attention on what the words meant, but all she could see were blurred bunches of tiny squiggles separated by spaces.  Soon, all she was staring at, really, were the spaces on the page.  She struggled to keep her eyes open, but she was powerless. The pull to let go was too seductive and she blissfully surrendered, releasing control of her thoughts as she was snatched away into a turbulent sleep…

Welcome to the Stocks Are Limited sustainability forum. My name is Jinny Jones, and the purpose of today’s discussion is to explore arguments and viewpoints on sustainability.  The views we hear today will be taken into consideration to assist policy decisions on sustainability and climate change. You will notice the diverse selection of experts and consumers here today.  This, we hope, will give a balanced range of opinions.

Sustainability is a term that gets tossed about by politicians, corporations, scientists, journalists and independent organizations.  For most of us, presumably, it’s a good thing that we like the idea of.  Something a bit like good weather or good luck; it’s nice to have, but is maybe not considered important enough that the lack of it would ruin our day.  What I want you to first think about is: What does the concept of “sustainability” really mean to us in regards to our future here on Planet Earth?  What exactly does it mean to be sustainable?  Can we measure it? What is it based on?

When we hear experts talk about “being sustainable”, do they mean being a bit less wasteful than we currently are, so we can prolong  our consumption of non-renewables a bit longer?  Or do they mean sustainable in absolute terms, as a definite commitment to ensuring a continually live-able planet for the whole of the world’s population?  Is sustainability about being truly sustainable or just a bit more sustainable?  Are we kidding ourselves to believe that anything less than a complete commitment can be called ‘true sustainability’?

My second question to you all will be:  Do you think that commitment to true, definite sustainability is necessary, realistic, or even desirable?  If not, why all the fuss?  Why even bother pretending that we care about our future?  Is all this talk about sustainability just another form of relieving our middle-class guilt?  And if the people in charge of policy making are not genuinely committed to the goal of true sustainability, is there any use in the concerned individual or like-minded group of people isolating themselves in ecologically sustainable lifestyles, when the fundamental building blocks of human civilization continue to be unsustainable?

If we really do want to be truly sustainable, then why do we continue to behave so unsustainably? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to sustain what we have now?  What are we waiting for?

But first, what is sustainability? And to help us answer this question I’d like to introduce our guest speakers, and then ask each of them to give their own definitions.  Starting on my right, from Foil Seal Magazine, we have feature story writer Natalie Hutchins, next to her is Kevin Sales, PhD Student  at Mintone University, who is currently doing research on corporate sustainability.  At the end of the row is Dr. Rose Swann, senior research advisor for sustainable development at Pondstone University.   On my left side we have Melanie Frederickson, PhD student in ecological science at James Thomas University, Michael Morris, senior economic advisor with Innings Consultancy,  engineer and inventor Evan Brown, and social scientist for the Well-Being Institute, Gary Fabian.  Thank you all for joining us today.

1.     What does it mean?

Let’s start with feature story writer, Natalie Hutchins from Foil Seal Magazine.  What is your definition of sustainability?

Natalie: Thank you, Jinny. As a member of the press, I have to admit that I have not yet come across a perfect definition of sustainability. Even researchers and experts will tell you that sustainability is one of those words often used to mean whatever the writer (or speaker) has in mind (1). You would also presume then, that definitions on sustainability are as widely ranging as are people’s opinions on it.  Particularly when you consider how different groups of people will be affected by the necessary changes that sustainability suggests.

Ok , let’s ask Kevin Sales from Mintone University what he thinks sustainability is.

Kevin: Thank you.  My main area of studies is corporate sustainability, so I’m looking at how well companies are able to include environmental and social responsibilities as part of their business objectives, without sacrificing their responsibility to maintain profits. As a definition from a corporate perspective, I’ll quote fellow PhD student and friend of mine, Kaushik Sridah, from Macquarie University. In his view “Sustainability is the integrated concept at which corporations detect, measure and manage their environmental and social impacts with and without their financial and economic metrics, its alignment with corporate strategy, and the positive outcome coming from the integrated view, on the society and the environment” (2).

(audience looks confused)

Natalie: See what I mean? Kevin’s definition must mean something to experts like him, but I think it’s likely to confuse most other people.

Kevin: There are numerous definitions of sustainability. Once society gets the definition right, then the action plan can be built around executing the vision behind the definition. As Kaushik puts it “From a corporate perspective, enhancing the economic value of the business is still the primary goal, but an integrated view towards financials and non-financials is a move towards creating more visibility around the impacts of sustainability on the business” (2).

Well, yes, that’s an important vision, and I think that raises another important question:  What is the goal of this analysis?  Is there any obligation or motivation to do anything with this concept other than to analyze and monitor? Let’s ask Dr Rose Swann, senior research advisor from Pondstone University how she defines sustainability.

Rose: Thanks Jinny. Even academics in the area of sustainability find it hard to pinpoint a clear, concise definition.  But I think Damien Giurco from Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology Sydney makes a good point:  “Sustainability has this assumption of a prosperous, happy future, but if you look at the world now, for most of the population of the world, life is a battle. Is this what we want to sustain for the future? With Sustainability, let’s be sure we are heading towards an improvement for the world today as well as tomorrow” (3).

Melanie, you are doing a PhD in ecological science. What’s your understanding of sustainability?

Melanie: Well, I think Business gives an elegant definition of ecological sustainability. They describe it as “A capacity of ecosystems to maintain their essential functions and processes, and retain their biodiversity in full measure over the long-term” (4).

Although I think it is also worth noting that in ecology ‘sustainable’ is a term mostly used when talking about a particular species or population, with regards to whether or not they are going to go extinct. So, essentially, if numbers are staying the same or increasing this would be considered sustainable. If numbers are decreasing it would be considered un-sustainable.

Ecologically, the word ‘sustainable’ rarely gets used in the same way as it is in the context of sustainability of human resource consumption. Perhaps most of us are more familiar with the notion that an increase in something is considered to be unsustainable, although PhD student at Sydney University, James Schlunke, once gave me an example of an ecologically unsustainable increase within captive populations of kangaroos in Australia.  And by captive populations I mean fenced-off.  There was a big story about a particular army base near Canberra a few years ago where officials proposed to cull hundreds of kangaroos because their increased numbers could not be supported by their limited food supply. The depletion of this resource also threatened the survival of other reptile species who were dependent on the grassy habitat (5).   Essentially, If you remove downwards pressure on populations (predators and roads), then populations grow exponentially until resources (grasses) are depleted.  At that point kangaroos would usually just spread out and move on when there is little food left, but in cases like army bases where there are high (human-proof) fences they can’t, and they starve. I think this gives us an obvious demonstration of what happens when a population’s needs exceed its limited supply of resources, which is therefore, unsustainable.

Hmmm… nicely illustrated.  Michael Morris from Innings Consultancy, how do you define sustainability?

Michael: Well, I think the Secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, puts it better than I can.  He says that “Sustainable wellbeing requires that at least the current level of wellbeing be maintained for future generations.  Sustainability requires that, relative to their populations, each generation bequeath a stock of capital that is at least as large as the stock it inherited” (6).

Natalie: Well-being? Capital stocks?  I’m not sure what you mean by that.  What are these things? And how do you measure them?

Michael: Dr Martin Parkinson emphasizes that this stock should include all forms of capital, (physical and financial capital, human capital, environmental capital, and social capital) (6).

Natalie: So why aren’t we measuring and monitoring our stocks of these things now?

(audience member 1) It still just sounds like mumbo jumbo to me.

Wait a minute, I’ll Google it… Here we are.  According to Wikipedia, the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development, is that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (7).

It then goes on to explain how sustainability “is the capacity to endure.”   Ecologically this means that biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. For humans, sustainability is about maintaining the potential for long-term well being.  In this case well-being is based on the 3 pillars – environmental, economic, and social demands. These three pillars of sustainability “are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually reinforcing” (7).

Gary Fabian, from the Well-Being Institute, what’s your take on this?

Gary: Thank you Jinny.  I’d like to quote The Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) on this one. They have a clear, down to earth understanding of sustainability.  Quite simply, they are concerned with the size of the human economy relative to the ecosystems that contain it. According to CASSE, “Sustainability is achieved when the human economy fits within the capacity provided by Earth’s ecosystems” (8).

Ok, so obviously sustainability infers that there is something we wish to sustain, and we would presume that this “something” must be kept within the ecological limits of this planet, which means that it cannot be spent at a rate that is faster than it can be produced.  But what is it that we want to sustain exactly?  And can we measure and monitor these things?

Gary: Well, you would presume that we would want to maintain a decent standard of living and quality of life, but this may mean very different things to different people. Prosperity or well-being, for example, can be measured, and there are people doing this.  You should have a read of The Inkling’s article Happiness (9). It talks more about this.  But it’s not just whether or not we can do it. Do we want to do it? Will we make it a priority? Policy makers need to decide how important or valuable well-being is to society.  And for this they need to know that society will gain measurable benefits as a result of greater well-being.

Yes, the man up the back there would like to make a comment…

(audience member 2) It’s simple! To maintain what we now enjoy means that in the future we shouldn’t be any worse off, right?  So to maintain our current levels of comfort and prosperity, you’d think that we shouldn’t lose any of the benefits that we currently get from our capital stocks.  Otherwise, what’s the point in having them?

Natalie: But how do you expect us to maintain our current levels of comfort if our levels of consumption are ecologically unsustainable? We can’t just go on spending our environmental assets at a rate that is faster than they can be replaced… they aren’t like money, which we have gotten used to just printing more of.

The young man here with glasses…

(audience member 3) Dr. M. Parkinson talks about stocks of capital as our basis for prosperity and well-being (6).  Maybe our perception of value needs to change.  Shouldn’t we consider our environmental assets, things like fish in the sea, clean drinking water, fossil fuels in the ground, intact ecosystems, and fertile farmland as a kind of term deposit or savings in the bank, to be set aside for necessity rather than consumed thoughtlessly like petty cash?  Why don’t we take regular stock of our environmental savings account and monitor the performance of these stocks with as much attention and agitation as is given to the stock market and our economic performance?

But here we are in a vicious circle.  How realistic is it to expect that we can continue to enjoy these benefits indefinitely, without either losing the benefits themselves, or the assets which provide them? Can we possibly continue forward without being any worse off?

Evan Brown, as an engineer/inventor, would you like to comment?

Evan: Thank you, yes. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but if we are intelligent enough to act while we can, there are all sorts of things we can do to make better use of our resources, without necessarily consuming any more of them, and possibly consuming less.  Without sacrificing the benefits themselves, we can find alternative ways to get the same benefits, we can extend our use out of things we already have, rather than throwing them away and replacing them with new ones, but most obviously, we need to be far more efficient.  Reduce our waste, particularly when excess consumption delivers no extra benefit.

So, are we making any progress with this now? And what (if anything), are we doing now that IS truly sustainable?

2.     What does it look like?

Evan: Well just think of all the technological advances in the last 10 – 20 years, where improvements have been linked to greater efficiency in energy use, material input and size.  It’s encouraging to notice how much more conscious consumers are now of “waste”.  Efficiency and sustainability are now embedded in our psyche as being beneficial and desirable.  This new awareness will no doubt have an effect on consumer behavior, which will, in turn, affect corporate and political behavior.

Can you give me some tangible examples of this?

Evan: Well, just look at modern architecture, engineering, and waste management. There is now a much greater demand for energy and water efficiency, material recycling in building products, better use of natural light and space. Sure, there is still a lot that we are not doing well, but people are now beginning to see and accept the benefits in doing things more efficiently, particularly when they can save money.

Michael: I agree, as do many experts who predict that we are entering a new age of efficiency. A good example of this is how using the internet has given us the potential to increase profit margins by making transactions cheaper and simpler. We no longer need to perform physical transactions when we can buy and sell for ourselves, online, and at the same time we are reducing the labour and material costs associated with transactions.

Rose: But this is just the beginning.  As Damien Giurco of ISF points out, the age of efficiency has also provided us with so much more new technology for allowing us to monitor water/electricity use etc. We now have so much more data that we can use to help us decrease our resource consumption. This is significant as he states “There will be money to be made in finding less resource intense ways of doing things” (3).

Evan: Another good example of this is detailed in James Bradfield Moody and Bianca Nogrady’s book, The Sixth Wave.  According to The Sixth Wave, the second wave examines the concept Sell the Service, Not the Product”. This idea looks at the distinction between things we use (services), as opposed to things we consume. This includes things like the service-izing of products, where a customer does not buy and own a product outright, but pays a company to install and maintain a product on their premises for the product’s lifetime. The incentive for the will be to minimize waste, which will reduce their material costs and overall consumption (10).

Michael: Have you heard of the CSIRO’s Sustainable Manufacturing Initiative (SMI)? It’s goal is to work in partnership with the manufacturing industry to develop more resource efficient, cleaner technologies, which will lead to significant savings to the industry through increased efficiency. The Director of CSIRO’s Future Manufacturing Flagship, Dr Swee Mak, says the goal of the initiative is to create “$2 billion of additional annual value for Australia’s manufacturing industry by 2025 through the development and application of resource-efficient, clean and transformative technologies” (11).

Evan: No I haven’t. Now, energy efficiency is a wonderful cost-free tool, in fact after coal, petroleum, nuclear energy and renewables, it has been referred to as The Fifth Fuel (12). However, we need to watch out that we don’t get hit by the rebound effect. We must remember to look at the overall, long-term impact of greater efficiency. Will it necessarily mean, in the long run, a reduction in resource consumption? If we save by doing things more efficiently, do we risk having the opposite effect by just doing more of it? In the end all we may have is a greater number of transactions without any reduction in resource consumption.

Michael: William Stanley Jevons came up with this theory in the late 1800’s with his work Theory of Political Economy (13). The Jevons Paradox has been observed by economists for nearly 150 years.  English economist Steve Sorrell goes into this in his article Empirical estimates of the direct rebound effect (14). To an economist this makes sense because being more energy efficient is really about increasing productivity. As a result of increased productivity you will reduce its implicit price and increase demand, as you gain more return for the same money (12).

As we are observing, technology, if directed in a sustainable direction, will lead us to be more efficient. But once again, the motivation for this efficiency is largely based on cost saving and profit increasing.  Is it unthinkable to justify changing our behavior without guaranteed, visual, financial benefits?

Isn’t being sustainable out of ecological consciousness enough of a motivation in itself?

Rose: The Transition Movement is a good example of this.

Tell me about this movement.

Rose: Well, it began as a project at the Kinsale Further Education College in Kinsale, a small town in West Cork, Ireland, with Rob Hopkins, (a permaculture designer) and his students.  In 2005, as part of this project, Rob Hopkins and his students produced a road map to the sustainable future for Kinsale, “Energy Descent Action Plan” (15).  This report was then presented to the Kinsale Town Council who decided to adopt the plan for its town of 7,000 people and put it into practice.

Throughout 2005 and 2006 the idea was adapted and expanded on in other towns in the UK, and the movement has since spread throughout the world. There are currently over 300 official Transition Communities in the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, Italy, Chile, New Zealand, and even here in Australia!

How big are these towns?

Rose: It depends.  Obviously smaller populations are easier to work with and more likely to be successful, but there’s no reason why the same principles can’t be applied to larger populations, even cities. Mostly they are small towns, but it could also be a university, rural community or island. The most important feature that they all share is their commitment to the question:

“How can we make our community stronger and happier as we deal with the impacts of peak oil and economic contraction while at the same time urgently reducing CO2 emissions?” (16).

Once a group/ community initiative has been formed, the movement provides each group with information, support and a Transition Model of how to address this question.  There are many ways that a community can achieve the Transition Town goals.  In addition to practical community projects to deal with food, energy, transport, health, economics and livelihoods, there are also many “connecting” activities that are encouraged.  Things like raising awareness on peak oil and climate change, communication with local governments and other existing Transition groups, and regular communication within the group to reinforce the vision they have for the future, and what they need to do to achieve it.  Out of this, the community will develop an “Energy Descent Action Plan” suited to their needs, for a 15 to 20 year timescale (16).

(audience member 1) Ppff…Good luck to them.

Rose: Don’t be so skeptical.  Being self-sufficient doesn’t mean you need to go back to the stone-age.  On the contrary.  The Transition Movement welcomes technology and innovation and makes good use of it.  Being sustainable doesn’t mean you need to go without.  It’s about being smart, practical and efficient.

Gary: What these Transition Movers are doing is accepting the undeniable reality of the earth’s limits and adapting their own lifestyles to fit within these limits, rather than trusting that governments will get their acts together and come up with the solutions.  There’s too much faith in humanity’s ability to find ways of stretching those limits and continuing to grow as we are.  But is this realistic? Professor Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner of the now unfunded Sustainable Development Commission, UK, makes this clear in his report Prosperity Without Growth? (17).  He points out that to be sustainable and to prosper we need to accept that our capabilities are bounded on the one hand by the scale of the global population and on the other by the finite ecology of the planet.  Tim Jackson suggests that establishing “bounded capabilities” to live well – within certain clearly defined limits – is necessary for sustainability. These limits must allow humans the possibility “to flourish, achieve greater social cohesion, find higher levels of well-being and still reduce their material impact on the environment.” He acknowledges that this is not an easy goal to achieve, but a necessary one, since “It may well offer the best prospect we have for a lasting prosperity” (17).  But before we can aim towards greater well-being and flourishing, we first need to redefine our understanding of prosperity.

This lady at the front here has her hand up…

 (audience member 4) The Quaker understanding of prosperity draws from their principle of “right relationship,” whereby “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (18).

Yes, this young man with glasses…

(audience member 5) It’s nice what this lady says about right relationships and integrity and all that.  It would be good, maybe, if all Australians shared similar values, but they don’t.  Most people don’t have a clue, nor do they care. And nobody in power (except maybe the Greens) seems to take our current addiction to consumption seriously.  I’ve been doing a bit of research on the net, and according to Centre for Advancement of Steady State Economy (CASSE) the changes need to be at a much more fundamental level, where the very machinery that runs our society needs a serious overhaul.   The CASSE report Enough Is Enough (19) outlines a detailed strategic plan of where, why and how these major changes need to occur.  The 10 areas addressed in this report are:

1. Limit Resource Use and Waste Production

2. Stabilise Population

3. Limit Inequality

4. Reform the Monetary System

5. Change the Way We Measure Progress

6. Secure Full Employment

7. Rethink Business and Production

8. Improve Global Co-operation

9. Change Consumer Behaviour

10. Engage Politicians and the Media

You lot ought to check it out!

Michael: I have read this report, and I must admit that on first glance many of the proposals appear to be radical and impossible, even frightening, but there are also many undeniable practicalities, bold solutions and well-thought-out ideas, which offer a fair and sustainable alternative. The Steady State Economy is an economic model that may be easily discarded for being too risky, too authoritarian, too radical and too limiting.  Then again, compared to our current free-market system, the consequences of major economic collapse if unrestrained economic growth is allowed to continue, may be equally (if not more) risky, frightening, and limiting.  According to Dr Martin Parkinson  “The Australian economy will need to become more energy, resource and environmentally efficient.  In fact, going forward, energy, resource and environmental efficiency will be key drivers of productivity” (6).

This man in the middle would like to make a comment…

(audience member 2) Does this mean we all have to go and live in Transition Towns so we can slave away all day in permaculture gardens and weave baskets for a living?  I don’t want to live in a commune where I have to rely on my neighbours to share all my food, energy and water!

(audience member 6)  Well, not that I’m in favour of community-style set-ups, but these days it’s possible to live very comfortably without mains power, water and plumbing, provided you have access to some sort of natural water supply and enough money, time, space, knowledge and skill to be able to set yourself up properly. Not many of us do.  But that’s beside the point.  What I don’t like is  the idea of being “looked after” by a presumptuous single state economy who decides what’s best for me.  This whole concept of “living within bounded capabilities” feels like a violation of my freedom and independence!

Rose: But where has all this freedom and independence got us?  We have become isolated in our independence.  What Damien Giurco emphasizes is that we need to maintain vibrant social interactions. Think of all the wasted possibilities for social interactions. What is the value of quality social interaction? Think of how much money people spend on activities like dance classes and internet dating sites just to have the opportunity to mix with people and interact!  He says we need to “Keep citizens central to our society, know what our role is in society, not get carried away with money making and power. (We need) A society that encourages thinking and appreciates that everyone has a voice” (3).

Even if the sustainable solutions do exist, and there are plenty of people willing to implement them, is it really necessary?

(audience member 2) Hey, when are they putting the food on?

(audience member 1) Yeah, I’m busting for a toilet break.

Ok, we’ll take a lunch break now, but we still have a lot to get through, so we will resume again in an hour.  Thank you everyone for your patience and input.


3.     What’s All The Fuss About?

Welcome again to the Stocks are Limited Forum on sustainability, and thanks once again to our panel of experts, Natalie Hutchins (Foil Seal Magazine), Kevin Sales (Mintone Uni), Dr. Rose Swann (Pondstone Uni), Melanie Frederickson (James Thomas Uni), Michael Morris (Innings Consultancy), Evan Brown (inventor/engineer) and Gary Fabian (Well-Being Institute) for joining us here today.  To kick off our second session I’d like to give our studio audience a chance to give their views on sustainability.  Let’s start with the lady over here with the blonde hair…

(audience 1): Honestly, do we care about what happens when we’re dead?  Or in a few decades?  We seem to place a lot of faith in our kids and their kids’ ability to “fix it” when the time comes.  Maybe our current situation is not as bad as it’s made out to be.  Maybe we’re all just catastrophizing.

(audience member 7): I don’t think we can underestimate the seriousness of our current situation. The overwhelming scientific evidence is clearly telling us that Human activity is causing significant changes to our global climate. It is widely accepted that climate skeptics are idiots.  However rather than catastrophizing as this young lady puts it, I think perhaps a more rational, cool-headed response is required.

(audience member 6): I would like to say, in response to the climate hysterics, that Planet Earth is far more resilient than it is made out to be.  Think of all the major climatic changes and natural disasters it has survived before humans even existed.  It can easily withstand Human activity, and even if we were to make living conditions insupportable to us, life on Earth would continue to survive without us.

Although the chances of us creating an un-liveable planet, (in our immediate next few generations anyway), is extremely unlikely.  What is far more likely is that our human intelligence and innovation, which is advancing rapidly, will allow us to develop the technological solutions and modifications necessary to adapt to our impending climate/resource crisis. There is no doubt that humans will, and already are, working towards a rescue plan for our survival as a species.  We are far from doomed.

Before this can happen, unfortunately, the immediate threat of death needs to be accepted as a reality for all individuals and lots of people will need to die.  The real impact of these necessary changes will kick-in when the situation requires them – when we hit a critical crisis point and have no other choice.

Simply put, we need to see the end as an immediate threat before we are forced to take action.  When this happens our human capabilities will be sufficient to rescue us from extinction.

This series of events may even be considered by many as a necessary and beneficial stage in our human evolution.  The human race that survives this test will be a wiser, fairer, more ecologically sound civilization that will have learnt from and overcome mistakes of the past.  Intervention in this process is futile and would only be a hindrance to allowing nature to take its course.

Natalie: This sounds to me like a feel-good encouragement for climate apathy.

(audience member 6): Not at all!  I would say it is a realistic and rational response to an opportunity like none that humans have ever seen before.

(audience member8): This is disgraceful!  How can you talk about your own families and descendents with such cold hearts?! Don’t you love your grandchildren and want them to enjoy the natural wonders of the world as well as surviving? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I certainly do! It might be nice to think that the species will survive but it isn’t so nice to think about it being my grandchildren who die during the transition. Doesn’t genuine love and concern count for anything?

(audience member 1): You make it all sound so apocalyptic, like it’s some great event that is going to take place, like The Rapture (20) or something. Sorry to disappoint you all, but if we let things continue as they are, then I don’t think there’s much to look forward to. I read an article in New Scientist magazine from 28 February 2009 (21), where the effects on the planet (and us) due to a 4 degrees Celsius temperature rise were outlined. It talked about how this temperature rise is likely by 2099 and maybe even by 2050. It is predicted that the population will be reduced by 90% and that most of the land south of Canada and north of Patagonia (an area covering US, Africa, India and China) will be uninhabitable due to it being desert or having extreme weather. All Australian’s will have to move to Tasmania or the Northern Territory if they want to stay here. Can you imagine it if most of the world’s population became refugees?

If it’s true, and we are heading for a new, improved, advancement in human civilization, and a sustainable future anyway, why do we first need to go through a period of decline, crisis and suffering? Why not start improving things now?  Why do we need to sacrifice the lives of less fortunate people, our earth’s limited resources and countless other species to learn our lesson?  Is consuming a bit less now, so that we all have enough and will continue to have enough later an even greater sacrifice to humanity?

(audience member 7):  Before we start improving things, I think we need to be honest and ask if it is truly sustainable to expect to maintain our current human population.  Maybe what is needed is a serious reduction in numbers.  Are there simply too many of us?  Is this a necessary and natural ‘survival of the fittest’ test, which is crucial to our evolution?  As this lady points out, maybe love and concern are not necessary for our survival.  Perhaps we should consider compassion, charity and selflessness as weaknesses? Maybe greed, ambition and exploitation should be considered as our greatest strengths?

(audience 8): I can’t believe it has come to this! Is this civilization?

4.     Do We Even Want To Be Sustainable?

(audience member1): Whether or not future generations have the capabilities to deal with it when the time comes, what does it matter?  Should the human race survive at all?  Would our extinction be such a bad thing?  How does our existence benefit the ecological balance of planet Earth?  Are we necessary?

Melanie: As far as any benefits of humans on the ecology of the world, that would have to be limited to us actively protecting/managing things (i.e. species, populations or ecological communities) which, as James Schlunke of Sydney University points out, are on a downwards trajectory as things are now. He gives examples of this type of management as things like bush regeneration programs – where humans actively fight back against the impacts of invasive plant species to preserve ecological communities.  This also applies to preserving endangered species where they would become extinct without human help (22).

All that said, James points out that the reasons for the original decline are almost invariably human-caused  (i.e. we put these processes in place). Without people to manage these human-caused weed and feral animal populations there would likely be a very rapid extinction of the species most negatively impacted by these factors. As an exception to that, he refers to the Tasmanian Devils, which are now suffering from Devil Facial Tumour Disease, as an example of a case where human intervention is actually wholly beneficial is for the survival of the Tasmanian Devils, since as far as anyone knows this isn’t caused by people, and without people the devils would be extinct very soon (23).

(audience member 8):  If you consider that it takes most species up to 10 million years  to go extinct (24), and that the current age of the human race is estimated at only 200,000 years (25) then it could be said that we’re doing a pretty good job at wiping ourselves out.  Maybe Human Beings are just another evolutionary experiment that wasn’t meant to last.

Michael: Maybe we expect to live too long? According to Dr Martin Parkinson “It has been projected that by 2050, around 5 per cent of the population – that is one in twenty – will be aged 85 and over – this compares to around 1.8 per cent today. The ageing of the population will create substantial pressures around fiscal sustainability” (6).

(audience member 1): I reckon that if we make it to 2050, the aging population will be the least of our worries.  What is the estimated population of 2050 based on anyway? Does it take into account the expected environmental disasters – floods, droughts, famines, fires? Or the oil spills and the destruction of farmland by mining as we get more and more desperate for resources?

Gary: Well, I’ll admit I think it may be an optimistic estimate, and we need to consider also what the living standards will be like for the vast majority in 2050.  As it is, some African societies are trapped in the Malthusian Era (26) where material living standards are the same or less than those of the stone-age. Technological advances have led to population growth, which has substantially reduced the standard of living for more people.

5.     It’s Too Hard!

(audience member 9): I’m sick of all this fuss about economies and aging populations and stocks of capital!  What really frustrates me is just how difficult it is, as an individual, to be a truly ethical, decent person.  Look, I’m just an average Australian.  I don’t have ambitions to save the planet, I just don’t like being wasteful or inconsiderate. All I want is to do what’s best for me and my family without harming anybody or anything else.  Yet it seems that even this is impossible! No matter how hard I try to be a good person and to ‘do the right thing’, all I find is that I am becoming more and more frustrated the more conscious I am of how almost everything I do is contributing somehow to making all our problems worse.   Why is it so hard to be sustainable?

(audience member 4): Hear, Hear!!

(audience member 10): Finally!  Somebody who knows how I feel! Only I’d say I’m probably a more extreme case. Politicians dismiss my concerns, labeling me as “un-Australian” and not “mainstream”. I don’t want to just go with the flow, I really do want to save the world. Then I find that, far from that being possible, I’m going to be ridiculed for even just trying to do my bit. I don’t like greed or the way it gets rewarded. If I were more religious I’d go round reminding people that greed is supposed to be a sin.

I don’t like our consumer culture. I want to be a HUMAN not a consumer. I don’t want to be defined by what I consume! Elaborately packaged things don’t make me feel special, they make me feel wasteful, and conned. I care about how things were produced not which celebrities use them. I want to get what I need using as little resources as possible. I like things that are designed for reuse and to be repaired. I’m not expecting sustainability for nothing. I’d be happy to pay for it! I think natural resources should be valued more highly.

The endless pursuit of economic growth angers me. We need to live within our natural boundaries! I also dislike leaving people out or behind. It sickens me to hear wealthy people complain about their lot in life when I can turn on the TV news and see poor people losing their children to starvation. I don’t like how rich people can influence our politicians more than everyone else. And I really don’t like how the only way to live a respectable “sustainable” life in our society is to first win the rat race. If I decided to live on as little as possible I’d be labeled a failure, a crazy failure. If instead I first won the rat race and then “dropped out” to live in a luxurious eco-mansion I might get some respect, but that would only be because I’d already proven that I was a good rat.

What I want is for it to be easier to be an ethical, sustainable person than to not be. I think that’s only fair. Doing the right thing should be favoured, not doing the wrong thing!

(audience member 7): No wonder  so many people prefer to turn a blind eye to their daily contributions to our unsustainable behavior.  I can imagine that being constantly vigilant will drive you mad and turn you into a social misfit or a guilt-ridden hypocrite.  I wonder if this has anything to do with the increasing rates of suicide and mental illness?

(audience member 1): It’s simply because the whole mechanism on which our society runs is set up to be unsustainable.

(audience member 2): Come on, how many of us are prepared to abandon our jobs, cars, suburbs and social lives to live in isolation, in a humble, self-sufficient, renewable, permacultured lifestyle?  And what difference would it make to the rest of the world anyway?  It’s just a selfish, self-righteous act of pride that doesn’t contribute anything to society.  Or do you expect everyone else to follow you? Ha! Can you imagine how difficult it would be to convince all your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbours to join you in transforming your neighbourhood into a self-reliant transition community?

(audience member 11): Even just transforming your own existing property into a transition-style dwelling requires dedication, money, time, organization and discipline. I know! This is what I am currently trying to do.  Being sustainable is hard work, but I still think it’s worth it.

Rose: Damien Giurco says “ You want to be more sustainable?  Be poor.  Let’s compare Australia and India in terms of purchasing power parity, or PPP. The PPP is basically just the country’s Gross Domestic Profit divided by the population, which gives us an idea of how much the individual, on average, has to spend each year. Data provided by Indexmundi for 2010 has Australia’s PPP at $41,000 per person, whereas India’s PPP for the same year is only $3,500 per person (27). Taking this difference into consideration, it’s little surprise that, according to Carbon Planet statistics, the carbon footprint of the average Indian is just 6% of an Australian (28). Work less, consume less, make time for the things you enjoy… Maybe we need new models for a good life? Not necessarily just individual happiness, but more on community well being” (3).

 (audience member 1): Stuff that!  The Government has to make it easier for us to change, otherwise nothing will ever happen.

6.     So What’s Stopping Us?

Kevin: The main problems, according to Kaushik Sridah, are around aligning the sustainability movement with corporate strategy. The value is there, but is it visible? The topic of long term vs. short term is important. Lack of regulation, a capitalistic sense of corporate style, are but a few reasons for this problem (2).

Rose: Damien Giurco says “Humans, biologically, are very good at assessing risks in the short term, but assessing risk over long term and acting on it, both as individuals and as a species, it’s just much more difficult for us… As well as the ability to perceive it, you also need the mechanism to act” (3).

Michael: Dr Martin Parkinson admits that unsustainable growth cannot continue indefinitely. He says that by us reducing now the aggregate capital stock, we are making future generations worse off in the long run. “The problem is that we can be on an unsustainable path for a long period – and by the time we recognise and change, it could be too late” (6).

(audience member 1): Structural adjustment is going to be the killer.

Gary: Maybe the focus needs to shift off money and onto prosperity?

Natalie: Yes, and whether that is to happen in an evolved, gradual sense or in a radical sense like communism…?  We shouldn’t underestimate the challenges of bringing forth and then maintaining a completely new system.

Michael:  According to Dr Martin Parkinson “structural adjustment can be managed, or it can be opposed.  The critical point is that it cannot be avoided. Moreover, history shows that opposing adjustment rarely succeeds, and the negative consequences are significant. The challenge for policy makers is to facilitate as smooth an adjustment as possible for all affected” (6).

Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we are more afraid of? On the one hand, if we sacrifice profits and a growing economy we risk economic collapse and human suffering due to loss of livelihoods etc.  Heavier taxes and tighter regulation of non-sustainable practices risks further human suffering by imposing lifestyle changes.  Many Australians see our “way of life” as having a greater value than almost anything else.

Then again, by continuing as we are, we risk major loss of resources, the outbreak of wars over resources, increasing numbers of political and environmental refugees, mass human suffering and death, not to mention the major loss of natural assets.  This is the gamble we take by trusting that when the inevitable climate and resource crisis hits, we will be prepared to deal with it.

Michael: Dr Martin Parkinson agrees that there are significant risks and uncertainties arising from our imperfect knowledge of the climate system. “It is possible that climate impacts could suddenly accelerate. In fact, certain impacts to the climate system may lead to a tipping point where sudden irreversible changes arise.  These sudden changes may not be seen for some time, but they could arise from our actions, or inaction, today. To an economist, climate change is fundamentally a risk management issue. Even if you do not accept all elements of the science, prudence suggests taking out some form of insurance (6).

Does it make sense to ignore this window of opportunity that we still have for investing in an insurance policy for our children’s future? Surely the sooner we stop contributing to the problem, the better chance we have of maintaining more of what we have now.

Michael:  Dr. Martin Parkinson makes a good point…

(audience member 1):  I’m getting sick of Dr. know-it-all-Martin Parkinson

Michael: “We also need to remind ourselves, and others, that if no-one acts first we all lose. But more so – unless we all act, we all lose in the end” (6).

(audience member 6): This is nonsense! We can’t afford to risk profits and sacrificing the strong economy that we are so fortunate to enjoy in these financially volatile times!  Surely it makes more sense to keep growing strong now, while we can, to secure an economic advantage, which is essential to building the new infrastructure we will need to survive the challenges ahead!

Michael: That’s not necessarily true.  The key message from the modeling of the recent Strong Growth, Low Pollution report, (29) was that the economy will continue to prosper while emissions are reduced. Furthermore, as Dr Martin Parkinson points out, the economic costs of adjustment are modest if action starts sooner rather than later – delaying action will only raise the eventual economic costs.

So who is in charge of making the choice and taking responsibility for the consequences?

(audience member 5): I think we all are. We all make decisions with our wallets and our actions and our votes.  We just all need to wake up and tell our politicians what we really want because they are the ones with the power to legislate and fund these choices. I like what Professor Tim Jackson says in his report Prosperity Without Growth?

“…governments have an undisputed duty to intervene. Public investment is essential. Restructuring is inevitable. Targeting these interventions towards sustainability makes obvious sense” (17).

But maybe we are missing the point here.  Before we go hypothesizing and bracing ourselves for the on-coming threat of the future, why not take a look at our current circumstances and do what we can, now, as human beings, to improve our present living conditions for everybody?

Gary: We can’t ignore that even though income equality, since the Industrial revolution of the late 1800’s, has reduced within societies, it has dramatically increased between societies.  The gap in income between countries, which has been called The Great Divergence, is currently around 50: 1 (26). Alive today, we have some of the richest and the poorest people who have ever lived.

Rose: So let’s not forget, as Damien Giurco of ISF remarks, “Is it about me, here, now?  Or also others, elsewhere, tomorrow? What if we started at least with others here and now?…”(3).

Gary: In chapter six of the report Enough is Enough: Ideas for a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, Rob Dietz and Kate Pickett remark that economic growth is commonly given as an excuse to avoid dealing with poverty and inequality (19). They then go on to explain that the conventional wisdom that “a rising tide lifts all boats” has been shown not to work. They refer to the Equality Trust website (30) that presents evidence showing that “In rich countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population” and propose that instead of concentrating on economic growth and assuming that it will help those worse off, greater equality of income be used as a substitute for growth.

They end the argument with “Narrowing income differences provides a golden opportunity to enhance social relations. By changing the nature of status competition, more equal societies can suppress unnecessary and conspicuous consumption and improve social and psychological well-being. In short, an economy that features greater equality will have healthier, happier, and more creative citizens, as well as a less degraded environment in which to operate” (19).

To achieve this, the difference in income levels between the richest and poorest people in society, and between societies, would need to shrink.  The objective would no longer be on unsustainable economic growth. Instead society would give priority to economic development in areas like education, poverty alleviation and high-quality employment opportunities.

Rose:  I’d just like to emphasise that sustainability isn’t about living in poverty. It isn’t about taking away economic growth without giving an alternative. It is about maximizing the well-being of all societies within the natural boundaries of the planet. What are the boundaries and how do we know whether we are within them? This is perhaps the most important question that needs to be addressed and acted upon immediately.

(audience member 12): My ancestors were able to live sustainably off this land for over 40,000 years before the arrival of the English settlers.  They knew that their survival depended on living in harmony with the environment and forming a relationship with it based on respect.  It’s simple. We need to respect our limits and only take what we need.

I’m afraid we’re running out of time, so I’d just like to finish off with a bit of a summary. What we have heard here today is that we can’t deny the fact that Planet Earth is not an infinite resource pool. It’s natural stocks are limited.

Trying to be more efficient alone will not increase our stocks, it may only make them last a bit longer.  This is not sustainability! To be truly sustainable we must do a thorough inventory of our planet’s supplies, look at our population and it’s rate of growth, and establish limits. Once we are aware of our boundaries we can accommodate to make the best possible living conditions for everyone within those limits.  If humanity is intelligent enough to adapt and live within these limits then we may have a chance of restoring the balance.  There is even a good possibility for an improved future, with greater well-being for more people.  But this opportunity is available for a limited time only.  We must hurry!

Let’s thank our panel of experts, Natalie, Kevin, Rose, Melanie, Evan, Gary and Michael, and thank you to our audience for your input which has been both candid and insightful. So here’s to living within our limits!  Cheers everybody!

(Champagne glasses chinking)

“Sparkling mineral water, Prime Minister?” asked the flight attendant.

“Oh… Yes please, I must have nodded off….. Thank you. Here’s to greater well-being for more people, and a sustainable future for all!”


  1. Dr. Jenny Gordon, Principal Advisor Research, Productivity Commission, Canberra office, comment made by email 28 August 2011
  2. Kaushik Sridah, Macquarie Graduate School of Management Macquarie University,  North Ryde, comment made by email 30 August  and 5 October 2011
  3. Damien Giurco, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney, interview 11 August 2011
  4. Ecological Sustainability definition, Business, Accessed 10 October 2011
  5. Australia facing mass protests as military vows to cull kangaroos after row, Mail Online News, Last updated at 12:18 07 March 2008 Accessed 10 October 2011
  6. Sustainable Wellbeing – An Economic Future for Australia, Speech by Dr Martin Parkinson, delivered 23 August 2011, Accessed 29 August 2011
  7. Wikipedia, Sustainability, Accessed 26 July 2011
  8. Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, Accessed 28 July 2011
  9. Happiness, The Inkling, July 2011, Accessed August 2011
  10. The Sixth Wave, Moody, James Bradfield and Nogrady, Bianca, Random House Australia, 2010, ISBN: 9781741668896
  11. Research initiative to foster sustainable manufacturing future, CSIRO, 5 September 2011, Accessed 12 September 2011
  12. The Efficiency Dilemma, Owen David, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010 Accessed 12 September 2011
  13. The Theory of Political Economy, Jevons, William Stanley, Oxford University, Macmillan and co., 1879
  14. Empirical estimates of the direct rebound effect, Sorrell, Steve, Dimitropoulos, John, Sommerville, Matt, Elsevier Energy Policy Journal, Volume 37 Issue 4, April 2009, Accessed 12 September 2011
  15. Energy Descent Action Plan, Version.1. 2005, Kinsale Further Education College, Edited by Rob Hopkins 6 September 2011
  16. Transition Network, Accessed 6 September 2011
  17. Prosperity Without Growth?, March 2009, Professor Jackson,Tim, Economics Commissioner, Sustainable Development Commission UK,      Accessed 4 August 2011
  18. Moral Economy Project, Quaker Institute For The Future, Accessed 28 August 2011
  19. Enough Is Enough, Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, November 2010, Accessed 18 August 2011
  20. Book Of Matthew 24:15 – 24:22, New Testament, Accessed 9 September 2011
  21. Surviving in a warmer world, New Scientist Magazine, 28 February 2009, pages 28-33.
  22. James Schlunke, PhD Student, Sydney University, comments made by email October 2011
  23. Devil facial tumour disease, Wikipedia, Accessed 10 October 2011
  24. When Will Humans Go Extinct?, Nelson, Brenda, Published October 2 5, 2009, Scienceray Accessed 15 August 2011
  25. Human, Wikipedia, Accessed 15 August 2011
  26. A Farewell to Alms – A Brief Economic History Of the World, Clark, Gregory,1957, ISBN 978-691-12135-2, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, reprinted 2007
  27. Indexmundi Country Comparison – GDP per Capita (PPP) Accessed 10 October 2011
  28. Green House Gas Emissions  By Country, Carbon Planet Limited, 2011,  Accessed 10 October 2011
  29. Strong Growth, Low Pollution – modeling a carbon price, Australian Government, Treasury,    10 July 2011  Accessed 23 August 2011
  30. The Equality Trust, Why More Equality?,,  Accessed 23 October 2011

Additional Reading

Australia in 2050, Published 5 September 2011, Professor Cribb, Julian, Adjunct Professor in Science Communication, University of Technology Sydney,, Accessed 12 September 2011

Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, Brown, Peter G, Garver, Geoff, Helmuth, Keith, Howell, Robert, February 2009, ISBN 9781576757628, Berrett-Koehler  Accessed 12 September 2011

Welcome to Postnormal Times, Sardar, Ziauddin, Futures, 42, 5, June 2010,  Accessed 12 September 2011

The Story Of Stuff, Annie Leonard, (

Special Thanks to   

Damien Giurco, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology

Kaushik Sridah, Doctoral Scholar, Macquarie Graduate School of Management Macquarie University

James Schlunke, PhD Student, Sydney University

Dr. Jenny Gordon, Principle Advisor Research, Productivity Commission

Paul Belin, Assistant Commissioner, Productivity Commission

The Gadigal People of the Eora Nation



The Prime Minister couldn’t help hearing when we Australians complained about doing it tough. She’d been trying her best, but the opinion polls just kept getting worse. “What do people want?” she asked herself. “How can I make people happy?” Then she had an idea.

“What if I appoint a Minister for Happiness? If I can make voters happy surely I will get more votes. I can see it now…”

Radio announcer: The Opposition Leader this morning announced his opposition to the appointment of a Minister for Happiness, insisting “Australian’s don’t want to be happy!”

“Why aren’t Australian’s happy?” asked the Minister for Happiness

Australia appears to have everything it needs to be a happy country.  We have a peaceful lifestyle with little physical discomfort, the freedom to make our own choices and express our opinions, the right to vote, abundant food to eat and resources to trade, relatively fair work conditions and free healthcare and public education. We have a higher than average life expectancy (1), a comfortable climate to live in, four weeks holiday a year and a high GDP.

With all our wealth and comfort, you would expect us to be a nation of happy, or at least content, individuals.  But are we really?

 “I’d like to point out that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people, second only to road accidents (2), and if the current rate of reported cases of depression and other anxiety disorders is anything to go by, then it looks like there are plenty of unhappy Australians. The 2007 Mental Health Council of Australia statistics show that almost half the population, (45.5%), is likely to experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime.  Around 1 million adults and 100,000 young people live with depression each year.  In the period 2006 – 2007, 20% of 16 – 85 year olds experienced some sort of mental disorder.  That’s more than 3 million Australians! (3) Mental Illness is costing the government $20 billion a year (4)” the Health Minister commented.

“Ahem…“ said the Minister for Housing. “Might I add that mental illness is not the only worrying issue here? I think it is worth noting that only around 55% of the population owns their home outright (5). The other 45% of the population is either burdened with large rent or mortgage repayments, the insecurity of temporary accommodation or they are one of the 105,000 Australians who don’t have any home at all (6)” 

“Don’t forget the rate of lifestyle-related deaths” said the Health Minister. “The 2009 Australian Medical Association report on obesity estimated that 9,500 deaths occur annually in Australia as a result of diseases and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer that are attributable to excess weight (7), to which low self esteem and poor diet contribute.”

“Instead of appointing new Ministers, the Prime Minister should concentrate on getting the Ministers she already has to do their jobs properly” said The Opposition Leader

“Let’s assume that Australia meets the basic human needs of its population” said the Prime Minister. “Apart from simply surviving, what else do we need to live enjoyable, worthwhile, fulfilled, happy lives?”

What is Happiness?

Ed Deiner, a psychologist from the University of Illinois makes a good point on what he recognizes as happiness in an overview of his study entitled “Defining and Measuring Happiness (Subjective Well Being)” (8).

“Life satisfaction, pleasant emotions, and unpleasant emotions are separable, different components of happiness and unhappiness. Life satisfaction differs from the affective components of happiness in that it is based on a reflective judgment. In addition, there is the distinction between eudaimonic happiness and hedonic happiness, the first being characterized more by virtue and reason, and the latter being characterized by pleasure. We argue that each facet of well-being is deserving of scientific study, regardless of which one researchers might argue is true happiness.”

“I suggest we take a fresh look at happiness and reexamine our understanding of what it is exactly” said the Minister for Happiness. “Unfortunately His Holiness The Dalai Lama couldn’t be here today. I was lucky enough, however, to attend the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in Brisbane recently where His Holiness and colleague Alan Wallace talked extensively on this topic (Alan Wallace is founder and director of the Santa Barbara Institute of Conscience Studies and a leading Buddhist scholar).

“Prime Minister, how happy do you think the struggling Australian taxpayers feel when they hear that their hard work is paying for tickets to a Happiness Conference?” said the Opposition Leader

Alan Wallace recognizes a clear difference between happiness caused by external stimulus, “the type of happiness that arises because of some stimulation or something good happening to us…” and  genuine happiness which he describes as “a type of satisfaction that endures, that is cultivated… well being that arises independent upon stimulation… without external support” (9). His definition would suggest that the fleeting kind of pleasure we seek in material things, favorable circumstances and enjoyable activities is not genuine happiness.

Also according to His Holiness The Dalai Lama (in dialogue with Natasha Mitchell at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2011), happiness is a calm mind, a mental state of satisfaction.  This state of mental satisfaction he considers to be the result of spirituality or “dealing with the mind.” He also stresses that spirituality cannot be bought, but something that people can “only develop through their own mental training”.  However, the cultivation of spirituality and intellect are not to be confused, as His Holiness The Dalai Lama acknowledges that intellect alone, without heart, can bring a lot of disaster (9).

Similarly Eckhart Tolle in his book “Power of Now” speaks of the joy and peace to be discovered in accepting the present moment and all that it is.  Observing without judgment, acknowledging that nothing is lacking. (10)  

The Buddhist viewpoint also gives great importance to the role of compassion in cultivating happiness.  In addition to the mental training of the intellect (increased awareness of reality, reduced ignorance), compassion is the practice of combining the awareness and acceptance of reality and the very Buddhist concept of selflessness.  Or as The Dalai Lama puts it “Compassion, take as a seed.  Then we use human intelligence, then reasoning, (and) add a kind of warm heartedness.”  Compassion is an essential part of happiness because “it allows us to understand. (an)Altruistic attitude brings (us) together” (9).  “Now, in order to build a happy world, a peaceful world that ultimately depends on compassion. So our target should be a compassionate world…” (11)

So what I’m proposing is that compassion is perhaps a value that is underestimated in our western culture because it is more about understanding and connecting with others, rather than satisfying our own personal needs.  Maybe our definition of happiness should have more to do with acceptance and understanding than with pleasure and personal satisfaction?” finished the Minister for Happiness

“The Australian people are compassionate. What the Government should be asking for is forgiveness” said the Opposition Leader

How do you cultivate a calm mind, a mental state of satisfaction, an acceptance of what “is” and compassion?

Ron Leifer MD points out in his book “The Happiness Project “ (12) that religious faith is one way that people find more mental calmness and therefore more happiness.  He says there are two paths that people tend to follow in their search of happiness through religion (12, p 12 – 13)  One goes in the direction of obedience to a God who has the ultimate authority to judge what is right or wrong (exoteric path).  The other is more about searching within and removing your own barriers to happiness (esoteric path).

The exoteric path relies on the belief of a superior external agency or ‘God’ who needs to be pleased by following prescribed rules or doctrines.  The followers of this path also tend to believe in divine justices, such as rewards for the virtuous and punishment for the sinners.  This belief, in Leifer’s opinion, seems to imply that virtuousness is a source of happiness for the exoteric path followers.  Ron Leifer believes that ‘the relationship between virtue (doing the right thing) and happiness has been largely forgotten or deeply repressed in modern society.” (12, p 12)

“I can hardly believe what I’m hearing!” said the Opposition Leader. “Is the Prime Minister telling me that I should go to church?”

The esoteric path, on the other hand, believes that knowledge and awareness, or wisdom, is the way to unlocking the secrets we hide from ourselves. “The keys to the kingdom of happiness lie in wisdom… What makes wisdom wise is that it helps us to find a greater degree of happiness and to reduce the load of sufferings we impose on ourselves and others.” (12, p 14)  Leifer describes this path as being more about living in harmony with life by facing and accepting facts.  This also includes accepting one’s own desires and fears and to “differentiate good desires and fears from those that cause us pain and suffering.” To find a graceful balance between “grasping for happiness through our desperate, compulsive, instant satisfaction of our desires,… or rejecting, denying or repressing desire and pleasure as if they are “the  doings of the devil.” (12, p 15)

The esoteric path usually involves a personal transformation or “spiritual awakening as a result of these steps” (13), which involve actual changes in behavior.  This concept is also used in many 12 step recovery programs for addicts, adapted from the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps.  Personal action is crucial to the success of these recovery programs.  As the addict progresses on their path to recovery they will discover that many of their “defects of character” (13) are actually the very obstacles that prevent them from finding fulfillment and happiness.  The concept of personal transformation agrees (and may well have originated from) the Buddhist view that ‘the primary cause of suffering is attachment to self – a state of ignorance which creates the ego.” (12, p24) Much of modern psychotherapy also practices these principles by examining the patient’s responses to external events and ‘working through’ the painful emotions using increased awareness, acceptance and realization (actual change in behavior) (12, p 19 – 21).

Dr Tim Sharp, Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute, recognizes that gaining a national level of happiness is a very complex business, and that realistically nothing is likely to work for everyone, and certainly won’t work all the time.  He does identify, however, some of the most basic needs that humans need to live generally happy, contented lives as safety, secure housing, access to adequate food and water, financial stability and communal support.  After the basic needs are met, democracy, stable politics, tolerance, access to good public health, education and transport, equity in the workforce and equity in wealth are also likely to increase the chances of more people achieving happiness (14). 

“I knew it! All this talk of happiness is just a front for wealth redistribution” said the Opposition Leader. “She wants us to believe that we will be happier if we give her all our money! Will the next announcement be a tax on frowns?”

Tim Sharp believes that our national happiness could be improved if we were to put more emphasis through the media and in schools on values such as tolerance, fairness, justice, perseverance, optimism and hope, love and kindness.  Tim Sharp advocates the importance of education, and the difference that positive psychology learnings could have if more widely introduced into our education system.  “Imagine if every child learned how to think optimistically, build their resilience, develop and foster positive relationships and use their strengths?  Surely that would, over time, lead to a happier and better society with more flourishing and fewer problems.”(14)

“Social engineering!” cried the Opposition Leader

Alan Wallace (11) mentions that “…there is a quality of genuine happiness [Tibetan translation], that arises by leading a truly ethical way of life.  A benevolent way of life, an altruistic, a caring, a loving way of life. And so this is a quality of wellbeing that comes not from what we’re getting from the world, but from what we’re bringing to the world.

And so when it’s something that arises because of what we bring to the world, no-one can take it away. If you’ve been kind in the morning to another person and afterwards you feel a contentment, a kind of satisfaction about that. No-one can take it away, right? Whereas for the corrupt person, whose happiness is all derived upon getting things from the world, take away all that support, take away all the support, put them in a room by themselves and now see how happy they are. “ (11)

Ed Diener from the University of Illinois also found that “The happiest people all appear to have strong social relationships.”(8)

 “So why are these simple lessons not given more priority or at least as much as is given to educating young people into high income paying careers?” asked the Minister for Happiness. “Maybe we also need to rethink what it is we really want to achieve in our lives and redefine our concept of success”.

How do you measure happiness?

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” said the Prime Minister.

“So how is the Prime Minister going to measure happiness?” asked the Opposition Leader. “Is she going to go around counting smiles?”

There tends to be a general understanding that success has to do with wealth.  But what if we were to change the focus of our attention away from wealth and relate success to our level of happiness?  Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) is the most widely used comparative tool for measuring performance (or success) of a country’s economy.   It is relatively easy to calculate, based on tangible figures, yet has its limitations. 

Measuring happiness is a bit more complicated, but it can be done.  Simply measuring monetary transactions may be a more convenient, concrete method for measuring performance (compared to measuring Gross National Happiness which is more complicated to measure, since there are many different interpretations and aspects of happiness or well being which can be used as factors for measuring happiness (see appendices 1 – 3)) but how does the total amount of money exchanged within a country determine our enjoyment in what we spent it on? What exactly does it tell us about our well being as individuals? Is this really a fair indication of our ‘success’ as a country?

“If we didn’t have a strong economy, we wouldn’t be able to afford the great standard of living we have now, and I can assure you that Australia would be a much unhappier place if you were to take that away” said the Opposition Leader.

The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been around since the 1970’s and is gaining worldwide interest.  It was the former king of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck who first came up with the concept and then began developing a road map back in the 70’s for implementing a GNH index into Bhutan (15).

The GNH index was officially adopted into Bhutan in November 2008 with the introduction of full parliamentary democracy and the coronation of the 5th King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgy Wangchuck. Bhutan has benefitted greatly and continues to enjoy a high GNH.  A big part of their success could have to do with the GNH being compatible with Bhutan’s existing culture of Buddhist spiritual values.

“And now we are all to become Buddhists!” said the Opposition Leader.

The Buddhist ideal suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when “material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.”(16)  The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and the establishment of good governance (16). International scholars have observed that these four pillars are generally transcultural and a nation doesn’t need to be Buddhist to value them (16).  In fact if you take a look at some of the indicators and developmental areas used in compiling the GNH index, (appendices 1 – 3) they are all indicative of the quality of life that we Australians value. 

Treasurer:  Yes, I’ve had a look into these.  But what about Ed Deiner’s study from the University of Illinois, which compared nations to each other using a scale he developed called subjective well being (SWB). His study focused on factors relating to happiness and quality of life, like all the others, but his findings were that “high income, individualism, human rights and social equality correlated strongly with each other, and with SWB“(17) Wouldn’t this be an argument in favor of the importance of GDP? 

The GDP cannot be disregarded completely.  It may be another contributing factor of GNH, however, in another study by Adrian G White of the University of Leicester in 2007, “A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?” (18), the Satisfaction With Life Index (SWLI), (developed as part of the study) ranked Bhutan  8th out of 178 countries.  Australia ranked 26th in the same index.  In 2010 Bhutan had a relatively low GDP of US$598 per person (a GDP of US$1.397 billion (19) and a population of 2,337,211(20)). Compare this to Australia which in 2010 had a GDP equivalent to US$56,000 per person (GDP of US$1,236 billion (19) and a population of 21,885,016 (20)). So you can’t automatically link a high SWB with high income.  This correlation may be more coincidental or indirect.  It could be argued that Bhutan’s success in the Adrian G White survey has more to do with Bhutan’s focus on making GNH a priority despite their low GDP.  Other low GDP countries may not have done so well, in the Adrian G White survey simply because they have not adopted this concept as a priority in the same way as Bhutan has.  Not that Bhutan is particularly interested in competing with other countries. Their stated goal is “to maximize whatever they see as GNH, not compare numbers with other countries.” (16)

Can the government create ideal conditions for happiness?

Dr Tim Sharp of the Happiness Institute tends to think that a large component of being happy has to do with personal choice.  Once our most basic needs are met, it would appear that it is up to the individual to create their own happiness.  Education may play an important role in helping people to learn ways to be happier, but we can not necessarily impose happiness on everybody, or expect to be happy all the time.  Tim Sharp believes that one of the most effective and beneficial ways to promote happiness and well being is through wider education of positive psychology in schools and to teach new skills and ways to train ourselves to be happier and more resilient (14). The Happiness Institute suggests you can choose to be happier by practicing the following disciplines every day (21):

C = Clarity (of goals, direction and life purpose). Happy people set clear goals and determine clear & specific plans to ensure these goals become reality.

H = Healthy Living (activity & exercise, diet & nutrition, and sleep). Health forms a crucial part of the foundation to happiness. It’s hard to be happy if you’re literally sick & tired all the time

O = Optimism (positive but realistic thinking). There’s no doubt that happy people think about themselves, others and the world differently. Among other things, they search for more positives.

O = Others (the key relationships in your life). Research strongly indicates that happy people have both more and better quality relationships. So make sure you devote time to developing and fostering your key relationships.

S = Strengths (your core qualities and attributes). Rather than spending all their time trying to “fix” their “weaknesses”, happy people spend more time identifying and utilising their strengths.

E = Enjoy the moment (live in, and appreciate the present). The past is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, and today’s a gift – that’s why they call it “the present”. Live in the moment and enjoy life more.

Allan Wallace reminds us that “there’s not just one method (to happiness): not just meditation, not just science – complementarity.  And if we brought this into education – not bringing in Buddhism, but training young people how to really become scientists of their own experience, and ask through their own experience: what truly makes me happy? ” (9)

“The general agreement of the experts seems to be that happiness is more about appreciating and enjoying the things we already have, rather than seeking fulfillment and pleasure in external things” said the Prime Minister.

“Did you hear that?” said the Opposition Leader. “The Prime Minister says that if you aren’t happy you’ve only got yourself to blame.”

Leifer says “happiness is not to be found in the outer, social world, but in transformation of mind which generates wisdom, tranquility and compassion.” (12). So, it can be concluded that happiness is something we mostly cultivate at a personal level, but it can also be encouraged on a community level and methods for increasing happiness can be taught at a national level.

“Our next step is to develop a set of happiness indicators for Australia, and then work out how we can sustain those things that are important to us” Announced the Prime Minister.

“Yes, that’s where the challenge begins” said the Minister for Happiness


Appendix 1 – The Centre for Bhutan Studies Eight General Contributors to Happiness (16)                        

“Through collaboration with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars with greater specificity into eight general contributors to happiness-

  1. physical, mental and spiritual health;
  2.  time-balance;
  3.  social and community vitality;
  4.  cultural vitality;
  5. education;
  6. living standards;
  7.  good governance; and
  8. ecological vitality.”

Appendix 2 – The Seven Development Areas for Socioeconomic Measurement (16)                                

“The second- generation GNH concept, treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, was proposed in 2006 by Med Jones, the President of International Institute of Management. GNH value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures:

  1. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution
  2. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
  3. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses
  4. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients
  5. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
  6. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates
  7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.

The above seven metrics were incorporated into the first Global GNH Survey.


Appendix 3 – Overview of the Centre For Bhutan Studies Psychological Well being Survey Report, 2008 (22)

“Research studies around the world have shown that although economic growth has increased steeply over the past decades, there has been no rise in well-being. GNH stands for holistic approach towards governance as it values not only the economic capital but also the social, emotional and spiritual needs of the people. A GNH society calls for the inclusion of people’s perceptions on their well-being. The domain of psychological well-being consists of the outcomes of life circumstances and achievements. For these reasons we should measure this valued outcome so that policy makers are better informed and situations are better assessed. It is essential for policy decisions to be influenced by issues related to psychological well-being. Psychological well-being indicators attempt to understand people’s evaluations of their lives. Currently, we have four broad categories under which we attempt to study psychological well-being of the Bhutanese people. They are life satisfaction, emotional well-being, spirituality, and stress. The findings of this research paper provide interesting policy-related issues but further continuous assessment of well-being would offer policy makers a much stronger basis to making informed policy decisions. Our proposed system of psychological well-being indicators is aimed to not only supplement economic indicators but also to enhance their value by placing them within overall framework of tracking GNH.”

Special Thanks To

Dr Tim Sharp, Chief Happiness Officer, The Happiness Institute

Thanks Also To

Philip Delepervanche

Peter, Lawson Street

Peta Landman

Lyn Schlunke

David Mannah

Sid Tapia

Emile Ortega

Kaushik Sridhar

Terry O’Brien

Simon McDonald

Residents of Golden Grove Street who gave away their books

and The Gadigal People of the Eora Nation


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