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Top 5 Kicks in the teeth to inequality

I’m tired of listening to the same old institutionalised, paternalistic rhetoric about sustainable development and global inequality. I’ve heard it all before.

But what IS encouraging and refreshing are the citizen-led initiatives, which put pressure on businesses, governments and institutions to change unethical practices or provide opportunities for ordinary people to help reduce economic exploitation for themselves… So today I’m counting down my top 5 favourite initiatives which have emerged or grown in popularity over the last 10-20 years, where people have not waited for top-down solutions and have instead taken matters into their own hands.


No. 5 – Fair Trade Products

The concept of fair trade isn’t recent and has been in practice since the 1940’s. For several decades fair trade was mostly limited to hand-made goods purchased directly from poor communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America where they were sold to a niche market of ethical consumers in ‘Fair Trade Shops’.

The success of this business and the economic benefits it brought to producers led to the development of global fair trade networks in the late 1980’s. As awareness of fair trade grew so did the demand for fair trade products. Fair Trade soon became recognised as a mark of decency adding ‘feel good’ value to imported goods which customers were willing to pay for.

Over the last 20 years the range of fair trade products has diversified as more companies invest in fair trade, not just because it’s ethical, but because it makes business sense to. Consumers are now familiar with the concept of fair trade and leading manufacturers of coffee, tea, cocoa, nuts, wine and other commodity products can’t afford to miss the opportunity to satisfy the ethical portion of their customers by offering fair trade products. The diverse range of fair trade products available in all mainstream supermarkets today is evidence of the success of this simple business initiative which offers ordinary consumers a convenient way to contribute to global fair trade.


No. 4 – Campaigning for fairer wage ratios

Both Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron have proposed an enforced wage ratio of 20:1 in the public sector and for government contract projects.  The UK Green Party have adopted a 10:1 maximum wage ratio as part of their official party policy, and  Switzerland held a referendum on the proposal for a 12:1 wage ratio in 2013, which was unsuccessful.

While it’s great that there has been political debate on the subject, it hasn’t actually produced much in the way of results, which is why I’m more interested in initiatives that tackle the issue of CEO wages, the establishment of wage standard certifications, and companies that lead by example with equitable internal wage ratios.

What organisations like Oxfam and The Equality Trust did when they published their reports in 2014 and 2017 exposing the extravagant inequalities in wage ratios amongst FTSE 100 CEO’s, was to create a public outrage.  The shocking extent to which wage inequality thrives right under our noses is hard to ignore once seen. In cases like this the simple act of public awareness is a powerful strategy in changing public opinion and speeding up the call for greater transparency.

In tandem with this approach initiatives like Canada’s Wagemark Foundation are working to grow the international certification known as the Wagemark Standard. Forward thinking companies achieving Wagemark Certification must maintain a wage ratio of 8:1 or less, to be listed on the Wagemark Global Registry.  The benefits to these businesses are once again based on the growing consumer demand for ethical practices.

Some shining examples of companies with wage ratios maximums of 5:1 are the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of manufacturing worker’s co-operatives based in Spain’s Basque region, American ice cream makers  Ben and Jerry’s, investment company Shaftesbury, Challenger Bank Shawbrook and real estate investment trust (REIT) Londonmetric Property.


No. 3 – Divestment

I think it’s fair to say that consumer confidence in the banking and finance sector has taken a nose dive since the 2008 financial crisis and as a result educated investors have been forced to cast a more cautious eye over how their investments and retirement funds are managed. Combine this with the scientific consensus indicating that human created C02 emissions are leading to climate change.  All of a sudden, the fossil fuel industry along with banks and finance, are the Big Bad Wolves dressed up as grandma, while the ethical consumer is left with the sinking feeling of Little Red Riding Hood holding the basket of goodies for the wolf to feast on.

Fortunately not all banks and pension funds are as unethical as each other and consumers have a choice.

The last 10 – 20 years have seen the emergence of the “Good Money” sector which allows consumers to invest in their values. Tools such as the FTSE4Good UK Index allow pension funds to manage investments based on a range of ethical criteria which can be tailored to the individual consumers’ values. While the ethical objectives of the Good Money sector are not necessarily aimed directly at making the economy serve people, the existence of ethical pension funds offer consumers the chance to take back their economic rights and invest them more ethically.


No. 2 – The Fair Tax Mark

Launched in 2014 the Fair Tax Mark hits tax-avoiding companies where it hurts. Put simply the Fair Tax Mark is a badge of honour that companies can wear proudly when they pay the right amount of corporation tax at the right time in the right place.

According to a Trades Union Council estimation of the UK’s Tax Gap, around 12 billion is lost each year through corporate tax avoidance.  The Fair Tax Mark has shown us that many businesses are happy to pay their fair share of tax and with 34% of British consumers wanting to boycott tax avoiders it makes sense for these businesses to let their customers know who they can trust when it comes to paying their fair share of tax. Once again businesses are able to get an ethical edge over less scrupulous tax payers, leaving them exposed as the tax dodgers that they are.

 And that brings me to my final and favourite initiative of all…

 No. 1 – Introducing pluralism into economics teaching

There’s nothing like straight forward direct action, so when a group of economics students were disillusioned and unsatisfied with the explanations offered by their economic courses following the 2008 financial crisis, they decided to take matters into their own hands and make up for the deficiencies in their existing curriculum by organising their own lectures.

Good education is key for combating economic inequality in the long term. So much of politics is economy-driven. It’s essential that we have well-equipped, skilled drivers at the wheel. Current economics teaching, which is dominated by neoclassical economics, does little to help this. Neoclassical economics remains anchored in its liberal individualist origins devoid of many critical social considerations and hasn’t really changed much over the past 100 years. When taught in isolation, neoclassical economics leaves graduates ill-equipped for the challenges and applications that exist in our rapidly changing modern world. We wouldn’t send our junior doctors out to practice medicine today with bleeding dishes and surgical saws, so why do we let economists practice with primitive tools?

Groups such as Manchester University’s Post Crash Economics Society are campaigning to introduce pluralism into the mainstream economics teaching. Pluralism calls for the inclusion of a variety of economic principles and perspectives which go beyond the standard economics curricula. This campaign is run principally through monitoring and reporting on the failings of the university’s department, as well as organising regular events. These events include lectures, workshops and panels and seek to connect with like-minded groups (and those who are unfamiliar with the movement) by creating an outward looking and inclusive environment that is sceptical of the deeply entrenched status quo.

The initiatives I’ve listed here my personal favourites and by no means conclusive. Do you agree with my list? What are your favourites?



The Inklings: Chapter 98

To read the story from the start go to:

D’arby was feeling really excited at 3pm when everyone gathered at the library to share what they’d found out. Rudnika had just hung up her phone after speaking to her friend at the police station and D’arby could tell that she’d received some enlightening information. Leopold also looked excited and Rudnika must have noticed because she asked Leopold to report first.

“Here is the rental application and ID that our spy used when he applied for the lease” said Leopold as he placed a pile of papers on the table. “He calls himself Lawrence Long. I tried calling the phone numbers listed but both the home phone and mobile numbers have been disconnected so I went to the address he listed as his residential address, which was a flat not far from here. It was empty. The neighbours said that they hadn’t seen anyone living there since the previous resident moved out, which was months ago and she definitely wasn’t Lawrence. The best thing is that I have a picture of Lawrence because his rental application included a copy of his Drivers License.”

“Great work!” said Rudnika.

D’arby was also very impressed but also very curious. “How did you get that file?” D’arby asked.

“It is probably better if you don’t ask” said Leopold.

Leopold’s answer made D’arby a bit cross because he really wanted to know how Leopold had got the file, but D’arby tried to hide is annoyance and looked at Rudnika to see what she would do next.

“What about you two” Rudnika asked Carol and Valentine.

“We decided to ask around all the nearby photo printing places and discovered that the photos were printed at the place closest to our office. The person who printed them called himself Lawrence and he printed them on Friday. He paid by cash, unfortunately, so that’s all we could find out from the photo place” said Valentine.

“Then we thought we should have a look through the bins at the back of the building Lawrence was spying on us from” said Carol. “And we found some things that might be useful”

As Carol was was speaking Valentine placed a plastic bag on the table and started taking things out of it.

“Ten identical disposable coffee cups suggests that Lawrence drinks two coffees a day. From inspecting the inside of the cups we’re pretty sure he drinks black coffee. We couldn’t help noticing that there are five brown corrugated coffee cups and five black ones so we checked out what kind of cups all the cafes around here use. We found the café that uses the black cups and it isn’t far from here but there are no cafes within two kilometres that use the brown corrugated coffee cups. We reckon that Lawrence must have bought himself a coffee on his way to work each day and that he must have travelled at least two kilometres to get here” said Valentine.

D’arby was very impressed, but there was still more rubbish in Valentine’s bag.

“These scraps of paper have notes written on them, which might be useful. We haven’t had time to have a good look at them yet, but we did notice that the word ‘Syaf’ is written on a few of them” said Carol.

Valentine then showed everyone some other pieces of rubbish and explained their significance, but D’arby had stopped listening because he realised the word ‘Syaf’ might be short for ‘Syafika’.

Finally Rudnika explained what she and D’arby had discovered at the building where they’d been spied on from, but by then everyone already knew that the spy called himself Lawrence. Then Rudnika told everyone what her friend at the police station had told her: The real name of the person who had spied on them was Anthony Lawrence and last year he’d spent a five months in gaol for forgery.

The Inklings: Chapter 97

To read the story from the start go to:

John was feeling pretty tired by the time Fanta and her sisters were up but he made toast, tea and hot chocolates for breakfast anyway, and tried to be cheerful as he did it.

“What’s wrong?” said Fanta as soon as she saw John. “You look so tired”

“I couldn’t sleep so I went for an early morning run” said John. “It was fun at the time, but now I just want to go to sleep”

“Too bad your family is coming for lunch then. What are you going to cook?” said Fanta.

John looked at Fanta blankly for a second before he remembered that he’d organized to have lunch with Emily and Tim that day and he hadn’t even thought about what they were going to eat.

“I don’t know” was all John could say.

“Doesn’t matter, as long as you make some of your lovely bread” said Fanta.

“Yes! Good idea!” said John and he quickly looked in the cupboard to see if there was any flour and while he was doing that the toast burnt.

It was fortunate that Fanta, Ruby and Nancy were in good moods and just laughed at the smoke that was coming out of the toaster because it helped John control his anxiety. John managed to finish making breakfast and they all had a nice conversation as they ate it. After Fanta and her sisters left John made bread dough then investigated what was in the fridge and pantry as he tried to work out what to make for lunch.

By the time John had made pumpkin soup and bread for lunch, a cake for dessert and had washed the dishes it was almost lunchtime.John was glad that he’d kept busy all morning because it stopped him from worrying about what he and his brother and sister would talk about.

When everything was ready John waited out the front for Emily and Tim to arrive and he actually felt quite happy when he saw Emily’s car park out the front. John even stayed happy when he saw Tim get out of the car and he realised that he was hoping that he and his brother and sister could be close again.

During lunch John could tell that Tim and Emily approved of where he was living and of the food he’d made for them.

“When will we get to meet Fanta?” asked Emily.

John had no answer to that question and tried to change the topic but Emily insisted that Fanta and John come to visit her soon.

“That won’t work” said John and he explained that his only day off was Monday and Fanta had to work on Mondays.

“Surely you can get someone else to look after the restaurant one Saturday or Sunday! You work that out and let me know a date that suits – soon!” said Emily.

John pretended to agree but wasn’t intending to do as Emily had suggested.

John thought Tim was being a bit quiet.

“Are you ok?” John asked Tim.

Tim smiled, remembering how John had always been able to read his mind when they were kids.

“Maybe Emily already told you that while I was here at Christmas my business lost a lot of money and I had to sell it? For a while I told myself that I didn’t care and tried to enjoy being here, pretending I was just on a long holiday, but really I’ve lost my direction. I enojoyed running my factory so much that I can’t find anything else interesting. I have no idea what I should be doing with myself”.

Emily hadn’t told John about Tim losing his business. John’s first feeling at hearing this news was relief that Tim was capable of failure too, but John also felt sorry for Tim. “What does Dad think?” said John, and as he asked the question John felt guilty because he realised he hadn’t spoken to his father since Christmas. John had hated Christmas Day. He’d felt so left-out at the family Christmas and ever since he’d been trying to forget that it happened.

“Dad wants me to take over one of his restaurants. He says it is only fair – because he gave you a restaurant for Christmas. I guess that’s what I should do, at least while I work out what else I should be doing, but if I’m honest I’m a bit scared that if I can lose one business I can lose another” said Tim.

John looked hard at Tim and wondered if it was possible that he really believed what he was saying. John had always thought that he was the only one in the family who thought like that.

“I’m capable of losing anything but I haven’t lost Dad’s restaurant… not yet anyway. You will be fine!” said John.

Tim seemed a little bit more cheerful but John could tell he wasn’t convinced. John was a little bit worried at the idea of Tim also having a restaurant because it could become a competition to see who ran their restaurant best and John didn’t want that kind of stress. John knew his Dad had accumulated a few restaurants but didn’t know how many or what they were. He wanted to ask about the restaurant Tim was going to be given but he didn’t want to risk sounding jealous. Then John had a great idea.

“Why don’t you have a go running my restaurant this weekend while I go to dinner at Emily’s? Then you won’t be so scared when Dad gives you your own restaurant” said John.

Emily had been thinking of inviting Tim to dinner at the same time but was happy to accept this arrangement if it meant she got to meet Fanta sooner and so it was arranged that during the week John would teach Tim all about the restaurant and then on the weekend Tim would run it on his own while John had some time off.

As soon as Emily and Tim left John realised how exhausted he was. He sat down in a comfy chair and desperately wanted to have a sleep but knew there was a terrible mess that he should clean up before Fanta and her sisters got home. So John struggled out of the chair and to wake himself up he did a silly dance where he shook his arms and legs.


The Inklings: Chapter 64

D’arby felt tired when he woke up on Saturday morning. His mind had been rushing all day Friday, but not getting anywhere. His thoughts had been been stuck in a loop. He’d think about having to move, then about how things would be so much better if he could just finish his thesis because he’d be free to look for work and have money to rent somewhere. Then he’d think about what Guitarman had said about not going back to work until you’ve worked out what you should really be doing. Then he’d start wondering whether he should keep going with his thesis at all and he’d start worrying that he was just wasting more precious time. Then he’d try to think what he should be doing instead and he’d return to the start of the loop after he concluded that he had to find somewhere new to live before he could do anything different.

D’arby had promised Jinabu he’d come and visit on Saturday and had been going to ride his bike there, but now he just didn’t feel like it. What he really felt like doing was getting back in bed and crying. It was probably something he needed to do, but not just yet.

As D’arby put his shoes on he wished the restaurant didn’t have to open today because if John could come with him to visit Jinabu it wouldn’t be such an ordeal. Now that the restaurant was open again D’arby didn’t see John much. D’arby usually left for uni before John got up and, apart from Mondays, John was at work before D’arby came home. D’arby was worried that John would move in with Fanta when their flat sold. They hadn’t been able to discuss the impending sale yet. D’arby decided he’d wait for John to wake up so he could talk to him about the flat and then he’d decide whether he still went to Jinabu’s or not. He could always get the bus if he didn’t feel like riding.

D’arby went to the kitchen, planning to make breakfast but when he heard John snoring he changed his mind. D’arby looked at John, who was sound asleep on the sofa bed. He didn’t want to risk waking John and making him cross just before they talked about what would happen when their flat sold, so, as quietly as he could, D’arby put on his backpack, took two coffee mugs from the dish rack and went to the café to buy egg rolls and coffees.

John was in the shower when D’arby got home. D’arby put the egg rolls on plates on the table and wondered whether they’d need cutlery. He put out knives and forks, just in case, then poured two glasses of water. D’arby heard the shower turn off so he called out to John “Breakfast’s ready!”

“Won’t be long” answered John.

D’arby sat down at the table and tried to be patient.

A few minutes later, John and D’arby were tucking into breakfast.

“Did you see the sign out the front?” asked John. “Fanta says the block will be knocked down for sure.”

“Yeah, I guessed as much” answered D’arby.

“Maybe we should look for somewhere new straight away so we aren’t competing with the rest of the people in the block” suggested John.

“We’d have to take a lease in your name” answered D’arby. “I don’t have any income”

“Ok” said John. “Why don’t we go and look for somewhere this morning?”. John thought it might be fun to go flat hunting. He’d never done it before.

“Phew” said D’arby. “I was worried you’d have decided to move in with Fanta”

John stopped chewing. He felt a bit stupid for not having thought of that.

“That would make sense, but I hadn’t thought of it. Fanta lost her job so could do with me paying her some rent. I hope she wasn’t hoping I’d suggest it” said John.

“What do you mean ‘Fanta lost her job’?” asked D’arby.

“Lenny ran away. Hiding from the police, Fanta thinks. Fanta can’t just carry on without him and assumes things won’t be ok even if he does reappear” explained John.

“How’s she going to cope then?” asked D’arby

“Waiting at my restaurant” said John, smiling. He felt good that he could help.

“That won’t be enough for her to live on, I’m sure” said D’arby.

John felt a bit offended, but was worried it was true.

“You should move in with her then” said D’arby.

John felt there was something wrong with that though.

“I don’t want to move in with Fanta because it is practical” said John. “If we decide to live together I’d want it to be because we wanted to, not because we needed to. And now that I think about it, she probably wouldn’t want me moving in with her. We’ve only known each other a few months and she’s a pretty cautious person.”

“Ok” said D’arby. He knew he should stop talking but couldn’t help it. He was curious and having a new idea. “How many rooms does Fanta’s house have?”

“Four” said John.

“So she does have a spare room then?” asked D’arby

“Two” answered John. “Her sisters prefer to share a room”

“We could both move in with Fanta then” suggested D’arby. “Then you wouldn’t have to worry about it being all romantic and serious. It would just be practical – her taking on boarders to help pay the bills. And you’d finally get your own room!”

John drank some coffee and thought about it.

“Maybe” said John. “If the topic arises I might mention you joking about the idea and see how Fanta reacts. But I’m still going to look at places to rent this morning. Are you coming?”


A thick cover of clouds was rolling over when D’arby got on his bike to ride to Jinabu’s place. He waved goodbye to John and peddled carefully off down the street. John walked off in the direction of a flat that was open for inspection that morning. He wished D’arby was coming with him, but didn’t want to stop D’arby seeing his sister.

D’arby was feeling energetic after talking to John and he was happy to see the cloudy sky because it meant the ride wouldn’t be stinking hot.

When D’arby arrived at Jinabu’s house he was feeling good, apart from being really thirsty. Andrew opened the door. Jinabu and the baby were asleep, and Andrew was watching TV. He got D’arby a bit glass of tap water with ice in it. Then Andrew sat down and, without taking his eyes off the TV, asked D’arby how his thesis was going.

D’arby thought Andrew was being rude and that he should turn the TV off so they could talk properly. D’arby also didn’t like talking about his thesis. He’d been asked the same question by almost everyone he bumped into for the last few years and was sick of answering it.

“What can I say this time?” D’arby thought to himself. He thought about how he’d been going and realized that his thesis had actually been going well. There wasn’t much more to write. He felt a bit silly that he hadn’t realized it before. He’d been too busy writing to think about timelines.

Andrew was beginning to give up on getting an answer from D’arby when D’arby said “I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I will submit by the end of this semester.” As D’arby said this he calculated that there were eleven weeks left until then. To avoid talking about his thesis more D’arby asked Andrew how he and Jinabu were going.

“Pretty good” answered Andrew, “But sometimes I feel a bit down. I think it it’s because I’m too tired. I know that if I asked, I’d be able to work one less day a week, but I calculated that we wouldn’t be able to afford that without Jinabu going back to work and she doesn’t want to yet. I think I’ll be ok as long as I can find something to perk me up a bit. You don’t have any more of those pills do you?”

D’arby was confused. How did Andrew know about the pills? He wondered whether he’d forgotten about telling Jinabu about them, but he was pretty sure he’d never told her. He’d never told his parents either so it couldn’t be that they’d told Jinabu and she’d told Andrew.

“What pills?” asked D’arby – to see what he could find out.

“The ones you put in my coffee when we were staying at the farm” said Andrew. “You probably thought I didn’t see but I secretly watched you to see how you were making the coffee.”

D’arby looked at Andrew and smiled. He wondered what other things Andrew secretly knew and realized that he’d probably underestimated Andrew.D’arby opened his backpack and took out a plastic container out of the small inside pocket. He looked inside the container and saw that it had about 20 pills in it. For a second or two he agonized over how many he should give Andrew. D’arby was confused because the way the pills were supposed to work was permanent. Andrew shouldn’t have needed a second dose. D’arby wondered whether he should just tell Andrew that but he’d begun to wonder whether he’d been wrong all along. In his head, D’arby looked back at the data he’d collected so far – all the times people had taken the pills and what had happened. D’arby himself had felt no side-effects nor had he felt any effect at all. He’d assumed that was just because he hadn’t been addicted to anything. John’s result was instant and lasting and there were no side-effects that D’arby knew of. D’arby thought he saw instant results when Andrew took the pills but he wasn’t sure whether the effects were lasting. Did Andrew just think he needed some or had the effect worn off? He’d need to talk to Jinabu to know. John said he hadn’t noticed any changes in people eating pizza with pills at the restaurant but there wasn’t really a way of knowing if they didn’t know what people had been like before and couldn’t track what they were like after. When Syafika and Vincent took the pills there had been an instant result, perhaps – they’d agreed amicably that they would be happier apart than together, but it wasn’t very significant. D’arby wondered whether there had been any result at all.

D’arby handed Andrew the whole container and instructed “Don’t take more than four a week or more than two at a time”.

Andrew nodded. He put the container in his pocket and turned the TV off. “Want a coffee?” asked Andrew as he got up and walked to the kitchen.

D’arby said “Yes” without really noticing. He was too busy thinking about the pills in a new way – he had questions to answer.

Andrew kept telling D’arby about how he was going while they drank their coffees but D’arby wasn’t paying attention. He was trying to calculate probabilities in his head, and was impatient to talk to Jinabu. Fortunately for D’arby, the baby woke up and so Jinabu had to get up too.

Jinabu came in smiling and asked D’arby if he’d like to hold little Amadi. D’arby was happy to. He liked the name. But Amadi didn’t like D’arby holding him and started to cry.

“Why don’t you take him for a walk” Jinabu suggested to Andrew.

When Andrew and Amadi had gone, D’arby asked Jinabu how she’d been but didn’t pay much attention to the answer. He was impatient to move on to his next question.

“How’s Andrew been?” asked D’arby.

Jinabu stopped and thought for a little while. She was a bit offended when D’arby asked questions like that because she could tell he didn’t like Andrew, but she did have something interesting to say on the topic so she forgave him for asking.

“Actually, he seems to have changed. He has become quite reasonable – good at communicating. I think the main change is that he tells me what he is feeling as it happens, so we can discuss things. Before he’d stay quiet until things mounted up then explode and say awful things. He used to tell me how I should behave and what I should do. Now he tells me what he is feeling and about what he wants and so we can usually find a way to make us both happy, or at least neither feeling hurt.”

D’arby wondered how Andrew was able to communicate his feelings. D’arby didn’t usually know what he was feeling himself, or at least it was hard to know at the time – he could usually work it out a bit later.

D’arby nearly crashed his bike a couple of times on the ride home. He wasn’t concentrating on riding because he was too busy worrying about whether his pills actually worked. By the time he arrived home he’d decided that it was likely that his pills only had a placebo effect and he was impatient to discuss this with John.


If you take too long to decide you end up with no choice

What would you give up to save the world? Hot showers? Chocolate? Alcohol? Make-up? Driving? Your reputation? Your freedom? I’m not asking because giving up these things would directly result in the world being saved. I’m asking to get a sense of how much saving the world is worth to you (whether for your own satisfaction or for your kids or for nature or your legacy). Your answer should give you an idea of how much effort you should put in, that’s all. Because we can’t expect to be able to save the world AND still have everything we’ve ever wanted. Just like you can’t expect to be able to balance your household budget and buy everything you like. Living within your means and living within your ecological means are similar.

What should we do when greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate (and while we can’t be sure of how bad the consequences will be we do know that they won’t be good)? Should we try to keep the economy growing and see if we can reduce emissions a bit at the same time? Or should we aim to control emissions first while doing the best we can for the economy?

What should we do when worldwide electricity demand is anticipated to grow? Put all our efforts into meeting that anticipated demand (fulfilling the prophecy) or think about whether the cost is worth the gain?

What would you do if your kids wanted more and more lollies? Get a second job so you could afford to buy an exponentially increasing amount of lollies and be able to pay dentists to repair their teeth and doctors to fix their diabetes and personal trainers to take them running to lose weight? Or only buy lollies occasionally and learn to put up with some whinging?

Maybe it isn’t about having to make a choice – maybe the choices are already clear. Maybe it is just about admitting that we can’t have everything.

The sweetest thing is that once you have accepted that you can’t have everything, you realise you didn’t want everything anyway. We are more adaptable than we anticipate!


When Sparks are Ignored: Egotism

One of the greatest pleasures for a Spark is to reside in the brain of a human who has what people like to call a “small ego” – someone who thinks of themselves more as a part of something larger than as an individual. When a person with a small ego has an idea they are likely to attribute it to something outside of themselves (something they plucked out of the air as it was floating past). People like that are usually very receptive to the ideas of Sparks, and they often go on to become very successful people.

The trouble is that the size of a person’s ego can change, and in most cases when a person is successful their ego grows and before they know it their ego has well and truly taken over. They no longer think of themselves as part of something bigger, but think only of themselves. An egotist thinks that any ideas they have had were entirely their own creation – they not only start ignoring their Spark, they start denying it even exists. So, you can see why they might find that their Spark decides to leave them.

This is a common story – lived out by artists, business people and revolutionary leaders-turned dictators. At the start they recognize their small part in the world and long to do their best or something “good”. A Spark tunes into their longing and joins them and the ideas and energy start flowing. Then the person starts doing something well. If this is recognized it leads to success and then praise, which are both good fertilizer for growing egos. Then, just when the person has grown an enormous ego and the world is watching and waiting for them to perform, they lose their Spark.

You can imagine the feelings of helplessness that develop in this situation. Rage often follows. Then comes the decline, which usually includes humiliating attempts to cling to fame and/or power. Lies and murder are possible. The egotist watches their friends and supporters fleeing. You can imagine the loneliness and feeling of betrayal. Finally they are alone, and not part of anything anymore. As a final blow to the ego, the person may find that history remembers them for their desperate acts in the dying days of their power rather than for their initial good deeds and intentions.

The pattern of success driven ego growth followed by decline can happen on other scales too. It is a common cause of project failure because when egos take over people place more importance on getting things done in “their” way than on the success of a project and spend time arguing over unimportant details instead of cooperating. A similar thing happens between people who are fighting for the same cause but all want the victory to be “theirs”.

Good ideas don’t have to lead to egotism though. There are some people who are able to keep their ego small even when they have great success.  When these people have good ideas they realise that their inspiration came from outside of themselves. They attribute their idea to things such as the colour of the sky that morning, the song they heard on the radio and a conversation they overheard on the bus. Small ego people know that they cannot exist alone. They remember that they wouldn’t have been able to even feed and clothe themselves without the things other people have done. Even a billionaire needs to realize that they could not have generated that money on their own. Not only do they rely on a workforce that could probably find something much better to do if they weren’t slaves to their mortgage or “lifestyle”, but that the workforce relies on the rest of society. And just as everyone relies on other people for their survival, our ideas are also products of the same system. Acknowledging this is a strategy that cannot lose. Not only are you more likely to keep your Spark, but if you remember that you aren’t doing everything on your own then when things go wrong you aren’t on your own either.


When Sparks are Ignored: Lobotomies

Humans are capable of some brilliant things, but they can also do some really stupid things. Sometimes it is the most brilliant people who do the stupidest things, and sometimes it takes a while for everyone else to realise how silly these things are. Lobotomies are one example that causes particular pain to Sparks.

A lobotomy is an operation where the connections between the prefrontal cortex (part of the frontal lobes) and rest of the brain are severed. The prefrontal cortex is where the executive functions of the brain are performed (such as reasoning and understanding, creativity, planning, attention, problem solving, inhibition, mental flexibility, and the initiation and monitoring of actions).The idea behind disconnecting the prefrontal cortex is that this leads to the uncoupling of emotions and intellect.

Lobotomies were developed in 1935 by neurologists Dr. Antonio Egas Moniz and Dr. Almeida Lima as a treatment for mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. If you were considered extremely emotional, difficult or moody you might also have been given a lobotomy. They were given to criminals, to problem family members and to patients who would otherwise have taken up hospital beds.

As you may know, when Sparks visit human brains they inhabit the frontal lobes. This is because Sparks are looking to interact with the intellect and because the frontal lobes are where all good ideas are formed. If you were to lose the function of your frontal lobes you’d be left with what is sometimes called the reptilian part of the brain. The reptilian part of the brain runs on reward and punishment. It is not capable of abstract thinking (like imagining the likely consequences of actions or understanding another person’s feelings or motives). Obviously if you lost the function of your frontal lobes you’d also lose the opportunity to be influenced by a Spark.

Many Sparks joined forces to try to stop the lobotomy craze taking off, but they weren’t successful because not all brains are receptive to Sparks and the type of people who sanctioned and performed lobotomies turned out to be the least receptive. The potential patients were far more receptive to Sparks, but they were also often powerless or overcome by other problems, and in the end there was just not enough time – most people seemed to want a solution that was convenient rather than good.

Instead, lobotomies were made even easier by Walter Freeman. The first lobotomies involved drilling holes into the skull on either side of the prefrontal cortex and injecting the connecting fibres with alcohol to destroy them. So that lobotomies could be given to more people, Walter Freeman came up with a technique that was faster, more accessible and less expensive. This involved getting to the prefrontal cortex through the eye sockets instead. His method has become known as the “ice pick lobotomy”, because he developed the technique using an ice pick and eventually used an instrument (orbitoclast) that resembled an ice pick.

The ice pick lobotomy could be done by non surgeons and didn’t require an operating room. It took around 10 minutes to perform. The patient was made unconscious using electroconvulsive shock instead of anaesthetic. The orbitoclast was pushed up through the top of one eye-socket. Then, after a light tap on the end with a hammer, the orbitoclast would break through the thin layer of bone and enter the brain. Next the fibres connecting the prefrontal cortex were then broken by twiddling the orbitoclast around a bit. The procedure was then repeated on the other side (via the other eye socket).

Sparks weren’t even able to stop Dr Moniz being given the Nobel Prize in 1949 for his lobotomy work. Things began to turn around when the USSR banned lobotomies in 1953, but it was really the invention of drugs as a replacement that meant that Lobotomies began to decline in the 1950s.

Some people were happy with their lobotomies, as some people are happy taking drugs today. But many people suffered and many died. Those of you who still have the connection between intellect and emotion may like to listen to Josef Hassid play the violin (pre-lobotomy) while reading about him and nine other notable lobotomy patients.


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